The Lady’s Not for Turning

If you want to get a sense of why conservatives in Britain revere Margaret Thatcher, check out this clip of her famous “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning” speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 1980.

The context: in the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Having come into office on a promise to break with the Keynesian consensus of the postwar era, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.”

Fast forward to 1980: Thatcher had been in power for a year, and the numbers of unemployed were almost double that of the Heath years. Thatcher faced a similar call from the Tory “Wets” in her own party—conservatives who weren’t keen on aggressive neoliberalism—to do a U-Turn, and many expected she would. This was her response.


Incidentally, when I interviewed libertarian theorist Norman Barry—a member of the extended brain trust of the economic right in Britain—for an article I did for Lingua Franca, he had this to say about Thatcher:

I had thought she was just an election winner who wasn’t Labour. But when she lifted exchange controls, I thought, “This babe knows market economics.” So then I thought, “Yeah!” And then she began privatization and other things. And then she wouldn’t do a U-turn, I thought, “This is for real.”

A footnote: Two years ago, I wrote a post on Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is no such thing as society. The Left often gets that quote wrong, seeing it as a manifesto of untrammeled individualism.  It’s not, and our failure to understand what Thatcher really said makes it difficult to understand what neoliberalism is all about.

Here’s what I said:

Left critics of neoliberalism—or just plain old unregulated capitalism—often cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society” as evidence of neoliberalism’s hostility to all things collective. Neoliberalism, the story goes, unleashes the individual to fend for herself, denying her the supports of society (government, neighborhood solidarity, etc.) so that she can prove her mettle in the marketplace.

But these critics often ignore the fine print of what Thatcher actually said in that famous 1987 interview with, of all things, Woman’s OwnHere’s the buildup to that infamous quote:

Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…

It’s that last phrase (“and there are families”) that’s crucial.  Contrary to popular (or at least leftist) myth, neoliberals are not untrammeled individualists. In many ways, they’re not that different from traditional conservatives: that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic.

Thatcher isn’t alone in this.  For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim.  When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.  And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.

Here’s Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:

The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual. (32; also see 13)

And here’s Richard Epstein in a piece called “Libertarianism and Character” from a collection of essays about conservatism, edited by Peter Berkowitz:

It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences.  The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these texts as the boys debate neoliberalism versus social democracy, and what neoliberalism is all about.  What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.

Update (April 8, 6 pm)

Just this morning, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, tweeted the same misreading of Thatcher’s comment that the Left has been peddling for years:

Margaret Thatcher famously dismissed the idea of a “society.” In her view, nations are composed of individuals with no duties to one other.


  1. Paul Rosenberg April 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm | #

    It’s true that Thatcher’s denial of society included families as well as individuals. Good to remind folks that forgetting that leads not just to over-simplification, but error.

    Still, Thatcher’s OPPOSITION of society and families remains quite striking. Most folks most of the time surely assume that the two are more or less tightly interconnected. The fact that neoliberals as well as libertarian conservatives DON’T see things this way is something that’s worth bringing up again and again. The one good thing about Maggie Thatcher is that she gave us this quote to make that easy for us to do.

  2. jonnybutter April 8, 2013 at 1:55 pm | #

    I know everybody’s probably read this already, but it still deserves to be pasted into the present context (Corey’s post(s)). It’s the famous meeting of Hitchens and Thatcher from Hitchens’ memoir:

    [Thatcher] maintained her wrongness with such adamantine strength that I eventually conceded the point and bowed slightly to emphasize my acknowledgement. “No,” she said. “Bow lower!” Smiling agreeably, I bent forward a bit farther. “No, no,” she trilled. “Much lower!” By this time a little group of interested bystanders was gathering. I again bent forward, this time much more self-consciously. Stepping around behind me, she unmasked her batteries and smote me on the rear with the parliamentary order-paper that she had been rolling into a cylinder behind her back. I regained the vertical with some awkwardness. As she walked away, she looked back over her shoulder and gave an almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words: “Naughty boy!” ….

    I had and have eyewitness to this. At the time, though, I hardly believed it myself. It is only from a later perspective, looking back on the manner in which she slaughtered and cowed all the former male leadership of her party and replaced them with pliant tools, that I appreciate the premonitory glimpse—of what someone in another context once called “the smack of firm government”—that I had once been afforded. Even at the time, as I left that party, I knew I had met someone rather impressive. And the worst of “Thatcherism,” as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.”

    For such a blowhard, Hitchens could be such a tease sometimes (e.g. which ‘essential matters’?!).

    • BillR April 14, 2013 at 9:56 am | #

      It’s just that Hitchens is about as reliable a witness as some of the more outlandish purveyors of “tall tales” from the Lone Star State. He was a fabulist and without independent corroboration I would not take his version of meeting someone seriously. His account of getting “beaten up” by “thugs” after he had defaced a political poster in Beirut sounded suspiciously like the fantasies of another “political romantic” better known as Lawrence of Arabia (who penned fantasties about being raped by Turkish soldiers, even as he was dedicating his books to 14 year old boys).

      • jonnybutter April 14, 2013 at 10:04 am | #

        I don’t think it matters very much how ‘true to life’ it is.

  3. partisan April 8, 2013 at 3:50 pm | #

    Ayn Rand was one libertarian who had no place for families. If she had been a man I suspect she/he’d adored being followed by a group of toddling idolators. But as a woman, motherhood left her vulnerable.

  4. casino implosion April 8, 2013 at 5:35 pm | #

    Lately, this blog has just been reproducing everything on CT. Do I need to still check in here? Does this blog have a purpose?

    • Corey Robin April 8, 2013 at 5:38 pm | #

      If you have indeed been checking in here, you’ll know that the last six posts were not in fact posted on CT. I only post some of my stuff over there.

  5. Jeremy April 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm | #

    Your argument about the conservative/libertarian love of family as the dominant structure in society always reminds me of this piece from The Economist:

    Finally, “The Nordic Way” [PDF here] cites a paper that compares Sweden to Germany and the United States, when considering the triangle formed by reverence for the Family, the State and the Individual. Americans favour a Family-Individual axis, this suggests, suspecting the state as a threat to liberty. Germans revere an axis connecting the family and the state, with a smaller role for individual autonomy. In the Nordic countries, they argue, the state and the individual form the dominant alliance.

  6. Scott Preston April 8, 2013 at 10:14 pm | #

    Two years ago, I wrote a post on Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is no such thing as society. The Left often gets that quote wrong, seeing it as a manifesto of untrammeled individualism.

    Don’t think I can agree here, Corey. Thatcher’s background was in chemistry. And here her conception of “society” is a chemist’s one. It lies in the sequence — the individuaa (atoms) appear first, and aggregate like molecules into families. It is a strictly reductionistic (and very Newtonian) view of society. For Thatcher, society is an abstraction.

    It’s interesting to note that while conservatives might grant family, church, etc a measure of existence, they don’t appear to see the “corporation” at all as a major medium of socialisation.

    So… what’s Thatcher’s problem? She “sees” individuals and families (in that order, mind you), but not something called “society”. She’s quite right, in that regard. But society isn’t something you “see”. it’s what you hear. Society is speech circulating. The public conversation is society. It’s not what you see, but what you hear.

  7. Erstwhile Anthropologist April 9, 2013 at 8:19 am | #


    Was already thinking about the link between your post above and Naomi Zack’s Race and Mixed Race, but this Huff Po post makes it even stronger (for me, at least):

    Especially given the resonances between your comments above on families as non-democratic and hierarchical and George Lakoff’s comments on conservatives’ views on families/strong fathers/authoritarianism, I’d encourage you to visit Zack’s writing on white families and/as exclusion, in relation to your comments above on Thatcher/’no society’/family, as there is certainly a racial dimension to this entire analysis of Thatcher, neoliberalism and conservatism. Domination in and through the family, yes. And racial domination, too.

  8. MattC April 9, 2013 at 8:50 am | #

    Scott – I’m not quite sure how your chemical analogy naturally leads to the idea of society as an abstraction. If you take some atoms/individuals and combine them into a molecule/family, you’ve abstracted away from the atoms in some sense. Molecules are not the only level of hierarchical organisation in chemistry by any stretch – as Thatcher would have known being not just trained as a chemist, but also as a crystallographer. I doubt therefore, that she would have seen the aggregation of molecules as pure abstraction.

    Perhaps her scientific training did lead her to a more reductionist approach, but I would be wary of drawing straight lines between chemistry and politics.

    • Scott Preston April 9, 2013 at 10:42 pm | #

      Jean Gebser and Erich Kahler died before Margaret Thatcher took power (in ’73 and ’70 respectively). Their observations on the state of society and the individual in society, although framed in the late 40s and 50s, really do illuminate a psycho-historical tendency that was to become known as “Thatcherism” and “Reaganism”, and the roots of this Weltanschauung (love this German word — much more expressive than in English).

      If you want to know the meaning of Thatcher, read Kahler’s The Tower and the Abyss, and compare Thatcher’s views with Kahler’s observations on what he calls “the disintegration” or “breakdown of the human form”.

      Jean Gebser also noted this same breakdown of the human form. (This breakdown of the human form is what Nietzsche called our “nihilism”). Gebser, however, thought of it as “an essential restructuration”. Still, if you compare Thatcher’s views with the very broader socio-historical observations of Erich Kahler (also in his prequel book Man the Measure) Thatcher’s views will seem quite anachronistic and nostalgic in contrast. And isn’t that the meaning of “reactionary” ?

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 10, 2013 at 8:35 pm | #

      In chemistry, it’s actually the atom which is the abstraction — a representation of the ideal form of some concrete material substance.

      In sociology, society is the abstraction since it’s only people we experience. And yet we never see an individual who is not embedded in society — whose entire way of relating to the world is deeply shaped by his social situation.

      (E.g., Bernie Madoff is the same person now as before he was imprisoned: only his social position has changed. But we don’t even talk of him as “being” the same thing: he “was” the chairman and founder of an investment firm; he “is” a prisoner-convict.)

      In any case I think the denial of society is mostly about saying: you, individual, ought to see yourself as a solitary, struggling, competing unit (united perhaps to your family) — not as a citizen, or a part of an interconnected whole of society. Thus you should seek to fulfill your desires through victory in the market, not through influencing the course of society. Most importantly: you should not view your situation as somehow a product of society, but you must internalize it as your own personal failure or success.


      The corporation is not at all like the family in the neoliberal thought system. They are not institutions in the same sense. In your relations with the corporation, you are not united as a family: the employer-employee relationship is essentially antagonistic, or at any rate, as competitive as the relationship between two employees, or two candidates for employment. Each party tries to get what you can out of the other. There is no unity. It’s just market relations, buyer and seller.

      (The family is actually *more* competitive and antagonistic than neoliberalism supposes. Feminist thinking starts to acknowledge this in ways.)

  9. laithon April 15, 2013 at 9:13 am | #

    The reason, why conservatives love Thatcher is pretty simple – she successfully imposed her (and their) agenda on UK, and destroyed opposing forces (trade unions). Efficiency and ruthlessness are instant score points for contemporary convervatves, so no wonder they praise Thatcher…

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