Originally published at Overland and reproduced with their kind permission.
As he battled terminal illness in late 2009, acclaimed historian Tony Judt delivered a lecture at NYU that would become the basis for his final book. But rather than be obsessed with endings, he used the occasion to put out an impassioned call for new beginnings, based on the spirit of a past era that now seems all but lost to us despite its relative proximity to today.
Ill Fares The Land deserves to be a key referent for the Left as it thinks through a way forward after three decades of neoliberal hegemony. Judt’s book lays out a well-argued claim that we need not a destruction of capitalism but a re-tipping of the scales to match those of an earlier period – the post-WWII social democratic consensus – defined by a more sensible balance of state and market, public and private, regulation and freedom. In the widely quoted opening passage, he writes eloquently of our current malaise:
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
He points not just to the spiritual emptiness of our consumerist, hyper-capitalist times, but underpins his critique with extensive data on the pernicious role of economic inequality in driving these problems, drawing on the synthesis made famous by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their remarkable book, The Spirit Level. Like those authors, he sees the relentless marketisation of every nook and cranny of public and private life as deriving its strength from an atomistic loss of trust created by social disparity.
Judt’s is an angry book, railing against the reduction of politics and social morality to economic logic that governments supposedly cannot or should not subvert. Unlike many so-called progressives today, he trenchantly defends welfare of the universal sort (which operated before means testing apparently became some kind of left-wing ideal). He is willing to support social achievements of the postwar era on a moral basis even if they may be ‘economically inefficient’, although he points out that many neoliberal reforms (such as privatisation) lack efficiency anyway. Judt’s project, openly stated, is to reclaim language that will articulate our political needs – language of justice, redistribution and public good.
Yet when he tries to explain both the ‘Keynesian consensus’ of the postwar era and the neoliberal politics of the current epoch, Judt’s suspicion of economic categories leaves him positing an essentially idealist account. So to him the boom period was the result of elites morally committed to forestalling another Great Depression, while the neoliberal turn is a victory for Austrian neoclassical economists who cleverly pointed to the limitations of state intervention. This dovetails with his conclusion that social democrats today need to revitalise the public debate with impassioned dissent.
Such positions rest on the assumption that a government-directed, booming capitalism can be the usual state of affairs and laissez-faire an unfortunate deviation, to be corrected by getting the right ideas back in the driver’s seat. Yet the postwar period, of almost unbroken economic growth and full employment in the West, remains capitalism’s great outlier, unmatched by any other boom. And there is good evidence that it was neither ideologically Keynesian nor social democratic in character. Rather, governments of all stripes stumbled upon a winning formula of state intervention as they emerged from war in a geopolitically bipolar world. Worse, Keynesian policies utterly failed to fix the first global postwar crisis in the early 1970s, strongly suggesting it was more than neoclassical fashion that provided a springboard for Reagan and Thatcher (not to mention Hawke and Keating).
Unable to understand that his preferred form of society was contingent upon a unique constellation of forces, Judt bizarrely lashes out at the 1960s New Left for undermining collective feeling with ‘self-regarding, self-promoting and curiously parochial’ concerns, thereby opening the door for market individualism. He recognises that social democratic ideology was also undermined by the collapse of Stalinism, but despite many pages stewing over an alternative narrative seems unable to come up with more than a series of abstract appeals to modesty, prudence and incrementalism. It’s hardly stirring stuff.
Despite these shortcomings, Judt’s willingness to put the politics of social justice ahead of economics will rightly inspire many readers. Social attitude surveys in the Anglophone neoliberal countries repeatedly reveal broad and rising support for traditional social democratic policies, even as ‘progressive’ politicians implement the opposite. This has led some to see the re-emergence of an old-style social democracy as a necessary first step in building a radical Left. Judt’s inability to pull together a semi-coherent program speaks to the dangers of relying on such a self-limiting focus, at risk of simply repeating the failures of the past.
Yet throughout Ill Fares The Land, Karl Marx keeps inserting himself into the narrative, suggesting the potential for a greater opening out of Judt’s themes than Judt himself was capable of. Social democracy’s dreams of a just world are also to be found in Marx’s far more radical emancipatory framework, even if the means to that end could not be more different. How to bridge the gap between immediate social needs and more fundamental transformative visions is the essence of politics today – one that cannot ignore the attraction of social democracy’s idealised past but which must transcend it with something genuinely new and better.
Tad Tietze is co-creator of blog Left Flank, where he contributes as Dr_Tad.