Ill fares the land

by Tony Judt

Hardcover, 2010




New York : Penguin Press, 2010.


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.

Media reviews

Auszug aus der dlf-Buchbesprechung von Christiane Florin: "Diese knapp 200 Seiten sind eine Wucht, eine Weltverbesserungswucht. Geschrieben von einem, der wusste, dass er nicht mehr lange von dieser Welt sein würde. Der britische Historiker Tony Judt litt an einer unheilbaren Nervenerkrankung, seine Vorträge hielt er im Rollstuhl. Gut sichtbar arbeitete, während er sprach, ein Beatmungsgerät. Aus seiner letzten New Yorker Vorlesung zur Frage "Was ist heute Sozialdemokratie?" entstand dieses Buch. Aber was heißt schon Buch? "Dem Land geht es schlecht" ist weder Fach- noch Sachbuch, es ist ein Traktat, da übertreibt der Untertitel nicht. Hier appelliert ein Todgeweihter an die Lebenden, hier ruft er jungen Leuten mit Wut und Wehmut zu: Ihr müsst euer Denken ändern, ihr müsst euer Handeln ändern, ihr müsst euer Leben ändern. So geht es nicht weiter. Schon im ersten Satz donnert Judt: "Irgendetwas ist grundfalsch an der Art und Weise, wie wir heutzutage leben. Seit dreißig Jahren verherrlichen wir eigennütziges Gewinnstreben. Wenn unsere Gesellschaft überhaupt ein Ziel hat, dann ist es diese Jagd nach dem Profit. Wir wissen, was die Dinge kosten, aber wir wissen nicht, was sie wert sind." "
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If “Ill Fares the Land” sometimes reads like a graduation speech, then it is the Platonic ideal of one — concise, hardheaded, severe in its moral arguments.
Judt’s passionate appeal for a return to social-democratic ideals is all the more stirring because, as he has chronicled in The New York Review of Books, he suffers from an incurable disease that has left him paralyzed and forced to dictate this book, which will be among his last. Rather than yield to the kind of despair that would dispose him to see his own irreversible decline mirrored in the wider world, Judt shows uncommon courage by not giving up hope for his society, even as he has been forced to give up hope for himself.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jasonlf
Only book by Tony Judt I have read, he says it is addressed to younger readers which seems about right. It is a passionate and moral denunciation of inequality and an interesting capsule summary of the history and manifestations of social democracy. I found it weaker on solutions, which is an unfair test for a book of this nature. Of greater concern was that the underlying premise appeared to be a certain disrespect for people's judgments about their own situations, a 1960s era critique of materialism that most progressives appear to have gone beyond in favor of ideas that center around the importance of income and wealth creation for families to participate effectively in the fruits of a modern economy.… (more)
LibraryThing member paulsignorelli
Historian-writer-professor Tony Judt's penultimate book provides a political look at collaboration which provides inspiration for those of us fostering collaboration in much smaller settings. With a scholar's breadth of knowledge and a writer's flair for enticing readers into his work, he starts with a basic theme: the need for trust that comes from fairness and equality. His entire first chapter, "The Way We Live Now," builds a devastating case against complacence by documenting the results of inequality in a variety of countries throughout the world and demonstrating that those which the greatest success are those where fairness and equality are most effectively established. It's not difficult for any of us who are working in training-teaching-learning to draw parallels within the organizations we serve: inequality--even the perception of inequality--diminishes our ability to draw learners into what we offer, and to ignore that problem is to miss an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of all we do. In one of the final sections of the book, "The Shape of Things to Come," he turns to his belief that we "have entered an age of fear," including "fear of the uncontrollable speed of change" (p. 217)--again, a theme examined by Judt at a political-historical level and equally of interest to those of us attempting to facilitate change through the learning opportunities we provide. As one of Judt's colleagues observed, "No one talks like this any more" (p. 9), and Judt's passing in August 2010 makes that comment even more poignant; perhaps it's time for more of us to be reading works like this one and carrying on the conversation so that what the author left us isn’t lost to those who follow.… (more)
LibraryThing member BruceNesmith
NYU historian's diagnosis of what ails Western civilization: unfettered individualism leads to rampant economic inequality, while the abandonment of public goods leads to poverty of the soul as well as the wallet. The political system, bereft of principle, becomes a contest among special pleaders from which many people are justifiably alienated. The book is briefly and elegantly argued, sacrificing the detail/data that might have buttressed the argument at some cost to the reader's patience.… (more)
LibraryThing member Suva
Judt wrote this book primarily for his son's and their generation. He worked on it knowing he had very little time to live. These factors, combined with the simple beauty of Judt's prose style make this one of the most impassioned political works I have ever read. I agree with almost all of his arguments but apart from this, a one of Thatcher's (estranged) children myself, the chance to read something, anything, exposing the folly of self interest and a solely economic destination in life is wonderful to experience in itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member aront
I wanted to be more sympathetic to this book. I admire Judt as an historian (his Postwar is a phenomenal book). I have had occasion to hear him speak before his illness and he has always struck me as insightful and clear thinking.

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.
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LibraryThing member eglinton
A calm and smart analysis of the place of "progressive" politics and how it has slipped in our culture of selfishness and pragmatism. Judt died a few years back, and so this work predates our current tumult and turmoil. His humane and humble analysis is focused on political and social ends ,not on the soap opera of who and how. And is the more persuasive for showing the restraint many a leftist scorns - thus paralleling the lofty reach and the historical awareness of the French public intellectuals but without the ego. A gentle rant.

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.
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LibraryThing member stillatim

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.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
An interesting disucssion of what we value, aimed at a young adult audience. A bit nostalgic. I liked the message that we are often too quick to label ideas rather than discuss them in a meaningful way. And, this book made a more coherent argument for the benefits of economic equality than others I've read.
LibraryThing member fidchivers
The preface is fact filled and engaging. It posits with numbers and facts the argument that today's society is reaching a new level of social unrest, unhappiness, and inequality. After reading the preface I couldn't wait to read the rest.
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.
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LibraryThing member Jotto
This analysis of political and economic developments during the past century argues that it is social democracy rather than classical socialism or the capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan with its strategies of privatization and deregulation that will produce the secure and genuinely democratic society that both Europeans and a small but growing number of US politicians seek to more fully realize in the former case and to sell politically in the latter case. Judt offers a helpful overview in this volume but little in the way of concrete political strategy.… (more)
LibraryThing member ddonahue
Concise intellectual history describing how we got to "Tea Party"
LibraryThing member nosajeel
Only book by Tony Judt I have read, he says it is addressed to younger readers which seems about right. It is a passionate and moral denunciation of inequality and an interesting capsule summary of the history and manifestations of social democracy. I found it weaker on solutions, which is an unfair test for a book of this nature. Of greater concern was that the underlying premise appeared to be a certain disrespect for people's judgments about their own situations, a 1960s era critique of materialism that most progressives appear to have gone beyond in favor of ideas that center around the importance of income and wealth creation for families to participate effectively in the fruits of a modern economy.… (more)
LibraryThing member APopova
A must read for anyone who cares about our world, our society and the future.
LibraryThing member VGAHarris
Sadly, the author passed away in Aug. 2010, but he left us a rich legacy of his magnificent writing. Include this work as part of those treasures. I strongly recommend this for anyone who wishes to engage in the 21st century dialogue about ideology, justice, and the market system. His distinctions between "social democracy" and " socialism" are a central theme of the work and should be part of the intellectual equipment for those involved in that ongoing dialogue.

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LibraryThing member kant1066
It has often been said that Americans know the value of everything and the worth of nothing. This book serves to historicize why precisely that is the case, and is also a clarion call extolling the virtues of social democracy. According to Judt, we need to completely re-think how we view our neighbors and human community.

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.
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