Blooming hell. I didn’t know quite what a challenge I had set myself when I committed to doing an analysis piece on Thatcherism in the Digital Age the other day, but the key word here is commitment, and as such I’ve spent two days pouring over the interwebby stuffing my eyeholes with as much information about liberalism, libertarianism, Toryism, Thatcherism and their “neo” strands and then attempting to pull some sort of thread of a piece together linking all that to the current “state of play” in the digital sphere. My brain already hurts, and I’ve barely begun writing.
However, as with nearly all such challenges, I have come out the other side absolutely thrilled to have been exposed to so much new information, hopefully a little more enlightened on what was a pivotal period in British political history, and generally a little more savvy on economic philosophy than I was. I can only cross my fingers at this point that the ensuing clattering of keys results in something that makes an iota of sense. Although crossing my fingers and typing could demand a little more dextrousness than I am capable of.
Margaret Thatcher has bizarrely been somewhat an ever-constant presence in my life, akin to the opening tenet of a jingle that you can’t shake from your mind, a tune that plays on loop somewhere just between your sub-conscious and conscious proper. For some, it may have been the cheery polemic of the Coco Pops monkey, informing you that he’d rather have a bowl of his own cereal than that of a competitor (in my mind always an obvious choice for the simian spokesperson of any brand - why on Earth would he endorse competition and risk his, presumably lucrative, contract?), playing on repeat as you go about daily tasks. For me, however, it was the shadowy spectre of an angular faced school teacher-figure, spouting something about a lack of fondness for “turning” (whatever that meant), and something about the death of society. Or it’s total non-existence, I was never sure.
While I was only 4 when she tearfully stepped outwards across the threshold of 10 Downing Street, as the child of a family of “boy-done-good” types, in retrospect it comes as little surprise that Thatcher should have made such a lasting impression on my tiny little mind, such was, and continues to be, the hero-worship of the Iron Lady from Grantham. It came as some initial shock that Thatcher often finds her most fervent support in the county of Essex, the home of Towie and of fake tan. But in reality the empowerment and freedom to achieve that her policies allowed those with a working class genealogy have ensured her popularity in the spiritual heartland of the self-made man. And of vajazzles.
As such, her death last week not only represented a historic and divisive moment in British history, but also a point of near-existential mourning within my close and extended family.
However, this is not a piece on the political alignement of my family, nor on my infant memory of Britain’s first female prime minister. If your looking for that, I cannot recommend Russel Brand’s piece in The Guardian highly enough. Through all my research, it stands out as the most craft-fully written, philosophically divergent and pathos filled pieces on Thatcher I came across. I may not agree with his politics or viewpoint, but the boy can certainly write.
What I’m looking to ascertain is whether her passing at the age of 87 represents the idealogical death of Thatcherism, or whether her politics and worldview continue to live on in the Digital Age of Mobile First Design, Open Source Social Media and the steady technological revolution cycle enabled by Moore’s Law. Whether her absolute belief and faith in the autonomy of the free market and the individual is verified in the astronomical valuation of platforms like Facebook, applications like Instagram, WhatsApp and Summly and their relatively rapid creation-to-sale cycle and the empowered, always connected mobile user, or whether her Neo-liberal philosophy is in fact defeated by the “globally-connected society”, where people have the power to bring brands crashing to the ground in 140 characters. Surely, the ideology of a woman who famously said “There is no such thing as society” is moot in an age dominated by a phenomenon called “Social media”?
In order to contextualise my thought process on this, it’s best to delve a little into what Thatcherism actually is. Which is bloody tricky as, from what I’ve learnt over the last couple of days Maggie’s political and philosophical standpoint sits somewhere between Neo-liberalism, libertarianism and a traditional Conservative stance on morality. For my one American reader, Thatcherism most closely resembles what is termed Reaganism in the US, and indeed Thatcher and Ronald Reagen where seen as idealogical allies during their coinciding terms as Prime Minister and President.
Without wanting to turn this into a philosophy lecture, because that would be a) boring and b) somewhat presumptuous on my part in my own ability to understand all this, at all, and then regurgitate this to others, libertarianism places emphasis on the primacy of the individual and political freedom, and as such advocates a vastly reduced state or no state at all. Neo-liberalism is a more economic viewpoint that advocates economic liberalisation, free trade and open markets, deregulation, privatisation and decreasing the size of the public sector, while Thatcherism is, somewhat conversely to the key tenet of libertarianism, closely linked to more Conservative views on morality, although interestingly Thatcher actually voted in favour of homosexuality and in support of legal abortion.
All pretty bloody high level stuff, but how does it relate to the current and future state-of-play in the Digital Arena? I’m going to try my darndest to keep this as top line as possible, as this is already showing the potential of turning into a dissertation length piece…
Neo-liberalism is often extremely closely linked to the theory of Globalisation. In conventional parlance, the current era in history is generally characterised as one of globalization, technological revolution, and democratisation In all three of these areas media and communication play a central, perhaps even a defining, role. Economic and cultural globalisation arguably would be impossible without a global commercial media system to promote global markets and to encourage consumer values. As such, the near ubiquity of platforms like Facebook and Twitter underpin the very essence of the technological revolution and the radical development in digital communication and technology.
Indeed, even within the relatively brief history of technological revolution, we have seen a massive shift during what has been called the Web 2.0 era. Originally, the web was indexed by the relationship between websites, and “users” really only existed as a figure, either as impressions or visitors. As such, search engines like Google positioned themselves as the “Gatekeepers to the Web”, and quickly established models around SEO, PPC and display reach advertising to move these faceless, impressions around the web. The Internet was, and continues to be, the property not of any one country of territory, but the first truly global market. Governments struggled, and continue to struggle, to regulate such a vast and constantly growing network. However, some forward thinking brands and corporations saw the potential in a new, global marketplace and saw an opportunity to peddle their wares. In a neat embodiment of neo-liberalism, they looked to capitalise on the global web and push their monopolies beyond not just the confines of territory but also of analog and digital. Those that got it right made, and continue to make a lot of money.
Indeed, in the Web 1.0 era, some argued that Google was in fact surreptitiously eroding our very human rights. As John Cayley notes:
We hand over our culture to Google in exchange for unprecedented and free access to that culture. We do this all but unconscious of the fact that it will be Google that defines what “unprecedented” and “free” ultimately imply. As yet, we hardly seem to acknowledge the fact that this agreement means that it is Google that reflects our culture back to us. They design the mirror, the device, the dispositive, as the French would put it. They offer a promise of “free” access in many senses of that word including zero cost to the end-using inquirer and close to zero cost to the institutions that supply the inscribed material culture that Google swallows and digests. But Google does not (some might here add “any longer”) conceal the fact that this free access does come at a cost, another type of cost, one that is also a culture-(in)forming cost: Google will process all (or nearly all) this data in order to sell a “highly-cultivated” positioning of advertisements (Cayley, “Writing to be Found”).
Equally, the internet provided a fertile platform for those with an entrepreneurial spirit. Companies could be set up in minutes without the nagging overheads of rent and business rates, and a global audience meant that product and service suddenly had reach far beyond what had ever before been possible, and it’s interesting that the pre-bubble Internet Boom should come so soon after the end of Maggie’s tenure. If you had a the drive and the technological knowhow, your opportunity to make loadsa cash in a short amount of time was unrivalled. Yes, the bubble burst as the century drew to a close, but that was largely down to unsolicited valuations, not down to flawed philosophical thinking. Indeed, we one more find ourselves in a spot in technological history where valuations are astronomical, even if your actual product struggles to break even, let alone turn a profit. The primacy of the individual appears to be absolute in the digital age, the market is as free as it could possibly be, and there is no such thing as the digital “public sector”. That’s not to say that the public sector does not exist online, it’s just that there is no notable “global public sector” that operates across the entire Web in the same way that a Facebook or a Spotify does. But watch carefully, as as soon as an individuals primacy reaches terminal velocity online, there is every chance that they can then transition from the primacy that is evoked by libertarianism into the capitalistic habits of neo-liberalism
With the advent of Web 2.0 (I hate that term but it’s pretty standard to use it to describe the dawn of social media) “users” began to create profiles from themselves across a variety of platforms online. This then gave the faceless impressions a voice, to begin with within the confines of these “Social Media” platforms. They began to communicate and re-shape the web from a traditional vertical communications model to something far more horizontal, if not even inverse. The digital consumer suddenly had a voice, and in a traditional libertarian sense found perhaps the greatest expression of the primacy of the individual in a purely philosophical sense.
Of course at this point the neo-liberal corporations wanted to shape the “conversations” taking place within this digital micro-communities. “There’s some sort of sociological evolution taking place, let’s try and make some money from it”. Of course, each of these individual occurrences deserves an entire blog post of its own, but as promised, this is top line. Simultaneously, the counter neo-liberalism, anti-capitalistic movements had also found a platform for digital expression, as they will in any newly formed territory or culture. Indeed, today’s hackers and groups like “Anonymous” explicitly align their actions with anti-capitalistic motivations.
However, they represent only a tiny fraction of the billions of the world’s population who are active digitally. Now, with Open Social ensuring that branded strategies are far more subtle than “owning the conversation”, more rooted in action-orientated service recommendation, users will find themselves becoming ever more complicit in the spread of neo-liberalism.
Indeed, I might even argue that Margaret Thatcher herself would not have looked out of place on the board of Facebook. Of course the shoulder pads would have to go, and II’m not sure how she would have fared with the obligatory hoodie and jeans. But in terms of spreading the capitalist ideology, unfettered by the constraints of the state, and with licence to apply any rules it sees fit and to control user experience in order to maximise profitability, well I think that’s something that Maggie woud have bought into whole-heartedly