No Such Thing as Society?

  When Margaret Thatcher uttered those now-infamous words in an interview with Woman’s Own journalist Douglas Keay, she did not mean quite what many assumed she did. The gist of the wider context of that statement was that society was not some giant, conglomerate entity in and of itself – rather, it was made up of individuals and families living together and that the actions of individuals dictated how ‘society’ functioned.

  But unfortunately the late Mrs. Thatcher seems to have been blessed, if not with the gifts of diplomacy, tact or indeed economic understanding, then with a supernatural prescience. Society at the time of the statement – 1987 – was still relatively intact, though hard-pressed by the introduction of neoliberal economic doctrine. Today, however, this is no longer the case.

  The post-Thatcherite consensus – in place in the UK arguably since 1983, and certainly since 1995 – is the general acceptance between the major political parties that a free market economic model – with private control of industry, low taxation, limited state spending, reduced welfare provision and deregulation of the economy – is fundamentally a good thing. 

  The four largest political parties in terms both of membership and votes at the last general election (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP) all basically follow the same economic policy. There are small differences, placing the parties on a continuum – UKIP are the most neoliberal, Labour the least – but all four are basically in agreement on the core tenets of economic policy.

  The consensus among the main parties means – short of a seismic shift in UK politics – neoliberalism is set to remain the guiding economic ideology in the UK for some time to come, but the social impact of this model is extreme and highly damaging. The idea of neoliberalism is that a deregulated economy with minimal state interference will allow competition to flourish, driving the market forces to create masses of wealth. This wealth will be concentrated at first in the hands of large corporations and the individuals who run them but, over time, expenditure by these big beasts will cause that money to ‘trickle down’ into the rest of the economy and everyone else benefits too.

  All sounds very reasonable, doesn’t it? The problem is, it doesn’t work. 

  Or rather, stage one works sublimely well. A deregulated economy does indeed allow large corporations to generate huge amounts of wealth, and the CEOs and major shareholders of these companies do very well as a result. But the ‘trickle-down’ effect simply does not happen. Last year, the top 1% of earners in the UK took in 10% of total income, whilst the bottom 50% received only 18%. A recent report by Oxfam revealed that the five richest families in the UK own more wealth than the poorest 20% of the population. Clearly, the money is being generated at the top and staying there.

  And this causes a polarised society. Politicians on the economic right often accuse those on the left of promoting class warfare when they talk of the redistribution of wealth and the equalisation of society. But it is the neoliberal economic system imposed by the right, and accepted by the traitorous so-called Labour Party, which creates the classes in the first place. Inequality in the UK today is higher than it was before the First World War. In light of that, of course those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy are angry with those at the top. Why shouldn’t they be?

  Not only does neoliberalism affirm and enhance class distinctions, it also splits society along racial lines. It is the failure of the neoliberal economic system which caused the financial crash of 2008. In the aftermath of that crash, right-wing parties with strong anti-immigration and openly racist rhetoric have been going from strength to strength all over Europe. Why? Because, when money is scarce, people want to ensure that the pool of people competing for resources does not grow any larger. It is difficult to blame the average UKIP voter for being concerned, even scared, of immigration when money is so tight and immigrants represent more competition. Thus, the right creates social problems with its economics and then exacerbates them by offering false solutions.

  Then there’s the obvious – poorer people means more crime. By increasing inequality, neoliberalism creates an underclass – a group characterised by chronic unemployment, low standards of living and high crime rates. When you have nothing, or next to nothing, you will be more inclined to steal in order to get more – or alternatively, to blow what you do have on drink and drugs to escape the ordeal of life. Neoliberal economics are largely responsible for much of today’s crime and increased drug and alcohol dependency. They also must bear some of the blame for rising suicide rates, particularly among the high-risk category of middle-aged men who find themselves unable to support their families due to inability to find decent work.

  In short, neoliberalism promotes greed, disincentivises altruism and co-operation, polarises society along class and ethnic lines and contributes to the creation of an underclass which is then demonised by the press and systematically purged by government policies. Margaret Thatcher was not passing judgement when she made her famous statement, she was making a prediction. A prediction her government, and every government since, has helped to fulfill.

  About time we did something about it. 

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