Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on Our Present Discontents

July 15, 2010

Tony Judt applies the ominous Oliver Goldsmith soundbite that provides this book's title to a Western world afflicted by economic crisis, gross inequalities, insecurity and fear. One of his messages, which he addresses to the younger generation, is that they should repudiate the pursuit of material wealth (and not start out by taking courses in business studies) and instead find ways to make the world not richer, but more just.

In a trenchant survey of recent history, Judt laments the way in which the West's apparent triumph over Soviet Union-style communism, 20 years ago, reinforced a downgrading of belief in the value of state action that had already gained momentum under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. By sweeping away forms of governmental provision and regulation associated with the New Deal or European-style social democracy, he argues, the West's rulers prepared the way for the financial and economic catastrophe of the early 21st century. In the former "socialist" world, the triumphalist Western view that capitalism must prevail took post-communist Eastern Europe straight from "repressive egalitarianism to unconstrained greed". Worse, the West itself was contaminated by the view that "communism's failure discredited all state provision or economic planning", and the result was 20 locust-wasted years.

When Judt asks "What is to be done?" (he echoes Lenin's question, but unhesitatingly spurns any socialist answer), he advocates a revival of the central values of American liberalism or European social democracy. He calls for the beneficent authority of a welfare state (in one form or another) to redress the excesses of unregulated market forces, just as that authority was invoked by Franklin D. Roosevelt or William Beveridge to mitigate the evils of 19th- or early 20th-century capitalism.

Despite Judt's manifest contempt for Tony Blair, there are echoes of New Labour's "Third Way" prospectus in his advocacy of a course that emphatically rejects both dogmatic socialism and unrestrained capitalism. His version of social democracy (or, for Americans, liberalism) envisages a society less materialistic, less individualistic and more community-minded than the present one, based on an economy in which capitalism, while by no means abolished, is on the other hand firmly tamed and regulated. His argument clearly implies that Blair's version of the Third Way foundered because it became too heavily dependent on international capitalism (particularly banking and finance), whose excesses brought us to the present crisis.

Judt thus argues, regarding the proper balance between state and market, that the power of the state should counteract the over-mighty influence now exercised by the market, and too readily accepted. He maintains that state intervention, far from adding to our problems, represents the best defence for individuals, as only the state stands "between powerless, insecure citizens and unresponsive, unaccountable corporations or international agencies". To the argument that an increase in the state's activity does damage to the fabric of civil society, Judt replies that such damage is more likely to result from a reduction in what the state does: if functions such as mail delivery, health and welfare provision, education and public transport are farmed out to commercial providers, the consequence is not only a diminution of the citizens' benefits from the state, but a dilution of the bonds of society as a whole.

The economic guru most often quoted by Judt is John Maynard Keynes, and the book's overall tone recalls the ethical homilies of R.H. Tawney or perhaps F.R. Leavis. This hard-hitting little book offers the younger generation some clearly marked signposts to understanding the present and shaping the future.

One of its beneficial effects should be to send its readers back to some of Judt's earlier books, notably Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), where some of his telling arguments are set out more fully.

Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on Our Present Discontents

By Tony Judt. Allen Lane, 256pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781846143595. Published 25 March 2010

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