Albert Camus in Bed with Thatcher?

Back in the 1980s my mother was a keen reader of the popular British women’s magazine “Woman’s Own”. On 23 December 1987 it published an interview with Margaret Thatcher (then the Conservative Prime Minister) in which she made the infamous statement that “there is no such thing as society”. It wasn’t more than a week or so later that I joined the communist party.

For years afterwards Thatcher would insist that her statement had been taken out of context, and there have been valiant efforts set the hermeneutic record straight. However, for some of us the utterance summed up in seven words a set of policies that included things like laying siege to long-established mining communities, selling off public housing, removing powers from local government, etc, etc. Doubtless Thatcher did incline from time to time towards an idea of the organically evolving society (the acceptable face of society for fierce neoliberal critics of rational social planning), but in practice the policies felt like a forced atomisation of society and an insistence that ever increasing areas of social life square up to the demands of the market and justify themselves solely in terms of their contribution to growth in the GDP.

Miners strike during the Thatchera era

There is no way – you might think – that Albert Camus would ever get into bed with a proponent of policies like these. I am not so sure. Perhaps I am missing something, but when I read “The Myth of Sisyphus” I see a thinly veiled attack on community life – something that (in its own small way) could have helped prepare the ground for the neo-liberal offensive launched later by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan.

No one will say a decisive “Yes” to the absurd unless they have seen through the kind of world of meaning that helps to give shape and structure to the life of a community. That framework of meaning has to be seen first as utterly contingent, and then, in its flimsy contingency, it has to seem to lose all weight, becoming one of those unbearably light bits of cultural flotsam that can later be blown away so easily by the winds of things like pop and fashion. In the process we become outsiders with respect to the settled communities of the past. To refer again to the phone booth scene near the beginning of “The Myth of Sisyphus” (where so much is crystallised) we stand like uprooted individuals outside the phone booth of life, in which the old gestures, habits, customs and beliefs (now mute because of the closed glass partition) seem empty, hollow, and absurd.

What would a society of atomised Sisyphean outsiders be if not a society dominated by money, the markets and the culture industry? How would their dealings with each other be mediated if not by the market? And how would they hold onto their outsiderliness if not by congregating in anonymous, high-rise urban blocks in cities where the economy is run according to impersonal principles of efficiency and precision and all qualities are ultimately reduced to calculable quantities? Economic fundamentalists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (prophets of what amounts to a market totalitarianism) may, at first sight, appear to be worlds away from the philosophy of Albert Camus, but how else could a society of outsiders be instituted if not by following the Hayek-Friedman prescriptions that Margaret Thatcher was so dutifully following?

Admittedly, Camus’ sympathies were with the left, and he too had once been a member of the communist party. In his journalism in Algeria he wrote scathing critiques of the injustices suffered by the Berbers, for instance. However, my impression (and I stand to be corrected) is that Camus was moved by the suffering of individuals. Each suffering Berber was essentially another human being who deserved equal respect and dignity. What wasn’t an issue for Camus was, for instance, the threat to the Berber way of life or the integrity of Berber communities. In any case, there are no Berbers or Arabs in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, and Sisyphus himself belongs to no identifiable community. Since the gods are dead and since he recognises no particular community, Sisyphus can only be rolling the stone mindlessly up the hill for an impersonal imperative – an imperative as impersonal as the invisible hands of the market whose discipline was so savagely enforced by the likes of Thatcher.