A song of tea and iron

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We’ve been having a jolly good time on my previous thread, understanding the Deeper Meaning of US phenomena like the Tea Party and the ongoing Grand Shutdown of 2013, most importantly understanding (without excusing) the personalities and motives of those who have sustained the movement to the point where the credit rating of the USA is at risk! The larger context, from the work on it that has been done so far, is that the Tea Party represents first and foremost the white small-town elite, the people who consider themselves the stand-up economic bulwark of their communities and, most-importantly, self-made — despite the evidence all around them that they are but one level in the giant, very expensive structure required to make modern life even possible. Because no, they didn’t build that.

In the present context, we see them engaged in a campaign to undercut the foundations out from under them, the part of the elite that is closest to consumer demand and to the public physical infrastructure. And they are doing it with a ferocity and a passion that is starting to alarm the higher levels of the accumulative pyramid that attempted to instrumentalize their rage. Worse still, the target of their ire is the kind of safety-net kind of social welfare support that their equivalents in other countries take, more or less, as a matter of course — health care, the sheer expensive of which in the USA can and does leave even the petit bourgeois vulnerable if they manage to be sufficiently vigilant about their insurance status.

Many progressives, including people who should probably know better, reach reflexively for the easiest explanation, which in the USA is paranoia about racial displacement and encirclement. And I would agree that that is absolutely a part of it. But I think it’s too easy an answer, because it yields up no possible way to a solution and implies, actually, that the best solution is the very displacement and encirclement that is feared. It becomes a spiral of self-reinforcing paranoias, where the validation of one demands an increase in the other. Is there an angle on the issue that doesn’t require this kind of destructive encirclement?

A sort of partial answer came to me, when very recently, and quite by coincidence, I watched the Meryl-Streep-as-Margaret-Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady, and found myself experiencing a kind of sense of dej√† vu. I mean, sure, it’s just a movie, but I had the real sense we’ve been here before.

The movie is structured as the partially-daydreamed/hallucinated reminiscences of an aged Margaret Thatcher in a middle stage of dementia, and its principal conceit is that it is intended to be an emotional examination of the things that drove her both up and down politically. Centered throughout the movie are Thatcher’s class origins, as stemming from the up-and-coming small business class as the daughter of a politicized grocer.

Thatcher is portrayed as entering a political world in which the Tory aristocracy saw itself — after taking its cut, of course — as the great mediators of British society, seeking consensus among the wage-earning and money-making classes. The (claimed) problem was, the labour movement had become maximalist in its demands, and so the concessions required to achieve consensus would be very one-sided indeed. The movie’s Thatcher, coming in as an outsider to this world, didn’t understand why labour should see for itself a greater cut of output than some kind of natural-seeming circumstances had already gotten it, and concluded that the consensus-seeking of the old elite was mere spinelessness. The values of a shopkeeper’s daughter were: you got what you got when you got it, when the customer came into your store (or didn’t). The petit bourgeois couldn’t easily strike, and was instead a victim of cycle of wage demand, labour strike, and elite conciliation.

This ethos weaves itself through Streep’s (and a younger actress who gets a cameo as Young Margaret) portrayal of Thatcher. When confronted with the results of her attempt to break the labour movement by her own old-guard advisors — concerned that people were losing their homes, that she was out of touch — she responds by querying them about the price of daily goods, which she knows and they don’t. The moment is emblematic of real-life neoliberalism, a solipsistic obsession with the “price signal”, raised instead to an underlying moral reality by the social class that must earn its living in direct relation to prices, but never to wages.

A thin-lipped refusal to acknowledge the reality of the communities which she was breaking, some of which are still broken, something that the real-life Thatcher is held to share with her movie portrayal.

In the end, it is this very solipsism that leads to her political downfall. The institution of the poll tax, it’s meaning and symbolism, the implicit claim that the well-off are there by divine grace, and the less fortunate have no greater claim on the services of the state, the refusal to understand the lives of those who live by labour wages and not by selling goods and services piecemeal, leads to a breach even with her own cabinet, for whom it is all a step too far, and who cannot politically stomach her obvious disconnection.

And the ultimate real-life irony is: she set Britain on the path of financialization, increasing inequality, and the subsequent systemic risk with which we continue to live. Britain must now fight proposals to reduce that risk, because the shopkeeper’s daughter (and yes, her successors) in the end benefited those who live from selling promises and lies. There is no longer society.

We see this same self-defeating solipsism in the form of the US Tea Party, apparently oblivious or indifferent to the way they are being used. Is there a way to break the solipsism? Or is it just a matter of demographic change? Does the world have time for that?

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on October 13, 2013 8:34 PM.

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