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Reviewing The Thatcherite Offensive

by Matthew Ryan on May 29, 2017
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Do we need another analysis of Thatcherism? Alexander Gallas must think so, because that is exactly what he has produced, in The Thatcherite Offensive: A neo-Poulantzasian analysis.

Understanding the implications of Margaret Thatcher’s prime-ministership, and Thatcherism more broadly, was one of the key problematics of the British New Left. As a result, it has been the subject of countless scholarly articles, volumes and monographs. Indeed, it may well be one of the most-storied political or economic moments in the past century, besides the Great Depression and Great Recession. Why, then, would someone seek to return to those debates in the current conjuncture, especially considering the pressing historical developments of this moment? Environmental collapse, economic stagnation, Brexit, Trump, rising authoritarianism and perhaps even ‘postcapitalism’, all demand urgent theorisation and opposition – so why return to Thatcher?

I would argue that there are two key reasons that make Gallas’ intervention both a relevant and crucial contribution to understanding the contemporary political economy

First, it speaks to the problem of ‘neoliberalism’ and what on earth we mean when we employ the concept. Jamie Peck once argued that neoliberalism ‘must have content’, and shed light on the lived realities of those living in contemporary capitalism. Gallas’ analysis of the material conditions of neoliberalism under Thatcher goes some way to providing the necessary social and historical investigation to underpin the concept and anchor its meaning in practical experience.

Second, The Thatcherite Offensive speaks directly to current expressions of authoritarian statism, and their contradictory role in advancing the neoliberal project. Thatcher’s government relied (in part) on authoritarian-type state strategies to undermine resistance to their broader economic project – Gallas provides the tools to analyse the strength of these regimes given their complex and problematic relationship with democracy.

This review will not provide a comprehensive summary of the book – if you’re looking for a shortcut to actually reading it, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Rather, by unpacking these two arguments in more detail, hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to track down a copy for yourself. Similarly, this review will eschew criticism for the sake of criticism, preferring to focus on the strengths of the text – I leave the task of critique to others.

In the words of Bill Dunn, ‘neoliberalism is a slippery concept’.  His point is that the question of what we mean by ‘neoliberalism’ has produced a conceptual cacophony that obscures any meaning it might have otherwise provided. Philip Mirowski argues forcefully that neoliberal ideas, promulgated by a network of think tanks and advocacy groups, have directly shaped policy (his perspective is usefully summarised by Martijn Konings). Dardot and Laval might agree that neoliberal ideas are significant, but on insofar as they produce a governmentality, crafting us all into neoliberal Subjects. Against ideational and, to a certain extent, post-structuralist approaches, Damien Cahill asserts that neoliberalism is best understood as a material process, embedding a shift in the balance of class forces within and through the framework of the state – ‘actually existing neoliberalism’. These are just a few of the treatments of the term; there are dozens and dozens of other conceptualisations, theorisations, and periodisations besides. In the face of this complexity we have (at least) two options: reject the concept entirely, for its lack of clarity; or undertake close empirical analysis, to ground these conceptual debates in concrete conditions, and avoid a debate isolated at the level of the conceptual, slipping into reification.

Gallas situates his analysis in the existing terrain by asserting the primacy of class. After moving quickly through the broader political science literature on Thatcherism, he arrives at the focal point of New Left political-economic debate: the ‘HallJessop debate’. Drawing on the concept of ‘authoritarian populism’, ‘Hall’s account of Thatcherism was focused on the characteristics and effects of Thatcherite ideology’ – Thatcher and her government, in this view, responded to the organic crisis of British (and global) capitalism, and the British state, with innovative rhetoric and ideology; in particular, a juxtaposition of ‘state control’ and ‘freedom’. Although not entirely at odds with Hall et al, the ‘Gang of Four’ (Jessop, Bonnett, Bromley, and Ling) instead ‘focused on political processes and paid close attention to the strategic shifts of the Thatcher governments and the political-economic contexts in which these occurred’. The novelty of Gallas’s intervention (and the reason for the somewhat-ungainly subtitle of his book) is the utilisation of Poulantzas’s particular focus on class – not to ‘take sides’ in the Hall-Jessop debate, but to recast the debate, and move toward a reconciliation.

And so, by re-centring class, this puts us in a better position to approach the periodisation of Thatcherism, and by extension, neoliberalism more generally. For Poulantzas, in Fascism and Dictatorship, periodisation was ‘based on the steps and the turns of class struggle’ – a perspective which is entirely congruent with David Harvey’s treatment of the neoliberal period as being defined by a class-political project, to ‘re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites’. And yet, the periodisation of neoliberalism is not nearly so simple, as Gallas points out: ‘While the periodisation of class politics, by definition, follows the cycle of class struggle, the periodisation of economic order politics does not’. It is precisely the conflation of the conditions of accumulation with class struggle that has caused so many definitional challenges for critics of neoliberalism, Harvey included. A case in point is the common argument that the neoliberal economic-order policies of the Blair government should not be seen as a break from Thatcherism. By drawing on Poulantzas, while being very explicit with the abstractions made along the way, Gallas presents an answer to this problematic: the class-political nature of Thatcher and Blair were distinctly different, even if they both effectively worked toward cohering a very similar economic regime of condensation, as set out in the book here:

Periodisation is a problem. We all do it; and yet very rarely are we explicit as to how or why we are abstracting. In this, Gallas is a welcome change, and an example that further research into neoliberalism would do well do follow.

Returning to the second strength of The Thatcherite Offensive, I would argue that we cannot understand current expressions of authoritarianism without a historical understanding of the role of authoritarian state strategies as well. Further, this wider historical lens offers the possibility of tracing the fractures of state crises today. Here, I am referring to the emerging conceptual framework of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ on the one hand, and the concept of ‘anti-politics’. Originally published in 2015, Gallas did not have an opportunity to integrate Brexit into his analysis – and, indeed, this may well be beyond the scope of a single enquiry. But by drawing on Poulantzas’s concept of ‘authoritarian statism’, as other analyses of Thatcherism have done as well, Gallas touches on the way in which such state strategies simultaneously strengthen and weaken the state, as the state becomes less responsive to democratic demands. This second point is speculative, but I would argue that the history of Thatcher’s authoritarianism is tied, in part, to current state crises – i.e. Brexit. This contradiction has not been explicitly linked with the phenomenon of anti-politics, but I would argue that such a connection would be a suggestive line of future enquiry.

When Keynes listed the many qualities he believed an economist should possess, he argued that we ‘must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future’. In re-casting old debates in such a way as to analyse the separate-but-related issue of ‘neoliberalism’, Gallas makes a significant contribution to understanding the present, in light of the past. Although less central to the text, the greater significance of the text may well be in the suggestive implications of how this same past will shape the future.

 

Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He was recently awarded the Frank Stilwell Award in Political Economy. He is currently working on the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy, with particular focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
2 Comments
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  • May 30, 2017 at 8:15 am

    The book under review links the capitalist offensive to Thatcher, but in fact the Labour-unions Social Contract did all the heavy lifting.

    Which is a big reason why lately I have come to suspect that “neoliberalism” is a rationalisation for the Left’s failure in relation to its historic social base.

  • Alexander Gallas
    May 31, 2017 at 12:04 am

    I’m surprised to read this. In 1979, the year Thatcher was elected, working days lost due to strikes reached 29m — a record high for post-war times. In 1997, the year of Blair’s first election victory, the number was 235,000. Over the same time span, union density fell from 57 to 32 per cent. These numbers are a good indication of the ‘heavy lifting’ that took place in the Thatcher era.

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