Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Iron lady Remembered

Two very different women died this week, both of whom in some sense symbolized different eras and influences in my lifetime - Anette Funicello, whom I happily remember as one of the most popular of the original Mousketeers on the 1950s TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, and Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.
Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving 20th-century British Prime Minister. Normally, that might be the factoid forever mentioned first in her regard. Giver our obsessive current cultural and political fixation on gender, however, it is no surprise that what is usually mentioned first is that she was Britain's frist - and so far only - female Prime Minister. But she was also the first scientist Prime Minister (having studied chemistry in college). And she was certainly the most resolutely middle class person to lead Britain's conservative party. Being a woman undoubtedly counted against her in her unexpected rise to power, but being "a grocer's daughter" was at least as, if not more, significant - a class background that until then would have made her a wildly improbably candidate for party leadership.
Nortwithstanding our contemporary fixation on gender and other such identities, I think class remains the most determinative identity in terms of most people's life prospects and opportunities. Being a woman did not, at least as far as I am aware, significantly dictate her policies. (She certainly eschewed an feminist agenda). But being middle class most certainly did make a difference. Thatcher brought to politics a strong - indeed extreme - version of bourgeois individualism, which had little patience with left-wing collectivism and just as little patience with right wing, traditonalist, aristocratic communitarianism. Indeed, one of her most infamously memorable lines was "There is no such thing as society."
Thatcher was an accomplished politician, who  (whether for better or for worse, or more likely for both) accomplished an extensive transformation of British society and British political culture. She was also an important force internationally. She stood up to Argentinian agression, after the Argentine military dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands. Conventional wisdom at the time downplayed the feasibility of resisting aggression and counseled negotiation. But Thatcher, to her lasting credit, marshalled her forces and liberated the Falklands. On the larger international stage, she led the way in appreciating that a new generation had come to power in the Soviet Union with Gorbachev, and that he was someone that the West could - and should - do business with. Regarding Gorbachev, US Presidents Reagan and Bush followed her lead, and in due course the Soviet Union was no more.
Thatcher's domestic record is clearly mixed. In important respects, Britain is in certain ways better off now than it was in 1979. But those benefits have not come without a significant price in terms of inequallity and social fragmentation. (Of course, if one believes "there is no such thing as society," then undermining social unity and harmony may not appear problematic!). 
One of my Marxist professors, way back when I was an undergraduate (before Thatcher came to power), liked to say that capitalism solves the problem of production and socialism solves the problem of distribution. But the larger problem, as history has shown, is that neither one alone seems able to solve both problems. Yet both problems need to be addressed. Socialism fails if it produces insufficient wealth, if everyone ends up equally poor (except of course for the party elite). But capitalism fails - morally as well as economically -  if, as has happened before and seems to be happening again now in our own society, the wealth produced increasingly benefits only a smaller segment of society, while the middle class stagnates and declines.
Unfortunately, both those old ideologies are basically bankrupt today. The American Right worries that the rich are not quite rich enough and fears that the rest of us non-rich might get too much health care! The Left, on the other hand, cares much more about gender and identity politics and waging cultural war than with correcting economic inequality.
Lady Thatcher was right about some things and wrong about many others. But at least the issues she fought about were important ones.

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