Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Margaret Thatcher Embodied the Fundamental Contradiction of Modern Conservatism

Margaret Thatcher's rise to power, and the changes she initiated (some would say inflicted) represented the fearsome power of a revived conservatism.  In all of the obits, condemnations, and hagiographies her death has inspired this week, no one disputes her importance for putting conservative thought into action, no matter what one thinks of those ideas.

However, few seem to be asking questions about the fundamentals of her ideas, which is what I would like to do.  Although Thatcher was a conservative, she and other modern conservatives seem to be at odds with themselves.  To be a conservative means literally to "conserve" past traditions and political practices.  Despite this fact, today's conservatives worship a power that is the greatest destroyer of traditional life ever unleashed: laissez-faire capitalism.

In Thatcher's worldview, there was famously no such thing as society, only individuals and families.  Despite her admonitions that Britons revive "Victorian values," Thatcherism resulted in something quite different.  Her "every person for themselves and let the devil take the hindmost" philosophy hardly jives with anything the Victorians, for all their sins, would have valued.  

Even though Thatcher couched her radical ideas in the language of tradition and Britishness, when push came to shove, her reign shattered tradition and destroyed the organic ligaments of community, the things that conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke had always praised.  In some cases community destruction was quite literal, as in her government's intentional destruction of the coal mining industry, which wrecked the towns dependent on it.  In her worldview, cash-value and the bottom line mattered more than anything else.

Thatcher thus personified the fundamental contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism.  The same people who act most worried about social change and the dissolution of society are the same people worshipping the the very force -unfettered capitalism- most responsible for dissolving traditional bonds. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a brilliant observation. I had never thought of their support for free markets as a fundamental contradiction in conservative ideology.

I'll have to talk with one of my political science mentors about this