When I think of Margaret Thatcher, a series of ghastly associations flits through my mind: her passionate hostility toward unions, the time she spanked Christopher Hitchens with a rolled-up batch of papers (punctuating the blow with “naughty boy!”), and her infamous claim that “there is no such thing as society.” To put it in the grating parlance of the Trump era, the last of these has always struck me as saying the quiet part out loud — not a confession, exactly, which would imply Thatcher might have been embarrassed or ashamed by what she said, but a moment of unusually blunt honesty. Her defenders insist, of course, that the line is usually presented out of context, and it’s true that she followed it with the somewhat gentler, alternative language of a “living tapestry of men and women and people” — conceding that we might have some kind of connection to others, however frayed and threadbare.
Fair enough, I suppose. But Thatcher’s broader point was that there are only “individual men and women and families” — the people who blame “society” for their problems are accusing a non-entity, an abstraction without agency, only to turn around and demand the government take care of them. In place of personal responsibility, the environment we grow up in is taken to determine our fate, and the shiftless dropout, the deadbeat dad, and the welfare queen are all handed an excuse for their layabout ways. This perspective helps explain the right’s various phrenological fixations, especially the supposed links between race and IQ: If society doesn’t factor into poverty, crime, addiction, and poor health — indeed, if society doesn’t even properly exist—then the source of such afflictions must be located within the very bodies and brains of those who suffer them. Where else would it be?
Lately, however, I’ve come to believe that we should understand Thatcher’s remarks differently — not just as an excuse to sneer at the downtrodden, but as a political project, an aspiration. This is especially the case for conservatives in the United States, where Thatcher’s long been admired, not least as an ideological ally and devoted friend of Ronald Reagan. It can seem as if those on the American right read Thatcher’s line and responded, “I don’t know if she’s right, but let’s see if we can make it happen.”
The belief that society doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t, is a rejection of neighborliness and trust, a democratic civic culture, and the possibility of encountering those unlike yourself on equal ground. It is, in a way, an attempt to make the world your home — a place of safety and control. Of course the right despises “social justice”: it implies that domestic hierarchies and private prejudices will no longer be reproduced or tolerated “out there.” Nowhere are these tendencies better seen than in the right’s assault on public education. This shouldn’t be surprising: public schools are where a patriarch, or any parent, begins to lose the ability to superintend all their children see or hear or read, the place where the home begins to give way to society. In particular, the right is smearing some of our most dedicated public servants, public-school teachers, as pedophiles and groomers, while stoking a moral panic over transgender people—including the mere acknowledgement of their existence in public schools but, also, in places like Texas, targeting parents who affirm their transgender kid by investigating them for child abuse.
The conservative assault on society can also be seen in their attempt to turn our public spaces into zones of armed conflict — extending the privileges of defending your home or property to, well, almost anywhere. An armed society is not a polite society, as the trite bumper sticker asserts, but something closer to the state of nature, the war of all against all. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down most limits on who can carry firearms in public, routine conflicts and arguments that happen all the time in the course of our day-to-day lives — on the street, at the store — become potential shootouts. With stand your ground laws and laws that allow protesters to be run over with vehicles, reactionaries are empowered to patrol the public square with increasing impunity. Under such conditions, going out to a restaurant, taking your children to a museum or public park, or simply strolling through a city on a pleasant evening take on new risks.
These policies and others seem designed to sow paranoia and inflict pain.
Take the infamous bounty-hunter abortion law passed by Republicans in the Texas legislature last summer. It deputized private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who performs or aids with an abortion after a so-called “fetal heartbeat” is detected (about six weeks), and offered a prize of $10,000 for anyone who did so successfully. Put differently, it turned neighbors, family members, old boyfriends — literally, almost anyone — into a potential informant empowered to pry into the most intimate and painful aspects of people’s lives, like making someone prove they really had a miscarriage. Similar cruelties have occurred since the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned Roe. Doctors hesitate to treat a patient bleeding out from a pregnancy gone wrong, ectopic pregnancies are left to linger until extreme danger sets in, and vital medications that could possibly induce an abortion are being scrutinized or withheld from those who need them because, say, they’re immunocompromised.
These policies and others seem designed to sow paranoia and inflict pain, which is part of the point. The right benefits from people becoming more isolated, hunkered down, wary of others, and doubtful that a better future can be built. It is to such people that the reactionary message appeals: the best you can hope for is to hoard what you have, and attack the shadowy forces and alien others that you’re told imperil you and your livelihood. Solidarity and generosity are turned into risky wagers not worth taking.
But if society can be attacked and weakened, it also can be supported and strengthened. Democrats, at least in the past, knew how to do the latter. One of the most striking emphases of historian Eric Rauchway’s excellent recent book, Why the New Deal Matters, is that Franklin Roosevelt and his administration understood that despair could be countered and democracy fortified by a kind of social infrastructure. So they built public libraries at time when, as Rauchway observes, Nazis were burning and banning books. They built theaters and public pools and commissioned murals to beautify public spaces. My favorite detail from Rauchway’s book is how many sidewalks the New Deal helped build: throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, workers hired by the Work Projects Administration laid about twenty-four thousand miles of new sidewalks and improved another seven thousand more. Some of this, certainly, was meant to give people jobs during the Great Depression. But they were also public goods that brought people together, and were ways of making communities easier to feel a part of and entertainment and culture enjoyable for more than the rich.
It is no accident that, in the wake of such efforts, the rightwing in America was, if all too briefly, pushed to margins of our political life — nor that the New Deal and, later, the Civil Rights Movement became the great enemies of the conservative movement, two moments in our history when fitful attempts were made to live together more justly and decently. Which is to say, these were two moments when we acted as if we really did live in a society, that this fact meant we had obligations to each other, duties of care and concern, and that we had the power to strengthen the ties that bind. We still do.
Matthew Sitman is a writer in New York City, and the cohost of the podcast Know Your Enemy.