“She is not dead, she doth not sleep. She hath awakened from the dream of life. ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife …”
Margaret Thatcher’s death raises a difficult etiquette question: How do you write about a person whose policies you opposed, whose philosophy has been discredited by history, and who by many accounts was not a very likeable human being?
The poetry lines, slightly paraphrased from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs, may help. But the question remains: How should we remember Margaret Thatcher? That depends on which Thatcher we’re remembering. Most of us didn’t know her as a human being, the way we know our neighbors, friends, or family members.
The human being, the woman who reportedly cooked breakfast for her husband every morning, has passed away. The fiercely ambitious politician who rose to power with the help of that husband’s wealth and power is gone, too, moved on to what Shelley called “that high Capital, where kingly Death keeps his pale court in beauty and decay.”
The Thatcher we knew was the world’s Thatcher. She was a profound political force, the first — and possibly the most powerful — transformative symbol for a new kind of conservatism which was unfettered by any pretense about social responsibility. Thatcher was the first world leader to freely and publicly express the private sentiments of like-minded people everywhere: that some people don’t deserve help.
That Margaret Thatcher was the Avatar of Avarice. Long before Mitt Romney sneered at the 47 percent, Thatcher was dismissing Britons in need as parasites and wastrels:
“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ … They are casting their problems on society,” Thatcher continued, “and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families …”
Thatcher’s credo of unashamed greed transformed the global economy. That meant transforming our culture and our politics — and she did. Before there was Ronald Reagan, before there was Lloyd Blankfein, before there was Gordon Gekko, there was Margaret Thatcher. They all walked in her footsteps.
That Margaret Thatcher is alive and well, and she shows no sign of leaving us anytime soon.
” …till the Future dares Forget the Past, her fate and fame shall be an echo and a light unto eternity!”
I’ve recently returned from South Africa, where Thatcher’s primarily remembered as one of the apartheid regime’s staunchest allies and defenders. She fiercely opposed the sanctions that helped bring down that regime, while condemning Nelson Mandela and his colleagues as “a typical terrorist organization.”
Thatcher cheered Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of democracy in Chile and his regime of torture, murder, and suppression. Thatcher did aid in the process of glasnost, so there’s that. But she was an enthusiastic supporter of the American neocons as they misled the country into war. She opposed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Her intransigence and ferocity prolonged the Northern Ireland conflict, which was only resolved after she left office.
And yet it’s is her economic legacy that will last the longest. Thatcher’s economic policies ended Great Britain’s long period of relatively full employment and promptly triggered a severe recession. Joblessness soared under Thatcher and never recovered. A brief period of economic growth soon led to runaway inflation and another recession.
Inequality also skyrocketed under Thatcher. The GINI coefficient, a measurement of economic equity, rose dramatically while she was in office. The gulf between the wealthiest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent grew by 60 percent.
Thatcher’s policies live on today in the Conservative-led coalition government of David Cameron, whose austerity-economics policies have plunged Great Britain into a triple-dip recession, fueled higher unemployment and created financial uncertainty for all but the wealthiest members of British society.
The Thatcher legacy, as Juan Cole notes, can be found in the UK’s latest statistics: The top 1 percent have more than doubled their share of the national income (from 7.1 percent to 14.3 percent). Fourteen percent of the British population lived in poverty when Thatcher took office, and 33 percent now live in financial insecurity.
When Thatcher took office, 5 percent of the British population couldn’t afford to heat their homes all the time. That figure is now 29 percent.
You could say Thatcher’s economic philosophy transformed Charles Dickens from a historical novelist into a British writer with contemporary relevance.
It shouldn’t be hard for Americans to remember Margaret Thatcher. Her deregulatory philosophy, quickly adopted by American conservatives, led directly to the financial crisis of 2008 and the Long Depression which has followed it. We can remember Thatcher every day: in our unemployment figures, in tales of unpunished bank crimes, in the privatizing of publicly-created resources for private benefit, in the soaring numbers of Americans struggling with intractable debt or mired in hopeless poverty.
She is not dead, she doth not sleep …
What accounted for Thatcher’s transformative power? Her greatest rhetorical strength lay in her unashamed advocacy for brutal self-interest. That gave her words a force and clarity which is denied to more equivocal political speech. Sometimes people really do respond to a “strong man” — a phrase she rendered obsolete, forcing the forging of a new one: The Iron Lady.
Thatcher’s rhetorical force unleashed generations of conservatives. It freed them to come out of their closet, to display their naked self-interest for all the world to see. Not long afterwards, Joan Rivers offered this funny (because it’s so truthful) line to her fellow Republicans at the 1984 GOP convention: “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”
True, the Thatcherite musings of today’s Republicans can sometimes get them into trouble. Romney’s “47 percent” remark was pure Maggie, and it may have cost him the presidency. But this utterly self-confident (if misguided) vision has also enabled the right to construct an entirely mythical but internally coherent view of the world — one which, when argued with conviction, has a persuasive power that their opponents are often unable to match.
The media is now eulogizing this harsh and divisive figure, often in rosy terms, which presents her critics with an etiquette problem which Glenn Greenwald has pondered twice — first after Christopher Hitchens’ death, and now after Thatcher’s. They’re well worth reading.
Those two deaths aren’t entirely unrelated. Both Thatcher and Hitchens seemed utterly driven by self-regard and self-interest. Both were supremely — and excessively — self-confident. Hitchens even told an inappropriate sexualized anecdote which purportedly involved himself and Thatcher. To read it is to understand that Hitchens remade all gods, even Eros, in his own image.
That narcissistic self-regard, which sees the world as nothing more than a pale reflection of oneself, is Thatcherism too.
It should go without saying that any human death is a loss, that any prolonged suffering is a tragedy, and that every family’s grief is humanity’s grief. That’s as true of Margaret Thatcher as it is of those who have needlessly suffered as a result of her philosophy. But hers in a family of privilege and position. Too many other families must labor at “unprofitable strife” in an increasingly hard world. To use the words of Shelley’s poem, it has become a world ruled by “invulnerable nothings,” a world where “cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.”
This is the world that Margaret Thatcher did so much to bring into being, the world which her shade continues to inhabit. Margaret Thatcher may have “awakened from the dream of life,” but too many of our leaders still haven’t awakened from the dreamlike illusion that was her economic philosophy. Until they do, this world will remain Margaret Thatcher’s world in far too many ways.
If you feel the need to mourn, mourn for those who are still living in it.