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Friday, 12 April 2013

DING-DONG! MARGARET THATCHER & THE POWER OF CARNIVAL


I want to defend the ‘Ding-dong Thatcher’s gone’ street parties and celebrations that have erupted in various towns and cities. Those in the Labour party and the ‘liberal left’ who criticise them for being ghoulish, sick, disrespectful and so on entirely miss the point. I want to argue they are not only necessary but a healthy reaction to the solemn media spectacle about to unfold. This spectacle, with its measured ceremonial and invocation of the armed might of the state, will strive to create myths, manufacture our consent, and set limits on the dialogue we are allowed to have about Thatcher, who she was and what she meant.    

Thatcher’s death marks an ending of sorts. It is a truism that, as she said,  her greatest accomplishment was Tony Blair and New Labour. I don’t want here to reiterate this problematic. One of the grisliest political photographs I have ever seen was of the wretched Brown posing with her outside Number 10.

Claims that she ‘saved’ the economy are incomprehensible. Her destruction of manufacturing and the shift to a ‘financialised’ economy via the ‘Big Bang’ and bank deregulation hugely facilitated the pursuit of debt-driven growth, all of which hastened the crash. It is also arguable that the weakening of the unions’ bargaining muscle in Britain was the crucial factor which kept down wages, so that cheap, easy credit – debt, actually – flowed in to fill the gap. Combine this with an acute shortage of affordable housing (a consequence of her Right-to-Buy schemes) and you create the conditions for the out-of-control housing market and then in the US the sub-prime mortgage collapse which was the trigger for global recession.

So please don’t claim Thatcher ‘saved’ the economy: quite the contrary. What she achieved was the artificial stimulation of financial ‘bubbles’ which eventually imploded. In addition, the neoliberal shift, which she pioneered, has made the world economy hugely more vulnerable to shocks. But Thatcher’s real achievement, (apart from New Labour) was to restructure British society in the interests of the rich and powerful, so that an increasingly small amount went into the ‘social wage’ and much huger amounts into the pockets of the already very rich.

The polarisation which her funeral is creating is a class polarisation. The British ruling class understands this very well. But it owes her much, which is why it is pushing ahead with what is to all intents and purposes a state funeral. It understands the power of symbolism and ceremonial, but it also knows it is entering a period of potentially profound social conflict. It is attempting to use the symbolism of national unity to disguise the havoc it intends to wreak on working-class communities. This is a high-risk strategy which can easily backfire. The Telegraph has expressed its unease that the ceremonial of the state is being hijacked by the Tory party.

The problem faced by those Tories who wish to establish the Thatchercult is the inconvenient truth about the sheer number of people who have suffered at her hands. The focus of most professional politicians and media outlets on London and the South-East means that the thousands of ex-miners and their families  - the ‘enemy within’ - have been forgotten. As have the millions of manufacturing workers, printers, steelworkers and many others, thrown on the dole. And the Irish republicans who supported Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers when Thatcher denied them political status. And the black communities of Brixton and Toxteth which went up in flames in 1981 against her racist policing. And the gay and lesbian people who had seen the odious Section 28 drive gay awareness out of the education system, legitimising homophobia.

The fact is, among ordinary working people, Thatcher made life worse for so many that it is futile for the British establishment to try to pretend otherwise. One of the most heartening things about the street parties in Brixton, Glasgow and everywhere else was the sight of so many young people there, dancing and popping champagne corks . It is good to see radicals and socialists acting as the memory of the class. My son spent his early years yelling ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out’  often while sitting on my shoulders on a variety of anti-government demonstrations. His was the first text I received after her death. It said simply ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’. You cannot eradicate these sorts of things from history. In the memories of millions of people they come together to constitute almost a social force. 

It was the street parties, bursting forth in city after city, drawing outrage from the political establishment, that made the social and political expression of these feelings possible. I am sure that, had it not been for this, the establishment would have had a much easier time creating the solemn monolithic hagiography around the remains of the blessed Margaret that it wanted. It was this very visible expression of dissent that helped give Glenda Jackson the confidence to hurl her splendid critique of Thatcher in the teeth of the apoplexic Tory front benches. 

The Tory media-establishment needs to understand that, ultimately, the celebrations tap into a power that is deeper than theirs. The ‘Thatcher’s Dead’ parties have their roots in the carnivalesque. Mikhail Bakhtin‘s 'carnival' is a form that erupts from unofficial sources, subverting the solemnity of the ‘official’ forms of power and control. Using whatever is playful and grotesque, it turns the world upside down, crowning jesters instead of kings. Its humour and bad taste subvert the solemnity of ‘official’ discourse and ‘official’ politics. 

When an ageing tyrant dies and is being prepared for a solemn funeral, it cries ‘Rejoice!’ As the nation is dragooned into mourning, it parties. As the state prepares to create awe among the population by means of military parades, it blows a fart. The ‘Thatcher’s Dead’ parties not only express widespread popular hatred of what Thatcher did to our society and what her heirs wish to continue and extend, they challenge the truth of the ‘official’ media narrative and give a voice to the unheard. It remains to be seen, as London is flooded with troops over the next few days, determined to push through a highly contested state ceremony, to what lengths a beleaguered British state is prepared to go to ensure its version of history dominates.   

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