The simple courage of decision: a leftist tribute to Thatcher

What we need today is a Thatcher of the left: a leader who would repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today’s political elite.

Margaret Thatcher pictured in 1985. Photograph: Getty Images.

In the last pages of his monumental Second World War, Winston Churchill ponders on the enigma of a military decision: after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists) propose their analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude into a simple "Yes" or "No". We shall attack, we continue to wait... This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it into a point of decision.

The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not the opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity. Let us take an example which surely is not problematic: France in 1940. Even Jacques Duclos, the second man of the French Communist Party, admitted in a private conversation that if, at that point in time, free elections were to be held in France, Marshal Petain would have won with 90 per cent of the vote. When de Gaulle, in his historic act, refused to acknowledge the capitulation to Germans and continued to resist, he claimed that it was only he, not the Vichy regime, who speaks on behalf of the true France (on behalf of true France as such, not only on behalf of the “majority of the French”!). What he was saying was deeply true even if it was “democratically” not only without legitimacy, but clearly opposed to the opinion of the majority of the French people.

Margaret Thatcher, the lady who was not for turning, was such a Master, sticking to her decision which was at first perceived as crazy, gradually elevating her singular madness into an accepted norm. When Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies – the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field.

So what remains today of Thatcher’s legacy today? Neoliberal hegemony is clearly falling apart. Thatcher was perhaps the only true Thatcherite – she clearly believed in her ideas. Today’s neoliberalism, on the contrary, “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing” (to quote Marx). In short, today, cynicism is openly on display. Recall the cruel joke from Lubitch’s To Be Or Not to Be: when asked about the German concentration camps in the occupied Poland, the responsible Nazi officer “concentration camp Erhardt” snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.”

Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy in January 2002 (as well as on all financial meltdowns that followed), which can be interpreted as a kind of ironic commentary on the notion of a risk society? Thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings were certainly exposed to a risk, but without any true choice - the risk appeared to them as a blind fate. Those, on the contrary, who effectively did have an insight into the risks as well as a possibility to intervene into the situation (the top managers), minimised their risks by cashing in their stocks and options before the bankruptcy – so it is true that we live in a society of risky choices, but some (the Wall Street managers) do the choosing, while others (the common people paying mortgages) do the risking.

One of the weird consequences of the financial meltdown and the measures taken to counteract it (enormous sums of money to help banks) was the revival in the work of Ayn Rand, the closest one can come to the ideologist of the “greed is good” radical capitalism – the sales of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged exploded again. According to some reports, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged – the creative capitalists themselves going on strike – is enacted. John Campbell, a Republican congressman, said: “The achievers are going on strike. I’m seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs /…/ who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they’ll be punished for them.” The absurdity of this reaction is that it totally misreads the situation: most of the gigantic sums of bail-out money is going precisely to the Randian deregulated “titans” who failed in their “creative” schemes and thereby brought about the meltdown. It is not the great creative geniuses who are now helping lazy ordinary people, it is the ordinary taxpayers who are helping the failed “creative geniuses.”

The other aspect of Thatcher’s legacy targeted by her leftist critics was her “authoritarian” form of leadership, her lack of the sense for democratic coordination. Here, however, things are more complex than it may appear. The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of “epistemological obstacle” to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system. These effectively read as a popularised version of Deleuzian politics: people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this, but only through their own continuous engagement and activity. So we need active participatory democracy, not just representative democracy with its electoral ritual which every four years interrupts the voters’ passivity; we need the self-organisation of the multitude, not a centralised Leninist Party with the Leader, et cetera.

It is this myth of non-representative direct self-organisation which is the last trap, the deepest illusion that should fall, that is most difficult to renounce. Yes, there are in every revolutionary process ecstatic moments of group solidarity when thousands, hundreds of thousands, together occupy a public place, like on Tahrir square two years ago. Yes, there are moments of intense collective participation where local communities debate and decide, when people live in a kind of permanent emergency state, taking things into their own hands, with no Leader guiding them. But such states don’t last, and “tiredness” is here not a simple psychological fact, it is a category of social ontology.

The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace. Walter Lippmann wrote in his Public Opinion (1922) that the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialised class whose interests reach beyond the locality" – this elite class is to act as a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the "omni-competent citizen". This is how our democracies function – with our consent: there is no mystery in what Lippmann was saying, it is an obvious fact; the mystery is that, knowing it, we play the game. We act as if we are free and freely deciding, silently not only accepting but even demanding that an invisible injunction (inscribed into the very form of our free speech) tells us what to do and think. “People know what they want” – no, they don’t, and they don’t want to know it. They need a good elite, which is why a proper politician does not only advocate people’s interests, it is through him that they discover what they “really want.”

As to the molecular self-organising multitude against the hierarchic order sustained by the reference to a charismatic leader, note the irony of the fact that Venezuela, a country praised by many for its attempts to develop modes of direct democracy (local councils, cooperatives, workers running factories), is also a country whose president was Hugo Chavez, a strong charismatic leader if there ever was one. It is as if the Freudian rule of transference is at work here: in order for the individuals to “reach beyond themselves,” to break out of the passivity of representative politics and engage themselves as direct political agents, the reference to a leader is necessary, a leader who allows them to pull themselves out of the swamp like baron Munchhausen, a leader who is “supposed to know” what they want. It is in this sense that Alain Badiou recently pointed out how horizontal networking undermines the classic Master, but it simultaneously breeds new forms of domination which are much stronger than the classic Master. Badiou’s thesis is that a subject needs a Master to elevate itself above the “human animal” and to practice fidelity to a Truth-Event:

“The Master is the one who helps the individual to become subject. That is to say, if one admits that the subject emerges in the tension between the individual and the universality, then it is obvious that the individual needs a mediation, and thereby an authority, in order to progress on this path. One has to renew the position of the master - it is not true that one can do without it, even and especially in the perspective of emancipation.”

Badiou is not afraid to oppose the necessary role of the Master to our “democratic” sensitivity: “This capital function of leaders is not compatible with the predominant ‘democratic’ ambience, which is why I am engaged in a bitter struggle against this ambience (after all, one has to begin with ideology).”

We should fearlessly follow his suggestion: in order to effectively awaken individuals from their dogmatic “democratic slumber,” from their blind reliance on institutionalised forms of representative democracy, appeals to direct self-organisation are not enough: a new figure of the Master is needed. Recall the famous lines from Arthur Rimbaud’s “A une raison” (“To a Reason”):

“A tap of your finger on the drum releases all sounds and initiates the new harmony.
A step of yours is the conscription of the new men and their marching orders.
You look away: the new love!
You look back, — the new love!”

There is absolutely nothing inherently ”Fascist” in these lines – the supreme paradox of the political dynamics is that a Master is needed to pull individuals out of the quagmire of their inertia and motivate them towards self-transcending emancipatory struggle for freedom.

What we need today, in this situation, is a Thatcher of the left: a leader who would repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today’s political elite of all main orientations.