Soulmates in trouble
Economic determinism is in crisis and its political fruits are increasingly disconcerting its adepts in London and Moscow, as Jack Lane argues.
The Guardian reported that after the recent annual awards ceremony of Good Housekeeping magazine, Mrs Thatcher said:
“For years when I was young and in politics with all hopes and dreams and ambitions, it seemed to me and to many of my contemporaries that, if we got an age where we had good housing, good education, a · reasonable standard of living, then everything would be set and we should have a fair and much easier future.”
Instead she had come up against “the real problems of human nature”. “Why is it that we have child cruelty in this age? Why is it that we have animal cruelty? Why is it that we have violence? Why is it that only a month after Hillsborough, which was a terrible football occasion, we had so many arrests and problems on the football field? Why is it that people take to terrorism? Why is it that people take to drugs?” (The Guardian, September 27, 1989).
This was an extraordinary statement. We have a Prime Minister in power for over ten years who is totally nonplussed by the problems around her. A Prime Minister, moreover, whose very appeal and whose boast were that she knew exactly how to sort out all our problems. Now she admits that she cannot understand why so many people behave as they do. And it need hardly be said that a person in this position will not have any realistic solutions to these problems. It is important to try to figure out how this situation has arisen.
Maggie was born again around 1974. If this had happened in a Christian sense she would be able to explain all these problems as variations on original sin and would have attempted to solve them by getting us all to concentrate on saving our souls. However, the light that she saw was that of economic determinism: everyone should look at their bank balance and the bigger it got the happier they would be.
Ten years on she is genuinely mystified that after all her efforts the problems of the 1970s are still around, everything from inflation to terrorism. Some of the problems are even nastier than they were in those dark and evil days.
Traditional Tories would never have been puzzled by the problems that Maggie now faces. They accepted that human behaviour was not guided by any predetermined scheme of things and that the job of politicians was to make the best, meaning the most feasible, arrangements that would facilitate constructive social behaviour. But there was no magic formula to do this and anyone who believed otherwise was, at best, a nuisance. Toryism was therefore infinitely flexible and adaptable.
This sort of Toryism is now R.I.P. We now have a Tory’ Prime Minister who does not even believe in the existence of society and does not seem able to realise that that in itself could cause quite a lot of anti-social behaviour. Being an ideologue, she is likely to get more and more frustrated with the world in general and act accordingly. Fortunately as Kinnock & Co. are going in the opposite direction the consequences for the country will be minimised.
What is potentially of greater significance is the problem of her soulmate in Moscow.
Gorbachev obviously went through some sort of a ‘born again’ experience, and though he did not become a free-marketeer he seems to have concluded that the key to all his problems lay with the economy. All the simpletons in the media were in total agreement. Get the economy right – whatever that meant – and all would be well. He set about doing so and has been taken aback by the fact that the prospect of lots of consumer goodies and the appropriate amount of freedom led people to want to be more Armenian, Latvian, Estonian, Russian, Ukrainian etc. etc. Clearly the peoples of the Soviet Union do not ‘live by bread alone’ and will not do so even if they have plenty of it. They could be happy with a bad economy as easily as they could be unhappy with a good economy. They would thereby deny all the laws of Marxism as known to Mikhail. And how in those circumstances can he solve their problems?
His predecessors understood these social forces better and developed a political force that overawed the peoples of the Soviet Union. It visibly transformed everyone’s life and aimed to do likewise for the rest of the world. It appeared for a long time to be on the verge of succeeding. In these circumstances it seemed a bit silly and a waste of time to be consumed by one’s local nationalism.
But Lenin’s and Stalin’s grand design has been abandoned and, in its absence, what else – other than nationalism – is there to get excited about? It is a situation where ‘the centre cannot hold’ except in the most precarious way. And it could mean some very erratic behaviour by the centre.
Maggie and Mikhail, since they can ‘do business together’ should have a lot to talk about. They should have an informal summit. Why not hold it after next year’s Good Housekeeping awards? An agreed topic could surely be ‘Why don’t people know what’s good for them?‘
This article appeared in November 1989, in Issue 14 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/