Review: Alexander Gallas, The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis

Alexander Gallas. The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016)

Nicos Poulantzas is a thinker awaiting a revival of interest. A theorist of states, classes, and the dynamics of fascism and authoritarianism, his work has some obvious relevance for contemporary political problems. Born in Greece in 1936, he relocated to Germany and then France for graduate study and was effectively exiled after 1967 by the rule of the Greek colonels. In Political Power and Social Classes, published at the end of the sixties, and in State, Power, Socialism, a decade later, Poulantzas developed a complex conceptual model for understanding the workings of capitalist states. Both books were quickly translated into English and published by what was then called New Left Books, subsequently Verso Books.       According to Poulantzas, the state was not a simple instrument of capitalism (what Marx and Engels called “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”), but a site defined by the divisions of the capitalist class as well by larger divisions between the working class and the bourgeoisie. And where his contemporary, Ralph Miliband, presented a capitalist state as that which mainly does the ruling class’s bidding. Poulantzas argued for a greater separation of powers between capitalists (who are devoted to short-term concerns about profits) and the state (which can devote itself to the long-term health of capitalism).

States are also “fractional”, riven by intra-class divisions between the different fractions of capital (finance capital, agri-capital, industrial capital, etc.); there is no single ruling class that could seize state machinery for its own ends. Miliband and Poulantzas would continue their dispute in a famous exchange of articles in the New Left Review. Two later books, Fascism and Dictatorship (1970) and Crisis of the Dictatorships (1976), merged the theoretical with the empirical, studying events in Poulantzas’ native Greece as well as elsewhere in Europe. He committed suicide in 1979, after a year-long period of worsening depression.

For all the cogency of his writings, though, Poulantzas has remained overshadowed by Althusser and Gramsci, his two major forebears. To date, there has only been one dedicated study of Poulantzas, Bob Jessop’s eponymous 1985 book, now out of print, as well as a select compendium of his writings, published by Verso a decade ago. Alexander Gallas’ study of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven years of government – readable, engaged and provocative – has the parallel aim of boosting Poulantzas’ conceptual tools and their value for understanding states, classes and populist authoritarianism.

The spine of Gallas’ book is another dispute between competing Marxist camps; Bob Jessop and a number of comrades who sarcastically became known as the “Gang of Four”, against Stuart Hall and his writers at the now-defunct Marxism Today magazine. Both were attempting, from 1979 onwards, to understand the phenomenon of Margaret Thatcher

“Hall at al. primarily examined how the Thatcherites conducted the “battle for the hearts and minds” of the population and stressed that their “ideological offensive” triggered a profound shift in political discourse. In contrast, the gang of four focused on investigating how the Thatcherites acted with and shaped “the specific institutional form of the connections between the state, civil society and the economy, and the distinctive organisation of the state system itself”… the analyses of Hall et al. displayed an ideational bias, while those of the gang of four showed an institutional bias. In other words, Jessop at al. primarily operated in the field of political economy, and Hall et al. in that of political ideology.”

Recognising that the Jessop-Hall debate was actually focusing on two subtly different aspects of British politics, Gallas constructs a multifaceted theoretical apparatus that brings both approaches into frame; base and superstructure are merged in a thorough political history of the Thatcherite period. Gallas, though, leans more toward the Jessop end of the spectrum, unsurprisingly given that this book emerged out a doctorate supervised by Jessop.

Reflecting his Poulantzasian commitments, Gallas begins his story before 1979 and continues into the Major era and the early years of Blair’s premiership; this is a study of shifting forces within the British state, the ways in which those forces restructured the economy, and alterations in perceptions, attitudes and popular ideology. It is not a study of Margaret Thatcher herself. The social origins of the Thatcherite movement are located in shifts within the capitalist class as well as between capital and labour.   The wealthier established elite of the Conservative Party fell out of step with an emergent and disgruntled petit-bourgeoise. The government of Edward Heath, advocating a “One Nation” Toryism, was increasingly seen as a damp squib. The successful miners’ strike of 1974, which brought down Heath’s government, confirmed the dangers of organised labour for the Tories. Enoch Powell, an apostate from the Conservatives, advocated racism and laissez faire monetarism, an apparently popular melding but one that lacked a supporting party structure.

Keith Joseph was another John the Baptist – he began flying the flag for monetarism in the early 70s, but decided against running for Tory leader himself, having faced “strong criticism for his proposition that the right to have children should be restricted for poorer Britons.” Thatcher filled this void, lambasting the Tory “Wets” for their failures. But she took on other targets too: “she time and again operated on the grounds of a politics of fear, fuelling moral panics by invoking perceived threats to the British nation that she then could use to legitimise authoritarian forms of social control directed against minorities and her political enemies.” In time, Thatcher and her allies would come to develop a “Two Nations” politics, claiming to represent a nation of hard-working “real” Britons, against a Nation of parasites, lazy dole-cheats, immigrants, feckless single mothers, terrorists and assorted other social pariahs.

Much of this was already being signposted before her accession to power. Gallas holds to a kind of intentionalist interpretation of Thatcherism, seeing later policies echoed in pre-1979 policy documents. This is perhaps overstated. As he himself points out her own “ideological orientation” was still forming in the mid-1970s. Gallas, though, does carefully enumerate a precise chronology of Thatcherism; a pre-history prior to 1977 and a period of coalescing until 1979, paralleled by crises within the then-ruling Labour Party; the first half-decade of formal rule, during which the Thatcherites carried out class-politics by stealth and were not yet ready for a direct confrontation with opponents in the labour movement; four years of instability and confrontation from 1984-88, with the Miners’ Strike as the central event; another four years of entrenchment from 1988 to 1992, though with the paradox that Thatcher herself lost power at the high-tide of Thatcherism; and finally a longer process of losing control. Blair, in office from 1997, is presented as the heir of Thatcher. According to Conservative politician Conor Burns, Thatcher once remarked that “Tony Blair and New Labour” were her greatest achievements. In Gallas’ periodisation “Thatcherism” continued to 1999, after which Blair and New Labour changed tack, with different class forces coming to the fore.

Gallas also uses his retelling of the Thatcherite narrative to pinpoint the problem of Poulantzas’ “class reductionism” and the ways in which he subsumed gender relations into class relations; for Gallas, both are invested in each other. Privileging class over gender (or race) cannot not explain the full scope of the Thatcherite Offensive. One of Poulantzas’ major ideological innovations – that “the state” was not just the sum of its institutional parts but also included families, the church, schools, since all of these serve as conduits for the propagation of capitalist ideology – is, however, not drawn upon. Gallas is certainly alert to rhetoric of Thatcher in this regard; religious piety was a favoured topic and in one of her most notorious declamations (later disavowed), Thatcher told Woman’s Own magazine in 1987 that “There is no such thing” as society, rather “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” Yet Gallas’ discussion of such claims remains at the level of superstructure, avoiding discussion of how Thatcher changed the base reality of families.

Gallas’ conclusion is that Thatcherism was successful in the short term – pace Stuart Hall, her regime did succeed in terms of class politics and achieving hegemony (to the degree that full hegemony is possible). But Unemployment remained a perennial problem throughout the Thatcher years, topping three million in 1984. Manufacturing jobs dropped year-on-year and on more than one occasion, the Thatcherites tried and failed to put full-throated monetarist policies into place. Inflation remained high throughout the 1980s.   Thus, following Jessop and his Gang of Four, Gallas concludes that Thatcherism was a failure in the medium-term, in its attempts to successfully restructure the British economy.

It is a challenge to read Gallas’ book and not have contemporary American politics come to mind – a right-wing leader, disdainful of both accepted norms of political conduct and of perceived weakness in their own party; a Left collapsing into acrimony and failing to mount a serious challenge (despite this new leader never gaining a majority of votes); a nostalgia for the imperial past and the notion that soft-authoritarian rule could “Make Great Britain Great Again” (the slogan Thatcher used for her failed 1950 electoral campaign); Manichean two-nations ideas that divided the landscape into those who had a right to belong, and a host of evil interlopers – antinomies that found their logical fulfillment in Thatcher’s talk of Britain being “swamped” with immigrants. Certainly there are differences between Thatcher and Trump; the former was never so crude, never so enamored of overt white supremacy, never so willing to rile up the popular masses. But the similarities are also quite blatant.

And just as with The Thatcherite Offensive, Nicos Poulantzas offers a robust set of conceptual tools for understanding the Trumpian Offensive. Competing power centers within the state; divisions between Silicon Valley capitalists (who look out to the world and fund the Democrats) and manufacturing capitalists (who favor protectionism); a white proletariat willing to make an inter-class alliance with industrial capital; a petit-bourgeois class (probably Trump’s biggest demographic) who feel squeezed between larger forces that they can’t control and who hanker for an imagined golden age of US capitalism. These are familiar elements in the Trumpian debacle and Poulantzas’ theoretical tool box offers revealing ways for understanding all of them.   Gallas’ book is a worthwhile push for bringing Poulantzas into contemporary political analysis.


Aidan Beatty is a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity College Dublin. He has an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. His first book, Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938, was recently awarded the James S. Donnelly, Sr., Prize for Books in History and Social Sciences, from the American Conference for Irish Studies.


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