Why there really is no such thing as society

Mrs Thatcher in 1979

The really problematic thing about Margaret Thatcher, from the Tory perspective, is that she once told the truth by accident. In an interview with Woman’s Own in 1987 (available on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website) she famously said:

If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Of course what she meant was to bolster the now familiar Tory claim that the best way to help people is to shrink the state and ‘let’ (as they say: ‘compel’ is how it looks from another perspective) individuals ‘take responsibility for [themselves]’. The latest Cameronian addition might be ‘… and others in our community’. But the kernel of truth in here is her statement ‘there is no such thing as society’. It isn’t true in the sense that, in the absence of community, everyone must selfishly pursue 1980s-style yuppie individualism – although they did – but is true in a more important sense that illuminates the ways the right is currently winning with its slogan of the Big Society and the macro-economic plan to roll back welfare provision in the most swingeing set of cuts we have ever seen.

So unpopular did Thatcher’s statement become, because it seemed to paint Britain as a cold and unloving place full of selfish wannabe millionaires, that in recent years the Tories have explicitly counteracted it. In his victory speech on becoming Tory leader in 2005, David Cameron said:

There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.

Our Great Leader

There in a nutshell is his entire political programme. First, indicate distance from the old Toryism of the ‘nasty party’ by creating a separation between himself and a famous Thatcherite mantra. Then, reaffirm the old meaning of the slogan while focusing growing resentment with the New Labour bureaucratization of the minutiae of daily life. The message is: ‘we’re cuddly, we like street parties and letting all our children play together in each other’s gardens; but of course we’re going to roll back the state – not because we’re nasty and want people to suffer but because it’s actually standing in the way of us having the street parties and letting our children play together, and so on’. In place of ‘no such thing as society’ we have what seems, for all its apparent vacuity, its polar opposite. Not just society but the Big Society. Turn Thatcherism upside down, then magnify it: see how far we’ve come.

Not many people are fooled by the idea of the Big Society as a direct replacement for public services. Even before the 2010 election the slogan had become an object of scorn, with even a political party, Labour, rising to genuine comedy with this video lambasting the concept. Yet the idea persists, and no matter how empty the term seems to be whenever Cameron launches yet another attempt to explain what it means, it sticks in the discourse. For instance, the AHRC, the quasi-governmental funding body for arts and humanities research at universities, which should know better about sucking up to government (many humanities scholars spend their careers teaching intellectual skills for ideological critique) has adopted it as one of its own research focuses (see this blogpost; as I write many members of the AHRC peer-review council are threatening to resign over the AHRC head’s failure to remove the slogan from its list of focuses).

What makes the idea of the Big Society last is that people believe in the cohesiveness of society in the first place. They think it means something to be British, that there is a national spirit, that our strong social-democratic tradition since the Second World War has something to do with our propensity (until the Tories got back in) to look after our fellow citizens. Some might even think to themselves that the ‘true British’ are the ones who want to preserve the NHS, benefits for the disabled, unemployed, and so on, and that Tories show an unBritish spirit in attempting to dismantle one of the most precious externalizations of our essential, shared goodness (that is what is meant when people like Polly Toynbee keep saying that ‘there is a social-democratic majority in this country’). Just this morning, Nick Clegg announced his intention to give every voter shares in the part-nationalized banks, RBS and Lloyds, to make us feel ‘invested’ in the banking system that has done us such harm. Of course if anything comes of this plan (which George Osborne might quash), we should chuck the shares straight back at Clegg. The problem is not so much that it’s an empty gesture – owning these shares doesn’t make us ‘shareholders’ with any say in the governance of the institutions – but that it reaffirms this sense of social cohesion, of a single, unified ‘British people’ that is taking a big hit and needs – as a cohesive unit – to regain a bit of power.

What we are dealing with here is the fundamental ideological fantasy: the idea that society is a whole composed of parts, all with their proper place, all functioning together to the benefit of all (call it ‘trickle-down economics’, ‘social cohesion’, ‘social-democratic majority’, whatever you like: the fantasy is that society is a whole). The reality is, however, that there is an essential antagonism at the core of society, an antagonism between the economically included and excluded, between the City and the rest of us, between the landed and the renters – between the capitalist and the worker, to use the good old Marxist binary. And again, everybody is perfectly aware of this antagonism (or they wouldn’t take to the streets, as they do, albeit in a nice, middle-class manner, at weekends). Yet they behave as if they do not believe in it, as if we simply need to correct a certain Tory excess and then the normal cohesive function will have been restored.

The fantasy of the whole, cohesive society is sustained precisely by this notion of excess or exception, the one element that prevents the proper function. For so-called ‘anti-capitalist’ marchers it is the figure of the banker or the tax-evader (‘if we can just stop them taking million-pound bonuses or avoiding billions in tax, we’ll be able to afford to fund degrees’); for Tories it is the figure of the ‘scrounger’, the apparently ubiquitous figure lurking in all our job centres and post offices, claiming an obscene fortune in handouts paid for by ‘hard-working families’; for Europe, when it’s in the mood to feel cohesive, or for the USA at all times, it’s the illegal immigrant who sneaks across the border (again, to benefit economically, cleaning our hospitals and so on: how dare they!). This fantasy is, then, sustained by a fictitious monstrous element that can and must be eliminated, the figure Agamben calls homo sacer (Stop the banker getting his bonus! Stop the ‘scrounger’ from getting his payments (which means cutting welfare generally)! Stop the immigrant crossing the border! Then all will be well!). This figure masks the true lack of cohesion in society, the fact that its parts – banker on one side, factory worker on the other, and so on – do not add up to a whole, that 1+ 1 actually does not equal 2, because society is radically divided along economic, religious, political, cultural, sexual, educational, […] lines.

So, Mrs Thatcher was dead right. There really is no such thing as society. We cannot appeal to a ‘whole’ which, purged of its destructive elements, will return to the benefit of all. The sooner we end our investment in that ideological fantasy the sooner we will be able to turn away from chasing the odd banker or tax-evader and turn our attention instead on the system that structures our social reality itself: the neoliberal capitalism that acts, through the auspices of the state, first to sustain and then to mystify the profound antagonism between the super-rich and the rest. Down with the Big Society, yes – but for God’s sake bring back Margaret Thatcher: only her honesty can save us now!

One thought on “Why there really is no such thing as society

  1. Brilliant, subtle, and hilarious (as usual). But I’ll laugh more if you now get loads of thatcherites inadvertently referred to you blog and posting approving comments because they don’t understand exactly in what sense you want The Iron Lady back…

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