The dream of the hidden hand

I was interested in this article by James Meek (in LRB) about electricity privatisation.  Mrs Thatcher spoke of privatising nationalised industries as ‘giving power back to the people’, by allowing people across the country to buy their own shares.  But what has actually happened, following the bargain basement sale, is that much of our electricity industry is now owned by foreign corporations.  The biggest irony of all is that the largest of those foreign proprietors is EDF, which itself is a nationalised industry, albeit French.  As Meek observes, ‘In Thatcherite terms, EDF was a public sector mammoth that would inevitably be hunted to extinction by the hungry and agile competitors of post-privatisation countries like Britain.’

What does this tell us?  You could argue that all the talk about shareholder democracy, and giving power back to the people was a cynical trick.  But I think Mrs Thatcher was a conviction politician, and in her own way a revolutionary, and my guess is that she really believed in all that stuff.  What I take from this kind of story is that the dream of the pure unfettered market is, in its own way as utopian and impractical as some of the dreams of the left.   As the left-wing rhetoric of worker’s power ended up under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, as cover for tyranny, so talk of the unfettered market and free competition and the hidden hand, ends up as a cover for giant monopolist corporations. (See Thomas Frank for more on this).  The ideology that sells itself above all as practical common sense, is perhaps a starry-eyed dream, like most overly simple ideas.

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