Thatcherism and Neoliberal Commonsense

With all the attention that Margaret Thatcher has gotten since her recent death, I have been reminded of my favorite cultural theorist in the UK --- Stuart Hall --- who has written extensively about Thatcherism. To shed light on what Thatcher's legacy means for the current political and economic crisis, I recommend a recent conversation between Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey published in Soundings. A key point they make about the forty years leading up to the current crisis is how both the ideology and the practices of leaders like Reagan and Thatcher served to 'hegemonize' a neoliberal commonsense. While there has been some resistance to big banks, Wall Street and the rule of the 1%, the neoliberal commonsense still holds sway for elected officials and policy-makers.

Massey: There was a period, when the financial crisis was first in the news, when people were beginning to question the way they were thinking about the economy and consider alternative ways of doing things - for example there was a discernible shift to investing more in the co-op, talking about mutualisation, arguing that we need to get rid of all this individualism and greed. And yet today here we are sitting here with Cameron saying that the big problem is the public deficit, and the big state. The implosion of neoliberal ideology is no longer on the agenda. It’s as though they’ve separated those two instances again.

Hall: I think the ideological dimension is very critical - the way in which the whole political discourse has been ‘cleansed’, so that the public interest, public ownership, common goods, equality, the redistribution of wealth, the stubborn facts about poverty and inequality, etc, all became ‘unspeakable’. That’s an instance of the way ideology, through erasure, provides one of the conditions of existence of politics and the economy, and thus of the crisis. Thatcherism made it part of common sense that you can’t calculate the common interest. ‘There is no such thing as society.’ All you can calculate is individual self-interest, and then the hidden hand of the market will make that work for, or trickle down to, society as a whole. The big shift here, of course, is that this has become New Labour’s philosophy too.


In this dialog, Hall and Massey note that the crisis is not just economic, it is also ideological, political and social. Market fundamentalism has become the economic common sense, not only of the west but globally. Political parties in both the UK and the US are in thrall to market fundamentalism; New Labour has become disconneted from its roots and is now the second party of capital (we can say similar things about the Democratic Party, except that it always has been a party of capital; but of a more liberal persuasion). The political terrain is narrowed by this. The social dimensions have to do with the way class, race, gender and other social relations have been so reconfigured under consumer capitalism that they fragment in ways that undermine the potential for social constituencies to organize and become collective agents for change. If we only focus on the economic dimension, we have few tools with which to challenge neoliberal commonsense. Instead of a "new" economy, we get austerity.

Hall: "We can’t ignore the way the financial sector has asserted its dominance over the economy as a whole, or indeed its centrality to the new forms of global capitalism. But we must address the complexity of the crisis as a whole. Different levels of society, the economy, politics, ideology, common sense, etc, come together or ‘fuse’."