The Thatcher Effect: Perceptions of Privatization and Public Privation


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Here’s what I like to think of when I think of Margaret Thatcher: the Thatcher Effect, an important demonstration of how the brain encodes information about facial perception.  Turn the eyes and mouth of a human face upside-down, then turn the resulting face as a whole upside down again, and we barely notice that anything is wrong.  (The smile and the look of the eyes look right to us.)  It’s not until the face is once again turned right-side-up that we see how horrifying and unsettling it is.

I’m not sure why Peter Thompson, the experimental psychologist who discovered the Thatcher effect and first published it in 1980, chose her as his model for it other than that she had only recently been elected Prime Minister, but he could have hardly chosen a better person in terms of the metaphor.  She turned things upside-down, much of the public didn’t notice it, and the horrifying results didn’t become horrifyingly obvious until things turned right-side-up again.

Margaret Thatcher was the middle (and most potent) of the triple whammy of elected leaders — Menachem Begin in 1977, Thatcher in 1979, Ronald Reagan in 1980 — that shoved the world into an era of irresponsible economics and foreign policy that, were I conservative, I would want to argue had been mislabeled as “conservative.”  She was the smartest, the hardest-working, and in some ways the most effective and pernicious.  Her secret, in economics, was to cover up what she was doing and to hope that no significant proportion of the population would ever figure it out.  More than anyone, even Reagan, she created the ideology of modern America.

The secrets?

(1) Loot the commonweal (a lovely word, the basis for “commonwealth,” for the public resources of a society) and give lots of people a tiny share of it — while a tiny share got lots of it.

(2) Cut taxes and social services, then use the ensuing desperation of those with few resources, and now without public aid, to bid down the cost of labor and raise the cost of dissent.

(3) Emasculate those who question unlimited spending on defense, both international military and intranational policing, while enriching those who provide such services at inflated rates.

(4) Pretend to be economically sound — as if one could ward off the inevitable deficits by continuing to sell off public wealth to private interests indefinitely, as if the oil and the buildings and parking meters such never run out,

Very simple, very effective.  Ultimately, very successful.  (After all, how much of this sort of thing are you reading today as people mark her death?)

If you look at what we see as scandals in Orange County and beyond, you’ll find Thatcherism at the root of many of them.  Selling public resources into private hands (like they tried to do with the Fairgrounds), letting the homeless languish without the benefit of public services except for the tender mercies of the police, justifying the boosting of private interests because through our retirement accounts so many of us own an infinitesimal piece of that prosperity — all of this was considered outside of the political mainstream before the triple whammy of Begin (who changed much of the sympathies of the American Jewish community from kibbutznik-style Israeli socialism to Netanyahu-style Romneyism), Thatcher (who did her best to cripple and sell off Britain’s Public Health system), and Reagan (who, as Cheney said, “proved to us that deficits don’t matter” — because eventually Democrats would come into office and take the blame.)

I found a nice takedown of Thatcher on the web (through Yahoo UK, of all places) that I think is worth sharing:

I always wonder why people who did not live through the dictatorship years of Thatcher still answer these type of questions. All they know is what they have been told and most of what they were told is the same lies and propaganda that is told by newspapers like the daily Mail. Poppycock!

Thatcher was a dictator, a tyrant of a leader whose own MP’s were scared to death of. They knew that if they disagreed with her or tried to go against anything she wanted, they would be at best demoted, at worst given the sack immediately. She considered herself to be irreplaceable and thought that her tenancy in Downing street would never be challenged. It took a brave Tory to challenge her in the end after the disastrous Poll Tax caused far worse riots in the cities than the recent riots we had in the UK.

She caused boom and bust economies that devastated families and turned communities into ghost towns. Greed was the order of the day and this came from America, with whom she had a very close Relationship with Ronald Reagan. She pulled every trick in the book to prevent workers striking. Encouraged them to buy their council homes and prevented councils from building new ones with the proceeds, hence the affordable housing shortage today. Once people had bought their council homes, they had a mortgage which they feared losing if they went on strike for better conditions. She created that situation and she did not crush the unions at all, apart from the miners, whose industry she decimated.

Someone mentioned North Sea Oil and how she made billions from it. Wrong again I’m afraid. The billions that were earned from North Sea Oil were totally wasted in the payment of unemployment benefits to the 3.5 million she threw onto the scrap heap. A whole generation of young people were wasted. See how Cameron today is following in her footsteps and a further generation of young people are left on the scrap heap with no hope of a job. She created despair and a feeling of hopelessness among millions of working class families who having bought their council house found that it was worth less than the mortgage they had taken out to buy it. Rampant inflation and sky high interest rates of 17% were enough to put many unfortunate families out on the street as they struggled to pay their mortgages.

Hospitals and schools were left to wreck and ruin. Waiting lists were often 2 years or more. Doctors, nurses, dentists and teachers were scarce and they had to be brought in from abroad. There was no minimum wage and people worked up to 60 hours a week for a miserable £1 per hour.

That was what the Thatcher years were like. Not the utopia that other Tory supporters think they lived in during her reign. The greed and selfish society we have today is a direct result of her policies. Britain may have been poorer before she came to power, but we were a lot happier, that’s for certain.

“De nisi mortis bonum” — say nothing but good of the dead — the saying goes.  I don’t think I’m violating that; Thatcher herself — as a woman in a man’s world, as a merchant’s daughter clawing her way up in a party of fatuous elites — had many admirable qualities.  It’s not Thatcher I speak of today, it’s Thatcherism.  And I mourn not because she’s dead, but because it isn’t.


About Greg Diamond

Prolix worker's rights and government accountability attorney and General Counsel of CATER. His anti-corruption work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, leading them to work with the Democratic Party of Orange County Chair and other co-conspirators (who had long detested the internal oversight his presence provided) to remove him from the position of DPOC North Vice Chair of in violation of party rules and any semblance of due process. He also runs for office sometimes. Unless otherwise specifically stated, none of his writings prior to that lawless putsch ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Beautiful Bountiful Brea, but while he may brag about it he generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for candidates including Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and (except where noted) without compensation.