When it comes to deaths, the balance of the universe has always been askew. Kind, generous and honest people I’ve known have died well before their years. Some years ago, my best friend – a brilliant and gentle socialist – died at age twenty-seven. Meanwhile, the paladins of the right – Ronald Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush Senior – seem to go on and on. Admittedly, Reagan – that second-rate actor who championed the blacklisting of leftists in Hollywood and became the belligerent governor of California before rising to the office of President – died some years ago, but he lived to a distinctly unfair age of ninety-three.
Finally, after hanging with her cold, grim vampiric hands for years beyond a morally just departure date, Margaret Thatcher is dead. She was eighty-seven. It’s paradigmatic of the hypocrisy of liberal democracy that when a former mainstream leader dies, all sides of politics come to offer platitudes about this great ‘statesperson’, talking about how well they ‘served the country’. On the days following their death, consensus rules in the papers, on the television, and between the major parties. Everyone, it seems, ‘respects’ the fallen, even when at earlier times they were vicious enemies. British Labour leader Ed Miliband has begun this process, avoiding controversy by noting that, ‘David Cameron, Nick Clegg and myself were all shaped by the politics of Lady Thatcher and the way she defined the politics particularly of the 1980s.’ Like others, he politely avoided judgement of Thatcher’s political record.
On the Left there has been more than the usual triumphalism at Thatcher’s passing. My own Facebook feed is filled with crowing that ‘The Witch is Dead’, the modern version it seems to me of medieval dancing in the streets. I must admit, I find it all a bit grisly, not because I have any sympathy for Thatcher – God knows, she was an awful woman – but that it individualises a figure who was much more than simply an individual. In a sense, this crowing is a descent into the very individualism that Thatcher herself championed.
The political point is that Thatcher was one of the chief representatives of an entire political project now known as neoliberalism. There’s something misleading about the way the term is understood, for it is more than an economic doctrine of the free market, but includes an entire political project founded in virulent nationalism and consolidated by the destruction of democratic liberties and working class institutions. The Falklands war, the destruction of the miners and their unions, support for the nastiest dictatorships across the globe (Chile, Indonesia, South Africa), the destruction of the Eastern Bloc and its opening up to market relations – these are the things which Thatcher championed. They are all part of the neoliberal project, each a precondition and complement to the other.
We would do well to remember that this very project still lies in the center of power, in the US, in Britain and in Australia, we’re about to face a new wave of Thatcherite attacks by an incoming Liberal government, right in the heels of the neoliberalism kindly meted out by the Gillard government.
Indeed, there is another connection between Thatcher and Gillard. Before I go on, I should perhaps note that we shouldn’t conflate the two, for their aims and methods are distinctly different: Thatcher a belligerent Cold War warrior, Gillard the applier of ‘Third Way Labourism’. Still, that both Thatcher and Gillard are (in Thatcher’s case, were) women highlights the erroneous nature of those strains of liberal feminism that claim we need are more women in office. Obama himself represents this trend when he says that Thatcher ‘stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.’ The unintended irony here is that Thatcher showed us that women can be just as heartless as any man – the point is not the gender of the person, but their political program and subject-position.
I won’t be grieving Thatcher’s death any more than I will be celebrating it. Rather, I will be remembering those who struggled so bravely against her. The miners at the Battle of Orgreave and elsewhere, the Poll Tax strikers, the hunger strikers (Bobby Sands among others) at Long Kesh prison. It seems to me that the most important task is to remember the fallen heroes of the left, and to draw what lessons we can from their victories and defeats – to honour their memory at this time.