A Point of View: Does anybody ever 'think the unthinkable'?

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Margaret ThatcherImage source, Getty Images

At the end of the 80s, free market thinkers declared "the end of history" and the triumph of capitalism. They were wrong on both counts, says John Gray.

I have a vivid memory of the moment when I realised it wouldn't be long before Margaret Thatcher's radical experiment hit the buffers.

It must have been sometime in the late 1980s. The venue was one of the free market think tanks that were so prominent in those far-off years. The topic of discussion was how we should be ready to transgress the boundaries of what was considered politically possible. Nearly all of those present were at one on the need to challenge existing assumptions. What we needed to do, they insisted, was "think the unthinkable" and extend the reach of market forces into public services and throughout society.

For me this earnest consensus was not without an element of comedy. Free market ideas had been in power in Britain since Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. They were the ruling ideas of the age, and from my point of view already becoming rather stale. In the early 70s, when I first became interested in Hayek and other free market thinkers, challenging the post-war political consensus may have required a certain contrariness.

By the late 70s, when Britain had come close to bankruptcy and been bailed out by the IMF, there were many signs that the country was heading for a shift of regime in which it would be transformed irreversibly. But an abrupt change of this kind seems unimaginable to most people until it actually happens, and in much of politics, the media and academia Thatcher's policies came as a bolt from the blue.

By the late 80s, what had been heresy had been enthroned as orthodoxy. In these circumstances, the suggestion that one could become a fearless free-thinker by repeating, in louder and more extreme tones, what those in power were constantly saying was entertainingly farcical. At the same time it illuminated how political ideas actually work in practice. As a general rule, "thinking the unthinkable" means accentuating and exaggerating, preferably to the point of absurdity, beliefs that are currently fashionable. Over the past three decades, this has meant, to my mind, applying the ruling free market ideology with little regard for history, circumstances or common sense.

One may agree or disagree with Thatcher's policies, but throughout most of her time in power she was more pragmatic than is often imagined, and rarely did anything just because it was required by an idea or theory.

It was only when the ideologues in the free market think tanks persuaded her of the virtues of the poll tax that she allowed doctrinaire thinking to guide her, and that was the beginning of her downfall. The irony is that the ideas that ended her career in government nearly a quarter of a century ago have shaped politics ever since. Capitalism has lurched into a crisis from which it still has not recovered. Yet the worn-out ideology of free markets sets the framework within which our current generation of leaders continues to think and act.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The poll tax riots of 1990

Today nothing is safe from the juggernaut of market forces. If British Telecom could be successfully privatised, why not the prison service, national forensic service and probation service? Why not hand over the provision of blood plasma, or the search and rescue operations that have long been provided by the RAF and the Royal Navy, to private companies? No sell-off has been so obviously ill-conceived that it couldn't be implemented. All of these privatisations have in fact occurred, under a variety of governments, or are currently in the works.

It wasn't just in domestic policies that a new orthodoxy held sway. Few people, even in the anti-communist 1980s, thought the fall of the Soviet Union was a realistic possibility, but as soon as the collapse had taken place, it was seen as inevitable.

Russia would join the West, we were assured, in adopting democracy and embracing the free market. Anyone with a smattering of the history of that country could know in advance that this wasn't going to happen. There were no traditions of democratic government, much of the economy was a military-industrial rustbelt and capitalism was identified with crime and immorality.

Western governments that promoted socially disruptive policies of economic "shock therapy" made the transition from communism more difficult than it need have been, but there was no way in which Russia could escape its singular and tragic history.

However, these were the days when history was deemed to be irrelevant. Not everyone swallowed the American pundit Francis Fukuyama's theory that history had ended. When Thatcher was told of it, she is supposed to have responded, "The beginning of nonsense!"

But the idea that humanity had entered a new era was widely influential. When I suggested in late 1989 that history was continuing, just as it had always done, a common response was, "You mean we're all doomed?" Amusingly, many people seemed to believe there could be no future for humanity if things simply carried on in their usual muddled fashion.

'The end of history'

Image source, Getty Images
  • Phrase coined by US academic Francis Fukuyama in 1989 essay and 1992 book - he argued that liberal democracy was in some sense an endpoint of social evolution
  • "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
  • Fukuyama revisited his essay this year, saying that he might have been too idealistic in his original argument, but maintaining that no "higher, better model out there... will someday supersede liberal democracy".

The belief that we're living in a time that's different from any in the past is no less strong today. Right across the political spectrum, there are people who share a set of extremely far-fetched notions - tyranny is on the way out, war can be gradually eliminated by improved international cooperation, empires are relics of the past, while nation-states are also increasingly obsolete.

People who think like this feel daringly heretical when they condemn the jerry-built political structures of the past, and go on to suggest that the only viable future is in transnational institutions such as the European Union or some form of global governance. But like the free market ideologues in the 80s who prided themselves on thinking the unthinkable, these intrepid intellectual conformists are merely accepting the conventional wisdom of their time and projecting it into a vision of the future that bears no relation to past or present realities.

The Cold War was a historical anomaly - a global stand-off that someday would come to a conclusion. In contrast, ours is a world riddled with complex and deep-seated conflicts, many of which show no sign of being resolved. Nationalism and religion have revived as powerful forces, geopolitical tensions are intensifying and empire is being reinvented.

While Russia is attempting to revive an old type of imperial power in some of the countries on its borders, China is experimenting with a new version in Africa. The US is retreating, but remains an immensely formidable power. Despite being seen by some as a 19th Century phenomenon, geopolitics - the struggle to secure control of natural resources - continues to fuel wars. The upshot of these conflicting trends and forces can't be known.

More from the Magazine

Image source, Getty Images

Privatisation, finance boom, manufacturing decline, home ownership, union laws. The UK changed hugely in the 1980s. But how much of that would have happened if Margaret Thatcher had never taken office, asks historian Dominic Sandbrook.

In this regard our situation is entirely normal. History isn't a story that comes to any kind of conclusion. Human conflict changes its shape along with new technologies and shifts in power, but it doesn't go away. At bottom, this is what so many people find unthinkable - the fact that intractable conflict will continue to shape our lives in future as it has done in the past.

I wasn't surprised when Thatcher's policies hardened into a closed system of ideas. That's what happens when a party or a leader has been in power for too long. Oddly enough, Thatcher and the ideologues who were by then guiding her seem in some unconscious way to have recognised that their time was up. By pushing ahead with the deeply unpopular poll tax, they showed they cared more about clinging on to their view of the world than staying in power. Not for the first time or the last, those who rule us found they couldn't bear too much reality.

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