Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land is the kind of passionate polemic that Britain no longer does. It’s objective is to define the barbaric state we’re in in such a way as to generate articulate responses that will change it. The tool is an accessible discursiveness aimed explicitly at youthful agents of change.
Urgency is required because, as Judt says in his opening line, “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.” Urgency also reflects the author’s suffering from the terminal effects of a rare form of motor neuron disease. That this book arrived so soon after his heroic October 09 lecture at the Remarque Institute [see link below], is to the significant credit of all parties.
Judt’s introductory mapping continues like this; “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”. He concludes his book thus; “if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge.” But “our disability is discursive”; to act requires words; the articulation of a common purpose, including a recovered ability to preach what social democracy at its extant best practises.
Judt argues that the last 30 years have been aberrant and corrupting and he is largely right. He argues that the years between 1989 and 2009 were wasted on locusts and he is not entirely wrong. His polemic is broader than this though; it’s the loss of the 20th Century -with its significant if sporadic advances in civility- that he laments. More positively, he goes on to argue that what he calls the ‘left’ must celebrate and defend its achievements, though I don’t think he has Hardt/Negri in mind.
The argument runs that we are, in effect, returned to the social barbarism of the 19th Century in which grotesque inequalities have bred/flourished but have generated no substantial opposition. Nor has it generated any articulated opposition that is not, ironically, just as attached to the 19th Century. In response, Judt’s speculative limits are those of radical democracy; “Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek.”
The problem is that the horrors Judt presents -absolutely corrupt wealth differences complete with actual knock-on effects in terms of health, life opportunities and patently obvious ills- are so severe that increments are not a worthy response. Increments achieved are all too easily lost or removed, as he demonstrates in an accurate analysis of the profound failures of recent decades. Anyone who can remember the 1980s in Britain, even dimly, knows what this means [though it seems unlikely to prevent it from being about to happen again].
Judt’s other problem is the difficulty of articulating an analysis and response to the US and UK and then the US and Europe including the UK at the same time and it muddies the waters. However, he points out with perfect clarity the way in which social democracy New Deal and Medicare style has settled into the consciousness of a state-phobic American culture. A culture which presently owns some of its own banks too, of course, though one in which social democracy made very little impact. Despite the ‘special [linguistic] relationship’ which TJ is a beneficiary of, the UK is a very different beast.
Judt is happier amongst the more settled though quite specific social democratic cultures of Europe, knows that the good need fiercely defending and that it’s patchy and horribly fragile [to wit: Serbian fascism]. Indeed, his projection of the real global terror of climactic and economic chaos and inequality is very bleak; “if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear.” He argues that fear will force peoples to recognise and rely on states, that there is likely to be a recovery of or fallback upon the nation state. Hence his urgent resort to social democratic increment and tradition.
I think his grasp of these last two decades is notably less sure than on the preceding era/s -which he virtually pivots on the figure of JM Keynes. He too easily elides globalisation with historic internationalism, for example. It’s not that his assertion that globalisation may not be for ever has no bite but that he doesn’t seem to recognise elemental changes that, just for instance, mean that that old [failed] internationalism has been absorbed by globalisation.
No, the response to globalisation is not to point out that things change and are not unidirectional but to politicise the process. This is our most significant recent and ongoing failure. We live in unique times; more people alive today than have ever lived, together with a uniquely universalising set of climactic circumstances, genome mapping, etc. The response can and probably will go in very opposing directions but this is not the same as before. So: are incremental responses appropriate to potential climactic catastrophe?
Judt picks out India as an example of how an economy can make large-number economic growth while remaining fantastically and painfully impoverished in the every day reality of the vast majority of its citizens. However, while arguing for a recovery of the power of fraternalism in European societies he’s apparently unaware of its effectiveness in subcontinental culture. Along with fraternity as an absolute good, I would attach the frugality that even old feudal India engages at each end of its brutally unfair system. A system which has finally begun to systematise elementary welfare provisions but is still in the 19th Century in the sense approximated here.
Moreover, if globalisation continues to mature then the multiples between say the poor of India and the poor of London will emerge as no less grotesque or as acute a global political priority as that between the poorest and the richest in London. Crudely, London’s poor are part of a global bourgeoisie. Judt glosses the privileges of London’s poor in a globalised world, partly because he seems detached from an incrementally improved/restored British reality.
Politicising the spaces and processes of globalisation requires a dramatic shift in scale and priority; a globalised economy requires globalised welfare systems, universal rights to education etc. There is a link between TJ’s scepticism about the realities of globalisation and his slightly fudged faith in incremental change I think.
However, Judt has written this for “the young”, in an attempt to find an accessible language to identify a catastrophic complacency and broad corruption in our lives. In essence, he’s hoping to engage and encourage dissenters amongst a generation who see no conflict in investing their privileges and over-education in the pursuit of money making –as an end in itself– because they value nothing else. His anecdotal evidence of teaching students over four decades, in which so many now see no conflict in aspiring to work in “business” or finance, rings with despairing truth.
Over and over again he returns to the core of the problem; words, language, articulation, finding ways to talk about values, collective good, and the more arcane realms of how to organise for those purposes and what the ends and means towards them might be. It’s critically important because once secured, at the very least policy but perhaps even a freshly minted politics flows from it.
Undoubtedly this is, as it always has been, the problem. This is why dissenters and political ‘radicals’ remain drawn to 19th century articulations and formulae. This is also why it is not enough; solutions lie not neatly fossilised in the past, but are yet to be articulated, attempted, achieved, using all the pasts at hand but undoubtedly enacted in the future.
My own life experience confirms that increments change little, that bolder clearer gestures, even in the quaint realms of a politics like Britain’s, are the only things that count or stick. Judt makes a simple and incontrovertible case for the railways in Britain to be rescued from private business interests. So do it, then. He also points to the political pygmies [human and conceptual] of our age; an age that requires the boldness, breadth and perspective of something or body that stands far taller.
The book is brave because it wants to engage at the level of public discourse, which most notionally radical Britains have nothing but contempt for. Judt is correct, radically so, on this score though. Reading this reminded me of the mortification that Alfred Russell Wallace, the first articulator of evolutionary thinking, felt on returning to Britain from the Malay archipelago and his flight back to its communal civilities. It reminded me of Dostoevsky’s discomforting portrait of London’s grotesque inequalities and the social barbarism he also identified here in the mid-19th Century.
Increment is not a response to the scale of the problem, though to say so in Britain immediately makes me a freak. A double freak if in fact I don’t spend my leisure hours above a pub endlessly fine-tuning Marx as if I’ve been there for 150 years -and I don’t. If only a fitting response to what is profoundly wrong with the way we live was that simple.
We live in a culture that has reduced philosophical thought to the scale of online grocery shopping. This is why, say, Giorgio Agamben’s so-called radical passivity; the refusal to make a choice when presented with a range of what’s on offer, is a non-incremental first big radical step. It is the minimum required and we seem completely detached from the bite of it.
Judt heralds an age of new dissent, specifically, but it’s not an end in itself is it? It would be a very bright new dawn if engaged and in that engaging an honest muscular insistent articulation of why the political supermarket of meaningless choice needs not a refit but actually tearing down.
Beyond that if we mean what we are then beginning to be able to say, perhaps armed with Judt’s honourable book, then what we need is change. We need to act. So, for decency’s sake, in order to recover some civility, for the sake of our children and in honour of our braver ancestors, to live in good faith with hope and confidence that these values are shared, we must act against the vast inequalities we hum along with because we know we’re worth it.
If what we really know is that the accumulating of vast amounts of money is simply revolting in and of itself, but especially when it declares that one woman is worth hundreds or even thousands of times another woman, then we must act to stop, correct, prevent, end it. Immediately and absolutely, not by increments of maybe. As Judt writes; “grotesquely unequal societies are also unstable societies.” A real global consciousness makes action easy, natural, pressing. Any degree of civility, decency, intellect or heart does too.
To engage it requires the investment of all of us in each other, and this is the rub. In any case it is impossible to begin to do so without the words, articulated ideas, beliefs and a convincing insistence on what we share and the value of that. The presence of various forms of these words in discrete familial, educational, religious or political pockets is the opposite of what is meant and required.
It takes courage, which Tony Judt demonstrates in this book, and conviction above narrow self interest -with all its second guessing and making sure I’m all right. It takes risk, not accepting that it’s impossible to resist the ever heightening pressure of the ways things are. It takes dissent, it requires you to say no! in order to begin to once more do something positive, right, good, commitedly hopeful.
In a sense we could not have it easier; the absolute need to recognise common universal values in the face of various ecological pressures and necessities couldn’t be more stark. It ought to be easy to draw down from that scale to recognise, for example, that the British railway system needs to be run and administered for and by all. It ought to be easy to draw down from our fragile atmosphere to see how grotesquely unjust the system of education remains in Britain and not adjust it by increment and its evil twin ‘choice’, but abolish, combine, reorder and to do so today.
Yet it is not easy because it requires words, narrative, the articulation of large ideas in ways and terms that stick to everyone’s hands and hearts and are hard to flick off. These things have or might have a personal cost but they also have an immeasurable benefit. It is precisely this inherent link between what is universal and what is particular that needs re-articulating now.
Judt shows the measurable benefits of shared identity, mutual trust and good faith at a local, national level in various European cultures. Cultures which can answer the question; “who is ‘we'”. Unless he is right about globalisation’s temporariness, we need to articulate something similar, something that we can all recognise ourselves in and with. Something that also, paradoxically, frees up a certain space in which to be -fully and freely- too. There is no positive or honest alternative.
Judt’s book is welcome and it’s radical because it engages the first steps in a process of dissent. These very big things require very small things in order to exist and flourish. Universal values require a few words and discrete acts. It is up to you and it is up to me. We don’t have much time.
TJ Very Select Biblio
An Open Letter Re ALS March 22 2010 here.
The point is to change it…
Remarque Institute October 19 2009 Lecture Video and NYRB’s Transcript here.
The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe on Hannah Arendt NYRB Feb 2008 here.
Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century May 2008 here.
Includes a link to Introduction: The World We Have Lost
Israel The Alternative NYRB October 2003 here.
TJ argues here in a similar vein, though one free of a notion of increment, appropriately: “A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.”