“There is no such thing as society”- Margaret Thatcher is famous for these words. And here is a little bit more context – and extract from the interview she gave in September 1977 for Woman’s Own
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and[fo 1] there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—” It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it” . That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”
Indeed, it is a whole mindset – and leaving Falkland aside, leaving other wars aside which had been fought for one or the other side with success during the 1980s this can be seen as a victory not just for the then British government but for a story that finds roots in the Scottish and English enlightenment: An economic system and its justification which meant that finally the bourgeois besieged the citoyen (not by accident we speak of a bourgeois revolution and in English language [like in German language] we barely know a term for the citoyen): the free marketer and his basis: the free producer winning over the free spirit and his foundation: the free thinker.
Indeed, the free spirit, the free thinkers of that very time when Bentham, Mills and Smith urged for their stance had been very much … – well, actually from the same idealist gauge as their bourgeois complements. Still, there had been a difference. The liberalism in economic meant pleading for a system that was devised with certain characteristics undermining the freedom it claimed: this kind of competition meant the systematic founding block for economic oligopolistic and monopolist power; the accumulation mean the systematic tendency of the profit rate to fall, thus urging to financalisation … – and most importantly: the freedom of the labourer meant – as Marx emphasised – being free in the double sense of being free as person, i.e. not being owned as slaves or in a relationship of personal dependence from a landlord: free to sell their ability to work to any employer; and also free from the means of production other than their own capacity to work (thus selling their labour power rather than their labour or the product of it.)
It is not completely correct to speak of idealism in many cases – it had been just the ‘oversight’ of biased economists viewpoints, being caught in their cages of the emerging bourgeois society.
As said, their citoyen-contemporaries and actually – though not necessarily knowingly and/or willingly – allies had been surely idealists. And though the German language doesn’t have word for the citoyen, they have had plenty of them: they still occasionally claim to be the nation of poets and philosophers. One of them: the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In his scientific studies we find thought-provoking passage. He contended:
To know nature, one ought to be nature itself. What one is able to express of nature is always something specific, that is it is something real, something actual, namely something in relation to oneself. But what we express is not all that is; it is not the whole nature. … Although they can say nothing of things-in-themselves, that is, are out of relation to us and we to them, and because we recognize everything that we say to be in our own mode of representation … it is evident that they at least agree with us that what human beings can predicate of things does not exhaust their nature …*
Three positions, at first sight close to each other:
There is no such thing as society
And they are so different in their final substance:
* The free spirit, claiming individuality as personality, well educated (German language has the term Bildungsbuerger – I don’t know exactly what it means: the citoyen rooted in education? Or the citoyen living amongst educated citoyens? Or the citoyen living through behaving in an educated way? – Nuances, opening a wide array for a discourse on civilisation. In any case somebody for whom ‘egoism’ is inherently linked to, undeniable knows that this individual being is only possible and meaningful as part of a universe. And, though possibly Christian, believer in god, convinced that achieving the good depends on his action, immediately acknowledging this embeddedness.
* The utilitarian: bourgeois, surely not egoist in a strict sense, guided by moral sentiments and trusting that the good will be result of an invisible hand of gods goodness or the markets mystic power.
* The iron lady – in a way we may feel pity for her as she is assigned the role of having not only phrased this loss so well but also being responsible for it: Thatcherism. And indeed, she had been the ‘winner’, in a way we may say her evil spirit transforming Labour (if there had been such thing as real Labour – but that is another question, part of it already discussed in Marx’ work Critique of the Gotha Programme. But as much as her success had been carrying on into the future we should not give her too much credit: she continued very much what had been structurally engraved in the blind trust in the free market, and in the trust in relative productivity advantage (surely very bold: one could see Ricardo as a forerunner of Amartya’s and Martha’s capability approach**) and the cunning*** of the nation (sorry lads, I know, you only wanted the best).
In this light, MT had been only describing a reality.
Still, there is another light – and with this I come to the responsibility education has to accept. Thatcher only executed a tendency that had been strucutrally inherent in the development of the British and world economy. But nevertehless – is this part of the cunning of reason Hegel did not have in mind? – she planted the seeds: nurtured and cultivated a mindset that – with some exceptions as for instance the miners’ and printers’ strike – allowed to structures to take over: to become the one reality of various realities that would have been possible.
And this is what we, those working and studying in the academic world – should never forget: there is only one reality, but there are different ways to shape it. Surely without pleading for an idealist approach – seeing it as matter of practice in the truest sense instead – I think we are as well responsible as we are not just working with students as they come (not least as they come from an overwhelmingly authoritarian schooling system, with the experience of living in an undemocratic, consumerist, competition oriented society …) but as well with students how they want to can be. To show how the ballast can and has to be left behind means not least showing what democracy, transparency, empowerment etc. means. Preaching virtue is not worth the paper they are written on as long as we do not – collectively – show ho they can be lived. To paraphrase the young Marx:
The idea emerges as material power if and when it merges with the mass of the people.
I want to remind you at what Ernst Bloch pointed out – and quote a summary from a text I write and that will soon be published,
highlighting four different kinds of possibilities, namely (i) the formally possible – what is possible according to its logical structure; (ii) the objectively possible – possible being based on assumptions on the ground of epistemologically based knowledge; (iii) the objectively possible – possible as it follows from the options inherently given by the object; (iv) and the objectively real possible – possible by following the latency and tendency which is inherent in its elementary form
(see Bloch, Ernst, 1959: Prinzip Hoffnung; Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp [written in 1938-1947; reviewed 1953 and 1959]: 258-288; Herrmann, Peter: forthcoming: God, Rights, Law and a Good Society. Overcoming Religion and Moral as Social Policy Approach in a Godless and Amoral Society; Herrmann, Peter, forthcoming: Searching for Global Policy).
* Goethe, Johan Wolfgang, 1827: Conversations with Riemar; 2.8.1827; in: Goethe’s Gespraeche; Flodoard Freiherr von Biedermann; Leipzig: 1909-1911 (five volumes): I: 505; quoted in: Goethe on Science. An Anthology of Goethe’s Scientific Writings. Selected by Jeremy Naydler; Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996/2006: 124 f.
** I want to add that I have really great personal respect for both of them! And this statement should not in any way be misinterpreted as offense!
*** The German word for cunning is List – and it had been Friedrich List whom we may see as founder and promoter of a system of national economic systems (of innovation).