Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan turned the Anglo-American world around. In office at the same time, they thought similarly, a reaction to the slowdown of postwar liberalism. The political ideas that had given the United States prosperity and rebuilt Britain in the fifties turned out, unsurprisingly, not to have covered everything. Some aspects of liberal economics, along with actions like OPEC’s oil embargo, slowed economies. Voters were ready for a change, and Thatcher and Reagan offered a new start.
The nuclear arms race, which was separate from those liberal ideas, was beginning to slow, and Thatcher, Reagan, and the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev were able to capitalize on that. Flaws in the Soviet system and Gorbachev’s responses to them brought down that system, which Thatcher and Reagan were happy to take credit for.
Thatcher and Reagan changed the political discourse, and we have retained that discourse. Hilary Mantel observes
It was not possible at that time to see where it was trending. What she made a play for was the acquisitive: our greedy nature. She set aside other things like an identification with community, altruism. The only collective that she understood was: Rally around and slay the enemy. Otherwise, she said there was no thing such as society.
It is almost impossible in the US today to talk about alternative ways of ordering society, of a society in which people are not trapped in poverty from birth or do not have to fear being ruined by the bad luck of disease. All depends on our individual choices about our individual lives. There is no such thing as society.
This is a happy attitude to have if your life includes lots of money and good health; if you are a young man in tech, for one example. Others have been written out of history, even though they may have worked hard to provide the basis for those young men in tech.
…the creation myth seeks to make heroes out of individuals, rather than the group. And when the contribution of the collective is ignored, it is usually a man who gets the credit.
Another review of Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators, notes its emphasis on collaboration as the motive force of innovation; perhaps we are beginning to be able to say such things.
Likewise, while Germany offers a free college education to all, it is not possible to suggest that rising tuition fees at American state universities might be related to the insistence on constantly decreasing taxes. The word tax is mentioned only once in that link, and not in the straightforward way I’ve just put it. Or this article notes that CDC funding and hence readiness to deal with things like Ebola has been decreasing for the past decade, but not that the decrease is due to constant tax-cutting in Washington.
Thatcher and Reagan made it acceptable, even praiseworthy, to disassemble the economic safety nets for their citizens. The introduction of the Affordable Care Act in the US is a small step toward a safety net that most developed nations have and Britain has been disassembling.
The only collective that she understood was: Rally around and slay the enemy.
Is this where our current inability to think of solutions for international conflict beyond military force comes from? When we no longer think of ourselves as a community, we can’t extend that community and must resist or fight others. So the US defense budget dwarfs that for the State Department, and the aid that we send to countries afflicted by Ebola comes through the military.
After World War II, America extended our community, through the Marshall Plan, to western Europe. Part of the reason was to defend against Communist incursion and thus a rallying against the enemy, but slaughter was no longer primary. That led to favorable economics for both America and Europe in the next decades.
Congress balked at the Marshall Plan, but when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, there was not even the possibility of a Marshall Plan for the fifteen countries emerging from Soviet economics into globalization. Instead, the US encouraged a system that provided for the enrichment of a few individuals in those new countries, consistent with the greed advocated by Thatcher and Reagan.
And now the Middle East is in flames, partially thanks to the 2003 Iraq war that was supposed to transform the region to democracy. The current response? More bombing; economic development is not considered. Ukraine desperately needs economic help, which might be considered a close analog to the Marshall Plan, if we looked at international events that way.
Socio-economic-political ideas seem to have a lifespan of around 30 years in the Anglosphere. We can hope that Thatcher-Reagan individualistic greed may have run its course. Isaacson’s celebration of teamwork is one indicator. The one I like best, though, is Hilary Mantel’s candor: “I would say that she wrecked this country. I loathed her.”
More of this, please!