opinion
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Conservative revolution

Thatcher and Reagan wanted to liquidate socialism and stunt the permissiveness born of 1968

For decades Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John XXII were the central icons of the 20th century. The object of the conservative revolution in the early 1980s was to substitute them with Thatcher, Reagan and John Paul II. Roosevelt stood for economic regulation and social protection; he and Churchill represented the values of the democracies that prevailed in World War II, while John XXII stood for an updated Church. The conservative revolution aimed, firstly, to dismantle the welfare state, born of fear of the propagation of communism, and secondly, to liquidate the permissive educational and cultural content of May 1968. For more than a quarter-century the conservative revolution has been hegemonic in the field of thought, ideas and economic policies. The last decade's terrorist attacks further accentuated its hardest features.

But the Great Recession that began in 2007 throws doubt on its central postulates, theorized much more intensively by Thatcher and her think-tanks than by Reagan and his "boys," who came to stand for a Keynesianism of the right — a "bastard Keynesianism," in the economist Joan Robinson's words. They left their heirs a huge public deficit, chiefly caused by public investment in Reagan's "star wars" program and the military in general, with the aim of giving communism the coup de grâce. Among these postulates were the following:

The state is the problem, the market the solution. But now we know that the difficulties at the origin of the crisis are precisely those characteristic of a weakened, hobbled state. To police the problems of dysfunctional markets that tend to oligopoly, a strong, supervisory state is required. The bailout of the financial system has been effected with the taxpayer's money at stake, so that, after decades, the verb "nationalize" is once again heard. The only time the conservative revolution stuck to its guns and allowed Lehmann Brothers to go down, as the "rugged individual" of conservative theory must, was when everything was about to collapse. The subsequent stabilization plans amount to a socialization of losses - the cost of the speculators' disaster being spread among the public.

Deregulation as a goal. In 1986, Thatcher touched off the London Stock Market's big bang. The City became a paradise of deregulation and innovation, to an extent that amazed even the experts. Since then far more money has been made in these markets, but the proliferation of derivatives, high-risk funds and opaque instruments - which is at the origin of the present US-sparked crisis - has its true homeland and attained its highest sophistication in the City.

Popular capitalism. The speculative acquisition of shares in companies of whose activity one is not even aware formed part of the new economy, boosted by a media campaign telling us that economic cycles had been relegated to past history by the application of new technologies. We now know what happened: the ownership society generated the real estate bubble, which is at the origin of our present problems. The financial market had an interest in deregulation; the Thatcher/Reagan ideology did them a great service. Today's crisis has questioned the postulates preached by the conservative revolution, which has been polyhedral in its effects. It generated more wealth, but distributed it very regressively. In writing up the balance on a neoconservative legend, we have to remember the losers. They are a tangible reality.

Postscript. Many obituaries have omitted to mention a sinister episode: the protection and moral support given by Thatcher to Pinochet when he was under house arrest in London, after Spain's Judge Garzón demanded his arrest for crimes against humanity. She said the arrest represented the "vengeance of the international left for the defeat of communism, because Pinochet saved Chile and Latin America." As to the means by which he accomplished this salvation, she was never heard to utter a single word.

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