Ill Fares The Land

Tony Judt cover

In 2008, Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By October 2009, he was paralysed from the neck down. Nevertheless that month, from a wheelchair, he gave a major public lecture on the crisis of social democracy, which was published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009.  That lecture became the basis of his book Ill Fares the Land published posthumously in 2010, that I have just been reading.

Judt begins with a ringing opening sentence:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.

In words that carry even greater resonance in 2011, with the global Occupy movement questioning deepening inequality and the unregulated nature of the capitalist system, he continues:

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 our 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. [...]

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

Judt’s purpose in the opening chapter – ‘The Way We Live Now’ – is to describe the extent of ‘private affluence and public squalor’ in America and Europe today.  ‘To understand the depths to which we have fallen’, he writes, ‘we must first appreciate the scale of the changes that have overtaken us’.  From the end of the 19th century, up to the 1970s, western societies all became less unequal.  But, Judt argues, ‘over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away’.  Countries where the enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism has been most enthusiastic – the USA and UK especially – evince the greatest extremes of private privilege.  Much of his evidence is drawn from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The following chapter – ‘The World We Have Lost’ – is, essentially, a paean to the postwar ‘Keynesian consensus’ that emerged out of the devastation wrought by world war and depression.  Here, Judt places less emphasis on Keynesian economic tenets, and more on the moral precepts that underpinned them – community, trust and common purpose.  In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would ensure that there was no return to the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect all from cradle to grave. He shows how these assumptions underpinned the postwar consensus in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy.

However, in the 1970s, confidence in the efficiency of the state and belief in the necessity for a larger public realm fell apart. Judt advances several explanations for this – the failures of planning, the inefficiencies of public enterprises, the influence of free market economists like Hayek,  and – most surprisingly – the individualism of the ’60s generation.  He writes:

Social justice no longer preoccupied radicals.  What united the ’60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each.  ‘Individualism’ – the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires … became the left-wing watchword of the hour’.

This is a portrayal of sixties radicalism that I find unrecognisable.  Certainly those currents were present, most markedly on the hippie fringe, but such preoccupations also led radicals to challenge previously invisible forms of social inequality , such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability.  And I can recall considerable energies being devoted to analysing and challenging the failings of the welfare state: think, for example, of the emergence of Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group in this period.  It was, I recall, Margaret Thatcher who said, ‘There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families’.

Tony Judt

These chapters form the strongest part of the book, Judt setting out his case that we have become obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community. His chosen title, Ill Fares the Land, comes from Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’, in which the poet writes of a country ‘to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay’. As Judt sees it, the ills from which we presently suffer come very largely from a failure of morality and historical memory.

Judt is much better at describing what went wrong than at setting out how it might get better. He succeeds at conveying the urgency of the present, but becomes vague when it comes to indicating ways forward. What he suggests is that the way forward begins by looking back – to the moral judgements that lay at the heart social democracy after the Second World War.  Judt doesn’t pretend that the social democracy that prevailed in Britain, Europe and (the politics that dare not speak its name) America in the three decades after the war can easily be wished back into existence. The book ends with this sentence:

Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent an ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.

It’s a rather insipid conclusion, with no sign at present that much rethinking of this sort is taking place within the social democratic parties of western nations.  Another weakness is that the book focusses almost entirely on Europe and America, with hardly any mention of the problems flowing from economic globalization.

And yet – in 2011 the exact moral questions that Judt wanted to see posed have been at the forefront of the global Occupy movement.  As evidence for this, take a look at an article written by Naomi Wolf on The Guardian website: The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy.  The scale and ferocityof the coordinated crackdown against Occupy protesters in cities across the USA this past week set Wolf  to wonder: why this massive mobilisation against these inarticulate (according to the media), unarmed people?

It was, Wolf thought, a puzzle: until she found out what it was that Occupy actually wanted.  She went online and solicited answers from Occupy supporters to the question: What is it you want?  The answers were, she says, ‘were truly eye-opening.’

The protesters top agenda item was: get the money out of politics.  The second: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, and in particular restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. The third item was, she says, the most clarifying: make it illegal for members of Congress to pass legislation affecting corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them. … Occupy has touched the third rail: personal Congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not. …

Americans this week have come one step closer to being true brothers and sisters of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like them, our own national leaders, who see their own personal wealth under threat from transparency and reform, are now making war upon us.

This could just be the return to the kind of principled and morally-assertive social democracy that Tony Judt dreamed of.

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6 thoughts on “Ill Fares The Land

  1. Yes. I read the essays as they appeared in TNYRB and found myself genuinely mourning his death. Imagine a conversation between Judt and Edward Said about Arab Spring and Occupy (among many other things).

  2. I like Naomi Klein’s writing but this time I think she got it a little wrong. The crackdown was not so much a top-down conspiracy but rather a coordination of local repressions (as Corey Robin points out). The 1% have a more or less coherent world view that isn’t quite an ideology; this world view is shared by many among the 99% who think cracking heads is the proper response to dissent. There are many in Congress who don’t want reform, of course, many who are pleased with their own place in the scheme of things, but they didn’t order the crackdown. And to attempt to make Obama responsible is silly.

    • I like Naomi Klein’s take on the world, too – but this was Naomi Wolf, less well-known to me, but seems to have raised her profile recently as a result of several visits to support Occupy New York. I’m unable to judge the veracity of her case that there has been a nationally coordinated clampdown, but I thought her discovery of the issues that dominate to the Occupy movement – and the challenge they pose to the powerful – was spot on.

      • Whoops! Well, I’m less enthused about Wolf than Klein — though I’m only familiar with some of her feminist writings. I’m glad it wasn’t Klein getting all paranoid here. Occupy is indeed a challenge to entrenched power.

  3. In association with this book, which I shall have to purchase, can I recommend a book called ‘Soil and Soul’ by Alastair McIntosh, which I am about a third of the way into and which contains the most beautiful appraisal of where we have ‘lost the plot’, with as Thom Yorke of Radiohead says, ‘a desire for ecological change with no ego or malignance and no messianic tendencies’ or as George Monbiot (Guardian contributor) says, (perhaps rather grandly) ‘Make no claim to know the world if you have not read this book’ (It’s his second favourite/important book, his blogs worth a look too).

    I am also almost half way through a book called ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’ by Mark Rowlands (teaches Philosophy at Miami Uni) and as well as his wonderful relationship with a 96 percent (or thereabouts) wolf he lived with for 11 years, called Brennin (magnificent creature) he delves into our relationship with animals, the nature of evil and how we, that is Man, came to be at our current crossroads. He uses an old Medieval philosophers phrase that he thinks is both beautiful and important -
    ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ – under the gaze of eternity and it serves as a warning to highlight our pompous and degrading attitude towards our planet and our lack of understanding of our ancestry and origins and how our thought processes have led us to believe in our superiority above all else and our simian ways are ‘better’, when in fact ‘the idea that the gaze of eternity cares any more for my (our) ability is just petty conceit’.

    I would recommend both books heartily, if only those who hold the power could read them!!

    • Les – thanks for your response – I’ll investigate those titles further. This, I think, is blogging at its best – sharing recommendations and responses to books, etc.

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