Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Illfare state

I have just read Ill Fares the Land, the last book by the
British intellectual Tony Judt, and, for two reasons, a
painfully sad one to read. First, because it’s a lament
for the lost values of what Judt settles for calling
social democracy—the worldview of the broad left, if
you like, in westernized societies. Second, because
Judt was dying as he wrote it, dying from Lou Gehrig’s
disease, which he contracted in 2008. He has since
died, aged 62, on 6 August; though paralysed from the
neck down, he continued to the last to dictate essays
and intensely affecting memoir pieces that have been
regularly published throughout this year by the New
York Review of Books

His last book takes its title from a couplet in Oliver
Goldsmith’s 18th-century elegy The Deserted Village
—a poem that captures the irreversible shift of labour
in Britain from country to city as the Industrial
Revolution applied its crushing weight to a way of life
previously unchanged for centuries:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Judt’s thesis is that the Keynesian social contract that
underpinned and defined Western society for about 30
years after the Second World War has been smashed
by the rise of the neoconservative right. He is horrified
by the recrudescence of 19th-century ‘individualism’
and, while striving not to succumb to sentimentality
about the ‘good old days,’ which weren’t all that good,
argues that we need to revive and articulate the values
of social democracy—otherwise we are condemned to
continue our lives as little more than atomized,
depoliticized consumers—living proof of Margaret
Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society.’

So far, so disenchanted liberal-left baby-boomer. But
what is to be done? That indeed is the title of Judt’s fifth
chapter (and didn't some other bloke write a book with
that title?), but unfortunately he loses his way, never
quite answering the question outright and putting forth
no political program other than something like ‘Let’s
talk more boldly about what we believe in.’ Still, given
the hegemonic dominance of global capitalism and the
relentless chorus of its acolytes, there are worse things
to do. The left is intellectually stagnant at the moment,
desperately in need of clear thinking and clearer
speaking. The only left-wing energy of any genuine
meaning and relevance is coming from the green side
of politics but that has yet to be integrated into a wider
movement such as those for which the labour and
social-democratic parties of the ‘West’ became the
parliamentary vehicles in the first half of the 20th
century. There needs to be a crucible of ideas and
debate, and maybe, in lieu of town-hall meetings and
the tired rhetoric of street marches, the blogosphere is
it right now. In New Zealand anyway I certainly don't
see any significant left-wing exchange going on
anywhere except in the blogs of people like Bryce
Edwards, Gordon Campbell, Chris Trotter and No Right
Turn. Those are flames that must keep burning. We
need to hear, as Judt says, the 'resurgent language of
civil society.' Above all, he says, ‘We need to learn to
think the state again,’ and stop letting it—by default of
our silence—be vilified as a lumbering, incompetent
source of economic dysfunction.

No comments: