Markets, Movements and Morals

Sep 19th, 2011 | By Barry Winter | Category: Articles, Features, Frontpage

BARRY WINTER reviews Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, and finds the late academic’s fascinating account “both right and wrong” in its lament for social democracy.

Born in London in 1948, Tony Judt taught at several British and American Universities. At New York University in 1995, he established an institute for the study of European history. He authored over a dozen books and wrote for various publications, such as The New York Review of Books. He won various awards for his writings, including the Orwell Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

9781846143595HIll Fares the Land was his last book. It is particularly written for young people in Britain and the US. The book was based on a lecture he delivered after being struck down by a form of motor neurone disease, which left him paralysed from the neck down. He died in 2010, the year it was published.

In his introduction, ‘A Guide to the Perplexed’, Tony Judt begins: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes what remains of our collective self purpose. We know what things cost, but have no idea what they are worth.”

Given the tragic, personal as well as political circumstances in which the account was produced, it is an impressive and well-crafted endeavour. The author speaks with a persuasive, indeed, seductive clarity and he is at his best when he critiques society and the way we live today.

As John Gray, another intriguing political commentator, puts it: “Ill Fares the Land must surely be one of the most remarkable books on politics to have appeared in a long time.” Gray says Judt is a latter-day Orwell serving as the conscience of the left.

Indeed, because Judt crystallises many aspects of our world so lucidly, it’s very easy to be swept along with the flow of his argument and analysis. As a result, developing one’s own critical judgements involves quite an effort.

In what follows, I will first outline what the book say in some detail and then offer a few somewhat sketchy but critical evaluations.

An age of insecurity

Judt delivers a rich, passionate, challenging, and at times angry, account of contemporary society. In response to the ravages wrought by three decades of unregulated, global capitalism, he advocates a renewal of social democracy. He calls for the left to find its voice, a voice he claims it has lost, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This renewal has to be based upon clear, moral foundations; morality being the basis of his critique of life today

His depicts social democracy “as something of a hybrid” and as “a mongrel politics”. For him, social democracy, unlike socialism, is based upon necessary, political compromises: it is about making incremental gains. He says later that social democracy “blended socialist dreams of post-capitalist utopia with the practical recognition of the need to live and work in a capitalist world that was demonstrably not on its last legs.”

And, as he writes in the conclusion, social democracy implies “an acceptance of capitalism – and parliamentary democracy – as the framework within which the hitherto neglected interests of large sections of the population would now be addressed”. For all its faults, he argues, it could become again a force for good. It could and should become the basis for a morally-based reform of society. These ideas echo a much earlier political tradition of ethical socialism, not that he refers to them in this account.

John Gray describes the book as a “polemical attempt to retrieve a social-democratic language that would allow the workings of the market to be once again judged in terms of the common good”.

Judt characterises the state of our society when he declares:

“We have entered an age of insecurity – economic, physical, political. Insecurity breeds fear, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world. Fear is corroding trust and interdependence on which civil society rests.”

Ours is a world obsessed with wealth and personal enrichment, he argues. In the chapter which follows, ‘The Way We Live Now’, he states: “All around us we see a level of individual wealth unequalled since the early years of the 20th century – conspicuous consumption has greatly expanded.”

In contrast, and using references more directly applicable to the United States, he continues: “The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, the uninsured: all suggest a failure of collective will.”

We can, of course, paint for ourselves a similar picture of the UK. The recent riots that briefly gripped many of our towns and cities serve only to underline these trends (unless you believe Theresa May’s simplistic and self-serving blandishments).

The chapter itself draws heavily upon the research on inequality with which some here will be familiar, namely The Spirit Level by Kate Picket and Richard Wilkinson (and which continues on their Equality Trust website: www.equalitytrust.org.uk). Judt points out that inequality has grown in the last three decades reversing the previous post-war trends.

He says: “Inequality is corrosive. It rots society from within.” And it generates “pathological social problems”. Intergenerational mobility has collapsed, the poor stay poor and this damages their health and mental health, and reduces their educational opportunities. All this then has an impact on broader layers of society. At the same time, the poor become increasingly stigmatised as being primarily responsible for their own misfortune. People in wider society then resent paying taxes that are spent on their welfare.

Decades of inequality mean that chronic disadvantage is now seen as the “natural condition of social life”, he says. As in the Victorian era, the poor become – or at least are treated as – a class apart, whilst the rich increasingly separate themselves from any wider social responsibilities.

They use their amassing fortunes to retreat into their private worlds; into gated communities or far from the madding crowd in rural havens, like Oxfordshire. They secure the benefits of private education to ensure permanent advantage for their young. They employ financial advisers to avoid paying taxes and deposit large sums in tax havens. Some these examples are my own and already well known but I hope they reinforce the point.

The world we have lost

The next chapter, ‘The World We Have Lost’, focuses on the post-war decades up to the 1970s, the post-war or the social-democratic consensus, as it is variously known. This is the world which the great British economist, John Maynard Keynes (along with the other Liberal, William Beveridge), did so much to shape. Dying of exhaustion in 1946, Keynes, rather like Moses, led society to but never reached the ‘promised land’.

Judt notes that the focus of Keynes’ work was on the problem of uncertainty, in sharp contrast with the wildly confident declarations of the inter-war free marketeers (so history repeats itself a second, or is it a third time?).

Keynes was arguing that human affairs are essentially unpredictable. Judt writes that to Keynes, “it was the insecurity of those years in which men and women were forced to live which generated great fear”, thereby corroding people’s confidence in the liberal state. That period demonstrated to Keynes “the inability of capitalists to protect their own best interests”. As a result, the state would have to do it for them, he said, “whether they liked it or not.”

By the end of the Second World War, the “magic of the market” no longer held sway, except among a tiny minority of Austrian intellectuals (who got their revenge decades later). People had become used to the state playing a more central role in daily life and had no objection to it continuing in peacetime. The role of the liberal state was “to keep the market in its place”, thereby establishing a more secure society. Equally importantly, the welfare state was born, and life for most people began to improve.

In the chapter entitled, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Politics’, Judt starts to examine what went wrong. He argues that social democracy was a victim of its own success. The post-war generation, who benefitted most from social stability and economic security, railed at the restrictions of social democratic paternalism.

He says: “By the late 60s, the idea that ‘nanny knows best’ was already starting to produce a backlash”, and the gulf between the generations was widening. Alongside that, he briefly notes that the traditional working class was fragmenting and shrinking, and with it went collectivism, communal discipline and, yes, its subservience.

It’s one of what he calls “the paradoxes of meritocracy” that “the ’60s generation was itself the by-product of the very welfare states on which it poured its scorn”. The baby boomers were united by their desire for “maximised private freedom and unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires”. In other words, here was rampant individualism, “divorced”, he says, from “any sense of collective purpose”.

While outright rebellion was confined to a minority, there was a widespread cultural shift among the young as expressed in music, clothing and language. And, even when they engaged in worthy struggles, such as opposing the Vietnam War, these rebels lacked a “collective purpose”. So, while their concerns were often legitimate, he describes those involved as “self-regarding, self-promoting and curiously parochial”. He criticises the student movement, in particular, for being overly preoccupied with the university and decidedly narcissistic.

Nor is he entirely uncritical of post-war social democracy. Here he focuses primarily on public housing policies. However, he is concerned to accentuate its positives: so while “the social democratic consensus might have been boring and even paternalistic – it worked”, he argues.

Individualism

He goes on to say that individualism was something this new left shared with the re-emerging right. Less well known is that fact that the period also saw an intellectual rebirth of the right in politics and in the intellectual world. One might add that many who started out as ardent members of the new left ended up as ardent members of the new right.

Judt claims that the right gained ground as part of a backlash against youthful radicalism and, in less than a decade, the Keynesian consensus was overthrown. Conservatism was victorious. The post-war right of the 1940s became the new gurus of neoliberalism advocating the necessity of keeping the state out of economic and personal life.

He then spends some time examining the Thatcher era of privatisation, the rise of enterprise culture, the disintegration of the public sector, where the young are encouraged to maximise self-interest and personal achievement without any notion of the public good. That period witnessed a continuing decline in what he calls “civic engagement”. This was accompanied by a declining interest in politics and a “cynical distaste for politicians and political institutions – most marked amongst the young.” Where once elections were “an occasion for widespread civic engagement” there was a steadily declining interest.

John Gray neatly sums up the argument here, pointing out that the political classes, having convinced themselves that global capitalism was unstoppable, “have been morally and politically undone by the crisis into which it has fallen”. Not only did they not see it coming, believing the future promised continuing growth, but because they lack a historical perspective “our leaders cannot conceive of a future different from the present”.

Judt says that there are still laudable political goals today, such as fighting climate change and penalising bankers, but fears that those concerned are united only by the expression of emotion. There are no political movements. He gloomily concludes the chapter: “In our political lives, as in our economic lives, we have become consumers.” We must do better than this.

In the chapter on the demise of the left after 1989, ‘Goodbye To All That?’, he says that Europe’s social democrats today “have nothing distinctive to offer”. So they must rediscover how to talk about change. This means “we must invent as we go along” and “sort out what aspects of the past we wish to keep… and which, with sufficient will and effort, could we reproduce”.

A new narrative

This leads to the chapter ‘What Is To Be Done?’, where he argues there’s an urgent need for the public conversation to be recast. One reason why those in power over the last three decades have remained there is because there has been no coherent alternative on offer.

In formulating his ideas, it is important to record that he stresses that we are not all in this together, declaring: “The rich don’t want the same as the poor.” They are not committed to the public services because they can afford to buy what they want, unlike those who “depend exclusively on the public sector”.

Central to any reform is the reduction in inequality. It is the starting point of any truly progressive critique of the world. As he puts it: “If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose any sense of fraternity” which is the “necessary condition for politics itself… The inculcation of a common sense of purpose and mutual dependence has long been regarded as the lynchpin of any community.” In other words, trust has to be rebuilt.

Here I detect a political affinity with the better arguments of the advocates of Blue Labour. Judt later makes the point: “The left has something to conserve.” Just as the “sense of loss fired the energies of earlier socialists”, so there is much to defend today. He argues that, while this is not usually the image of the left as defenders of what exists, it is actually “doctrinaire market liberals” who for the past two centuries embraced a relentlessly optimistic view that all change is for the better (and here Tony Blair’s theme tune, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, echoes in the back of my brain).

This means that the best we can hope for is to make ”incremental improvements based upon unsatisfactory circumstances”. To sum it up, he admits: “Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent an ideal past. But among the options available to use today, it is better than anything else to hand.”

In the conclusion, the argument being made is clearest when he states:

“Social democracy cannot just be about preserving worthy institutions as a defence against worst options. Much of what is amiss can best be captured in the language of classical political thought; we are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality. We have just forgotten how to talk about them. Social democracy once articulated such concerns, until it lost its way.”

That said it is important to refer back to his argument about recognising the continuing role and relevance of the state in a capitalist society:

“The market over time is its own worst enemy… But although market failure may be catastrophic, market success is just as politically dangerous. The task of the state is not just to pick up the pieces when an under-regulated economy bursts. It is also to contain the effects of moderate gains.”

If Judt is right in both these statements, the challenge for social democracy – and for anyone wishing to see a more just and more secure world – is how to construct stability as the basis for a good life where the market (while producing the goods) remains a perpetual threat to stability. This brings me to my own observations on the book.

Five points

What follows are some of my truncated thoughts on the subject.

1. This is an impressive analysis. There is much to value in what he says and, even where one might have doubts or  strongly disagree, his case is a forceful one.

2. Judt’s focus on social democracy rather than socialism (or the more comforting distinction, which he doesn’t make, democratic socialism), needs addressing. However, I will not do that here, except to say that whatever the arguments about these concepts, in the short to medium term, social democracy provides the basis on which to make political interventions, and it is certainly the starting point for any attempt to secure progressive change.

Much depends on how and in what ways social democracy can be reconstructed and made relevant. Post-war social democrats, like Labour’s Anthony Crosland, thought that social redistribution could be based on an ever expanding market. When that ceased to be the case, social democrats lost their key narrative.

3. This is an impressive analysis. There is much to value in what he says and, even where one might have doubts or  strongly disagree, his case is a forceful one.

Judt’s focus on social democracy rather than socialism (or the more comforting distinction, which he doesn’t make, democratic socialism), needs addressing. However, I will not do that here, except to say that whatever the arguments about these concepts, in the short to medium term, social democracy provides the basis on which to make political interventions, and it is certainly the starting point for any attempt to secure progressive change.

Much depends on how and in what ways social democracy can be reconstructed and made relevant. Post-war social democrats, like Labour’s Anthony Crosland, thought that social redistribution could be based on an ever expanding market. When that ceased to be the case, social democrats lost their key narrative.

The weakest part of the analysis for me is his depiction of the 1960s generation as discrediting social democracy and laying the basis for the return of the right. This misses more than it sees.

I find him more than a little ungenerous here, although it is now fashionable to blame the baby boomers for society’s ills. Among the first to do so was Margaret Thatcher who accused them of creating the ‘permissive society’, the source of Britain’s woes for which she had the remedy.

There were genuine and honourable struggles in this period – against apartheid in the UK, for example. The civil rights movement in the US was supported by many white students, at great risk to themselves, and opposition to the Vietnam War was about wider issues than individualism. Even the battles to reform universities and higher education (which he rather denigrates) were about issues that mattered.

Yes, there is plenty to smile or even laugh about too – the over-confident posturing, the stuff about free love, the clothes (I cringe when I watch replays of Top of the Pops on BBC4). But what is neglected in Judt’s account is that those who embodied social democracy were largely deaf to what was being expressed by many young people.

The message for me at the time was that the reality of a just and liberal society – which they regularly proclaimed – did not match the reality, not at home and even less so in terms of foreign policy. The critiques made by the ’60s generation were about real injustices, inequality, racism, sexism, and much more.

4. But the issue goes deeper than that. Post-war social democracy was failing in its own terms. In the UK, the economy was faltering and, as it did, trade union struggles took on a heightened significance. Here, there is a huge hole in Judt’s analysis. Social democracy was in trouble because it was failing to deliver.

Obviously there’s much more to be said, but let me do it by way of an illustration focussing on two politicians who changed their minds radically: the Conservative, Sir Keith Joseph (now largely forgotten) and Tony Benn. Both were established figures in their respective parties who recognised that politics had to change. Benn moved to the left and Joseph moved to the right.

In other words, the crisis of social democracy demanded a move in one political direction or another. Things could not stay exactly as they had been. The radical direction taken by the left was defeated, largely within the Labour Party. It is a long and complex story (for which I have found no satisfactory account). The radical direction taken by the right – and always much easier to implement – became embodied in the Thatcher revolution.

5. I do not say any of this simply to denounce social democracy. Tony Judt is right and wrong – yes it worked; but it had stopped working and what was to be done? The longer Labour stayed in office, the more it acted as the midwife for the changes that followed. It began privatisation, not the Tories.

If social democracy is to be re-invented then, Judt’s ideas are certainly of assistance. But social democracy, particularly in its party political incarnation – the Labour Party – is a necessary but never sufficient basis for change.

If Labour is part of any social democratic solution, then it is also part of the problem. It cannot stand too far out in front of the people whose votes it needs. Part of the problem with Judt is he never looks at specific political agencies (either in the UK or the US). That means his argument neglects what was taking place politically, on the ground.

The sort of change that Tony Judt seeks requires progressive political movements as well as parties. Those movements have to find reflection in the political mainstream but they also need to maintain a critical distance. They can create the space for political change which will allow social democratic parties to become more progressive.

Out of the tensions between the two, we may be able rebuild progressive politics. And, if we do the insights offered in Judt’s in fascinating account will be a great help.

—-

This account is based on a presentation to the Leeds Taking Soundings reader’s meeting held on 14 September 2011.

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt was published by Allen Lane in 2010. 

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  1. Fantastic analysis once again, Barry. Thank you.

    Of course, one of the main problems that socialism and social democracy face is that both seem inadequate in practice at generating sufficient economic surplus to sustain their social ambitions.

    In this vein, I’ve just read an interesting article in the Social Policy journal about Venezuala which describes the failure of the Barrios to diversify the country’s oil-dependent economy, despite their (very non-Stalinist) promotion of co-operatives and small businesses through micro credit. I don’t think the article does full justice to the subject but it’s a slightly depressing reflection of a paradox within socialism, though not one which should stop anyone from struggling against the ugly, destructive and narrow ‘commonsense’ of capitalism..

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