Saturday, 2 February 2013

Yelling 'Stop!'

 In the first issue of National Review William F Buckley, Jr. penned the mission statement of the conservative magazine as 'standing athwart history, yelling stop'. At the time, Buckley was in the sway of a stridently traditionalist conservatism that seems somewhat out of place in America, a Whig republic with no feudal past to draw upon. It's not like in Europe where there is a feudal past of hierarchical orders in the form of royal families, established churches and aristocracies. The preservation of this order has not simply been the agenda of all conservatives, for the politics of Reaction often amount to a rage against the status quo in its failures to confront the challenges of the modern world. When it came to defeating the Left then there wasn't any option that was out of the question. In Spain this led Buckley to lend his support to Franco to stomp out the 'nihilism' of the Left. The willingness to crush revolutionary movements by any means is not inseparate to the broader agenda of reactionnaires. Sometimes the most counter-revolutionary means are themselves appropriated forms of radicalism.

 No wonder a favourite ally and good friend of the Iron Lady was General Pinochet, the right-wing dictator who stopped Chile's democratic lurch towards socialism. The justification of military rule has always been in the past a dubious claim to 'order'. Many right-wing Catholics saw Franco as the bulwark against a destructive force which threatened to tear apart the traditional institutions of society. By contrast, the Pinochet regime suffocated Chile's democratic institutions and left-wing elements to re-order the whole of society and not to reinstate 'order'. Yet the same justification of 'order' remained, Pinochet was a necessary evil to make sure the wheels were well oiled and ensured that the people knew their place. Its radicalism was joined at the back of the head with authoritarian rule. It was a convenient agonism between individualism and authoritarianism that was held in perpetual tension in these years.

 As Thatcherism represented the turning tide of politics in the West, the other side of its assault on civil society at home was the military junta abroad. The same Chilean agonism can be found in Thatcher's Britain. Individualism and authoritarianism sat in constant tension and made the best allies precisely because of that tension. Thatcher promised to sweep away post-war Anglo-socialism from the realm of the Possible to make way for the untrammeled powers of individual freedom. This was popular capitalism, it carried all the weight of classical liberalism and effused all the bluster of nationalism. The radicalism at the core of Thatcherism, its promise of a property-owning democracy based on a market individualism rather than a state collectivism. It meant the liberation of the individual from the mediocrity of the post-war settlement. Out of this understanding JG Ballaard celebrated home ownership in thoroughly Thatcherite terms in 1982:

I often think that the most radical thing one can do is to deliberately choose the bourgeois life - get that house in the suburbs, the job with the insurance company or the bank, wear a blue suit and a white shirt and a tie and have one's hair cut short, buy the right fabrics and furnishings, and pick one's friends according to the degree to which they fit into all the bourgeois standards. Actually go for the complete bourgeois life - do it without smiling; do it without ever winking.
 Even though the post-war settlement of a mixed economy complete with welfare provisions and a strong labour movement had been a highly successful model of development. It had become an obstacle that the system had to circumvent, an establishment in dire need of reorientation. To the ends of the accumulation and circulation of capital the Thatcherites represented a battering-ram on the institutional obstructions in the status quo. The liberation of the individual meant economic liberation, the negation of all constraint, the abolition of equity and bonds of solidarity. And yet the Thatcher years merely succeeded in the concentration of greater power in the state, whilst the market left the people more marginalised than liberated. Selling off council properties only left the ground clear for speculators to take hold. Meanwhile, the inner-city poor have been increasingly shoved into the veal flattening pens of the ghetto and the outskirt. Housing is unaffordable for a great many, while being highly profitable for an opulent few. 

 It was just the tip of the iceberg as an orgy of privatisation wiped out huge chunks of industry, leaving behind eviscerated communities and welfare wastelands. A financial colossus unconstrained by all the old red-tape became the heart and soul of the British economy. One of Thatcher's economic advisors, Alan Budd confessed to Adam Curtis that he sometimes feared that monetarism was, in effect, a policy of mass-unemployment - the goal of which was to smash the trade unions. The battles waged by the Right were hardly successful by the measures they claimed for themselves. All in all the rate of growth remained at 2.5%, on average, no more than it had been at the stale end of social democracy when Britain was the 'sick man of Europe'. What Thatcher had changed was where where the money ended up. It's clear where she belongs in history.

 In the past it was often the Anglican Tory gentry who sought to defend the lot of the poor from the enclosures fundamental to the establishment of capitalism. The Whig aristocracy were the primary force of the enclosure of common land and the dispossession of the people living on that land. It is no coincidence that one of the leading exponents was John Locke, nor is it coincidental that Locke was an apologist for the expropriation of the Native Americans. By the 19th Century it was Tories like John Ruskin who were most sceptical of the ongoing industrialisation of society, for it was the rise of competition in the market over tradition and custom. The enclosure of common lands had 'cleared' away vast swathes of people from a traditional agrarian existence to work for a subsistence in miserable mills and later factories. These people were left dispossessed in a pauperised state without any independence. Thatcherism was Whiggery par excellence, except it was the ransacking of the public good and not just the common good.

 It was men like William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin who understood and warned against the illth of the markets. The culture and hierarchy of society is always at risk in a rampant capitalist system, where the market functions as a mechanism not just in economic terms but in moral and cultural terms as well. Its tendency is relativist, not realist, as its expansionist pursuits can only swallow up entire chunks of society. The monarchy and church provided such legitimacy with notions of 'order' and 'morality', all the while presiding over an economy running towards greater plurality, freedom, choice, relativism and pragmatism. The standard conservatism has since been a manifestation of this contradiction, torn between socio-cultural traditionalism and economic liberalism. In this way the reactionnaires of today are far from 'standing athwart history, yelling stop'. Instead you can find the rightists at the side-road, in Ballardian spirit, carrying signs which read: dangerous bends up ahead, speed up.


No comments: