Tuesday 5 February 2019

Review - The Thatcherite Offensive

Tentatively writing off to the SWP a long, long time ago asking for more information about their organisation they sent me back a letter, a copy of Socialist Worker, Lindsey German's short pamphlet on the revolutionary party and Paul Foot's Why You Should Be a Socialist. What struck me about the latter was the cogency and simplicity of his potted class struggle history of the post-war period. His treatment of the Thatcher governments were especially clear: what we had was a pre-meditated class offensive against the working class and its institutions, and one that mobilised all the resources of the state to smash the miners and clamp down on organised labour in general.

Alexander Gallas's The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis is the long overdue scholarly elaboration of Foot's narrative. Drawing on documentary sources he makes the case that the Thatcherites had a plan for remoulding society, central to which was the striking of a new balance between capital and labour in capitals's favour. As such the offensive is periodised into broad sections of advance and consolidation before petering out and then the inauguration of a different class settlement under New Labour.

Drawing on the seminal work of Nicos Poulantzas on the state, there are a number of useful concepts Gallas employs. Firstly, discussing the 'power bloc' when referring to the ruling class. This is useful because, by its nature, a bloc is contingent; a semi-coherent assemblage of elite alliances, networks and connections roughly pulling in the same direction. It is therefore composed of personnel from political parties, capitalists and senior business staff, heads of state institutions, the top of the legal profession, notables from the arts and celebrity, and so on. A Marxist, or a Neo-Poulantzasian appreciation of class has to pay attention to how the bloc organises, its tensions and contradictions, its movements and its crises. The second key conceptual distinction applies to bourgeois politics at large: between class politics and economic order politics. Of course, this is an analytical separation because, in practice, they have a tendency to intertwine. But in Gallas's hands, it's about the orientation of policy and political strategy. We'll see how this works out shortly.

Beginning with the post-war period, Gallas draws attention to the fundamental instability and weakness of Britain's institutions. Compared with say West Germany whose structured capitalism, ironically, had a bit to with the institution building of its British occupiers after the war, corporatism in Britain was half-hearted, unsettled, and never properly locked capital and labour into stable tripartite relationships. Class struggle was central here but moved through a number of ad hoc institutional arrangements, and often erupted into open warfare - particularly in the 1970s. However, what quickly became obvious was that none of the frameworks established were able to manage class politics, nor was the power bloc nor the labour movement strong enough to decisively defeat the other. Each were capable of offensives, and likewise each could defend themselves.

Matters came to a head with the defeat of the Tories by the miners twice. After her election as party leader in 1975, Thatcher's priority was the breaking and taming of the labour movement. She immediately set up four secret Tory working groups. One of these, the Authority of Government Group addressed emergencies that posed government authority a threat, such as another miners' strike. While it was populated by conciliators (characteristic of the ancien regime) and hardliners alike, it recommended continuously updated contingency plans, coal stockpiles, PR strategies aimed at undermining public support for any strike, and even redesigning power stations to make them harder to picket It also warned against all-out confrontation and picking and choosing battles. More interesting, and revealing, was the Nationalised Industries Policy Group set up under Nicholas Ridley. His remit was the management and privatisation of these businesses, and Ridley's conclusions recommended a clear strategy for confronting and undermining union power. Like the Carrington group it advocated conciliatory positions for tactical reasons while not deviating from the overall plan Also crucial was some of the language Thatcher later deployed. Rather than setting out their objectives in the clear language of class (no bourgeois or petit bourgeois could ever be so vulgar), it opted for "non-class" markers of division. Folks familiar with the Dave era distinction between the strivers vs the skivers will know what I'm talking about. Keith Joseph's group, which was published at the 1977 Tory conference, made the case for "economic liberalism" but was clear it required a repressive approach to industrial relations: freedom for capital was only possible if labour lay in chains. And the Stepping Stones report written by the businessmen John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, but commissioned by Thatcher and Joseph, argued for a fundamental shift in Britain's political economy that would favour future Conservative election victories. This systematic approach, however, was contingent upon defeating the unions.

For Gallas, this shows the intellectual energies of the Tories in opposition were consumed by plotting strategies to redress the capital/labour relationship. With the Grunwicks dispute and the Winter of Discontent, the Tories trialled their anti-union rhetoric. Then, as now, certain editorial offices abided by the party line and, unfortunately, they were able to intersect with a wider mass of voters who were put out by the latter strikes, given it was public sector unions who were taking action and therefore public services were affected. Given Labour went to the polls when it did, it's difficult to see how the 1979 election wasn't anything other than a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless, despite the preparations for confrontation Gallas argued the first Thatcher term was more about economic order politics. Monetarism and control of the money supply was loudly trumpeted, and laissez-faire entered the mainstream political lexicon. Meanwhile more resources were poured into building up the police and anti-union legislation introduced, though at this time concessions were made to public sector unions to avoid big confrontations. The top rate of tax was reduced from 83% to 60% while VAT was almost doubled from 8% to 15%, and exchange controls and bank lending restrictions were lifted. Tough commercial-oriented expectations were imposed on nationalised industries and interest rates were put up, increasing the pound's value but rendering Britain's exports uncompetitive. This induced a collapse in manufacturing and mass unemployment, which nevertheless afforded the Tories some ideological hay making around the supposed inefficiency of state-owned industry. This was also the term the Tories started gradually unveiling what Gallas refers to as their 'two-nation strategy'. Rather than building a hegemonic bloc in which popular consent is won among the mass of the population, Gramsci-style, the Tories were interested in dividing up their potential opponents and winning a section of them over. The sell off of council houses was explicitly thought in these terms. Owner occupiers have property, which might subsequently condition their outlook, and the issuing of mortgages to pay for them has a disciplining effect. People are less likely to strike if it risks losing the roof over their heads. Later, privatisation of the utilities and the issuing of shares were conceived in similar terms. The Tories weren't interested in winning everyone over, but their popular capitalism was designed to creating a layer of beneficiaries who did well out of their government - or aspired to.

We know well what came next. Thatcher won the 1983 general election off the back of a popular war and a chronically split opposition. Immediately preparations were stepped up for a confrontation with the miners and, well, we know what happened next. This set the tone for other important disputes during the remainder of the decade. The violence of the state and the repressive legislation of her anti-union laws were used in tandem to destroy the print unions at Wapping, and break the collective strength of sea crews at P&O Ferries. However, while the latter two disputes proceeded with Tory connivance they were nowhere near as hands-on as Thatcher was with the miners. As the decade wore on and labour reeling from a strategic defeat, more conciliatory voices in the Tories started being heard. These included the likes of Michael Heseltine who favoured an abandonment of laissez-faire and a rebooted industrial activism. Nevertheless privatisations went through ("if you see Sid, tell him ...") and reforms to schools and the NHS imposed internal markets, ostensibly to drive up standards, in practice to pioneer private sector service delivery for public services funded by the taxpayer - something Blair and Brown were later to take up with alacrity. However, Thatcher fell as her poll tax fuelled mass opposition and despite winning the 1992 general election, the Major government was ill-equipped to manage the new class order their party has inaugurated. They lay the groundwork for capital's further penetration of the state apparatus with PFI and outsourcing, but the main preoccupation for the Tories - Europe - was for Gallas ultimately a dispute about managing class struggle. Full integration into the European Community and then the EU meant a recasting of the dynamics of capital and labour more in line with the (slowly neoliberalising) corporatism of European nations, and enhanced rights for the trade unions. At least that's what sundry Tories feared.

It was the failure of their economic order politics, the Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle, that finished the Tories off within six months of winning their election. Nevertheless when they were booted out, for the first two years New Labour offered nothing beyond continuity. While they stuck to Tory spending plans, it began its programme of "modernisation" with referenda to introduce devolved authorities. The repressive extractive strategy of the Tories continued (Blair boasted of still having the most restrictive Labour laws in the Western world) with the maintenance of their shackles on trade unions, but offered minor concessions in the realm of individual and not collective rights at work, as well as the minimum wage, protection from unfair dismissal after a year in the job, and limited freedom to organise in the workplace. Nevertheless, for Gallas this constituted a one nation hegemonic project. Rather than trying to set different sections of the population against one another the by-word for New Labour was inclusion, and we say a battery of strategies to give everyone a stake in the "young country". Gallas stresses the widening participation in the labour market agenda and how coercion was used along with retraining and education to maximise "opportunities" and get people off unemployment benefit. You could also point to efforts at official anti-racism and multi-culturalism, promoting women, and the legislation aimed at normalising same-sex relationships. It was still neoliberalism, it accepted the settlement Thatcher struck in the 1980s, but what it was was a species of neoliberalism but with a recalibrated approach to class politics. One, I would argue, Dave in the 00s turned away from as he capitalised on the consequences of the crash - itself a consequence of decades of deregulation, looting of the public purse, and market madness.

The Thatcherite Offensive is an essential work not just for Thatcher obsessives, but for anyone who wants to understand how politics works. It also includes a nerdy but necessary review of contemporary Marxist debates over what Thatcherism represented, including what our friend Stuart Hall had to say. Gallas also addresses the critiques of Poulantzas's work, including the role of non-class related inequalities in state strategies. From my standpoint, as someone shortly to start writing a book on the Tories and has spent more time than is healthy commenting on and thinking about them it was gratifying to find a writer whose basic approach isn't a million miles from my own. What is also useful is Gallas's stress on contingency. Thatcherism was planned, but it didn't always go according to plan and, indeed, was vulnerable and could have been defeated. A useful caveat for anyone writing, thinking, and participating in the grand sweep of huge social movements and the class struggles to come.


Dialectician1 said...

Poulantza is best known for contesting a mechanical (Marxist?) theory of the state: that its existence was functional in sustaining and replicating ruling class interests. Instead, he argued, the state was far more autonomous and remote from the day-to-day functioning of private enterprise and profit making. However, he also argued that the outcome of state power was always in the interests of capital.

What is interesting about the post-war period of 'welfare capitalism' was how the state began to function less instrumentally in favour of short term profit and took on a corporatist role. (The deal was, that long term stability could be maintained but at the expense of smaller profits but this was contingent on restricting the urge of trade unions to take industrial action). The wheels were already coming off this deal by the late 1960s but Thatcher completely smashed it up in the 1980s. It was now legitimate to roll-back the corporitist instincts of state and once again gave licence to making the 'fast buck'. This was, as you say above, an ideological shift and part of a planned assault on trade union power. It was also a shift forwards the 'financialisation' of capitalism.

However, what she hadn't anticipated was how paper-thin trade union power really was. Her first contest was with the steel workers of Consett. Their muted attempts to resist the closure of the plant revealed not only an undercurrent of passivity by workers and their community but also how divided the unions were and how unprepared they were for battle. That first victory was very important. It gave them the confidence to speed up their ideological crusade. We know the rest......

Ken said...

“Thatcherism was planned, but it didn't always go according to plan and, indeed, was vulnerable and could have been defeated.”
At what point or points could this have occurred? A bit of a throwaway remark, or, are you leaving this for the book?

Andrew said...

@Ken: It was astonishingly fragile at the point of the Falklands War, with high inflation, high unemployment, and cratering political support. It wasn’t inevitable that the Task Force would win, even with tacit American support. If the weather had been worse in the South Atlantic, and the toops had failed to retake the islands, or a few of the Argentinian exocets had been a bit luckier, her position would have been untenable, I think.

Ken said...

I don’t think that relying on Galtieri not to cock up the war amounts to a strategy.

Phil said...

While true, there were opportunities here in Britain - both of which were during the miners' strike. One, the possibility of secondary action by other workers and how Thatcher moved quickly to buy off the dockers (there's also been a lively more-heat-than-light debate on and off over the years about Liverpool and other councils linking up with the miners - I don't have an opinion on that one). And the NACODs dispute which would have shut all the mines down but were, again, bought off.

Two opportunities that were there, but couldn't be capitalised on not because of naff leadership but thanks to to that old disease of trade unionism: sectionalism.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

I wonder, if the unions had known about these secret working groups, or even thought about the possibility of their existance, would the outcome have been different? Where would Thatcher and co. have got the idea? Perhaps they picked it up at one of the international shindigs for power bloc folk.

Britain could never adopt Weat Germany's structured capitalism since it would require a well trained engineering work force with secure employment, something the English class system could never stomach whatever the economic cost.

Phil said...

The Ridley Group was known about - its recommendations were leaked to and published by the Economist in 1978. Why weren't they taken seriously, and why weren't the arguments of the likes of Stuart Hall taken on board by the movement when he had Thatcherism all figured out from the beginning? Part leadership failure, part anti-intellectual culture of the labour movement, part sectionalism, part constitutionalism would be my four guesses.

Ken said...

Inflation created an atmosphere of crisis and provoked sectional wages militancy, which got results and gave the impression of a tottering capitalist system and an insurgent labour movement. It also made it very easy for those who claimed that the wages militancy caused the inflation. The Left had no answer to inflation but further wages militancy. Inflation and strikes imposed inconvenience and even hardship on many who weren't in strong unions. This combination resulted in a Left (from Broad Left to Far Left) over-confident to the point of complacency and a Right boiling with fury, which they duly tipped over our heads after 1979.