Revolution Still Here

Last night I was reading Slavoj Zizek’s For They Know Not What They Do, originally published in 1991 but now in a new edition. I find Zizek extremely irritating and very hard to follow at times, but there are moments of lucidity there where you think, he’s really nailed something there.

On Derrida and identity:

This very logic of identity was at work in the fantasy-image of Margaret Thatcher. Within a “deconstructivist” approach, it is easy to locate the paradoxical Outside by reference to which Thatcherism constructed its identity. The invasion of “alien” powers (“maladjusted” immigrants, IRA terrorism, Scargill’s NUM as the “enemy within”, and so on) threatens to undermine “British character”, the attitude of self-reliance, law and order, respect for values and industrious work; and thus to overflow and dissolve British identity. It is therefore highly significant that in her description of the adversary, Thatcher has often resorted to the metaphor of an alien Monster eroding and corrupting the fabric of “our way of life”. Here, the “deconstructivist” approach would point out the fundamental ambiguity of this “alien” element, its double status: it is simultaneously within the structure as its subordinated, contained element (the immigrant who accepts the superiority of the British way of life) and outside it (the threatening, cancerous foreign body).

This ambiguity forces us to reverse the spontaneous ideological perception of Thatcherism: it is not sufficient to say that Thatcherism was obsessed by the fear of the “alien” intruder supposed to undermine our identity; what must be added is that the very identity of the “British character” constitutes itself by reference to this intruder, not only in sense of a simple differential opposition whereby an identity can assert itself only via difference to its Other, but in a far more radical way. Our identity is in itself always-already “truncated”, impossible, mutilated, “antagonistic”, and the threatening intruder is nothing but an outside-projection, an embodiment of your own inherent antagonism…

He then goes on to speak about how that approach does not go far enough from a Hegelian-Lacanian perspective, which, if you’re interested, you can read about yourself (I mean, you can read about on your own).

The main thing that jumped out at me when I was reading the above was how much the governments of both Blair and Brown depend so openly, if not brazenly, on the same constructs. The normal take on this is that New Labour consciously and calculatedly adopted Thatcherite policies as a means of winning power and consolidating it through maintaining support from the British middle class voters and big business. The calculation is embodied in Peter Mandelson’s oft-cited remarks about being ‘intensely relaxed ‘about people getting ‘filthy rich‘. The second part of his remarks are often forgotten – provided they pay taxes. The point, then, was to provide capital with additional roaming rights so as to generate sufficient revenue for better public services.

But how much did they know about what they were doing? That is, was this calculation not formed within a paradigm already established by Thatcherism? To alter Zizek’s characterisation slightly: in the eyes of its key protagonists, was the identity of New Labour as an adversary simultaneously within the structure (Thatcherism) as its subordinated, contained element (as its manifesto put it ‘the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole‘) and outside it (the ‘new politics’, again, from the manifesto)?

What I am getting at here is the truly revolutionary nature of Thatcherism: how, played out in British parliamentary politics, it forecloses -and continues to foreclose- any response that does not assume its principles. Look at Brown and the 42-day detention vote: a clear an example as any of state legislation rooted in the antagonistic identity of Thatcherism. Brown’s intention, as Polly Toynbee correctly describes in today’s Guardian, is to ‘to out-tough the Tories and please a punitive public’. Meanwhile:

The bad news hidden away in the income distribution figures published by the ONS this week explains much of the rumbling disaffection with Labour in middle England. The real middle England – at around median earnings of £23,700 – has seen its disposable income barely rise at all. In the five years from 2001/2 to 2006/7 they had only a 4% rise, less than 1% a year, while the country was supposed to be booming. Amid the glitz and self-congratulation of high apparent average growth and obscene boardroom pay, half the country was left out. Worse still, the bottom third, which includes skilled manual workers, saw their incomes fall between 2004/5 and 2006/7.

Inequality – its highest since records began in 1961 – makes GDP growth a virtually meaningless statistic. Ministers apologising for the poverty figures said they had been running up the down escalator – but they could have controlled it with a higher minimum wage and a new top tax band for the explosion of super-wealth. John Hutton can celebrate city bonuses all he wants, but well over half of the country – what used to be Labour’s half – will not join him.

But if the people don’t like it, they can always vote for the Tories! The revolution continues.

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