I can’t be the first person to think that Margaret Thatcher is a bit like Caesar. Both greatly exceeded the acceptable limits of personal political power and both ultimately got it in the neck – Caesar fatally, Thatcher only insofar as she was ousted from no. 10. But what happened next is, in both cases, the really interesting part. The result of the murder of Caesar was the institution of caesarism (with the first caesar, i.e. Roman emperor, Augustus); the result of the eviction of Thatcher was the institution of Thatcherism, a politico-economic system we have endured since 1990 and which will deal its fiercest ever blows in 2011, thanks to Cameron and Osborne, who are proud to call themselves her children. We might call this theory of the dialectical progress of history the Obi-Wan Kenobi Principle, expressed in his maxim:
If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
Is this parallel structure, in which a person (Caesar/Thatcher) gets converted into a prevailing idea (caesarism, Thatcherism), meaningful or just coincidental? Caesar’s assumption to himself of enormous, imperial power ran contrary to the spirit of the Roman Republic, and he was removed. The theory was that if this man, this historical aberration, could be removed, then the Republic would be restored to its proper, eternal, historic function. But the conspirators themselves were the ones who demonstrated through their actions in killing Caesar to establish the caesars and the Empire that Caesar himself represented the historical truth and the future form of government. Their reading of him as an overly powerful individual in a system that should run democratically was a historical error, a misunderstanding that contributed to the later truth.
A similar thing happened to Mrs Thatcher, never a popular prime minister, who eventually came to be seen by senior members of the Conservative Party (which was more popular than she was) as a liability. She radically centralized the government into the single figure of herself, defanging her cabinet by her tendency to exert a tyrannical control over cabinet meetings. Her ministers felt (in Geoffrey Howe’s words, resonant this Ashestide) like ‘opening batsmen … [who] find the moment that the first balls are bowled that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain’. After a couple of leadership challenges – the first real delight of my political life – she was gone. And it seemed for a time that it might have been a good thing for her party. Against all expectation John Major won the 1992 general election and governed, albeit limply, a party of increasingly vicious and xenophobic lunatics before in turn losing power to Tony Blair.
In the figure of Blair we saw, of course, the return in full force of the very elements of Thatcher that her removal had sought to eradicate but which the haplessness of Major had shown to be necessary: her tyrannical control of the central functions of government, her deafness to protest either within government or in the wider population, her heady embrace of an increasingly deregulated capitalist economic system, her mania for privatization, and so on: all were repeated by Blair. There were fig leaves to hide this, some of them valuable (and all on the verge of destruction by the revenant Tory vampires in government), but the model was the same: strong government focused in the hands of one figure, and an easy ride for the rich (which got richer under Blair than it has ever been). Once more there was discontent and Brown removed Blair amid expectations of a return to a more democratic form of government and so on, but the historical necessity of Thatcherism – for a necessity it seems to be – didn’t take more than a couple of years to reassert itself in the figure of Cameron. Like Blair there are strategies of concealment, of which the involvement of the supine LibDems is merely the most obvious, but the model is clear and no longer even denied.
We therefore appear to be stuck in a Thatcherite deadlock. In an age with no apparently respectable alternative to capitalism we seek only for ways to improve the system, to create the famous ‘capitalism with a human face’. But this logic of repetition in political life can work in a different way. In his recently published book, The Communist Hypothesis (a flavour of which can be gleaned from this short New Left Review article of the same title), Alain Badiou sets up another structure of repetition based on failure. He reminds us of the biography of Fermat’s last theorem.
Countless attempts were made to prove this, from Fermat, who formulated the hypothesis (and claimed to have proved it, but that need not concern us here), to Wiles, the English mathematician, who really did prove it a few years ago. Many of those attempts became the starting point for mathematical developments of great import, even though they did not succeed in solving the problem itself. It was therefore vital not to abandon the hypothesis for the three hundred years during which it was impossible to prove it. The lessons of all the failures, and the process of examining them and their implications, were the lifeblood of mathematics. In that sense, failure is nothing more than the history of the proof of the hypothesis, provided that the hypothesis is not abandoned.
As we collectively continue to ruminate on the meaning of the student and UKUncut protests at the end of 2010 there are voices pointing to disappointing precedent. This UCL occupation blogpost notes the disastrous effects of the 1968 student protests on the French Communist Party, which lost a majority of its parliamentary seats: ‘from the perspective of the radical left, the uprising was a catastrophic failure’. Similarly the miners’ strike of 1984–5 failed to harm Thatcher’s government and instead proved the soundness of her economic judgement in the late capitalist society she governed: it brought a virtual end to mining in Britain and the devastation of communities in which I grew up. Even more recently, the protests against Blair’s war in Iraq were a failure: the war took place with the added impetus of an Anglo-American leadership now able to say ‘this right to protest is exactly what we are fighting for the people of Iraq to enjoy!’
In invoking Fermat’s theorem, Badiou is of course making the point that what he calls the Communist Hypothesis, in Kantian terms an Idea that has regulative force, is in no sense weakened by the evident and inhuman failures of 20th-century socialist experiments in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. What is ‘true’ about the kind of communism that Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have for some time now been proposing is its analysis of the nature of conditions of material antagonism between rich and poor. The Marxist–Leninist answer to particular historical conditions of antagonism was a terrible and indefensible failure that no-one would wish to repeat, but the Idea that antagonisms within the system are sufficiently strong to prevent its perpetual reproduction is not gainsaid by historical failure – the very fact that the antagonisms remain after failed attempts to remove them is of course a proof of the Idea. And, quite clearly, the current wave of protests is fighting with just such an Idea in mind.
UKUncut’s next demonstrations are coming soon, and it may be that the student movement returns to the streets in 2011. The task of destroying a hydra-headed and historically ‘necessary’ Thatcherism seems impossible, but that should not deter the most vigorous attempt to kill Thatcherism properly at the second time of asking. If we wait for the right conditions to try to correct the structural errors of the system we will wait forever. It is only after a truly radical change has taken place that the right moment to make a radical change occurs. The truth of history is revealed only after the event. The best advice for the protestors is therefore from Beckett’s Worstward Ho, ostensibly pessimistic but ultimately the only hope:
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.