For all the moral claptrap, Thatcherism entered my personal life by way of a temptation or bribe. In 1982 I was grinding away at an academic career. I had been at it since the early sixties and, like most of my colleagues, was gasping for early retirement. To most workers my life would have seemed set in paradise. I was well paid (a fact disputed by the Association of University Teachers), I had a thirteen-hour teaching week and twenty-two weeks vacation per year. However, I felt set in concrete. Perhaps the problem was classic alienation.
At Sussex University, where I taught, we worked a factory-line production system, although, and surprisingly, none of us really seemed to see it this way, despite our heavy theorizing about Marx’s Paris Manuscripts. It must have been the bottles of claret flowing through our tutorials, distorting our vision. Each term we would teach a new lot of faces and they would be passed from tutor to tutor until they left the production line. After a while, the faces became classifiable as types and so we proceeded toward our brain death in ever-decreasing circles.
Organizationally, we were not encouraged to build enduring relationships, and so there was little continuity. Beyond university, the graduate was consumed into the world of work or, it was rumoured, the Department of Employment; but, in general, we had no more knowledge of the destination of our products than the Ford factory worker. There may have been a time when dons gained a sense of personal satisfaction from their intellectual progeny turning up, with some regularity, in the corridors of power, but apart from an ex-student appearing reading the news on television, another getting the Cyril Fletcher slot on That’s Life, and one marrying Melvyn Bragg, I comforted myself with the unsubstantiated hope that my ex-students were out there, changing the world for the better. This, though, did not square with reality, as Thatcherite dominance testified, and my newsreader did not appear uncomfortable handling pr items on the Royal Family.
In the interests of a leaner, fitter—or was it, anorexic?—university
By this time, late 1982/early 1983, the new order was not only producing yuppies, but also an underclass. Without joining the underclass, I queued with them at the Department of Employment and devoted energy to producing a philosophy of powerlessness. The gist of this was that only the powerless were of any moral worth and that what was required was a strategy of self-defence, whereby the underclass could protect itself, without gaining power and so invalidating its moral status. Paradoxically, I was arguing, also, that morality, in any credo, was the means by which the powerful dominated the powerless. This confusing message was to be circulated anonymously, bypassing the media and other forms of commercial communications. For example, it was possible to make atmospheric, attention-grabbing, audiocassettes which could be left almost anywhere. Even the underclass had access to the cassette recorder and it was not expensive to reproduce tapes, so spreading ideas without involving the commercially acceptable forms of mass reproduction. It is probably wishful thinking, but it could be that movements like the Anti-Poll-Tax Union derived impetus from the spread of these ideas.
Another consequence of my self-expulsion from paradise was, if not an intention of the new order, in keeping with its philosophy. Of necessity, I became practical, a handyperson. If Berenson’s life in the Tuscan hills had once beckoned, the seductive lifestyle became selfhelp and diy. The Tory state was not keen to provide an assured and generous living in exchange for intellectual labour; therefore improvements in the quality of life had to be accomplished at the expense of the saw and the screwdriver. As a result, I developed my practical skills, boosting the expansion of Texas Homecare and the like. In fact, visits to diy stores and garden centres took over from visits to the bookshop, theatre and art gallery. For me, the eighties could be characterized as a change in shopping habits. If paradise had been lost, I started, in a modest but satisfying way, to rebuild it from kits. From a revolutionary standpoint these pleasures were private and insular, so seeming to entrench me submissively in the new order, but there was another side to this activity. Academia had estranged me from my working-class past; diy papered over the cracks. My relatives were avid diyers and, suddenly, we had things in common
Meanwhile, the underclass was being wooed by the state with offers of training. Dossers were to be trained to fill the jobs without workers. In the interim, the dossers who signed up became very cheap, casual labour. However, training was not just a practice, it was a theoretical input. From living within the culture we all have some theoretical perspective, but, apart from those entering higher education, there is little direct exposure to theory. A lapsed trade unionism blocks theoretical development, and although a babble of tired theory spills from the media, this contact is indirect and creates a passive pluralism.