June 2010

Arts & Letters

State of tomorrow

By Robert Manne
Tony Judt’s 'Ill Fares the Land'

Tony Judt, the historian of the French intelligentsia and postwar Europe, has been suffering a ferociously debilitating motor neurone disease. During this time he has composed for the New York Review of Books a beautiful memoir-in-fragments and a stoical, un-self-pitying account of his illness. Even more miraculously, he has just published one of the most interesting reflections on the Global Financial Crisis, Ill Fares the Land (Allen Lane, 238pp; $29.95). While most anti-communist social democrats made their peace a long time ago with the political economy of neo-liberalism and American militarism, to his great credit Judt never has. He is the most important contemporary representative of a nearly extinct political tendency – the anti-communist, social-democratic Left. His manifesto is driven by his conviction that in rejecting social democracy 30 years ago the West stumbled badly, and by his hope that the social-democratic tradition can now be revived. His manifesto is sober but also urgent, written by a man who knows that time is not on his side, and for this reason deeply moving.

For Judt, social democracy is multifaceted and complex. Originally, social democracy was a response to the barbarity of communism, where the utopian socialist dream was moderated by a commitment to liberal democracy and where eventually a historic compromise with capitalism was struck. After the shock of the Great Depression, social democracy became, in addition, a distinctive form of political economy, inspired by Maynard Keynes. For a generation, under the Keynesian consensus, worldly wisdom triumphed over neo-classical academic orthodoxy. Social democracy was, accordingly, no longer merely one kind of politics but the animating spirit of an era lasting from 1945 until the election of Margaret Thatcher. During this era, social democracy was associated with a series of policy prescriptions: progressive taxation and the “mixed economy” of public and private ownership. It was also primarily responsible for the creation of the protective social-welfare state, its greatest achievement. Yet, for Judt, social democracy is even more than this. It is the most humane moral–political idea, in which, for once, both the two great values unleashed by the French Revolution – freedom and equality – are valued and pursued.

What went wrong for social democracy? Although Judt rather perfunctorily recognises that in the mid-1970s the social-democratic state hit unanticipated economic troubles, his explanation of the collapse places greater weight on cultural factors. By the 1970s, a younger postwar generation had begun to take the achievements of the postwar social-democratic era for granted, and even to chafe at the dullness of the security it had delivered. In addition, the New Left was by now more interested in the politics of personal identity – of race and gender, rather than class – than it was in defending the achievements of the postwar Left. Both factors made the social order vulnerable to an intellectual attack that was mounted by the Austrian émigrés – not only Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, but also Karl Popper, Joseph Schumpeter and Peter Drucker – who were mesmerised by the interwar collapse of liberalism throughout central Europe and who, grotesquely, mistook the creation of the social-democratic welfare state for a way station on “the road to serfdom”.

There is strength in Judt’s explanation of the fall of social democracy, but also weakness. Judt underestimates the degree to which the ‘stagflation’ crisis knocked the confidence of the conventional Keynesian economists, whose thought was premised on the idea that inflation and stagnation were the alternative illnesses to which the capitalist economy might succumb. He is also rather unbalanced about the legacy of the New Left. Even if there was a narcissistic tendency in identity politics, it is also true that the eruption of the ’60s helped trigger a vast cultural revolution that shook centuries-old habits of mind on issues related to gender and race. Not only did this transform Western sensibility unambiguously for the better, it also extended to women and non-whites one idea that Judt places at the heart of social-democratic values: equality.

For Judt it is because of the victory of neo-liberalism, especially in the UK and the US, that the land now fares ill. Most important for him is the toleration shown for the return to pre-Great Depression levels of inequality. Judt begins with tables taken from a remarkable recent study, The Spirit Level. They show that measuring almost everything we value – health, mental wellbeing, social mobility, trust, levels of crime – the more equal societies of north-west Europe perform notably better than the less equal societies of the UK and, especially, the US.

Because of the return of gross inequality, the participatory element of democratic politics has withered. For too long citizens have watched as the wealthy have fashioned the world according to their desires. Without the feeling of belonging to a common world, participation has no point. For Judt, the rise of the “gated” community is a potent symbol of the loss of this common world. Even political leaders – “pygmies”, such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, compared to their predecessors, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt – have become passive, leaving decision-making to the neo-liberal economic “experts” (the descendants of the Austrian school) whose central role has been to make the world safe for the bankers and brokers. The orthodox economists have, long ago, displaced political thinkers and convinced the world “there is no alternative” to their nostrums. Although discredited by the Global Financial Crisis, so far nothing has filled the void. At the coming of the crisis, Keynesianism made a return of sorts, but this was little more than a neo-liberal “tactical retreat”. At the moment of crisis everyone looked to government for action. Yet, according to Judt, no one is presently thinking afresh about the role of the state.

It is clear that for him the damage done will not be easy to repair. Although the welfare state has proven somewhat resistant to the neo-liberal assault – even Margaret Thatcher could not abandon the National Health Scheme – privatisation has made rapid gains in many areas, especially social services and transport, where its influence has been negative, or worse. But the spirit of neo-liberalism has also paralysed the vital organs of the culture. Universities are now overwhelmed by an economistic language of “outputs” and “impacts”. We have taught the young to value nothing more than the pursuit of wealth. Even intellectuals do not escape his scorn. Most are conformist and afraid to dissent. Even when they are not, they prefer to speak about morally straightforward issues rather than the complexity of public policy. (Ouch!) No one now seems capable of expressing, or indeed of feeling, the appropriate anger. Perhaps dangerously, Judt calls on intellectuals and others to trust their “instincts”.

Judt knows that contemporary social democracy is feeble. Since the collapse of communism, the Left no longer believes that its goals are, in the words of Bernard Williams, “cheered on by the universe”. More deeply, it has lost its language; its crisis is thus “discursive”. But he is still convinced that a rebirth of social democracy is possible. In part this is because neo-liberalism has been discredited. In part it is because the quest for equality has not lost its grip on our moral imagination. And in part it is because we live at a time of unprecedented uncertainty – about the economic future, about the dangers of global warming, about the pace and unpredictability of change. The Right is certain to try to exploit the mood of deep uncertainty. Yet, there is on the Left a long tradition of fighting to conserve the human world from the forces that threaten it. If there is to be a return to social democracy, it is almost certain to be what Judt calls “a social democracy of fear”.

Ill Fares the Land is a powerful and persuasive account of our present discontents. On occasion, its judgement seems hyperbolic. On occasion, it fails to distinguish between real cultural loss and mere, if perfectly understandable, nostalgia – for the monopoly of London’s black cabs, for example, and “the knowledge” their drivers once possessed. Very frequently, I yearned for evidence to support central empirical claims. None of this, however, undermined my admiration for Judt’s achievement.

And, yet, throughout I was troubled by an absence. Judt’s project is to argue for the return of social democracy. Yet almost nowhere does he recognise that if the tradition is to revive, a new dimension will be required. The world inherited by the young, for whom this book is written, will be dominated by a steeply rising global population; by the rapid diminishing of the Earth’s resources; by the utopian fantasy of never-ending economic growth; and, above all, by the threat of catastrophic climate change. It is clear that Judt is concerned about such matters. But it is also clear that he has not found a way of integrating them into his vision of social democracy, which for this reason has, in this noble book, a distinctly old-fashioned flavour. One thing seems self-evident. If social democracy has a future, it will first have to become, from the viewpoint of the tradition’s founders, almost unrecognisably green.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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