“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

26 August 2014

Mrs Thatcher was actually right: there is no such *thing* as society



Margaret Thatcher’s comment that ‘there is no such thing as society’ has a totemic significance on the left.

It serves as the trademark of an uncaring, right-wing ideologue who believed in selfishness as opposed to solidarity and community, to the extent that she didn’t even recognise the ties that bind us in society.

The thing is – and this is coming from a lefty – she was actually right.

The infamous phrase was uttered in an interview for Woman’s Own in 1987, in which she said:

Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

She said it in full a little later:

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.”

This is an argument for responsibility and reciprocity – which you could easily recast as one of society, not against it. Thatcher did also use society in a positive sense, for example in her 1987 Conference speech, in which she said:

Local councils, teachers, broadcasters, politicians: all of us have a responsibility to uphold the civilised values which underpin the law.

We owe it to society of which we are a part.”

But her account is not of society a thing with the attributes that things or objects have. Her view requires us all to get off our arses and do something rather than leaving it all to the Government or an abstract outside force called ‘society’ which we can praise or blame for whatever takes our fancy.

That is perfectly fair, and it is good that so many on the left and in Labour, notably Jon Cruddas, have come around to a similar viewpoint – that an impersonal state doling out goods to the masses cannot alone provide for a good society. Without people getting involved, caring for each other, taking pride in their communities and taking responsibility for their actions, the state is fighting a losing battle. It cannot stop people littering and vomiting on our pavements; it cannot alone bring up children to be good citizens; it cannot prevent all crime from happening. Good citizens don’t tend to commit crime, and if crime didn’t happen, there would be no need for the state to prevent and punish it.

But Labour’s old ways remain very much in evidence alongside this new and welcome understanding, flowing up through the internal structures of the party from the various interest groups and back down again from the centre, fixing outcomes and trampling on devolved power and democracy wherever it exists within the party. Labour has been clear that these practices, involving further preferential treatment for favoured groups like women and ethnic minorities, will be replicated in government if it returns to power.

These practices are often justified by some startlingly immodest social theories that claim to understand the whole world, with grids of universal oppression and privilege separating different groups, and society itself as an actor that makes only bad things happen to the oppressed and good things to the privileged.

There is something of an irony here, in that these parts of the left rage at Mrs Thatcher for not believing in ‘society’ while themselves regarding society as an enemy that needs to be defeated (c.f. Laurie Penny and the slogan ‘Destroy the Patriarchy’). These sorts of theories retain a lot of influence on the ways of the left, and exist in a state almost beyond criticism and critique. Anyone who dares to criticise them – and I speak from experience – gets damned as anti-women, racist and against equality (regarded in Orwellian terms as its opposite).

These contortions of ideology are given almost a free rein not just because of the authoritarian politics they promote, which stifle and suppress criticism, but because they are impossible to falsify. Society or something like patriarchy has no form. It has no limits, nothing which we can see and hear and bear witness to. When we rage at society, there is no one to answer back. It can mean anything or nothing. There is literally no it there.

In other words, there is no such thing as society.


For more on similar themes, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.

4 comments:

  1. That's a very interesting thought, concerning those who condemn Thatcher for not believing in society while at the same time blaming it for so many things. I shall give it more thought; there must be something of interest to be said of the Right, with the same basic argument.

    It's also quite pleasant to read a post from the Left on the subject without wanting to complain about the failure to read the context of the quote. So many political statements are changed significantly when you look at the whole paragraph.

    (And having proofread that, it sounds disparaging. It shouldn't. You've made a good and interesting point, but words are failing me today.)

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    1. Thanks Born Today. Yes, any more thoughts would be more than welcome - it's never a bad thing to share the heavy lifting when it comes to ideas as other things. Love the name too.

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  2. I don't know if this thought s useful or not, but anyway.

    Could the reaction of the Left to Thatchers proposition be caused by two things; first, a difference in definition, and secondly a perceived attack on their identity.

    Definitionally, Margaret appears to be (to a Right wing listener) that our social organisation is composed to many smaller elements (people) who make up the whole. Remove the elements and you have nothing - it is the kindness of people that matter.

    But to the Left wing listener, they hear something else. They hear her say that people do not care for one another. That the good, benevolent things that they have campaigned for over decades - social workers, education, the NHS - aren’t society. That their definition of society, which I’d describe as “the collective positive social actions of the body of humanity” is wrong. That, in fact, only those who take action care - volunteer, nurse the sick, be a scout leader - actually care.

    The changes that they have fought for - forcing government to be “compassionate” - is irrelevant. The social “great and good”, the art house groups, anti-poverty campaigners… they don’t matter. This forms an attack on the Left’s identity as “the people who care”, accusing them of being “the people who claim to care the loudest”.

    To admit she might be right includes the possibility that they might be wrong, and The Great Enemy might have been right.

    Thoughts?

    Side note, the definition I’ve used, “The collective positive social actions of the body of humanity”, is probably terrible. But I think allows for groups such as extreme feminists to both blame society for being unfairly positive towards men and simultaneously blame Thatcher for believing it doesn’t exist. Because if it doesn’t exist, they can’t change it, and all their works are for naught.

    Also, apologies, but I was only a poor humble CompSci - written argument was never my strong point.

    Also also, thanks - no one else has ever commented on the username. There's a tale of a life changing choice and the feeling of a moment of freedom. But now is not the time, while the baby cries.

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    1. Thanks - interesting thoughts, and there's certainly something in them but unfortunately I'm not in the right place (existential/working place) at the moment to define what. Will have to chew over them properly in time. Incidentally, do you get an alert when a reply comes in? This blog system is largely beyond my control...

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