Saturday, August 10, 2019

Guy Ortolano's "Thatcher's Progress"

Guy Ortolano is an Associate Professor of History at New York University. He serves as an editor of Twentieth Century British History, and is also the author of The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (2009).

Ortolano applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Thatcher's Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Thatcher’s Progress, the reader meets the American futurologist, Melvin Webber. It is 1968, and the British state is building a city for 250,000 people, from scratch, between Oxford and Cambridge. Planning for a world that does not yet exist, they enlist Webber to figure out what’s coming. He forecasts a fantastical world of nuclear power, limitless prosperity, and lifetimes spent in leisure. That leisure, however, will bring challenges of its own, as technological developments compel “enforced leisure” – that is, unemployment – that could exacerbate racial tensions. Fortunately, medical advances will enable societies to call upon the services of their greatest statesmen – the future equivalents of Aneurin Bevan and Winston Churchill – for up to 100 years.

Page 99 conveys several key aspects of Thatcher’s Progress. The book narrates the building of the new town of Milton Keynes, today a punchline in British culture. Fifty years after its founding, this suburban city is often seen as drab, disorienting, anti-urban, and un-English. But when Webber arrives from Berkeley, bringing tales of automotive bliss, readers can begin to understand how this peculiar place came to be. Webber’s vision of a world in which limits to prosperity, leisure, and even lifespans have been lifted helps to convey the thrill of MK’s founding. Sometimes his premonitions hit their mark, as when he warned that diversity could foster resentments no less than tolerance; but other times he misfired, as when he predicted that rising incomes would enable grateful wives to leave the workforce and return home.

What a single page cannot convey is the direction of this history. Subtitled “From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town,” Thatcher’s Progress follows this massive infrastructure project on either side of market liberalism’s ascendance. By contrast with more schematic accounts, which make “neoliberalism” seem inevitable, the building of a city illuminates the halting, contested, partial nature of that process. Rather than supposing that social democracy collapsed in the face of economic and political challenges, the daily work of social democratic actors shows them responding creatively to trying times. But the terms of political life did come to change, and seeing how these figures navigated that transition reveals how tactical adaptations helped entrench a politics contrary to their own.

We now inhabit the future that these characters on page 99 were straining to perceive. Charged with building a better world, they hoped to learn from us. Today our charge is not so different – can we learn from them?
Learn more about Thatcher's Progress at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue