Did Richard Dawkins Invent Thatcherism and Environmentalism?

The death of Margaret Thatcher has brought all sorts of history back under the microscope. But often, such retrospectives become revision, revealing much more about the viewer in the present than the facts of the past. Much of this is less than dignified. Thatcher’s critics today, for instance blame her for seemingly turning some kind of social democratic utopia into a living hell. But Britain in the 1970s was dominated by deep economic crises, industrial disputes, and an encompassing geopolitical conflict. As Brendan O’Neill points out, today’s (and indeed many of yesterday’s) critics and fans of Thatcher and Thatcherism credit her with too much and the people who voted for her with too little.

Throughout the 80s, as chunks of Britain’s working-class voters abandoned the decrepit Labour Party and annoyed the hell out of the bien pensant classes by being vulgarly materialistic, it became fashionable to argue that these plebs must have been brainwashed by that mistress of might.

One such revision caught my ear this weekend. On BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme (I.e. the Saturday evening news for those not familiar with it) a feature on Thatcher’s environmentalism claimed that one of her most famous maxims — there’s no such thing as society — was inspired by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, famous at the time for his book, The Selfish Gene, but more recently for his militant atheism. Here is the section, as broadcast. (A transcript of the section is available here).

But how true is this? To what extent was Thatcher influenced by the ecological perspective?

Controversy about what Thatcher meant by ‘there’s no such thing as society’ persists. Her actual words, in an interview for Women’s Own magazine are recorded at  http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 but the important points are:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” […] and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! 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. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation […]. “

Thatcher’s point, it seems fair to say, is rather more subtle than has been claimed by those who have taken ‘no such thing as society’ out of context. What her words sounded like to many on the left was ‘every man for himself’, and ‘sod the rest of you’, but one doesn’t need to be a Thatcherite to agree with her that reciprocity is a necessary condition, or possibly even a definition of ‘society’ — that ‘society’ cannot be taken for granted. What critics of Thatcher might have said, was that if life on the dole really was better than life working, then there’s a real problem with wages, rather than the dole. Unfortunately for them, they chose and continue to choose to make the cheap points. Unfortunately for her, unemployment and inflation continued to be problem for much of her time in office, and beyond, and the welfare bill rose.

So far, however, this discussion seems to have little to do with political ecology. Yet on iPM, it was Ian Swinglands view that,

“Thatcher eschewed the idea of society because of a high table dinner at Magdalen College at Oxford. Richard Dawkins convinced her there was no such thing as society, just individuals. I, as a lowly researcher said she should emphasise environment in her administration, which was missing at the time”.

My girlfriend had just won a first prize fellowship at Magdalen. And as a result, I was invited to the Judge Randolph dinner in March of 1978, only eighteen months after Richard Dawkins had published The Selfish Gene. And I was close to Thatcher and I know Richard Dawkins was there. John Cribbs I think was there. A lot of us who came from the Zoology Department in Oxford. And she was heard to say that society is the building block for the future.

And immediately, many zoologists, lowly post-doctoral researchers like me said society doesn’t exist, and this was joined by a mighty chorus from those more senior than I. And this put her back and she challenged why we were saying it. And that brought us to essentially the argument from the evolutionary ecologists which indeed did prove that individuals mattered more than society.

Swingland proudly announces that zoologists disproved the existence of society, helping Thatcher to formulate Thatcherism at a dinner. This is a curious and extravagant claim, not least because it seems to have no relation to Thatcher’s comments or actions about society. Moreover, Thatcher’s argument is about relationships between people — reciprocity — and in particular, benefits, not about ecology. What can biological scientists really tell you about the rights and wrongs of welfare?

More importantly, how can an ecologist make a claim, from the biological sciences, that ‘society doesn’t exist’? ‘Society’ is not an object of the biological sciences. Moreover, it is not true that Thatcher ‘eschewed society’: she simply didn’t think it could be taken for granted. This is odd indeed: natural scientists making claims about the social world, and taking credit for the development of political ideas, which weren’t actually made.

It might be that the professor of zoology is a world-class expert in moth-counting and badger-spotting. However, zoologists rarely develop a deep understanding of or insight into the political or social world by mere dint of their native field of study. Indeed, they frequently labour under the misapprehension that it is possible to see the human world in the terms of zoology or ecology.

They are wrong. If ecologists really did demonstrate that there was no such thing as society (in the literal sense) one reason for this claim might be the inadequacies of ecology and ecologists’ hubris, rather than the power of this scientific perspective.

I have argued in the past that there’s no such thing as ecosystem. What are the boundaries of an ecosystem? There are none, so in what sense can there be said to be ecosystems at all? What gets determined to be an ‘ecosystem’ depends on what aspects of that ecosystem one focuses attention on. But any ecosystem is part of something larger, and may consist of many exchanges that are beyond the scope or sense of any study. Perhaps worse, ecology seems either to be premised on the idea that these systems tends towards ‘self-correction’, or that ‘balance’ is an ’emergent property’ of these complex systems. Yet such mechanisms have never been identified in situ and even less so at scale. It seems that in spite of ecology’s limited potential as a material science, it nonetheless has proven itself very useful in the political sphere. Ecologists may have something useful to say about fields, and the management of certain areas of land, but their sights are set on ‘planet management’.

Is this what appealed to Thatcher?

Swingland’s misunderstanding of what Thatcher said is matched by a misunderstanding of what his fellow diner, Richard Dawkins said. Contrary to Swingland’s claim, Dawkins had worked from George C Williams’s ideas, to overturn the prevailing view that selection works at the level of species, groups, and individuals. Dawkins did not say that there were only individuals. Instead, Dawkins emphasised a gene-centric view of evolution — that genes, not individuals or groups of individuals compete.

However, these confused ideas, in contradiction against themselves and against reality did seem to reflect, if not influence political thinking at the time, just as they do today. Not, as Swingland claims, directly to encourage Thatcher to take the political establishment towards environmentalism, or to take a different view of the individual, but in a deeper sense.

The implication of the zoologists’ and ecologists’ environmental determinism and Dawkins’ genetic determinism took agency away from people. Genes, rather than the self, were the decisive agents that drove the behaviour of individuals and groups. People merely exist as the half way point between the gene and the environment. Indeed, the gene is, on this view, a description of the environment as much as it is a description of the organism. Thus the idea forms that changes to the environment represent maladaptation of the individual organism: ecological niches shift, leaving the world’s population ‘homeless’ in an ecological sense.

The idea of genes, rather than individuals ‘having’ agency was extended into the social world by Dawkins himself in The Selfish Gene, and then more so by thinkers that followed. Ideas, suggested Dawkins, could be thought of as analogous to genes: they could be copied, but copied unfaithfully, leading to the possibility of mutation. Thus, the idea that evolution occurred at the level of the gene, not at the level of the individual has a metaphysical analogy: ideas do the ‘thinking’, and people’s minds are merely the vehicles for those ideas. Some even suggested that the sense of self — of subjective experience — was itself a product of ‘memes’ (mental analogues of ‘genes’) developing a strategy to better aid their propagation.

This narrow and hollow version of humanity was explored in Adam Curtis’s series of films, The Trap: Whatever Happened to Our Dream of Freedom. In this section of the film, Curtis demonstrates that the notion of individuals being driven by mechanical forces has a political, rather than scientific antecedent, which Dawkins, rather than being the discoverer of, merely reifies.

It would be too much to say that this strange, anti-human metaphysics can be seen being brought to every political decision that has been made since the Selfish Gene was published. But we can see this idea gaining influence across many areas of public life since long before 1970s.

So although Thatcherism has been understood to celebrate the individual over society, in fact what emerges over the era of Thatcherism (and Major, Blair, Brown and now Cameron, of course) is a very much reduced understanding of the individual. This has found its epitome in the policies of recent governments that have been discussed on this blog. In particular, the early Blair government conceived of a ‘Quality of Life Barometer’, which would measure things that were considered to be essential to a sense of wellbeing, including the amount of birdsong people were exposed to. The coalition government have gone further, developing a ‘Happiness Index‘. More sinisterly, the government have created a ‘behaviour insights team‘, which aims to find ways to elicit the cooperation of the public with the government’s policies — a strategy known as ‘nudge’. On this view of people, the relationship between state and individuals is transformed, fully in accordance with the idea of people as actors driven by mechanical forces, rather than by reason and an understanding of their own interests.

So the paradox of the ‘individualism’ is that it depends on a degraded sense of the ‘individual’. It is not the enlightenment concept of the individual that dominates in the post-Thatcher Britain. It is instead an object that needs to be managed by benevolent authorities. We are not ‘individuals’ in the sense that we can decide what to eat, drink or take, or know how to behave or manage the other risks we are exposed to. Concomitantly, therefore, this transformation of the individual, and of the relationship between the state and individual undermines the basis of democratic governance. If people aren’t even capable of making decisions about their own emotional lives, how might they be able to vote the right way on matters as important as climate change and other ecological crises?

Thatcher is then credited with kicking off the climate issue. A barely coherent Roger Harrabin claims:

Well Mrs. Thatcher had an absolutely remarkable effect on the environmental movement, and how the environment is perceived in the wider public. I think it was the fact that a Prime Minister always adds legitimacy to what they say, the role adds legitimacy, the fact that she herself was a research chemist, and the fact that she was coming from the libertarian right at a time when the environment movement was dominated by, I suppose you might say the soft-green-left, lent a massive weight to two speeches that she gave, which I think a lot of people will may have forgotten. One of them was to the Royal Society, both at the back end of the eighties, these, one of them to the United Nations. They were absolutely extraordinary blistering environmental speeches, warning of the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, the oceans and the Earth itself. And if you speak to the people who were running Friends of the Earth at the time, they will say their membership profile changed. You suddenly noticed the environment appearing on the front pages of the newspapers instead of the inside pages, and the front pages of serious papers, leading the BBC, which it hadn’t tended to do before. It was absolutely extraordinary galvanising speeches. Now the policy often didn’t match up with the speeches. And later on she recanted in a major way, saying that climate change was some sort of leftist plot to redistribute global wealth, which, it’s easy to see it that way. But the effect she had on society in general and on institutions and their change was very very profound.

This, of course, pertains to Thatcher’s 1988 speech to the Royal Society. But rather than kick-starting the climate change issue internationally, the content of the speech reveals a different story:

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development.  Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century and one in which I am sure your advice will be repeatedly sought.

The concept of ‘sustainable economic development’ was brought to the global agenda a year previously, by another female Prime Minister — of Norway at the time — Gro Harlem Brundtland. Brundtland was commissioned by the UN to establish the World Commission on Environment and Development, and to produce a report on both matters. The implication — the working assumption — is, as per the claims of ecologists describe above, is that development occurs at the expense of the environment, or disturbs its ‘balance’.

Brundtland’s report, ‘Our Common Future’, thus set out the scheme for ‘sustainable’ development and the global institutional apparatus and relationships necessary to achieve it. The report and its consequences have been the subject of much discussion on this blog, the most important parts of which are: that establishing supranational political authorities and agencies deprives domestic politics of democratic processes; that the report proposes new relationships between international agencies, ‘civil society’ or NGOs, and national governments, expanding the role of NGOs on the global stage; that ‘sustainability’ is in fact toxic and hostile to development; and that the desire for supranational political organisations preceded the need for them being identified by ‘science’ and is owed in the main part to domestic political crises, in particular those experienced by the West.

It was Brundtland, then, who did much more than Thatcher to expand the roles and profiles of environmental and development NGOs, bringing them and their issues to the world stage. Brundtland had set a place for them at the international table. Contra Harrabin’s somewhat UK-centric view of things, these international processes had been going on since at least the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the Club of Rome and the Ehrlich’s dire prognostications. And as has also been noted here previously, the emergence of climate change as the dominant issue occurred precisely because the failure of those prognostications to provide the basis for the political compact sought by Brundtland: fears about acid rain, ozone depletion, peak resources and over-population turned out to either be non-existent or otherwise too easy to solve. A more encompassing crisis was needed.

Harrabin claims that ‘Maggie Thatcher did try and at least put environment on the map’, but it was already well established. Public opinion, which Harrabin cites, as I’ve argued here, was immaterial to the ascendency of the environmental issue, because the point of establishing international political institutions is to facilitate politics in spite of it. Green NGOs are not pressure groups in the fashion of grassroots organisations formed in the public; they are, by design, part of the establishment. They may have looked like unruly anarchists, but they were drawn from the highest strata (which is perhaps one reason why it was harder for policemen to hit them over the head with truncheons than it was to mete out the same to miners and hippies), and they were funded and encouraged by supragovernmental organisations. Moreover, whereas Harrabin claimed that Thatcher’s emphasis on environment, which was ‘ dominated by, I suppose you might say the soft-green-left’, ‘may have run completely counter to her libertarian approach’, the environmental movement of the 1980s could not be so described. Much of the left was in fact hostile to environmentalism, and was dominated by trade disputes. In fact, early thinking on the environment was precisely right wing. The first incarnation of the UK Green Party, formerly Ecology, formerly PEOPLE, had been established by a group of Conservatives, who had been moved by the thinking of Paul Ehrlich, who was himself a member of the GOP. From the same cloth, Garret Hardin’s influential essay, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ argued for the privatisation of all land and natural resources as the best way to protect them from over-exploitation by ‘free riders’.

It’s interesting to note Hardin’s and Ehrlich’s use of mathematics to hide political claims. Whereas ideas about the rights and wrongs of private property had been discussed in terms of principles, and relations between people, this new political idea looked instead at the exchanges between society and the natural environment in a zero-sum game — thinking which of course inspired Dawkins to a greater or lesser extent. In Hardin’s mathematical description of the natural world, its inhabitants –‘people’, but of a kind not credited with faculties of reason beyond those which inclined them to become ‘free riders’ — could not use shared resources without over-exploiting them. The political right’s flirtation with environmentalism represents the hollowing out of its moral argument. Ditto the nominative left, following its comprehensive collapse in the 1990s. It was numbers which now ruled.

Thatcher was not the author of contemporary political environmentalism in the UK. Nor was she the author of the international climate change agenda. Though she no doubt played her part, in reality these phenomena were produced by political necessity — it is politicians, not people, who blindly respond to their environments. By the time Thatcher had been persuaded to make statements about the environment, had been conceived of as the basis for global political dialogue and had been on the international agenda for decades. She was simply doing what was determined by that agenda: her ‘government espouse[d] the concept of sustainable economic development’.

And neither Thatcher, nor Dawkins, nor the Ecologists at the High Table of the Formal Dinner at Magdalen College authored the strange, mathematical models of the environment and the twisted fiction of the individual as automata. Those ideas had existed for well over a decade, and were born out of the peculiarities of the cold war. But they did do a lot to make those ideas real.

In the same way, Roger Harrabin and Ian Swingland rewrote the history of Thatcherism, political ecology, and the climate issue. But it was a history they have no grasp of, much less clear sight on. Even the academic who was there at the time, and the reporter who has been covering the issue for nearly as long can not get the facts straight. Accordingly, they tell the story backwards, from the present: environmentalism is at odds with conservative thinking; that Thatcher proposed ‘there is no such thing as society’ and invented individualism; that such individualism is apart from, and opposed to global political environmentalism rather than essential to its thinking; and that climate change politics began in Magdalen College in 1978. Contemporary mythology is rewritten as ‘history’: the myth of humans as machines, dependent on a fragile natural world were expedient to the academy and the political establishment in the -60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s just as the myth of Thatcherism is handy to the environmental correspondent in 2013. Myths that seem to explain the world in reality only give temporary comfort to those who feel disoriented by it. After all, it wasn’t until the wobbly end of Thatcher’s administration that she sought to identify with the environmental message, much as it was wobbly conservatives who had their own green epiphany as the sixties drew to a close, and the wobbly left went green in the 1990s.

This has been the hardest thing for environmentalists and environmental commentators to understand. Right and left produced their own variants of ‘green’, and both demand that big, supranational organisations fill the void. And then both got upset that the functions of those organisations better meeting the purposes of the other. And instead of looking for deeper historical reasons for environmentalism’s ascendency, many green journalists prefer to work from the idea that scientists identified a problem, to which politicians have responded — some for, some against, divided on rigid lines. But as the short BBC piece on Thatcher and environmentalism reveals, there are no straight lines in the environmental debate, and the scientists and politicians were as confused about science and politics then as they are today.

It is possible that Richard Dawkins did tell Thatcher that he and his colleagues had proved that society didn’t exist and that the individual was the agent in world, though it would seem to contradict his own work. It is also possible that Thatcher took the inspiration for her late environmentalism from the ecologists in 1978, though it took her a decade to do anything about it. Better accounts of what happened exist. The hubris of ecologists, the diminished concept of the individual, the supranational apparatus and political malaise was established long before the ecologists’ self-regarding dinner party had served up its starters.