Was Thatcher an ideologue? (No, The Times says.)
Is the current Conservative Party Thatcherite? Is the Coalition Thatcherite? (Yes to both, says Owen Jones.)
Is Thatcherism neoliberalism? (Not really, says Jon Agar; yes, says Alex Callinicos in the Socialist Worker.)
Are we still living in a neoliberal political environment?
It’s this last question that I’m most interested in. All this debate seems rather timely – and almost jarring – given that it has become common for bloggers, political commentators and academics to suggest that we are living in a world that is no longer neoliberal – and perhaps even no longer liberal. There’s an apparent emergence of what’s variously called things like postliberalism (that’s the political commentator and blogger) or neocommunitarianism (that’s, unsurprisingly, the academic).
The 2008 crash is said to have shattered people’s faith in markets and the rational individual. William Davies identifies two key features of this world. First, ‘individual consumer choice and egoistic desire . . . appear fallible’ and even ‘dangerously disruptive’. Second, the ‘price mechanism of the market’ is no longer trusted to bring about social coordination.
In tandem with this, therefore, classical (or neo-classical, or neoliberal, or monetarist) economics has been replaced by behavioural economics as the go-to theory for Conservative leaders, it seems. If government policy has one unifying factor, it is perhaps the reverence paid to the ‘Nudge Unit’ (or Behavioural Insights Team – BIT). Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein – authors of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness – have been high profile intellectual influences on David Cameron’s Conservative Party for some time now.
It’s this background that leads people like Ben Macintyre musing that ‘the Thatcher Revolution seems oddly vulnerable’.
On the other hand, people like Lynne Segal, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death, have been stressing that her real and lasting legacy is ‘the ubiquitous rule of market forces’, tied explicitly to an idea of neoliberalism and currently being ‘more viciously enforced than ever’.
So, who is right? Is behavioural economics so at odds with neoliberalism? Is nudging – and ‘libertarian paternalism’ – so at odds with Thatcherism and its emphasis on the choosing individual and the value of markets?
All this hangs, for me, on how we understand neoliberalism. I’m going to use it here as a way of understanding an actual approach to government. I’m seeing it not as a coherent, pure ideology but as a ‘mentality of government’ – a set of assumptions and beliefs that affects what you see as possible and desirable in government.
This understanding makes neoliberalism something different from the way that Davies characterises it in his article ,suggesting that we might now be moving into a neocommunitarian age. He suggests that current thinkers like Philip Blond or Maurice Glasman wouldn’t actively associate themselves with the neocommunitarianism label, but it’s a helpful way of grouping them together – and this is a contrast with neoliberalism, which Hayek and others actively embraced as an epithet. I’m thinking more of something along the lines of Thatcherism, with the understanding as described by the Times obituary: ‘In practice her ideological attachments and prescriptions owed more to her gut feelings than to any works of political philosophy.’
Taking this approach (of neoliberalism as a practical mentality of government), a common way of dividing up recent history is to see: (i) classical liberalism broadly through the Victorian era, followed by (ii) the ‘expansive’ liberalism of the consensus years (which could start as early as post-WW1), which is then in turn replaced by (iii) neoliberalism under leaders like Thatcher.
Classical liberalism can be seen as identifying certain areas of life as instances where the individual knew best about their own interests, and should be left to their own devices – the family and civil society (or the market) being the key spheres.
In expansive liberalism, it’s noticed that actually leaving people to their own devices doesn’t always produce the outcomes a society might want at a ‘macro’ level, and so interventions are introduced. These focus on re-shaping the structures in which individual decisions are taken – tripartite bargaining, the welfare state and so forth.
In neoliberalism, perhaps in two stages, some of these controls on the market or individual decision-making are dissolved, and in addition market mechanisms are introduced where they might not have existed before. So you might see institutions of the expansive period exposed to market mechanisms. Maybe this is private companies doing rubbish collection for councils, or hospitals farming out cleaning contracts.
Government retains – perhaps even more so than under classical liberalism – a view of how it would to see citizens behave. However, people being people, they continue to fail to behave in the way government would hope. Rather than changing the structures around them – the technique of expansive liberalism – neoliberals keep the market structures and try to change the citizen, using ‘technologies of citizenship’. These could be forms of education, or more coercive forms of restraint – but targeted rather than universal.
Of course, these characterisations are an exaggeration. Periods of history don’t divide up neatly like this, and there have been elements of all approaches across them all. The Victorian era saw all sorts of forms of intervention in and regulation of the market – the factory acts could be just one example – and the idea that the social policy measures of the 1945 government represent a seismic shift in light of the Beveridge Report is a bit harsh on Lloyd George and the Board Schools and all sorts of other initiatives. Without going into a discussion of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberalism, it’s worth noting that the Liberal Party (or parties) was/were not always ‘classical’ liberals in the sense I’m meaning here.
In that case, why are the monikers helpful? Is an argument about whether we’re living in a neoliberal age simply a matter of semantics?
I think they’re still useful and important because at least the debate around them can help us see how mentalities of government are being shaped – and these ‘mentalities’ affect what politicians, commentators and the wider public see as desirable and possible. There’s a power to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ if you can make it stick. That’s the power of ideology, orthodoxy, doxa or whatever you want to call it – maybe hegemony? For better or worse I’m not too bothered about the label and any philosophical terminology and distinctions; I’m simply trying to highlight what key assumptions might still be underpinning and structuring policy thinking today.
In that light, let’s take the example of alcohol policy.* In crude terms, it might be argued that the nineteenth century was an era of liberalism. The Beer Act of 1830 can be seen as liberalising the sale of beer (if not alcohol more generally). In the decades leading up to this act, commentators had suggested that free trade in beer ought to be introduced for a number of reasons, but partly simply because of an opposition to monopolies and a belief that markets simply reflect underlying desires of citizens.
The twentieth century saw increased regulation of pubs and the alcohol industry, particularly in response the First World War, when some were effectively taken into state ownership to ensure they were managed responsibly. This can be seen as the ‘expansive’ period.
The Beer Orders of 1989 might be seen as the end of this period, heralding a period in which liberalisation of the alcohol industry was seen by many as an opportunity to regenerate cities damaged by wider economic and social policy. Bologna in Birmingham and Madrid in Manchester, anyone… Perhaps this ‘neoliberal’ period culminated with the 2003 Licensing Act that came into force in 2005, with its much-trumpeted (though perhaps exaggerated) idea of 24-hour drinking.
The Conservative Party in Opposition and in Government has been hostile to this Act – at least in rhetoric – promising to tear it up. Café culture has not materialised, we are told, and therefore changes will have to be made. Perhaps this is the end of neoliberalism?
However, the solution in reality has not been to ‘tear up’ the act but rather ‘rebalance’ it with a series of measures that might tax or restrict the late-night opening of licensed venues. Instead, both governments have made ‘empowering’ people the centrepiece of their alcohol policy, through labelling of drinks (though this has never been enforced) and education campaigns, such as Units and Know Your Limits, Would You? and Change4Life. As Hackley and others argued with respect to the 2007 Alcohol Strategy, the lion’s share of responsibility is placed on individuals, not the industry or the state.
This reflects a consistent ideological position that the motor for change is the individual, and government has limited power. Individual bankers are to blame for the financial crisis (and hence the welcoming of James Crosby surrendering his knighthood), and a ‘minority’ of drinkers – whether under Labour or Coalition – are to blame for alcohol issues. Government’s role is ‘to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves’, as the Coalition Agreement stated.
This lack of confidence or willingness to make government part of the solution is illustrated well by Theresa May’s general statement on antisocial behaviour from the beginning of the Coalition government:
For 13 years, politicians told us that the government had the answer; that the ASBO was the silver bullet that would cure all society’s ills. It wasn’t. Life is more complex than that. There is no magic Whitehall lever we can pull simply to stop anti-social behaviour. No magic button to press or tap to turn to stop the flow of misery. The solution to your community’s problems will not come from officials sitting in the Home Office working on the latest national action plan. They will come from the homes of our citizens, from the heads of our police officers, council employees and housing associations, and from the hearts of our social workers. We will put power into the hands of our citizens…. And we expect everybody to take responsibility, take action, get involved, tell the police and the other agencies what’s going on, and hold them to account for what they do about it.
The tension with a public health approach to alcohol, for example, is striking. The default position of public health is one that is population-based, looking at problems at a societal level. This is the key reasoning behind minimum unit pricing (MUP).
MUP is one of the key measures noted by Davies as marking a break from the neoliberal past, as an active intervention. However, consistent with neoliberalism are general attempts to change individuals’ behaviour without changing the broader structures, and then attempts targeted at specific individuals, such as Drinking Banning Orders (‘booze ASBOs’).
MUP, as portrayed by the government, is understood in precisely these terms. Rather than being a population-wide measure, it is understood as a targeted attempt to tackle binge-drinking culture and affect the cheapest end of alcohol, meaning that a ‘middle class family’ like David Cameron’s apparently won’t be affected – and if anything it will benefit them as it will be targeting ‘binge’ drinkers, whose alcohol is currently subsidised by ‘responsible’ drinkers’ potato purchases.
In a similar way, although ‘nudging’ is presented as a break with the past, it is difficult to see how it is inevitably associated with any single mentality of government. Changing the design of bars, what’s on offer, or the glasses available might be ‘nudging’ and could be ‘expansive’ liberalism as it implies the state directly interfering in an individual’s decision-making. On the other hand they wouldn’t be particularly new, with Mass Observation wondering about glass size and speed of drinking, and government in the nineteenth century wondering about bar design.
Moreover, these aren’t the sorts of interventions being suggested by the BIT. Their preferred interventions are the wording and content of letters regarding tax returns or GP appointments and informing students how much their peers drink. These are not fundamental breaks with neoliberal modes of governance – the social marketing on drinking can be seen as simply a refinement of the Units or Would You? campaigns.
So, for what it’s worth, I think we’re still living in a neoliberal age. It’s hard to imagine a leading politician suggesting state ownership of pubs – and it’s even hard to imagine MUP being implemented. The individual, for better or worse, remains the unit of governance, whether it’s in alcohol, higher education or social security policy. Both left and right might agree that for better or worse Thatcher’s method was economics and the result was a change in the heart and soul of the British people, but for all that liberal governance remains an imperfect, unceasing project, and there will continue to be examples of neoliberal workarounds, where failing structures are left in place while attempts are made to reform individuals acting within them.
Sorry for all the paywalled Times references. Lacking an online subscription, I actually bought it on Tuesday and read it cover to cover to get my money’s worth, so I’m slightly over-influenced by that.
* I know what I’m about to write is an oversimplification, and perhaps even a misrepresentation. People like John Greenaway, Paul Jennings and James Nicholls (amongst others) would no doubt be able to rip it to shreds, and I’d welcome any criticism. A conference presentation by Paul Jennings recently enlightened me about the extent of government involvement in the beer trade resulting from the 1904 licensing act, and how long the influence of this legislation could be felt. Following ideas of class and carnivalesque, there’s always been a governmental interest in regulating release/drinking (my favourite example is always Pentheus in The Bacchae). However, I think at the moment the idea of a broad picture is helpful, and there are patterns in terms of what is considered.