Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas: Think-Tanks and Thatcherite Hegemony
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Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas: Think-Tanks and Thatcherite Hegemony


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Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas: Think-Tanks and Thatcherite Hegemony



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Radhika Desai
Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas: Think-Tanks and Thatcherite Hegemony
[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of idea s . . . sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil. —John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
In the struggle for ideas, the battle for hearts and minds which the right has been conducting with such considerable effect, bad ideas can only be replaced by better, more appropriate ones. —Stuart Hall inThe Hard Road to Renewal
Only a few years ago Mrs Thatcher dominated British politics more com-pletely than any other recent British politician.1She seemed bent on impos-ing on British society and economy a thoroughgoing transformation, brooking no opposition, braving all contention and division. However, already in her last years in office the much-touted ‘economic miracle’ seemed to have evaporated as familiar problems of inflation and recession, and newer ones of social and infrastructural neglect, came into view. Despite her unequalled political success, the otherwise enigmatic John Major gave one clear signal in prudently distancing himself from her legacy from the begin-ning, at the risk of appearing—especially in contrast—directionless. The mainstream media, which had provided indispensable ballast to Thatcher-ism in its heyday, turned from narrow neo-liberal verities to the view that government had an important role to play in economic, infrastructural as well as social arenas—that not all solutions could be found in the market. If this were not enough to mark the advent of a definitively post-Thatcherite 27
era, the aftermath of Thatcherism brought the sober realization that, despite its tumult and contention, it may have had a less profound historical impact than its stridently proclaimed ambitions had led most to believe.2 However, even if many of the ghosts of Thatcherism are being serially laid to rest, it is undeniable that its very ambitions—of turning the British economy and society around from its path of decline and decay to one of dynamism, of rooting these transformations in society by displacing the governing orthodoxy and replacing it with a new vision of Britain, indeed of transforming the immediate environment in which ordinary subjects went about their everyday business and even thought about it—these ambitions, in their sheer audacity, were its distinction. In the memorable analysis of Stuart Hall, they made Thatcherism a distinctively hegemonic project. Even if historians and policy analysts probing the Thatcher record find it falling well short of its grandiose ambitions, its central historical interest lies in this. It was a style of politics whose cutting edge was its ideological crusade. Indeed, Thatcherism is widely seen as having underscored the import-ance of ideas and proselytism in politics, especially among people on a Left not yet quite free of economism. The strength and momentum of the Thatcherite project seemed to derive from its apparently inex-haustible reserve of well worked-out ideas for the radical, energetic transformation of Britain. And the vision embedded in these ideas formed the core of the ideology with which Thatcherism sought to replace the popular common sense of the Labourist consensus. Now-adays think-tanks seem in vogue, the Labour Party makes sure everyone knows it’s on the lookout for the ‘big idea’, and Demos—the bold new post-Thatcherite, postmodern, indeed, post-party venture— even while declaring the old political mould obsolete, underlines its acceptance of this one lesson of Thatcherism in its declared aim to ‘draw on the most advanced thinking from throughout society and across the world’ and ‘reinvigorate political thinking’.3The notion derives, of course, from the wide (and correct) acknowledgement of the role of New Right think-tanks and intellectuals in Thatcherism. However, a more nuanced picture of their role in Thatcherism con-tains some important (but not so simple) lessons for those on the Left trying to ‘learn from Thatcherism’ (as Stuart Hall recommended). I. Thatcherism as a Struggle for Hegemony
The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) were unquestionably the two most important channels for Thatcherite ideas. TheIEAis the oldest of the New Right think-tanks, the most ‘academic’, and widely respected for its independence
1I would like to thank Robin Blackburn and Colin Leys for their kind comments on earlier drafts. 2See e.g. David Marsh and R.A.W. Rhodes,Implementing Thatcherism: Audit of an Era, Buckingham1992. 3Geraldine Bedell, ‘Geoff and Martin’s Big Idea’,Independent on Sunday,24January 1993. 28
and what is seen as its dedicated, far-sighted, even mole-grubbing intellectual and ideological preparation for Thatcherism. It was incor-porated as an educational trust with charitable status in1955, but not until1957could it begin work with a ‘part-time staff of one’ and a ‘cramped office scarcely able to accommodate a visitor’.4From these humble beginnings it gradually increased its size, productivity and influence. Eventually housed in a large but unassuming residential building at the corner of Lord North and Great Peter Streets, a minute’s walk from Westminster, at its apogee in the mid eighties it disposed of a half-million pound budget and had a full-time staff of fifteen engaged mostly in the management of its large publication pro-gramme. While revenues from these publications, especially the more successful ones, were significant, and subscriptions instituted in1960 contributed modestly, most of the Institute’s income came from a wide spread of private and corporate donors. The annual report for 1983, for example, listed more than250companies, including large financial and multinational concerns, which had made donations in excess of £250. Professedly concentrating on publishing ‘microeconomic’ studies of market solutions and ‘government failure’ (as opposed to the Keynes-ian ‘market failure’), in its early years it produced some quite success-ful economics texts aimed primarily at the undergraduate and secondary-school markets. The political relevance of theIEA, however, lay in its role as the conduit and popularizer of neo-liberal economic ideas in Britain, principally the work of Friedman, von Hayek and the Virginia Public Choice School (or the Economics of Politics) from the1970s onwards. Until the early eighties at least, its politics could broadly be described as laissez-faire libertarian. Its intellectual ascend-ance in British public life began in the early seventies when it won over several financial journalists of major newspapers. It was called ‘Mrs Thatcher’s intellectual home’ and managed to bring a number of prominentMPs, journalists and academics within its ambit. While theIEAhad been formed well before any prospect of breaking the postwar consensus had presented itself, theCPSwas, in contrast, the child and instrument of those within the Conservative Party who, by1974, saw precisely that prospect. The Centre for Policy Studies, established in1974by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, was the organizational expression of the rising new and theoretical Right within the Conservative Party which attempted a transition from traditional unthinking conservatism to newer and theoretically rigorous free-market ideas. These Conservative and, initially at least, neo-liberal intellectuals typically saw themselves as outsiders in the ‘stupid party’ and prepared an intellectual and political assault on it. The main ideas, and many of the leading personnel, of Thatcherism had their origins here. Slogans like ‘social market economy’ and ‘property-owning democracy’ took shape at theCPSin its halcyon brainstorming days of the mid seventies while the Conservatives were still in opposition. As we shall see, however, around the mid eighties there occurred a shift within theCPSin which its original economic
4Interview with Lord Harris,16May1986.
liberalism was eclipsed by a more social-authoritarian or neo-conservative tendency which sought to elaborate and justify more instinctive ideological themes such as ‘nation’ and ‘family’. Its proximity to the Conservative Party meant that theCPScould never hope to have charitable status; it was incorporated as a com-pany limited by guarantee. Contributions to the Centre were party political and its fund-raisers had to be careful not to tap the Tory party’s own sources of funding excessively. In July1974it acquired a modest building in Wilfred Street which continues to house its small staff, which has hardly ever exceeded seven full-time employees. In the mid eighties it operated with a meagre budget of £150,000. Its deep involvement in the Conservative Party’s succession struggle in1974– 75meant that it was unable to announce its existence publicly until after the1975leadership elections—i.e. after an initial and crucial phase of its activity, aimed at aiding the New Right’s and, as it turned ut, Mrs Thatcher’ t f r power within the Conservative Part o s, ques o y, was already over. Two other think-tanks also figured, if less centrally, in the trajectory of Thatcherism. The Institute of Directors (IOD), while primarily a club of company directors, was widely seen as having displaced the Confederation of British Industry in having the ear of the Thatcher governments. An organization liable to takeover by minorities, due to its politically dormant individual membership, its Policy Unit was successfully turned into a platform for voicing, in the name of its member directors, vigorous support for the first Thatcher govern-ment’s monetarist policies (which, momentarily at least, theCBI seemed prepared to resist).5It saw its role as egging on the Thatcher governments along their dogmatic free-market, anti-trade-union, pro-entrepreneurship path. Selfconsciously speaking on behalf of smaller companies, it was understandably more individualist–entrepreneurial in its ideology than theCBI: a ‘USmodel’ was a central part of theIOD agenda. Two of its persistent themes have been fiscal management and trade-union legislation. A fourth New Right think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), was regarded as something of a curiosity even by its colleagues. Originally formed in theUSAit transferred its operations to London in, 1979. It did not seem to be part of any established institutional milieu in Britain and was run by a closely-knit group of three, including two brothers (Madsen Pirie and Stuart and Eammon Butler). Despite its small size and budget, it proved adroit at getting press attention and regarded this as the prime measure of its success. It imitated the style of American think-tanks, producing in the early1980s its own ‘Man-date for Leadership’, the Omega Project—a series of detailed policy recommendations for the Thatcher governments. It also published a
5The monetarist shock treatment hit manufacturing interests hardest but after a brief show of opposition led by its then director-general Sir Terence Beckett, theCBI, in any case not the mouthpiece of any coherently defined manufacturing interest, more or less acquiesced in the Thatcherite project. On the relation of capital and fractions thereof to Thatcherism see Colin Leys, ‘Thatcherism and British Manufacturing: A Question of Hegemony ,NLR151.
parliamentary index ofMPs which scored their support for state provision versus individual choice on over forty free votes. Even more than the other Thatcherite think-tanks it saw its role in terms of pushing back the limits of the politically thinkable. It professed to try to create a trans-Atlantic, and ultimately international, exchange of ideas, especially on topics where the experience of other countries could set Britain an example, such as privatization and taxation. However, its trans-Atlantic links remained mysterious and it was widely rumoured to be financed by theCIA. Apart from these think-tanks which had a broad range of concerns, there were many smaller and more focused ones, for example the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, the British-North American Research Association and the Trade and Industry Research Group. Together with longer-established Conservative groups, like the Monday Club, the Selsdon Group, or new ones like the Salisbury Group, they became integrated into a wider New Right ‘think-tank world’. Propaganda organizations like Aims of Industry, the National Association For Freedom (NAFF), and small business groups like the Association of Self-Employed People, also formed part of this world. The Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), set up in1947by Fried-rich von Hayek as an international congress of neo-liberal intellectuals to battle what he saw as the tide of collectivism sweeping the world, had blossomed in the eighties into an international network which also included intellectuals associated with the fast-proliferating right-wing think-tanks from around the world. Reaching the Target These ‘second-hand dealers in ideas’—to use theIEA’s own descrip-tion off its role—were typically not intellectual originators but served to collect, distill and preserve certain strands of ideas and to diffuse them more widely, not least as detailed interventions in current policy debates. They operated in a common environment, a distinct sub-universe which was not only geographically close to, but also had close links with, the political, journalistic and financial worlds of London, being located within the two or three square miles that contain West-minster, Whitehall, the City, and Fleet Street. It is interesting that while British think-tanks operated on budgets that amount to a mere fraction of those of theirUScounterparts, this apparent limitation was vastly made up for by the extreme centralization of British political and public life where access to effective or ‘target audiences’ was well within the reach of these few well-located institutions. Even more interesting was the frequency with which this difference was alluded to by people in the think-tanks: it was a central aspect of their perspective on the requirements of their task. They consciously aimed to effect a transformation in the views of a strategic policy-making elite. While, of course, broader media coverage was always useful and often successfully achieved, this was usually in the ‘quality’, not the popular, press. Moreover, in no sense were these think-tanks broad-based or mass organizations. Unlike the Fabian Society, for example, they had no memberships or branches and so their organizational and doctrinal affairs could be controlled by the small, necessarily self-selecting groups of people who worked in them.
The think-tanks’ relationship with the Thatcher governments was ser-viced through a number of channels: the media; the various politi-cians who contributed to the think-tanks’ publications or participated in their lunches, launches, seminars and conferences; Mrs Thatcher s outside ideological advisors, including theCPSitself, which served to transmit ideas to both the Conservative Party and the Thatcher governments; and lastly and very importantly, the No.10Policy Unit which was set up to be and remained an importantentrée‘ d  , a gran suggestions box’ for pushing neo-liberal theories and policy proposals into an otherwise indifferent Whitehall.6It was a world in which market theories, libertarianism, anti-communism and, more often than not, right-wing authoritarianism, all dwelt together. Its intellect-uals, journalists, politicians, civil servants, committed businessmen, and ‘young Turks’ jostled in the prevailing air of evangelical prosely-tizing zeal, self-righteousness and (by the mid eighties) euphoria. This sort of bounded density could create the impression that these New Right think-tanks and their members were involved largely in a mutually reinforcing dialogue among themselves—‘a society of like-minded people reinforcing one another s preconceived notions and rejecting any thinking that does not fit the mould—practising what consultants call the art of ‘‘directed conclusions’’ ’7—and it would seem to contradict the general impression of their importance and influence. As we shall see, however, a closer analysis of their role suggests that they were significant nonetheless, even though—as several academic studies have already shown—their ideas were often contradictory and unimpressive in themselves.8 Problems of Left Analysis Two preoccupations have marked the Left’s analysis of Thatcherism. The first and broadest is an assessment of Mrs Thatcher s revolution ’ ‘ ’ as the terrain on which the Left must operate. The second more specific preoccupation relates precisely to the prominence of ideology in its project.9A closer understanding of the Thatcherite struggle for hegemony was seen as crucial to an appreciation of the requirements of a successful Left struggle for hegemony. According to Stuart Hall
6‘The Prime Minister’s Policy Unit’, by David Willets, a former member of it, now a ConservativeMP;Public Administration, vol.65,1987. 7Gregg Easterbrook in ‘Ideas Move Nations’,The Atlantic Monthly, January1986, makes this remark in relation to American think-tanks. 8example of good work of this sort is Nick Bosanquet’sAn After the New Right, London1984he discusses aspects of the thought of von Hayek, Friedman, the, where Economics of Politics and the publications of theIEA. 9The major source of the analysis of Thatcherism is Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, eds,The Politics of Thatcherism, London1983. Hall’sPolicing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London1979provides a good account of the run-up to Thatcher-, ism. Articles by Hall, Andrew Gamble and others inMarxism Todaythrough the mid seventies and eighties are useful contemporary analyses of the phenomenon. Andrew Gamble’s ‘Free Economy Strong State’ in R. Miliband and J. Saville, eds,The Socialist Register, London1978roots and rationale of the ideology., investigates the intellectual While the above works detail the various aspects of the Thatcherite struggle for hegemony, Colin Leys’ ‘Neo-Conservatism and the Organic Crisis in Britain’,Studies in Political Economy4(1980) places Thatcherism in the general perspective of the social-democratic crisis of hegemony. 32
the analysis of Thatcherism, in prompting the Left to move away from long-accepted economistic verities, and the crisis of the Left itself, were ‘interrelated . . . two sides of the same coin’.10 I have come to a particular view about at least the elements of a strategy of renewal on the Left because I think I understand what constitutes That-cherism as not simply a worthy opponent of the Left, but in some deeper way its nemesis, the force that is capable in this historical moment of unhingeing it from below. Thus, what I say about the crisis of the Left is a sort of mirror image of what I say about Thatcherism. The only way of genuinely contesting a hegemonic form of politics is to develop a counter-hegemonic strategy.11
Hall was criticized for being idealist, for giving too much importance to ideological aspects especially when the social and economic depre-dations of Thatcherism seemed so overwhelming.12And opinion poll evidence to the effect that the homilies of Thatcherism were not accepted by the public was cited to challenge the very notion of a hegemonic Thatcherism.13Hall’s defence against this last charge was to point out that he had never claimed that Thatcherism was hege-monic, only that it aimed to be so. Its success or otherwise had to be independently verified.14Colin Leys further defended Hall’s Gram-scian approach by pointing out that Hall had never written as though Thatcherism was pure ideology with no material conditions of exist-ence. Ideology did have material conditions of existence, he pointed out, but ‘what[Hall’s]workisintended to show is thatthe opposite is also true: that material incentives and policies haveideologicalcondi-tions of existence.’15battering ram of the transformation whichThe Thatcherism proposed to impose on Britain was itsideologicalcrusade. And the problem on the Left, Hall argued, was that it had yet to assess the full implications of this; the Left was ‘not convinced that it cannot continue in the old way. In many of its leading echelons it[did]not possess a hegemonic conception of political strategy’.16
If the crisis that brought forth Thatcherism, and the changes wrought by Thatcherism in British society, were pressingly material, the ‘con-struction’ of this crisis to the advantage of the Conservatives in1979, and the vision of a different Britain which fuelled its radical policies thereafter, were ideological. They betrayed Thatcherism’s hegemonic intent. Its unpopularity hardly diminished the veracity of this contention: as Leys argued in1990, ‘for an ideology to be hegemonic, it is not necessary that it be loved. It is merely necessary that it have
10Stuart Hall,The Hard Road to Renewal, Verso, London1988, p.1. This collection brings together Hall’s pioneering essays on the Gramscian interpretation of Thatcher -ism and other reflections on the crisis and prospects of the Left in Britain. 11Ibid., p.11. 12See, for example, Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnet and Simon Bromley, ‘Farewell to That-cherism? Neo-Liberalism and New Times’,NLR179. 13See, for example, Ivor Crewe, ‘Values: The Crusade that Failed’, in Denis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, eds,The Thatcher Effect, Oxford1989. 14Hall, ‘Authoritarian Populism: A Reply to Jessop et al’,Stuart NLR151. 15Colin Leys, ‘Still a Question of Hegemony’,NLR181, p.126. 16Stuart Hall,The Hard Road . . ., p.11. 33
no serious rival. And is this not, nowadays, roughly the situation with Thatcherism?’17 Even so, it is undeniable that a certain amount of confusion still hangs over the issue. What does it mean to call Thatcherism hegemonic if it was not actively supported or ‘loved’ by the public? Isn’t the attract-iveness of the Gramscian perspective based on the perception that it might yield a democratic and consensual Left strategy? If Thatcherism was not consensual but rather an oppressive ideology whose success could mainly be attributed to the fact that ‘There is no alternative’, what could a democratic Left have to learn from it? Such questions need to be answered if the study of Thatcherism is to yield any gain in terms of theoretical and strategic insight for the Left. The confusion, I would argue, arises out of an insufficient specifica-tion of what the Thatcherite struggle for hegemony entailed, indeed of what hegemony in general can be said to consist in, in a manner which allows one to understand how exactly, and to what extent, That-cherism fitted the bill. And this specification in turn throws a clearer light on the role of the think-tanks because of a particular aspect of Thatcherism, relatively unanalysed to date—namely the fact that Thatcherism was an ideology armed with a set of (mainly economic) theories.18These, while playing a debatable part in its legitimation, imparted to the project such coherence as it could boast. Brokered by the think-tanks, these theories and the detailed policy options based on them did enter the Thatcher governments and provided the basis for their distinctive policies. The Thatcherite Vision Two related products were on offer through the think-tanks. In the first instance the work of theIEAand in a more derivative fashion that of other think-tanks made available an intellectual framework, a prerequisite of hegemony which Stuart Hall described as ‘a perspec-tive on what is happening to society, a vision of the future’,19which accounted for the overall coherence of Thatcherism through its succes-sive phases. An important component of this framework, especially important in the emergence of Thatcherism, was an overall critique of the Keynesian consensus which was effective if also oversimplified and partial. Secondly, most of the specific policy initiatives of the Thatcher governments originated as proposals from these think-tanks: monetarism, the abolition of exchange controls, the sale of council houses, the contracting out of government services, the curbing of union powers and the abolition of metropolitan councils are all examples.
17Colin Leys, ‘Still a Question of Hegemony’, p.127. 18In her recent analysis ofThe Anatomy of Thatcherism, London1993, Shirley Letwin, one of the neo-conservative (as opposed to neo-liberal) Thatcherite intellectuals associated with theCPS, attempts to argue that Thatcherism is most centrally defined by its moral agenda rather than its economic theories. Despite her lucid presentation, Letwin simply attempts to systematize post hoc an amalgam of prejudices and ill-digested moral theories that contrasts markedly with the relative theoretical coherence of Thatcherite economic doctrines. 19Stuart Hall,The Hard Road . . ., p.271. 34
The relationship between the ideas of the think-tanks and the policies of the Thatcher governments is complex. Firstly, the think-tanks pro-vided a sort of maximum agenda from which the Thatcher govern-ments could pick and choose depending on administrative, political and electoral convenience. Many of their proposals remained unim-plemented: education vouchers, a negative income tax, and a ban on strikes in essential services are long-standing examples. But there were also proposals which were meant merely to shock, to stretch the bounds of credulity: e.g. a tongue-in-cheek proposal to ‘privatize’ the royal family. These did, however, serve the vital function of demon-strating the long reach, the scope, of the ideology, potentially covering all aspects of society and thus fit to be a hegemonic ideology. Secondly, as a corollary, in the acceptance or rejection of these proposals by the Thatcher governments considerations of electoral or political damage were hardly in the background, much to the disgruntlement of the think-tanks. Indeed, a third aspect of this relationship entailed a reverse flow, where successful government experimentation with a policy led to its further and more systematic and theoretical advocacy by the think-tanks, complete with blueprints for further extensions. This was the case with privatization. Although it sounds in many respects counterintuitive, privatization of nationalized industries had not been a significant item on theIEA’s agenda before the govern-ment’s early successes with general asset sales and the privatization of companies such as Britoil,ICIand British Aerospace. As a device to reduce thePSBR, it was pioneered under the previous Labour adminis-tration. Samuel Brittan records that the option of privatization was considered and rejected by the Conservative Party for the1979and 1983manifestos as possibly being technically too difficult or politic-ally unacceptable.20TheIEAtended to argue for the beneficial effects of the market and competition, but monopoly not ownership was its central concern. The solution for the inefficiency of the nationalized sector was more competition and it did not require a change in owner-ship to achieve this.21It was only with the infusion of the Economics of Politics into Britain, largely through the efforts of theIEA, with its theory of lack of incentives in the public sector (combined later with its being the stronghold of union power), that an inherently low pro-ductivity and inefficiency was imputed to it and theorized. An intel-lectually respectable justification for privatization was now available. Detailed studies of various industries and proposals for their privatiz-ation then followed. Thus, the early successes, the need for revenues, the electoral potential, and finally the theoretical justification all came together to make up one of the more successful and enduring policies of Thatcherism. It must not, however, be assumed that Thatcherism was therefore really pragmatic and used theories only to justify what it did for quite different reasons. The record of Thatcherism is littered with too many ideologically motivated policy disasters (beginning with the keystone of monetarism itself, through theNHSreforms to the poll tax) for this
20Samuel Brittan, ‘The Politics and Economics of Privatization’,Political Quarterly, vol.55(1985), p.110. 21See e.g. Ivy Papps,Government and Enterprise,IEA, London1975.
to be plausible. Indeed, the fact that even after Thatcher these free-market and monetarist theories, while short of having acquired the status of a new intellectual orthodoxy, continue to constitute import-ant parameters of political debate, is a measure of their importance. Yet, as things stand, the role of the think-tanks in the pregnant ideo-logical and political conjuncture that was Thatcherism remains obscure —even while they seem to be taken as unexamined models for shallow emulation. In order to clarify the think-tanks’ role, then, a better understanding of the role of intellectuals in the organization of hege-mony is needed. So far, this has largely been ignored by Marxists, including those working within a Gramscian perspective, out of a deep-seated if also misguided anti-elitist/anti-intellectualist bias. So in what follows, I will first present a revised Gramscian theoretical frame-work, which attributes a central role to intellectuals. The theoretical positions which the New Right think-tanks articulated will be pre-sented in relation to the broader context of British intellectual life. Then against this background, the role of the principal Thatcherite think-tanks is analysed. The conclusion draws out the implications for understanding the Thatcher phenomenon, and for the broader ques-tion of the requirements of a left-wing struggle for hegemony. II. Intellectuals and Think-Tanks in Hegemonic Struggle As Gramsci insisted, ‘All men are intellectual s . . . but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals’. The distinctive character of intellectuals had to be sought not in the intrinsic nature of the activity in which they are engaged—‘mental’ as opposed to ‘manual’ labour—but rather in the ‘ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups which personify them) have their place in the general complex of social rela-tions.’22While this is an important caveat against any inclination to fetishize intellectuals, it does not work as a definition. Indeed, abstract definitions of intellectuals are notoriously difficult. One may, how-ever, delineate a conception of intellectuals for the present purpose: intellectuals are those who concern themselves with the study ofsocial reality: what Perry Anderson called ‘culture’, by which he meant ‘the culture that is immediately central and internal to any politic s . . . which provides our fundamental concepts of humanity and society’. Such a definition extends mainly to the social sciences and excludes natural science (which studies nature not society) and creative art (which is not primarily conceptual).23In contemporary society, one may also say, following Régis Debray, that access to the means of mass communication is vital, ‘for it involves the intellectual activity itself, the realization or non-realization of its concept as the action of man on man[sic]through symbolic communication, a project of influence’.24
22Antonio Gramsci,Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, New York1971, pp.89 . 23Perry Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’, revised version inEnglish Questions, Verso, London1992, p.50. First published inNLR50. 24Régis Debray,Teachers, Writers and Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France, Verso, London1981, p.32.
Clearly for Debray, as for Gramsci and many other commentators on intellectual life, true intellectual work is also distinguished by its social engagement. Philosophy is a practico-critical activity; ivory-tower reflection, unless it becomes socially relevant at some stage, does not, strictly speaking, belong to the category of intellectual activity.25 Intellectuals are then producers of ‘culture’, the prevalent understand-ings of society and its organization, and at the same time they are engaged in the mediatic and politico-cultural processes of society. Almost all theories of the role of intellectuals, both Marxist and non-Marxist, seem to be designed to account for rather long-term changes within the intelligentsia, such as the declining influence of the clergy and the rise of the secular intelligentsia with the breakdown of the feudal order. However the task of understanding shifts in hegemony over relatively short periods of historical time requires an understand-ing of intellectual and ideological processes at a more conjunctural level. As analysed by Gramscians, Thatcherism is just such a conjunc-tural phenomenon: a struggle for hegemony in a period of the organic crisis of the postwar welfare state. The latter’s modestly egalitarian impulses were fatally premissed on a continued economic growth to which it did not hold the key. Upon confronting the seemingly irre-versible long-term decline of the British economy, compounded and intensified by the slowdown of the postwar global capitalist expan-sion, a whole range of counter-cyclical and redistributive instruments entered a critical phase of organic crisis. This was marked by a com-plex set of symptoms including inflation, balance of payments prob-lems, union militanc ‘ l panics’,26and widening doubts about y, mora the accepted governing ideology. The material substratum of the organic crisis was the crisis of a particular ‘strategy of accumulation’, that of Fordist–Keynesian mass consumption;27while the immediate political crisis was precipitated by the dismal failure of corporatism to deal with the economic crisis, combined with the widespread impression of unbridled union power propagated by most of the media. This formed the ‘t rrain of the conjunctural’ on which the  e forces of the opposition organize[d]’,28and on which political and ideological realignments—in the event only Thatcherism—emerged. In the ideological struggle that ensued, Thatcherism sought not only to establish its claim to better policies, but, beyond particular policies, to replace the crumbling consensus with a combination of ‘the resonant themes of organic Toryism—nation, family, duty, authority, standards, traditionalism—[and]aggressive themes of a revived neo-liberalism—self-interest, competitive individualism, anti-statism’.29 25is, of course, an important implication of Gramsci’s insistence that intellectualThis work was not defined by its intrinsic characteristic—mental labour—no matter how brilliant. More recently, Russell Jacoby (The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, New York1987) draws a stark contrast between intellectuals and academics —a distinction which becomes more necessary with the increasingly insular institu-tionalization of so much ‘mental labour’ in the academy. 26See Stuart Hall et al.,Policing the Crisis, for a complex contemporary account of these symptoms. 27Bob Jessop, ‘Accumulation Strategies, State Forms and Hegemonic Projects’, Kapitalstate10/11,1983. 28Gramsci,Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p.179. 29Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, inThe Politics of Thatcherism, p.29. 37