- The Third English Civil War:David Peace's "Occult History" of Thatcherism
Published to wide acclaim in 2004, David Peace's GB84 is "a fiction . . . based upon [the] fact" of the 1984–85 miners' strike, when Margaret Thatcher's government defeated a strike action by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), long recognized as the militant vanguard of the trades union movement.1 My goal in this essay is to show how the political vision of GB84 informs its generic and formal qualities. The first and longer section of what follows therefore deals with the novel's paranoid ambience and its status as a work of historical fiction, reading Peace's self-described "occult" style as an intensifying device [End Page 573] through which he foregrounds the existential nature of the struggle between the miners and the state. The final section considers more abstract political questions. It explores GB84's representation of the cruel paradoxes of government in the Orwellian year of 1984—a critical moment in Britain's transition between welfare-corporatist and neoliberal versions of statehood, when Thatcherism's characteristic oscillation between liberal and authoritarian modes was especially visible. What GB84 does, in its poetic but brutal way, is work at the contradiction in what Stuart Hall dubbed Thatcher's "authoritarian populism"—that is, the way that while Thatcherism represented itself as antistatist "for the purposes of populist mobilization," it nonetheless remained "highly state-centralist" in its orientation toward power ("Authoritarian Populism" 117). GB84 deals with this history, I suggest, by showing us a world full of political combat but bereft of meaningful parliamentary activity. It therefore presents the miners' strike as a betrayal of the political agonism that, in the language that Chantal Mouffe has appropriated from Carl Schmitt, is the best guarantee that violent conflict does not overwhelm the pluralist values and institutions of democratic states like the United Kingdom.
GB84 begins with a short prelude, "The Argument," the title of which alludes to the introductory glosses to the twelve books of John Milton's Paradise Lost.2 Like Milton, Peace writes in the wake of civil strife and mortal sin; unlike Milton, he doesn't give us a summary of Satan's fall from grace and a premonition of "man's first disobedience" (Milton, line 1). It's hardly needed. The world of GB84 has long since fallen; we need no abstract to grasp its darkness. We enter it through the malnutritious space of a motorway service-station café, a place of transit and assignation in which a man and woman have come to share secrets. But although this seems like a modern and wholly material world, its difference from Milton's [End Page 574] "place of utter darkness" (l. 5) is as small as the fluorescent tubes that light the scene. And indeed, those lights are crucial. The first sentence of "The Argument" is one word long, cut off by an emdash so that everything we are about to read, the passage that follows and all the routine and terror of Britain circa 1984, is concentrated in the incandescence of a single word:
Harsh service station light. Friday 13 January, 1984—She puts a cigarette to her lips, a lighter to her cigarette.A dog starv'd at his Master's Gate—He waits.She inhales, her eyes closed. She exhales, her eyes open.He picks at the solid red sauce on the plastic ketchup bottle."Early March," she says. "South Yorkshire."He rolls the solid red sauce into a soft bloody ball.She stubs out the cigarette. She puts an envelope on the table.He squashes the ball between his fingers and thumb—Predicts the ruin of the State.She stands up.He shuts his eyes until she's almost gone. The stink still here—Power.
Power is the subject of GB84: the electrical power that in 1980s Britain was largely generated by burning domestic coal, and the political power that came from controlling coal extraction and therefore the production and distribution of energy. Such are the stakes of this brief encounter beside a highway, when an unnamed woman tells an equally anonymous spook when to expect the onset...