Neither Thatcher nor neo-liberal theory transformed Britain from a flourishing society into a sweatshop of selfishness. To see the real perpetrators, look to the academic left.
The root of our current discontent, according to the left, is a culture of selfishness and greed legitimised by Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms. They look back with longing to the Attlee government and the years of the post-war consensus, forgetting that the immense efforts of those years were based upon a wave of patriotism that emanated from our victory in the war. United by tradition, an identity and a shared sense of belonging, people were willing to make sacrifices for the common good that would be unthinkable now.
Patriotism was the rallying call that united people behind the great social reforms of that era. Attlee saw patriotism as a virtue and “the emotion of every free-thinking Briton”, arguing that his reforms as the culmination of ‘all the main streams that flow into the great river of our national life.’ Beveridge, similarly, argued that the social reforms of the era were “peculiarly British”: a reflection of our particular character, and the conclusion of our particular history. As John Bew, a prominent British historian, argues, it was through presenting a vision of “ethics, Britishness, loyalty, patriotic duties and rights” that Attlee was able to forge the post-war consensus.
Now, we are told that this ethos was destroyed by neoliberal propaganda. But in reality, it was the intellectual left that destroyed the foundations upon which this culture of solidarity had been based.
Orwell famously pointed out that British intellectuals “would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box”. It was this prejudice that was eventually fatal to the great forces for social cohesion in this country.
There is a long tradition in left-wing thought, from Rousseau to Althusser, that regards culture, religion, and national spirit as an oppressive force, something that alienates man from his fundamental goodness, and a barrier to the building of utopia.
This trend is epitomised in the ideas of three 20th century left-wing theorists: Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. Gramsci had argued in the 1930s that capitalism did not depend only upon coercive force, but upon a culture that reconciled humanity to this supposedly unnatural economic reality. Althusser, similarly, suggested that capitalism created a state apparatus which taught the governed the values necessary for capitalism’s survival. Foucault synthesised this viewpoint with a longer historical perspective to claim that ideas and social relations constituted oppressive systems of power, which discipline society. The task of the left-wing intellectual, therefore, was to liberate humanity from these oppressive forces, to engage in a battle against the cultural dominance of capitalism.
When, in the 1960s and 1970s, the left became ideologically dominant in schools, academia and many other influential sectors of public life, the drip-feeding of these ideas into mainstream culture and individuals’ moral and political reasoning began. Fashionable journals like the New Left Review, protest organisations, artists and entertainers created a dynamic intellectual and cultural climate intended to undermine British culture. The result was a “discursive revolution” which sowed doubt, confusion, and made traditional ideas about society seem ridiculous or irrelevant. Religion was ridiculed as backward and barbaric; patriotism was attacked as bigoted in schools, universities, entertainment and art. In short, the moral authority of the two most powerful forces of social cohesion – the Church and the State – was irreparably damaged.
Contrary to the expectations of the left, a new universalism did not replace patriotism and religion. What arose in their place was a rejection of being truly bound by any standard, and of belonging to anyone besides oneself. The sense of belonging, solidarity and identity that the post-war consensus had been founded upon melted away.
By the early 1970s, people were increasingly aware that Britain was suffering a profound crisis of identity, and a fading away of solidarity and national feeling. This belief permeated the public sphere. The historian Arthur Bryant’s lament in 1973, that “there is no unifying force to bind us together anymore” resonated with the politically engaged across the country.
Such concerns, however, were not confined to the right. Even A. S. Byatt worried that there would be no substitute for the old connecting forces of history, culture and morality. Numerous polls and studies reflected this decline in patriotism and the fading away of ideals. Many, such as the European Values Study, reported a decline in identity with the nation, an increasing focus on individual self-interest, and a profound disenchantment with national institutions. In this brave new world, the national spirit of the post-war era was only a memory.
The rise of individualism, the collapse of a willingness to make sacrifices for the common good, and the division of society into smaller, more separate units, all happened well in advance of the Thatcher era. It was in this new, individualistic social and cultural context that neo-liberalism found fertile ground for its ideas.
Thatcherism arose as a reaction to economic crisis and political failure, but it was only because the left had destroyed the previous social and cultural order that neo-liberalism became embedded in social relations. So neo-liberalism was, ironically, the tragic consequence of the destructive impulses of left-wing thought. Leftists had eradicated the older forces that had united people for the pursuit of shared goals – and offered no compelling vision to replace them.
So, where once more than 60% of people trusted their neighbours, today, less than 30% would say the same.
Revolutions have a tendency to devour their children. The cultural and social revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s consumed any chance of a left-wing economic order founded upon social solidarity, because there were no longer any unifying forces to base it on.
Bereft of all the institutions and habits that promote solidarity, it is the ordinary men and women of Britain who suffer the consequences of being lost, in what Isaiah Berlin described, as ‘a vast friendless vacuum, a desert without paths or landmarks or goals.’
Jacob Chatterjee reads History at the University of Oxford. Read his last article here.
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