As a surpassingly ideological woman, Margaret Thatcher would probably recoil at how the new film The Iron Lady depicts her in distinctly personal terms as an aging, widowed, out-of-power politician struggling with dementia. But in at least one way the film reflects a political sea change that Thatcher helped set in motion: the decline of the idea that class is a relationship that structures both inequality and solidarity.
In The Iron Lady, class is a form of social distinction, a kind of snobbery that Thatcher overcomes in her own Conservative Party (along with sexism) to become prime minister. In this view, her rise is a triumph for pluck and meritocracy. The Labor Party politicians that she battles and the demonstrators arrayed against her are cardboard figures, either simpletons or hooligans.
Thatcher triumphed as a politician, the film suggests, because she remained true to herself in the face of all opposition. The content of her policies, and their impact, receive comparatively little attention. Yet this is the woman who did as much as anyone to popularize the neoliberal world we live in today, where society is a fiction, greed and gain are the engines of progress, and the most modest forms of social democracy are decried as nothing more than socialist dictatorship.
Some of this is unavoidable in a feature film organized around one central character. But I can't shake the feeling that some viewers will come away from The Iron Lady seeing Thatcher's career as a triumph for diversity (grocer's daughter overcomes the snobs) while never thinking that her vision of politics and government, which denied inequalities of class and exalted individualism at the expense of solidarity, brought us to the atomized, insecure, and massively unequal world that we inhabit today.