Monday, May 6, 2013

Ambivalent Freedom

The May 23 issue of The New York Review of Books has an article by British writer Andrew O'Hagan It focuses on the lasting harmful social and communal effects of Margaret Thatcher's ideology and policies, resulting in what the author portrays as the virtual destruction of working class community life in Britain (especially in northern England and Scotland). 
The historical record of Thatcher and her policies is, of course, familiar and need not be belabored. What should most interest us today is what NYRB tellingly calls Thatcher's "moral legacy." For the the values promoted by Thatcherite ideology certainly seem to have become widely shared in elite circles and are sometimes seen as a model to be replicated. Indeed, the political and cultural priority presently being accorded to deficit reduction in this country (and even more problematically to "austerity" in Europe) - as opposed to such antiquated social goals - as full employment illustrates how deeply entrenched that model has become. 
Personalities are important in history, but personalities complicate analysis. Margaret Thatcher has her historical legacy, of course, but the moral legacy is not hers alone but belongs rather to the particular strain of social and economic philosphy which inspired not only her policies but many of the policies put in place in the U.S. in the intervening years. And ultimately it relates to the ambiguous moral dynamic of freedom itself, which modern economic freedom and post-modern moral freedom have further thrown out of balance.
A onetime grad school classmate of mine used to like to say that capitalism was an economic success but a moral disaster. Exactly how successful economically has always been a matter of some debate - as suggested by the plight of the once productive working classes in Britain and elsewhere and the current decline of our own American middle class. Its moral disasters, however, were well recongized by almost everyone until relatively recently. Historically no one ever summarized the economic accomplishments of capitalism better than Karl Marx, who famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 (tr. Friedrich Engels, 1881): "It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals." But, unlike capitalism's contemporary acolytes, Marx simultaneously highlighted its overwhelming and seemingly non-stop social and cultural destructiveness: "it has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations ... and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.' It has drowned the heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimenatlism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. ... All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned ..."
Classical conservatives and post-modern liberals largely recognize the price society - real people - have had to pay for the acknowledged benefits of a free and productive economy. There used to be almost a consensus about the need to regulate economic activity for the benefit of society. Within that consensus, the political debate was largely about how to achieve the optimal balance between economic freedom and social cohesion. The Thatcherite revolution smashed that consensus. Since then, the advocates of greater economic freedom - at whatever cost to social cohesion - have been winning. There are still voices advocating for more balanced policies that aim to rectify the social situation somewhat, but those voices have become relatively weak. A lot of that weakness has been self-inflicted.
In particular that weakness has been exacerbated by another long recognized consquence of capitalist excess - a libertarian revolution in personal and family morality, which has undermined the very social supports most beneficial to those who are being most hurt economically.

No comments:

Post a Comment