A recent biopic starring Meryl Streep in the titular role depicted the life and times of Margaret Thatcher under a very sympathetic light and from the perspective of an ailing Iron Lady well into her 80s, harmless and confused by dementia. The Hollywood tribute glossed over Thatcher's darkest hours (her close relationship with criminal regimes in Chile and South Africa) and reduced to mere choreography her ruthless implementation of the neoliberal doctrine and socially destructive reforms. Let's not leave Hollywood the task of defining her memory and let's look at her factual bequest. Everyone, according to his or her own political views, will elaborate on the death of the former British prime minister and remember her legacy differently.
What remains for all of us to face up to is her political and economic heritage, for Thatcher might be dead, but Thatcherism is alive and well. And its reach was never more ubiquitous as is it today. In her very own words, Thatcher affirmed individual gain above collective benefit when she said: "There is no such thing as society." At a time when the ruling British coalition is implementing yet deeper cuts and privatization is the only available handbook, Thatcher's spirit presides over British policy-making and the global economy like an almighty divinity.
The decisional power she exerted while at 10 Downing Street and the lasting influence she is likely to exert after her death does unfortunately stretch well beyond British borders. Along with Reagan in the U.S., she in fact inaugurated the untamed rule of free market whose devastating consequences the whole globe is now feeling before and after the 2008 credit crunch. While it would be inaccurate to attribute all responsibilities for a failed economic model to the late Mrs. Thatcher, she was undoubtedly proactive in lending political legitimacy to the neoliberal project worldwide.
In The Path to Power, reminiscing her petty bourgeois upbringing and the family-run small shop, she wrote: 'There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop." The New Left Project obituary penned: "That the 'free market' policies associated with Thatcher in fact led to the domination of small town life by supermarkets and other powerful corporations, is just one of the many ways that the rhetoric and reality of her politics were cruelly out of sync." Consequences of the economic policies she championed were, and are being felt outside of her native town as the neoliberal catastrophe has in the meantime spread from its Anglo-American epicentre.
While her humble roots as a grocer's daughter might have counted for her populist flair, her marriage to Denis Thatcher, a millionaire businessman, and the financial help he provided were crucial to her rise to power. Once again, as in many neoliberal fairytales, the myth of the self-made person outshined a privileged (economic) reality and the true factors behind her personal advancement. She put the "great" back into Great Britain, the conservative argument goes; she also defended fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet and publicly condemned Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. As disastrous was the forced implementation of free market theories in Chile in the 70s so it was in Britain in the 80s and in the rest of the world later on as we are seeing today.
Not only economics, culture too changed under Thatcher thanks to her pronounced indifference towards it. The Iron Lady in fact conceived of culture as little more than public subsidy waste. Ad men were preferable to movie stars (exception made for b-movie failure Ronald Reagan), with the Saatchi brothers creating the winning, now infamous political campaign "Labour Isn't Working." The general commoditisation of every aspect of daily life that pervades our screens, newspaper pages and websites today was probably Thatcher's own, strongest cultural contribution.
Most tragically her three consecutive mandates elevated the free market mantra as the one and only solution to all conceivable problems so that following governments never questioned the economic bases that Thatcher had laid down. Needless to say the universal reach of Thatcher's social and economic policies speaks of a global predicament whose roots go well beyond her decennial tenure in Downing Street. The failure of Labour to unpick her legacy in Britain and of the global left to oppose the rise of Neoliberalism are to be held equally responsible for the current financial crisis. That is why to focus on the woman and not her policies can be dangerous, her death cannot be cause of celebration because the world we live in is the one she had helped to create. Thatcher is gone, her shadow lingers on. Her death should be an occasion to remember the origins of the current crisis, its devastating effects and the social compliance that made it possible.
Rampant individualism, mass unemployment, institutional greed, social breakdown, financial deregulation and growing inequality are the tangible fruits of Thatcherism. Let us remember Margaret Thatcher.
This article has previously appeared on China.org.cn