In "Ill Fares The Land," Tony Judt, one of our leading historians and thinkers, reveals how we have arrived at our present dangerously confused moment and offers the language we need to address our common needs, rejecting the nihilistic individualism of the far right and the debunked socialism of the past. To find a way forward, Judt argues that we must look to our not so distant past and to social democracy in action: to re-enshrining fairness over mere efficiency.
Last night I told a lawyer that I was a professor in a department of Liberal Education. He took this to mean that I taught people to vote Democrat, although he wasn't so completely oblivious to assume that that meant I myself voted Democrat. He went on to describe his experience in a 'Peace and Justice' university course, which he'd thought would be about world war II, but ended up being, and I quote, "propaganda way to the left of Communism". Anyway, lucky for both of us that I hadn't read this book before we had that conversation, or I might have tried to throw him out of a window. I would have failed, and been punched in the face.
As for the actual book: three stars for the argument plus one for the style. It already feels like a period piece (it doesn't help that chapter six has as an epigraph a quotation from Dominique Strauss-Kahn. That's a bit uncomfortable); I can imagine that history professors in sixty years time - should any such beings still exist - would set this for their class 'Intellectual History of the Great Financial Crisis.' The prose is practically transparent, the argument is quite clear, and, although it's a little repetitive, there isn't too much padding. I could've done without the paean for trains, much as I appreciate them; and there's some slightly silly guff about how going to the Nationalized post office to wait in line with your fellow citizens makes everyone into one big happy family. But other than that, it's a great read.
The argument itself is a good one, hence my narrowly avoided defenestration of a 'conservative.'* Judt points out the great good that post-war social democracy did for most people in the developed world, and suggests that the parliamentary left actually defend that heritage, rather than cringing when it's brought up. He glosses over the failures of the post-war governments (i.e., stagflation), which is a shame- I would have liked to see a well put together argument showing that the economic turmoil of the seventies was due to contingencies rather than due to social democracy as such. I sometimes felt like I'd read it before, in part because I have. The first chapter is taken more or less from 'The Spirit Level,' which I skim-read. The second and third chapters are highly condensed versions of Judt's own magnificent 'Post War,' with additional material on America.
High points include the historicisation and of the Austrian godhead of contemporary economics (e.g., Mises' main aim was to avoid Nazism; he blamed Nazism on Communism; therefore we must avoid Communism: is that really a solid foundation for your thought?) and the general good advice that some things can only be done by government, and to assume that government can't do anything is no less ideological than the Stalinist assumption that government ought to do everything. Of course, Edmund Bourke thought that too.*
Finally, two great quotes:
The 'reduction of society to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented today as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers. But we should never forget that it was first and above all the dream of Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Nazis: if there is nothing that binds us together as a community or society, then we are utterly dependent upon the state.'
'It is the Right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. From the war in Iraq through the unrequited desire to dismantle public education and health services, to the decades-long project of financial deregulation, the political Right has abandoned the association of political conservatism with social moderation which served it so well from Disraeli to Heath.'*
* Yes, I'm referencing this three times. By calling my lawyer friend a 'conservative' I of course mean liberal. American liberals insist on calling themselves conservative, even though they are knee-jerk, ideological free-marketeers who despite the very idea of community. And it's time to call people on that nonsense.
Unfortunately, the rest is a meandering argument full of hazy remembrances of the sixties and seventies, rememberances that do not conform with my memory of those times. And don't look for one single fact or number to support his hazy memory and the argument he tries to construct on it, an argument that seems to come down to "things were so much better then."
A true disapointment for what could have been a timely, fascinating, invigorating subject.
Social democracy, as I said, is at the heart of the book, and Judt makes it quite clear that this isn’t just a generic term for liberalism. “They [social democrats] share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy social democrats believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector” (p. 7). Note the terms “collective good” and “collective action.” They are at the center of reconceptualizing society in terms of something other than market share or a growing economy. Judt offers much evidence toward the beginning of the book showing how inequality – not wealth, but inequality – within a society is directly correlated with “infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness, and anxiety” (p. 18).
But matters didn’t always look so bleak. After the Great Depression and World War II, it quickly became the consensus economic opinion that the state had an integral role to play in keeping events like this from ever happening again. Judt is especially interested in the arguments and contributions of John Maynard Keynes here. The trust and cooperation of the interventionist state, largely the work of Keynes, provided England and the United States with security, prosperity, social services, and greater equality” (p. 72). For a generation, no one questioned that these ends were also public goods, or if they were questioned, they were by the most marginal of political figures.
What happened? Ironically, Judt lays much of the blame for the disintegration of the welfare state on the radical political movements of the 1960s, which he claims “rejected the inherited collectivism of its predecessor.” (Christopher Lasch similarly blames this set of movements in “The Culture of Narcissism” – a book which complements this one in subtle and complex ways.) Judt argues that social justice wasn’t central to the mission of liberal sixties activism. In fact, it even co-opted the rhetoric of fierce individualism; it was all about “doing your own thing” and “letting it all hang out.”
This consequently left a vacuum into which Austrian economics and its various supporters could rush – Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Peter Drucker, and Friedrich Hayek. These men – all Austrians – were all profoundly influenced by the “introduction into post-1918 Austria state-directed planning, municipally owned services and collectivized economic activity” (p. 99). Of course, this attempt was a failure which seemed to leave a gigantic psychic wound on these thinkers and their future thought about the possibility of state interventionism or even short-term economic planning. Also, these men knew a Left that believed in human reason and (Marxist) historical laws whereas the Fascists acted, and acted violently. Judt therefore reminds us that most contemporary recapitulations of this debate are really just variations on this one-hundred year-old theme.
The prominence of Austrian economics and neoliberal policies allowed for the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whose reigns saw a liquidation of much of the public sector in their respective countries during the 1980s. For Judt, these massive efforts at privatization were largely responsible for a loss of community and communal trust. We now live in our gated communities with closed-circuit cameras, terrified of our neighbors, rules by feckless, soulless politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton (someone has to say it, so thank you, Tony), as well as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. With people like these, it’s a small wonder why we’re so cynical about politicians and political efficacy.
Judt ends the book with a call for both a renewed fervor for political dissent and the recasting of public conversation. Intellectuals used to be respected for broadcasting their unpopular opinions, but today that ability too seems to be enervated. Through a sheer act of moral will, we have to rediscover how to think through these issues and learn how to express disapproval in a country that has historically been incredibly conformist.
To this end, we need to “think the state” and “think the community” in radically different ways, which means brushing away old shibboleths like “We all want the same thing, we just disagree on how to get there” and “You either believe in freedom or tyranny, capitalism or communism.” These slogans, so totally inculcated into popular political “thinking” and the gruel offered up by media pundits, should be recognized for what they are: simplistic and reductive, aimed at making one think that there are no middle ways, no third (or fourth, or fifth) options. Old habits are hard to slough off. Acts of pure imagination and appropriating the political world anew are terrifically difficult. But, at least according to Judt, now is the time.
I agree with the main points of the book, and I highly recommend everyone read it. It's quite short and won't take much time. However, Judt is ultimately way too conservative, pessimistic and even a tad bitter in this book. It's always tempting to blame personal circumstances on a person's outlook, and it is hard not to imagine that his fatal illness which led to his untimely death might likely be the source of these. However, you can find traces of those elements in Postwar so it's likely they are integral to his worldview.
Essentially Judt argues that a counter revolution against social democracy took place starting in the eighties. Precisely the success of social democracy undermined the urgency of the project, which, as Judt points out, was a response to 100 years of war and devastation in 19th-20th century Europe. Thatcher and Reagan led a radical attempt to dismantle the achievements of social democracy in the name of economic "efficiency."
The result of this counter revolution was the rise again of economic inequality and the return of social problems. Moreover, the radical right waged a successful propaganda war and totally changed the terms of debate. So a counter-counter revolution is difficult as young people don't have a language or historical perspective to fight back.
As an historian of the left and a strong critic of communism and the thrall in which it held leftist intellectuals, Judt is torn between his urge to call the young to wage a counter-counter revolution and his fear of the destabilization revolutions of all sorts cause. So the book's aim is a call for young people to get angry about financial capitalism and it's devastations, just not TOO angry. Ultimately the young should be fighting to preserve social democracy, just in a civil way.
Judt passed away before the youth revolts took off in the Arab world, Europe, Israel and now the US itself. I am sure he would have been pleased, as it would have confirmed his hopes and prayers that the young are not a lost cause. However, I would argue both his critique and analysis are too timid to be inspiring.
First, while he is correct a new language is necessary to attack financial capitalism, such a language can only be provided by a radical analysis of the same. David Graeber's excellent book "Debt" provides such analysis and thereby a new language, precisely because it up ends conventional wisdom. Economists such as Professors Keen and Hudson are also making similar attempts from different perspectives. Only such radical intellectual endeavors can give the revolutionaries tools to fight.
Second, Judt would have been more honest and clear, if he was forthright in saying that the values we should be fighting for are those of the Enlightenment which were encapsulated in the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. Judt is wise to point out that these values are often contradictory and need to be constantly measured and balanced in specific contexts. Judt also wisely points out that the failure of all revolutions, including the French, is that they forget a fourth equally important value: stability. Trying to change the existing system too fast and too completely leads to the collapse of revolutions and the rise of violent, authoritarian alternatives.
So if the new revolutionaries are looking for an easy to remember goal then "liberty, equality, fraternity and stability", while it may not be catchy, certainly serves the purpose. Moreover, a constitution for social democracy was created right after WWII and was endorsed by all the nations of the world: the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By adopting this as the constitution by which to measure all governments, and a universally agreed upon constitution, the new revolutionaries have a handy yard stick by which to measure any and all governments around the world. This constitution does not mandate a specific form of government nor a way to organize the economy leaving room for all the variants one might like of these. But a government that does not provide both freedom of speech and social security will fail to match this universal measure.
This goal and this measure provide the general platform which is both more specific and less limiting than Judt's "social democracy." However, every revolution needs some radical new ideas to galvanize people. The "debt jubilee" idea pushed by Graeber, Keen, Hudson and others provides exactly such a new idea, a radical platform for action that fits well with all four goals and will appeal to a wide and varied audience. I am sure others will come. Ultimately the intellectual ferment on the left and these radical new action platforms, are a source of hope and comfort for the future that, sadly, Judt seemed to despair of in the end.
Still, surveying the issues and rehabilitating the idea of common enterprise for social benefit is one thing. Coming up with the actual policies and plans to restore progress is another - as Corbyn, Trump and the rest will surely find. Still: change the mindset first, and this elegant book is a fair push in that direction. It's a long march.