Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land: A Treatise On Our Present Discontents is an elegantly crafted elegy for the postwar consensus and a concise and erudite statement by a towering public intellectual of political wisdom accumulated over a lifetime of achivement. Its intended audience is ‘youths on both sides of Atlantic,’ who are too leery of civic engagement because of their disillusionment with politics and suspicion of government. Judt aims to invigorate their interest with challenging ideas and a practical project for political transformation. He offers no utopia, but an alternative that is ‘better than anything else to hand.’ He makes a case for social democracy, a form of government that can play an enhanced role without threatening liberties.
Judt begins with a diagnosis of the present malaise, a condition JK Galbraith described as ‘private wealth and public squalor.’ Judt finds something ‘profoundly wrong’ with an age which has made ‘a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.’ Like Oscar Wilde’s cynics, he laments, ‘we know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth.’ With ‘growth’ as the only index of progress, politicians have been able to claim success even as inequality has reached grotesque proportions. The decline began with Reagan and Thatcher’s assault on the welfare state, but has proceeded apace both in Britain and the US under successive Democratic and Labour governments. The result is a society marked by extreme inequality and broken communities. Judt draws on the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, to show a correlation between the extreme inequality of the American and British society and its adverse consequences on health, crime, and social mobility.
Judt contrasts this with the postwar years when the prevailing Keyesian consensus reined in the excesses of capitalism with constraints and regulations derived from socialism, handing the commanding heights of the economy to the state along with steeply progressive taxation. Unemployment and inflation were treated not just as economic issues, but also as ethical ones. Markets were regulated in the public interest, and the state retained public trust. Inequality was curbed and the welfare state bound professional and commercial middle classes to liberal institutions thereby preventing the kind of disaffection which had given rise to Fascism. In the US, some of the largest public projects such as the massive interstate highway system were authorized under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Social programs were further expanded under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. Two generations of Americans experienced unprecedented job security and upward social mobility. In Britain the post war years yielded an ‘age of affluence’: Healthcare, education, and unemployment insurance were universalized, disposal income increased. So much so, that Harold Macmillan was moved to declare ‘you have never had it this good.’
Judt next describes the changes that led to the present impasse. After taking stock of the sociological reasons for the collapse of the old left—the shrinking and fragmentation of the blue collar proletariat due to automation and the consequent decline of instinctive collectivism and communal discipline of an industrial work force—he subjects the New Left to withering criticism for its failures and excesses—its shunning of disciplined mass action, its abandoning of social justice, and its reduction of politics to an aggregation of individual claims upon society and state. ‘They were not united in the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each.’
The same formations which embraced individualism at home, Judt notes, ‘remained sensitive to collective human attributes in the Third World: “peasant”, “post-colonial”, “subaltern.”’ They desired freedom of choice at home, but supported authoritarian impositions abroad (Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’ for example). They railed against the stifling conformism of postwar America yet readily embraced the timeless claims of Marxist dogma. Paradoxically, it was this primacy of private interests and suspicion of public authority that also described the emerging New Right. With the decline of a shared sense of purpose, adversarial politics fragmented and collapsed under the strain of identity politics. The vacuum was filled by the high-priests of market capitalism and three decades of decline were inaugurated by the ascent of Reagan and Thatcher. The end of the Cold War further accelerated the assault on the welfare state and by the early 1990s the Anglo-Saxon model—the celebration of ‘free enterprise’, ‘private sector’, ‘efficiency’, ‘profits’, and ‘growth’—was being emulated worldwide.
Marx and Engels had famously described the bourgeois as playing a ‘most revolutionary part’ in ‘pitilessly [tearing] asunder’ all feudal social hierarchies—but they left remaining ‘no social no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”’ In a similar vein, Judt envisages an essentially conservative role for the left: to preserve the best of what the past offered, a progressive state with a collective purpose, shared objectives, and institutions that accord a sense of shared identity and values. Judt also proposes what he calls a ‘a social democracy of fear,’ an active interventionist state to protect against the consequence of rapid change and dislocation—change which could otherwise easily lead to the rise of the kind of nationalist chauvinism and xenophobic hysteria being witnessed in France, Netherland and Italy. But above all, Judt wants to rescue public discourse from the kind of abuse and dilution it has suffered due to the economically-driven way of thinking that prevails across the world. The language of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ must once again give way to an ethically informed public conversation which does not ignore moral considerations. ‘As recently as the 1970s,’ he writes, ‘the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders.’ Judt encourages readers to reverse this trend and restore concepts such as justice, fairness and equality to the public conversation. A society that pursues economic self-interest to the exclusion of all others is not a health society. ‘Wealth’ itself needs to be redefined in a way that takes it beyond its strictly material application.
But Judt’s is ultimately an idealistic account (‘Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it’) which overstates the significance of ideas and ignores the material means by which they are given prominence. True, the ideas of Austrian free-markteers like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper, and Peter Drucker—and their Chicago School successors like Milton Friedman—have eclipsed the Anglophone world’s Keynsian conceits. But none of this was inevitable—nor can it be explained as solely a discursive failure. If the Austrians have come to dominate economic thinking in the Anglophone world, it is in large part due to a sustained and systematic campaign of proselytization that began with the first meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS) on 1 April 1947. Fresh from the success of his influential tract The Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek convened a gathering of philosophers, historians, and mostly economists to devise a strategy for countering what he described as the danger of ‘creeping collectivism’. This transnational ‘thought collective,’ part of an ‘elaborate social machinery designed to collect, create, debate, disseminate, and mobilize neoliberal ideas,’ had at its core economists and philosophers surrounded by foundations, think-tanks, letter-head organizations, and astroturf (fake grassroots) organizations. Over the next decades, with the backing of wealthy financiers, they would undertake a massive campaign to turn the climate of opinion against the Keynesian consensus using pressure groups, specialist foundations and think tanks. The University of Chicago and the London School of Economics became their intellectual hubs; AEI, Brookings, and the Heritage foundation (and in Britain the Institute of Economic Affairs) the marketers of their ideas; and the Wall Street Journal their bull-horn. Thus was the postwar consensus overturned.
These quibbles notwithstanding, Judt has left us a magnificent parting gift—concise, charged and stimulating. The writing is limpid, precise, and sculpted to perfection. The book is strewn with penetrating observations and sparkling philosophical insights. Judt also delights readers with a personal account of his fascination with trains and reflects on how the state of railways in Britain and the US epitomizes the political failures of political-economic mis-judgment over the past three decades.
To read Tony Judt’s writings over years is to witness a mind that is probing, restless and reflective. One of his last books was aptly titled Reappraisals. Judt relished the realm of ideas but was not hostage to any particular dogma. His thinking evolved. It is common for intellectuals to turn more conservative as they advance in age, to make their peace with the status quo. Not so Judt. Possessed of a genuinely independent intellectual disposition, Judt grew ever more critical of the liberal intelligentsia’s passive acquiescence in or complicity with the increasingly authoritarian political order. Judt was equally contemptuous of those who complain idly: ‘The irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding of decades past did not serve the Left well.’ ‘Sadly,’ he writes, ‘contemporary intellectuals have shown remarkably little informed interest in the nitty-gritty of public policy, preferring to intervene or protest in ethically-defined topics where the choices seem clearer.’ Judt shunned easy posturing, and has therefore bequeathed us an engaging, erudite and challenging manifesto. He enjoins readers ‘to re-conceive the role of government’ — because ‘if we do not,’ he warns, ‘others will.’