Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt
Allen Lane £20, 256 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

On any street, in any town, you’re likely to hear people saying that all people care about now is money and looking after number one; that there’s no sense of community any more, that something’s got to change. At first glance, British historian Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land reads like a more erudite reiteration of this thesis. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he announces in his first sentence. “For 30 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 of what they are worth.”

For every reader nodding “Hear, hear”, I’m sure there are many others like me shrugging “Yeah, yeah”. But it’s worth resisting the reflex yawn and ploughing on. These complaints have only become hackneyed because there is something to them. The problem is that few are able to get beyond the symptoms to identify causes and cures. Judt’s acute historical perception allows him to have a good stab at a diagnosis, even if his prescription is perhaps inevitably vague.

The central argument of the book is in effect a defence of social democracy. Social democrats, he writes, “share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance” but also “believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good”. This in particular means a belief in progressive taxation to fund public services.

Whether they have gone by the name or not, most western societies have generally been social democratic throughout living memory, with the result that “from the late 19th century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the west were all becoming less unequal”. Then things started to go wrong. With a typical combination of overstatement followed by more sober qualification, Judt says that “over the last 30 years we have thrown this all away”, only to accept that some countries have squandered their inheritances more than others. Unfortunately, Britain and the US are the worst offenders. Drawing heavily on Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, Judt argues that the resulting increase in inequality is bad for health, crime, social mobility and pretty much any public or private good you care to name.

What caused this breakdown? The story is a familiar one: a toxic cocktail of too much confidence in free markets, too much emphasis on individualism and too much suspicion of the state. Judt acutely explains how these new dogmas systemically misread the lessons of history and economics. The market was worshipped as omnipotent when it only works with the support of regulation, civic trust and social cohesion. Neo-liberals thought they had unchained the market when really they had thrown away its ballast. What we are now left with is insufficient regulation, little or no trust in politicians and public institutions, and seemingly ever more fragmented societies.

In asking what is to be done, Judt suffers from an illusion common to intellectuals, that the way to get the world to walk right is to get it to talk right. “Our disability is discursive,” he says. “We simply do not know how to talk about these things any more.” And again, “Many European countries have long practised something resembling social democracy: but they have forgotten how to preach it.”

That our mode of discourse is not the primary problem is evident from the striking irony that several of Judt’s paragraphs read as though they were better-written versions of old Tony Blair speeches. When Judt questions “the contemporary belief that we can either have benevolent social services or efficient, growth-generating free markets, but not both”, he is reiterating one of the central tenets of Blair and Giddens’s third way. When he pleads that social democrats “need to learn once again how to think beyond their borders”, he employs the same rhetoric Blair used in support of international interventionism.

Judt criticises Blair and Clinton for “empty phrase making” but any emptiness was in the failure to act accordingly, not the words themselves. The problem is not so much that we lack a way of conceiving what social democracy stands for, it’s that we’re not sure how to put those ideals into practice. That, I’d suggest, is not a difficult theoretical or rhetorical challenge but simply a matter of settling on the right priorities and finding effective means of achieving them.

Intellectuals tend to dismiss this as mere managerialism, a politics that strips away values. But questions of value are deeply imbedded in both the priorities we set and the means we use to achieve them. Values need not disappear, they simply have to apply less to overarching ideology and more to the nitty-gritty of policy-making.

Judt is at least clear about what our priorities should be. They are quite simply the traditional goals of social democracy: a pragmatic balance of freedom and fairness, of individual liberty and social cohesion. It is time to “apologise a little less for past shortcomings and speak more assertively of achievements”. Social democrats need to remember how they used to measure efficiency not only by means of spreadsheets, but in social result.

These solutions are painted with the same broad brush that Judt often wields throughout the book. This sweep is the book’s strength and weakness. We need thinkers to stand back and capture the big picture. But real change requires hundreds of piecemeal, practical changes. That is not to diminish the importance of panoramic visions. Obama’s crusading “yes we can” seems a thousand miles from the tortuous negotiations behind the eventual passing of the healthcare bill. But without his campaign’s clear purpose and simple message, the bill would never have even got before Congress. Judt’s impassioned, often angry polemic is likewise sorely needed, but much more sober, practical thinking is needed too, if the land is to fare better.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of ‘Do They Think You’re Stupid? 100 Ways of Spotting Spin and Nonsense from the Media, Celebrities and Politicians’ (Granta)

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