Quote of the week: Thatcher, monetarism and Marx’s reserve army

Following the last two weeks’ quotes from an interesting chapter by Fabio Petri, this is the third and final extract in this ‘mini’ series. It includes a revealing statement by a top Treasury civil servant under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which saw a severe recession and the return of mass unemployment, topping three million by the middle of the decade, justified by the need bring down inflation.

The use of incomes policies involving negotiations between government, employers and trade unions to limit wage rises and mitigate the wage-price spiral of the time had largely broken down and the new government declared that the monetarist policies championed by Milton Friedman were the only way to do it. But the quote below reveals that Thatcher, rather than strongly adhering to monetarism, saw mass unemployment as an effective way of weakening the power of organised labour and its wage demands.

Inflation did come down, not just due to the renewed weakness of the working class, but also due to the sharp fall in the price of oil and other commodities on global markets, caused by recession across many of the world’s advanced economies. These developments came at great cost, and one must still wonder whether there could have been an alternative to the economic and social brutalities they engendered. Thatcher had declared not, an attitude exemplified by her famous TINA (There Is No Alternative) slogan. The reappearance of what Marx called the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed, and the end of the post war policy commitment to full employment had been predicted by Michal Kalecki back in 1943.

“The 1970s witnessed the end of the Golden Age. Palma (sic) reports a declaration by Sir Alan Budd (a top civil servant at the British Treasury under Thatcher, and later Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford) on the real reasonings behind the Thatcher government’s use of neoclassical monetarist arguments to justify its brutal restrictive monetary policy:

The Thatcher government never believed for a moment that [monetarism] was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did however see that this would be a very good way to raise unemployment. And raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes…What was engineered – in Marxist terms – was a crisis of capitalism which re-created the reserve army of labour, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.”

Fabio Petri (2023), Class struggle and hired prize-fighters, in J. Eatwell, P. Commendatore and N. Salvadori (eds.), Classical Economics, Keynes and Money, Abingdon: Routledge, p.58.

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