- Ill Fares The Land
- Tony Judt
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Something is profoundly wrong with the way we think about how we should live today. 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. Judt masterfully crystallizes what we've all been feeling into a way to think our way into, and thus out of, our great collective unease about the current state of things.
As the economic collapse of 2008 made clear, the social contract that defined postwar life in Europe and America—the guarantee of security, stability and fairness—is no longer guaranteed; in fact, it's no longer part of the common discourse. Judt 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, we must look to our recent past and to social democracy in action: to valuing fairness over mere efficiency.
Distinctly absent from our national dialogue, social democrats believe that the state can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties. Instead of placing blind faith in the market—as we have for thirty years past, to our detriment—social democrats entrust fellow citizens and the state they share.
Ill Fares The Land challenges us to confront our societal ills and to shoulder responsibility for the world we live in. Hope remains: in reintroducing alternatives to the status quo, Judt invigorates our political conversation, furnishing the tools necessary to imagine a new form of governance, a better way of life.
A miraculous short book—passionate, wise, lucid, humane, and far-sighted both into the past and present—Ill Fares The Land is a gift to the next generation of engaged citizens from one of our most celebrated intellectuals. The concentrated expression of a lifetime's concerns, it will take its place, in achievement and in influence, with the truly great political writing of our or any age.
New York Times feature article on Tony Judt, February 7, 2010
…American critics frequently respond by expressing anxiety about “over-powerful states” or even economic dictatorship. More than anything, we need to learn to separate these categories with their different histories and articulate the ethical basis for particular social policies and goals. It doesn't terribly much matter whether we call these policies and goals “social democratic” or something else. But we have to stop apologizing for them.
A Very Brief History of Socialism
The word “socialism” first appears, as far as we know, around 1827 (in France and Britain simultaneously). It was used by those who thought that the new “social question” (the terrible poverty and inequality created by industrial capitalism, then in its first great burst of factory building, child labour exploiting, etc.) could not be answered by the occasional political reform but needed a whole new set of social arrangements, in which working men and women would have equal rights with everyone else and in which the state would regulate all those aspects of life which adversely affected the poor and the disadvantaged.
By 1848, socialists had inevitably taken different approaches. There were some who thought you could radically reform unjust commercial societies if only you convinced enough people. And there were others who thought you had to quite literally “get away”, forming your own egalitarian communities in remote places like Scotland, the mid-west, the remote French hillsides, etc. (that's the long-distance origin of idealized socialistic agrarian settlements like Israeli kibbutzim). None of these survived very long and some of them, interestingly enough, became quite authoritarian and repressive—an early instance of some of the later defects of communism. But there were also those who thought that you had to engage and fight the existing “system”, if necessary by revolution. They started to call themselves “communist socialists” to emphasize their link back to the revolutionaries of Paris during the great French Revolution (who had called themselves “communards” after the Commune of Paris which was the administrative unit of the revolutionary city). Their best-known publication was the “Communist Manifesto” written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, all women and most men without a solid middle-class income were not entitled to vote and were thus not full citizens. Therefore the victims of commercial exploitation had no political voice. Hence it made sense for socialism to be presented as an idealized alternative to capitalist life rather than an improved version of it. But as the century went on, and first working men and then women secured the vote, socialists in liberal countries (England, Scandinavia, the U.S.) began to reason that you could build better institutions within the capitalist system without having to overthrow it. In other words you could work within liberal democracies rather than against them. To distinguish themselves from men and women who still thought that it was all-or-nothing and that a revolution would be necessary before you got any genuine change, they called themselves “social democrats”.
The program of these social democrats took, typically, two forms. The practical projects were greater equality (by redistributing wealth through taxation and state expenditure); public provision of essential social goods (education, health, insurance against unemployment, illness or old age); state ownership of crucial services (transportation, healthy water supply, the mail service, vital utilities—gas, electricity—and so on). All of this to be paid for by taxing the well-off disproportionately more than the poor. The second aspect of social democracy was theoretical: capitalism, in its unregulated and unrestricted form (pretty much as we see it in the U.S. today), was thought to be immoral and also dangerous, in that it divided society and risked regular economic crises. So it should be controlled and targeted to useful goals (investing in necessary goods rather than just betting on the stock exchange), leading over time to a more “social” (i.e. collective and mutually supportive) public life.
To cut the story short: between 1910 or so, when social democrats first started to get elected into parliaments, and the 1960s—when they effectively controlled the governments of most northern European states and were influential in many others—most of their policies and projects had been implemented. Many of these policies had been taken up by socially-conscious Christians, influenced by the criticisms of excess wealth and capitalist selfishness expressed by religious leaders, notably some of the early twentieth century popes. Even the U.S. had been affected: during the ‘60s, and picking up from FDR's New Deal, President Lyndon Johnson forced through legislation which fifty years earlier would have been called social democratic: food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts, etc.
Meanwhile of course, “socialism” and “communism” had been steadily discredited by their adoption and abuse at the hands of authoritarian revolutionaries in Russia, China and elsewhere. The words had shifted their meaning from social criticism of capitalist excess to justifications for dictatorship, repression and “one-size-fits-all” economic policies which certainly produced equality, but at a very low and restrictive level and often by imprisoning or exiling critics.
Social democrats spent much of the decades after the Russian Revolution of 1917 distinguishing themselves from this increasingly unpleasant “brother” who shared their name but not their objectives. This worked, but—as I explained in my lecture—it meant that social democrats were so focused on showing that they were not believers in state repression, state monopoly of everything and the loss of private freedom, that they forgot to articulate confidently the reasons why they believed in their own policies. As a result, many of those policies became the way of life of much of Europe, but social democrats did not (do not) get the credit.
So there are two problems today. In Europe, most people believe in social democratic policies even if they don't call them by that name. Every European country has publicly provided healthcare, either free or very cheap and paid for out of general taxation. Nearly every European country has free education through college (and if not free then very cheap), subsidized public transport, publicly provided cultural resources available to all, etc. But since Christian Democrats (the right-of-center equivalent of the Republicans) also believe in many of these things, there is not much debate. And so social democrats don't know how to stand up for the things they care about because they've lost any sense of social conflict or challenge.
In the U.S., on the other hand, we've spent thirty years unraveling the legislation I described above. We have been taught to confuse “social democrat” with “socialist” and both of them with “communist”. As a result, whenever someone points to the virtues of European social legislation or public services, American critics frequently respond by expressing anxiety about “over-powerful states” or even economic dictatorship. More than anything, we need to learn to separate these categories with their different histories and articulate the ethical basis for particular social policies and goals. It doesn't terribly much matter whether we call these policies and goals “social democratic” or something else. But we have to stop apologizing for them.