The flood of elegiac articles on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is in itself a good measure of how we have all become Thatcherites without realising it. Only those who are not graced by a young age can see how the world and politics have changed so deeply since her days that it is correct to call her a “great revolutionary”.
Let us recall something that has been forgotten. Immediately after the end of World War II, two other major events took place. One was decolonisation and the emergence of the Third World, the other was the creation of a powerful and strong socialist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, but with offshoots in Africa, Latin America and Asia, from Angola to Cuba and China, for example. Both events had a sobering effect on the political and philosophical sectors based on capitalism, and led to an era of social democracy. Those two events gave rise to the attempt to create an international order based on cooperation and social justice at national and international levels.
This led the United Nations in 1974 to approve unanimously a plan of action for a new system of international relations aimed at permitting developing countries to regulate and control the activities of multinational corporations operating within their territory, measures to reduce the gap between North and South, and many other provisions that would be considered mere fantasy today. International cooperation was to be the basis of relations between states. A parallel dialogue among Heads of State led to the North-South Summit in Cancun in 1981, where a final plan of action would be hammered out.
Thatcher came into power in 1979, and in Cancun she met Ronald Reagan, who had been elected U.S. president a few months earlier. It was the first international test for Reagan, and he looked down with distaste on any talk about international cooperation and social justice. Prodded and sustained by Thatcher, he simply said that the U.S. had become great not because of aid. It had been the work of thousands of individuals who built railways, factories and companies that had made his country the leader of the world. From now on, the U.S. policy would be to go it alone, and do trade, not aid.
From that moment, the “Reagan revolution” changed the world. The United Nations was marginalised. The U.S. accepted no international treaty. The communist bloc was to be challenged, not feared. And a permanent unrelenting campaign was waged against the concept of society, and the state. Thatcher famously declared: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
Reagan launched “bites” as a way of giving simple answers to complex questions. Pollution? “Trees pollute, not factories”.
And Thatcher? She told: ”Let us glory in our inequality”, explaining that more inequality meant that more wealth was being created by savers at the top of the economic pyramid, presumably to trickle down via new direct investment. She called Nelson Mandela “a terrorist”, and later she would praise dictador Augusto Pinochet as a “champion of democracy”.
Slowly, the two conservative parties, the Republicans in the U.S. and the Tories in Britain, underwent an anthropological metamorphosis. Gone was “compassionate conservatism” or “social conservatism”, and an ideological tide swept in the glorification of wealth, the acceptance of injustice as a fact of life, the demonisation of the State as a brake on the market and individual advancement, and the argument that welfare, trade unions and all other instruments of equity were instruments of support for the lost and unproductive elements of society.
Reagan fired the air controllers, and Thatcher dismantled the coal miners’ unions. It was all summed up in Thatcher’s words: “Marks and Spencer [the supermarket chain] have triumphed over Marx and Engels”.
Reagan left the U.S. saddled with a huge deficit and growing inequality. When she was elected, Thatcher found the poverty level at nine percent, when she left it stood at 24 percent.
Thatcher and Reagan opened the path of legitimising the least social aspects of individuals and politics: selfishness, ostentation of power and status, money over culture, and the idea that those who win do so because they are better. The CEO of JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon, shut up a shareholder in a debate, saying: “I am right because I am richer than you”.
This kind of culture was unknown before Thatcher and Reagan, and now has created the Madoffs, the Berlusconis, the Murdochs and many other new mutants. We have gone through a profound sociological, cultural and anthropological change.
Over time the tide has grown, leading to a loss of identity of the left, which has become neutered by the long drive to uncontrolled capitalism as the only solution.
The old values have lost legitimacy. The new values are profit, competition, wealth: countries act on “defence of their interest”. Thatcher was able to effectively fight for special privileges in the European Community, sowing the seeds for the eurosceptics that now condition the British government. John Major, Tony Blair, and now David Cameron, embarked on a number of actions, from the war in Iraq to the present strict medicine of austerity, that would have been unthinkable without her legacy.
And the same happened in the U.S.. Bill Clinton did not even try to revert to pre-Reagan policies, and George W. Bush just resumed the Reagan revolution. The Republican Party is prisoner of the extremists of the Tea Party, and Barack Obama has been obliged to make so many compromises that much of his action has lost real punch.
The dream of a united Europe is in serious jeopardy. There is no solidarity between Northern and Southern Europe. The fact is that there are no common values able to cement international cooperation.
Today, we have no international governance, in the real sense of the word. The United Nations has been re-dimensioned to the issue of development. The world is not even able to take concrete measures on climate change, which is a clear threat for humankind. On the contrary, many companies are looking forward with enthusiasm to the melting of the Arctic, for the new avenues of traffic and mineral exploitation that this will open up. Finance is out of control and wealth has become obscene.
In 2012, the wealth of the world’s 100 richest individuals grew by 240 billion dollars: enough to solve the problems of poverty in the world. Yet, not a single voice is calling for redistribution. Those 100 were already the richest, so presumably they would not suffer too much if 75 percent of their added wealth was taken.
Pesident François Hollande, who tried to present this idea in France, has become an object of shame. The disaster of finance has created 100 million new poor worldwide. Eurostat says youth unemployment is 22,4 percent. Why is there not a real reaction? Because we have all become Thatcherites now.
Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.