Thatcher struck at the roots of Britishness

The right hand of anarchy

by Gwydion M Williams

 Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s took an axe to the roots of Britishness. This is not how she saw it, of course. She genuinely believed that she was removing an excrescence on True Britishness. If the monstrous accumulations of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were swept aside, things would get “back to normal”. Something like Mrs Thatcher’s memories of her childhood in Grantham would spring up to replace the things she was destroying.

Nice theory, shame about the facts. Mrs Thatcher had the option to modernise and consolidate the system of mixed economy and welfare that had rescued the West in the 1940s and 1950s. This was her alternative, even though she said that there was none. She could have functioned as a conservative, carefully remoulding what already existed.

She chose instead to uproot it. She decided to be radical in the belief that the long result would be conservative. Not such a bright idea, really.

If a large section of the 1960s Left has defected to New Right economics, it is because they recognise it as a neat way to “smash the system”. Vastly better than trying to work up revolutionary fervour in a working class that had a shrewd knowledge of its own interest. Blair and his advisors can see that Mrs Thatcher’s Grantham Values are not even slightly making a come-back. While talking about family values, they can continue to grind to powder anything that was not thoroughly destroyed under Thatcher and Major. And they have no need to worry about whether it will work, because the dominant ideology says that things will work out fine if only everyone is left to the free workings of money.

The notion that money produced automatic harmony was put forward by Adam Smith, in his famous “Wealth of Nations”. His argument is wrapped in the forms of a scientific thesis, but with no supporting evidence. He starts from the Division of Labour, some think he was the discoverer of this useful trick, and Smith does nothing to discourage such misunderstandings. In fact Division of Labour is a concept as old as economic thought itself.

From this routine observation, Smith suddenly claims that only money free from any social fetters can produce Division of Labour. That many societies achieved sophisticated Division of Labour with regulated markets is not taken account of. Sophisticated states like Ancient Egypt that flourished with massive state control are not allowed for.

Smith was not good at facing up to awkward facts I showed in a previous article how he simply evaded the re-growth of slave-agriculture for internationally traded commodities like sugar, tobacco, and later also cotton. With a similar indifference to contrary data, Smith cites pin-making as his prime example of Division of Labour. He takes no account of its complex guild-like regulation by charters and monopoly, which was there for him to observe. Not have any subsequent writers thought to ask if his passable accurate descriptions of the production process had any relationship to the social structures of pin-making.

Physicists are fond of mentioning cases where a beautiful theory is slain by one ugly little fact. Thus the philosophical neatness of Steady State Cosmology was killed when radio astronomers discovered the afterglow of the Big Bang. A rather neat and simple version of Big Bang Cosmology was killed by the discovery of very large scale structures in the universe, requiring a rethink that has not yet settled on any one confirmed alternative theory. Few doubt there was a Big Bang, but there may also have been something before it, or something unexplained that happened soon after it.

That’s how science works. But in economics, and in politics that claims to be based on economic “truths”, any number of ugly little facts get swept aside.

If it were welfare that had undermined traditional morality, if commerce were neutral or helpful, then the sudden collapse of Leninism in Eastern Europe should have seen a return to Traditional Values. Not the vast wave of sleaze and criminality that has engulfed all of those countries. A superficial re-growth of religion amounts to little. People want God on their side, but not if God is going to start making unreasonable demands. They will endorse traditional values, so long as the bits they dislike are not applied to them.

Christian “fundamentalists” are barely Christian at all. The Gospels demand pacifism, forgiveness, the avoidance of commerce and a polite obedience to even bad governments. There is nothing that says the world is only a few thousand years old. Nor is alcohol prohibited, Jesus shows a great enthusiasm for wine-drinking and uses it in more parables and moral tales than any other topic. Their is some Biblical support for end-of-the-world hysteria and for a malicious delight in imminent damnation of non-believers. But the main features of “fundamentalism” are historic accidents and innovations.

The Christian Right have also made a basic error in teaming up with Economic Liberalism. They correctly saw that the traditional high-minded and generous Liberalism of the High Liberal elite was a hostile force. But the other side of the ideology – what one might call Low Liberalism – is supposed to be compatible with social conservatism. Like a fox and a chicken are they compatible.

***

There has been no functional conservatism since 1914. Britain had the option of ending the Great War in a duly conservative fashion, with Germany retreating to its pre-war borders and the old order endorsed. Germany was keen to do this, having failed to win the quick cheap victory that its military plans had called for. Germany perhaps retained enough of the functional Bismarkian conservatism to realise that nothing would ever be the same again if the war were fought to the bitter end. But the British ruling class didn’t know it. And have still not learned it, as more and more of their original values fall into ruin.

Extending the First World War in the hope of utterly smashing Germany was dysfunctional conservatism, a radical-right strategy. The radical-right believe in preserving the existing order by smashing one important part of it. A similar feeling led a large section of the British ruling elite to support Hitler’s rise. He was supposed to eliminate Soviet Russia, and maybe France as well, but definitely not to displace Britain as the dominant world power. These characters seemed genuinely puzzled when their brilliant plans somehow went wrong and left them dependant on the Labour Party at home and Soviet Russia in international politics.

Suez was the last gasp of this sort of brilliancy, an Anglo-French conspiracy to topple Nasser and reverse the flow of Third-World nationalism. There followed an interlude of genuine Conservatism under Macmillan, who preserved a surprisingly large amount of the Old Order while accepting the inevitable break-up of the Empire following Indian independence. He also had the wisdom to keep Britain out of Vietnam, whereas other US allies followed America into the mire.

***

Had anyone tried Thatcherite solutions during the 1950s, there would have been a mass movement into the Communist Party by militant workers. And the Cold War would very likely have ended differently. As things were, the wave of radicalism in the 1960 developed in a secure tolerant society, and took a very individualist view. A view that led to a general suspicion of Leninism, which had a hierarchy and authoritarianism that people were justly alarmed by. The very success of Socialism in levelling the society made class war sound less sensible – just who was one fighting these days? Also Leninism’s core morality, though radical when developed in the 1900s, was rather standard by the 1960s and was out of date thereafter.

Soviet Leninism was functionally conservative in crushing the social radicalism of the Prague Spring. The only thing the Soviet elite was radical about was in replacing socialist planning with market forces. That market forces merely worsened an economy that had worked quite well under Stalin’s authoritarian socialism was held to be of no account. If some market reforms had made bad situation rather worse, Soviet ideologists decided that even more market reforms must be the answer. And so on to the collapse of a system that had long ago turned its back on the original ideal of production for use rather than profit.

What collapsed in 1989-1991 was merely the largest of the multi-national corporations. The elite would have liked to rule the whole world. But when they saw this was unlikely, they broke ranks and went about asset-stripping the work of previous generations. The mysterious disappearance of the “Nomenklatura” and the equally mysterious appearance of a widespread “Mafia” is not so puzzling, they are more or less the same people.

The ending of the Leninist Deviation is not the end of socialism, which has historically been a highly successful movement. Almost all of the demands of the pre-1914 Left have become standard. Women are formally and legally equal, and getting ever more equal in practice. Sex and sexuality are not controlled by religion. Religion is a personal matter with no strong enforcement. Class barriers are almost gone. Empires have vanished – the Soviet Union was in practice the last of them. Racism is no longer a respectable ideology, even though it has not yet been fully flushed out of the system. (And has made a limited comeback in the ex-Leninist states, where the disguised racism and anti-Semitism of late Leninism has been replace by open and unashamed prejudice.)

The error of Leninism was its failure to recognise that Left-Authoritarian solutions were no longer justified in a world where so many of the original Left demands had been realised. Indeed the late Breshnevite Soviet Union was increasingly a haven for old social and political ideas, a society that condemned the West as “decadent” for having discarded those aspects of the traditional order that Bolshevism had seen fit to preserve.

The whole trend has been towards more choice and less responsibility. They object to those parts out of their control – mainly personal and family life – while promoting the same where they could do something about it.

***

Adam Smith correctly identifies greater personal security as a reason for the breakdown of the wider kin group. The break-down of the nuclear family is basically because women have easier access to jobs, while both sexes have easier access to divorce. Whereas once a well-behaved wife had absolute security in her position, this is no longer the case. Whereas once she would be outcast if she left even a bad and brutal husband, now there is little stigma to divorce.

The same people who exaggerate self-interest on economic matters prefer to see it as non-existent on family matters.

The break-up of the family correlates quite neatly with the shift in rewards and penalties. Welfare is only one minor aspect, and exactly the same break-up has occurred in rich property-owning social strata where welfare is of no importance.

A lot of America’s best men in the 19th century were ex-Christians, from Protestant backgrounds but not believers. Henry Ford was quite open about it, he had a hazy belief in Reincarnation, but none in Jesus. And Abraham Lincoln had clearly ceased to believe, though he thought it wise not to attack religion directly, and used Biblical imagery to touch on popular feelings. In an 1846 “Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity”, he reject the accusation that he is “an open scoffer at Christianity.” Using his skills as a lawyer to mislead without quite lying, he says “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true, but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”.

Not to deny the truth of the Scriptures means no more than that Lincoln does not want to risk unpopularity. Or perhaps he saw Christianity as false but useful. Not to deny the Scriptures is significantly different from regarding them as true. I doubt he ever denied the Koran or the Buddhist scriptures or any of the other claims to Divine Wisdom that were about.

In modern times, Science Fiction writer Robert E. Heinlein was an effective propagandist for free markets and against Christian tradition. And seems very popular among the clever thinkers of the New Right camp.

***

“It’s Biological”, some people say. Annihilate or go extinct, that is the law of life. But this view is rubbish, a synthesis of pre-scientific ideas of blood-superiority and imperialism with genuine biological discoveries.

Recognition of Darwinian Natural Selection does not say whether species can coexist or not. Birds and mammals are sometimes presented as having been rivals for “rulership” after the death of the dinosaurs. Actual life histories show mammals and birds coexisting and occasionally co-operating in a complex web of life. Likewise the separation of Australopithecines and primative humans led not to conflict but to a vague coexistence for fully two million years. The last Australopithicenes vanished some 900,000 years ago, at a time when many other large mammals also vanished, and it was probably not competition with our ancestors that finished them.

Likewise the Neanderthals were creatures of ice-age Europe and were for a time friendly enough with modern humans to have acquired some of their superior stone-working skills. H. G. Wells’s vision of an immediate bloody war between our ancestors and the “grizzly folk” is full of Victorian prejudice. Not justified by the coexistence of the two breeds in the same lands at much the same time. Neanderthals were tougher and better fitted to extreme cold, but also less clever and less social and much less adaptable. When Europe warmed up they lingered for a time in the high cold mountains and then vanished. Whether they were absorbed or just marginalised to extinction is still moot. But whereas there is some evidence for conflict and even cannibalism among modern humans, hard data for a modern-Neanderthal “war” is just not there.

***

Low Liberalism has been making the running since the 1980s. Low Liberalism has nothing of the generosity or nobility of purpose that was found in the old High Liberalism. Then again, that High Liberalism was only benevolent for as long as it was sure that its own people would remain High. An ancient elite, recruiting a few gifted outsiders but keeping its own elite status – that was their model of the world.

The world is no longer like that. Low Liberalism has appealed to ordinary people because it was seen as hostile to this unwanted elite. Whereas socialism included too many remnants of this vanished world – Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, for instance. Low Liberalism by contrast will allow almost anything and accept almost anyone. The more so now that it no longer needs the traditionalists who were part of the Thatcherite coalition and aided in their own social annihilation. Tradition is dead, and its True Believers are a dying breed.

***

Low Liberalism can destroy but it cannot create. It has no real model of the world. It combines loose talk of freedom with a belief that its own way of life will naturally win out in free competition. But real-life ways-of-life are always grossly artificial. All culture is an artefact, everything seems natural if it is familiar, yet may seem deeply unnatural to their neighbours. (The Chinese regard cheese as rotten milk and are disgusted that we eat it.)

I derived the title of this article from an interesting SF book called “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I only recently discovered that the “K” stands for Kroeber, after her mother Theodora Kroeber, who wrote an account of Ishi, last of his tribe.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Ishi was an elderly Indian whose tribe had been massacred and displaced by the freedom-loving Californians. Just as the rest of the country had been taken over from whoever used to live there before the settlers wanted it. Le Guin in her fiction imagines a future in which the balance is otherwise, with modern technology and tribal culture somehow managing to coexist.

Heinlein and Le Guin are neat expressions of the two sides of modern American culture. You could read Tom Wolfe and similar characters to see elegant fluent writers utterly baffled by what is going on around them. The man can rage against vanity, yet has nothing more to do besides complain whittily and be part of the process, For an insight into the real psychology of America, a psychology that is impressing itself on the world with both computer technology and modern weaponry, try Heinlein and Le Guin.

Note the similarities and note the differences. Both Heinlein and Le Guin are anti-state. Heinlein supposes that a satisfactory life can be achieved by authoritarianism and personal violence. Having served in the Navy but never actually seen warfare, he was able to tap into teenage illusions that he probably regarded as Deep Wisdom. Those of his teenage fans who ended up in Vietnam came back with a suitably deep contempt for the man. And yet negative emotions mean little, Heinlein’s loose notion of American values automatically arising out of market forces is historically false, but not so obviously untrue. Even after two decades of demolishing social protection and weakening the basis of their culture, a lot of people still see the Right Hand of Anarchy as the way back to traditional Americanism, just as Heinlein and others had presented it.

Le Guin by contrast imagines people reincorporated into a tribal way of life. This is indeed possible. Tribalism of various sorts is re-growing in America even as Low Liberalism tries to force people to live in a social vacuum. Tribalism provides a sustaining social atmosphere for people who discover that vacuums are neither pleasant nor life-sustaining.

Le Guin also takes a more realistic view of real-life violence than Heinlein. She is not one to be believing the gung-ho nonsense that flourishes in peacetime armies. Likewise her tribalised savages are indeed savage, not the sanitised saint of much popular fiction. Thus in her “Word For World is Forrest”, the oppressed aliens cease to be nice characters at the same time as they are forced to resist. When they overrun the human settlements, they concentrate on killing the recently arrived female settlers. With simple tribal logic, the recognise that while men can push in to new lands it is only men with women who can settle and breed a new native-exterminating culture, as happened in North America. Isolated trappers and prospectors blended in to the existing society, damaging it in some ways but also regenerating it. It was the white settlements that had no need for the native population, saw them just as a nuisance to be cleared off the excellent new land in the New World. Le Guin takes a serious and realistic view of the conundrum, yet in the end can see no better prospect than a retreat to friendly but all-pervasive and demanding norms of tribal life.

Low Liberalism creates a social vacuum, which is not sustainable. Tribalism of various sorts is flourishing in America, and is likely to grow stronger. But there is also socialism, waiting in the wings, ready to reassert itself when people grow weary of Low Liberalism and its low road to nowhere.

 

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review in 1998

Similar items can be found at the Ideas and Ideal Menu at the Long Revolution website

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