A sassy lady walks into a room, throws down a big book and says, “This is what we believe now!”. It is with this literal thud that the world changed, apparently. The lady is Margaret Thatcher, the book is by FA Hayek and the famous bedtime story is still shared by ruling class toddlers today. It’s a dreamy way to describe the neoliberal revolution.
The nightmare birth of this world order is truly written in blood and fire — and, no, this is not to single out the violence of the neoliberal regime. It’s just a reminder that the world does not ever change by the thud of a single book, but in countless historical whimpers.
Still. This is the sort of crap we tell ourselves: it is through “respectful debate” political fates are decided. It is by a “nailed it!” video from Waleed Aly. Apartheid was ended on a show very much like The Project, and not by armed struggle.
As Annabel Crabb had it upon the death of Nelson Mandela, the guns of the African National Congress are not an explanation for the end of an era, but terrible things we must take care to excuse. The real lesson Mandela teaches us is one of compassionate reason, etc. For injustices to end, “they have to be relinquished both by the perpetrator and the victim”. Okay, sure. And the real story of history is not war and class antagonism, but the friends we made along the way.
This liberal faith in the power/goodness of human reason is, of course, a crock. No, the Apartheid regime was not resolved like a sentimental summer movie and, no, Margaret Thatcher probably never did throw down The Constitution of Liberty. First, it was an awfully big book and she a petite crypto-fascist. Second, Margaret would never have bothered to violently throw down a book herself. She’d have engaged a private thug to do it. Finally, has anyone who tells this story about the neat fairy-tale ending to the Keynesian era even read Hayek? As a writer and a thinker, the guy was pretty much Dan Brown. But, he did know by instinct, if not by reason, that someone needed to write dense books to defend the ruling class. The Constitution of Liberty is far less a work of theory than it is a big, thick alibi for the idiot crimes that have been committed for centuries.
In 1950, Friedrich published an essay that continues to inform liberal strategy. If you want to know why all those blokes at The Australian continue their adorable struggle for The Ramsay Centre, you can find the answer in The Intellectuals and Socialism. Hayek didn’t think of socialism as a mass response to capitalism. For him, the fact that millions in the Soviet Union were spared the misery of the Great Depression was irrelevant. The real reason that some people fancied socialism was that capitalism hadn’t marketed itself properly.
Say what you like about our man Marx, but that bit about how a person with a shitty life will be eventually compelled to face its conditions with sober senses is hard to contest, even in debate club. No. The reason that people get antsy about capitalism is not persuasion by poncy intellectuals, but capitalism itself. I started reading Marx again when my income fell last decade to $40,000 p/a. This is what can happen, Friedrich. We are a class of socialists growing in number due far less to fancy books and far more to economic decline.
Still, the liberal-left and neo or classical liberals continue to believe that it’s all about spin and that history begins and ends with a thud. You can make people think new anti-racist thoughts with a billboard and revive old ruling class thoughts with a course at the Ramsay Centre. The Ramseys are just as open about their faith in the Power of Propaganda as the liberal-left. The Ramsay website has a message to the business community about the need for cultural spin: “Who can be subtle, articulate, in the best sense critical (‘criticism’ literally means ‘judgement’): who can find the angle or niche you need in order to be competitive, distinctive, persuasive.” If someone bothered to punctuate, format and rearrange these words into actual English sentences, they would read a lot like the Hayek essay.
Personally, I’m quite glad that the neoliberal right continues to uphold its faith in the Contest of Ideas. It means that they haven’t had any new ones in years, which is why we have Tom Switzer, a writer from the right I remember as once seeming rational, still banging on about gulags in the Gitmo era. If the best that the best of the right can come up with is “Marx equals death!” as liberal order crumbles, our sober socialist senses have a chance.
No regime in history has ever been powerfully imposed at a nice meeting. Political change of any sort — even the kind I’d prefer — will always claim many victims and can never claim to have a single author. Not Hayek. Not Marx.
This is not to say that intellectuals are unimportant; an interpreter for the stuff of sober sense can help change the grammar of the world. It is to say that even intellectuals must eventually face the conditions of life. But, here we are, in the age of the surveillance state, with Switzer still teaching millennials the intellectual responses of the right from forty years ago. May he and his kind long continue to intellectualise about a world that doesn’t exist.