I am impatient to know how history is going to judge the multiple institutional and moral collapses of the past five years. Specifically, the interesting question is: what exactly is coming to an end? It could, of course, be various things, operating with various historical rhythms, as I suggested here. But here's a brief thought: what if the entire idea of 'Thatcherism' turns out to be a red herring? Or, at any rate, what if we were so distracted by all the conservative rhetoric of markets and entrepreneurship, that we entirely failed to see what was really going on?
The unfolding Barclays scandal forces the left and the right to wake up to the reality of what's been going on. Specifically, when we thought we were placing our trust in 'markets', we were actually placing our trust in highly complex firms and exotic cultures of individual expression, that are largely opaque to the outside world. When the rhetoric was of 'market freedom', it actually meant an abnegation of public responsibility on the part of firms and individuals. The term 'market' did for banks what the term 'God' does for Catholic Priests, in keeping government and public at bay (for a while I've had an idea for a comparative sociological research project, looking at banks and psychoanalysts side by side, to identify common strategies for achieving non-regulation; not that I want to see the entire world regulated, far from it, but it is interesting to consider what rhetorical strategies are used to avoid formal accountability). Understanding what precisely we have been placing our faith in, and accepting it isn't quite what we thought we were placing our faith in (for better or worse), is the first step to removing our faith from it. This is more of a challenge for the Left than the Right, seeing as the former still have their opponents' word 'market' echoing in their ears, whereas the latter have realised their own error.
When did this now-crumbling era begin? We (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) like to pinpoint the late 1970s as the moment when neoliberalism emerged. It was then that the crisis of Keynesianism was completed, and a new paradigm for economic policy-making began. But this may reveal something of the narcissism of liberal elites, who like to believe that intellectuals and ideas are central to historical and economic periodization. (One might also characterise it as bloody-minded Hegelianism or conservatism, which insists that reason drives history, and not vice versa). A more pragmatist approach would recognise that ideas simply help to stabilise and legitimise forms of behaviour that have already emerged.
If the Barclays scandal proves to be decisive and telling, then we will need to shift our periodisation, such that 1968-71 becomes the key transition point in the formation of neoliberalism (or whatever we might call it instead). Two things took place during these turbulent years.
Firstly, '68 and its aftermath generated a new ethos of anti-moralism, that might have appeared heroically Nietzschean or Freudian in its more explosive and exciting moments, but could only translate into a dull masturbational culture of pleasure-seeking and deceit, as it permeated beyond the intellectual world of Guy Debord et al. Rooseveltian liberals, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell, spotted this immediately, leading to a form of Left Neo-conservatism (which Britain seems only now to be developing in the form of Blue Labour). By the late 1970s, even younger cultural critics, such as Richard Sennett, had cottoned on to what their generation had done. The 'great refusal', advocated by Marcuse, had its noble elements, but these have eventually be vastly out-numbered by its depressingly adolescent ones.
Secondly, 1971 was when paper money was divorced from reality, following Nixon's decision to disconnect dollars from gold. Admittedly, faster telecommunications and offshore trading had been placing tremendous strains on the dollar since the late 1960s, so no doubt there is some telecoms satellite launched around this time that could claim to be even more decisive. From this point forward, the monetary system became a battle between rival symbolic codes, with the symbolic code of '$$' enforced upon the world through the alliance of Wall Street and Washington DC (see Peter Gowan's The Global Gamble). Disconnected from any tangible or material notion of value, the monetary system became a game of dictating perceptions and propping up linguistic rules.
In the broader sweep of history - as, for example, portrayed in Giovanni Arrighi's 700-year history of capitalism - it is unsurprising that a combination of these two occurences would end in political and economic disaster. The divorce of ethics from normativity ('68) combined with the divorce of money from material reality ('71) creates the conditions for a frictionless financial culture, in which critics conspired by coining the term 'postmodernism', and in which lying about the price of money is an entirely reasonable and legitimate thing to do. Taking a longer sociological view of the Barclays scandal, the question is not 'why did they do it?', but really, 'why wouldn't they do it?' On what basis, really, did any of us expect pleasure-seeking individuals, far from the disciplining reach of any market, trading paper whose value had nothing to do with utility or human need, to do anything other than manipulate perceptions of that paper's value? How else does paper attain any value, without perceptions being manipulated to some extent? And why, honestly, did anyone believe that individuals, high on the legacy of '68, would manipulate that value for the benefit of the public or mortgage-holders, and not for themselves?
Thatcherism was therefore a late-comer, providing post hoc rationalisation for a surge of egoism and monetary game-playing that was probably unstoppable by 1979 anyhow. Thatcherism provided a new paradigm for the state's role in this, to tackle inflation rather than unemployment and build sufficient prisons to make such a policy practicable, but in this it was reacting not proscribing. Perhaps Thatcherism's one stroke of courage was to dress this elite decadence up, quite preposterously, as a return to conservative Victorian England. For some reason, it is only now that Tories such as Peter Oborne and Ferdinand Mount appear to have spotted that this, like Libor, was another audacious fix. Bob Diamond, born 1951 and reaching adulthood as Nixon was sworn in, was less naive, and continues to exhibit his own 'great refusal' to accept any public judgement placed upon him.