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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.

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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.