A Judt Guide

Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt, Penguin Press (2010)

“Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?”

Tony Judt has been an outspoken voice in the New York intellectual scene for more than 20 years. He’s an unapologetic and strident critic of Israeli policy, an advocate of left-wing politics, and an authority on French and European history. (He helped found the Remarque Institute on European studies at New York University, which he directs. And his widely-praised history of postwar Europe, Postwar (2006), was one of the New York Times 10 best books of 2006.) He’s a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, as well as the New York Times. His intellectual and academic credentials are immaculate. He’s written or edited more than a dozen books, and his arguments are powerful and engaging. So why is it that he’s not as nationally known a left-wing figure as, say, Howard Zinn, Cornell West, or Noam Chomsky?

Judging by Ill Fares the Land, Judt’s latest book, it must be his gift for writing in such clear, unassuming prose that even his most original ideas seem like little more than common sense. It would be difficult for anyone not committed to a right-wing ideology to finish this book without the feeling that she had just read a sensible explanation of the many social and political missteps of the last 30 years.

Ill Fares the Land begins with an introduction titled “A Guide for the Perplexed.” Judt provides a brief discussion of his terms, noting that the “conservative-liberal” distinction has lost a lot of its meaning in an age where “liberal” President Clinton has overseen some of the greatest cuts to welfare and social programs and “conservative” President George W. Bush has overseen the largest expansion of government since the Great Depression. In resetting the terms, then, Judt rejects the inexact word “liberal” for someone on the left, suggesting “social democrat” as a more apt term. He points out that “liberal” defines anyone who believes in individual freedom, which is not always aligned with the classical left-wing belief in the power of collective governance. Social democrats, as Judt defines them, “are something of a hybrid. They share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance, but in public policy, ...[they] believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good.”

This is Judt’s starting point, and in America it is a deeply subversive idea. The concept that government = evil seems to be a truism beyond debate in America, but Judt deftly argues that not only can government be a force for good, but that is has been in the past, and it should be again: that we do not need to resign ourselves to government that functions as “a necessary evil.”

He is aware that this is not an easy sell in a country where the “socialism” label is still such a potent scare tactic, and he makes clear that left-wing Americans have a special responsibility to challenge the received wisdom in national debate. “One of my goals,” he says pointedly, “is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties—and to argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want.”

The state that Judt wants is one invested in providing safety nets necessary for the well-being of all its citizens: a vibrant health-care system that protects people from financial ruin, a strong welfare system that protects the indigent against the worst of hunger or homelessness, and a policy of leveling playing fields so that the weakest and poorest have access to education and opportunities for social mobility. However, Judt is far from an idealist. He’s well aware of the social-engineering failures of the last century’s utopian-based governments. “If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer the more terrifying its consequences. […] Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for.” This is the crux of Ill Fares the Land: it does not argue, as much left-wing writing does, for a better world via complete government overhaul. Instead Judt is paradoxically conservative: he argues for preserving the best progressive policies of the 20th century—policies such as the New Deal and Great Society reforms in America, and the progressive social reforms in Europe that led to greater security, greater economic progress and well-being, and less disparity.

Ill Fares the Land describes, in clear and certain terms, the insecurity and social immobility we now live with and provides direct connections between our current situation and the erosion of economic protections that began in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It looks at what we lost, and how we lost it. And in the final chapters, it outlines a plan for recovering much of that social progress. It’s an outlook that seeks to revitalize the discourse of left-wing politics by re-focusing the discussion from matters of self-interest (Is this good for me?) to issues of moral import (Is this fair? Is this right? Is this good?).

Judt’s first chapter depends heavily on two sources: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth to describe the modern social, fiscal, and economic state of Europe and America. He uses their data to argue that economic disparity weakens the quality of life for everyone, regardless of income (this is largely the thesis of The Spirit Level). Countries with greater economic disparity (the U.S. first among them) suffer from higher incidences of crime, mental disorders, and physical disease. Judt makes use of a number of graphs from both books highlighting this point, but he does himself no favors by depending upon so few sources. However, the data are compelling and hard to ignore, and his point is clearly made.

The second chapter, “The World We Have Lost,” provides a historical background of reforms in America and Europe in the 20th century, and how they led to greater security and well-being. Judt avoids nostalgia by clearly situating the reforms in their historical context. He looks at the events that led to the progressive policies, and describes how those policies so successfully ushered in periods of economic stability and greater social mobility. He also points out that those policies hardly slowed the economy, as so many argue would happen were we to reinstate them today. This history is Judt’s strong suit, and he authoritatively provides readers with a thorough, if brief ,explanation of postwar governmental policies in both Europe and America. For readers familiar with the U.S. but not as familiar with European history, the information will be both expected and interesting. Judt is clear and concise, yet his concision never hurts his argument: it is hard to disagree with any particular point he makes.

The third and fourth chapters cover the political situations as well as the popular movement toward individualism (starting in the ’60s and picking up speed in the ’70s and ’80s) that led to the weakening or even eradication of many reforms on both continents (less so in Europe, of course, where the social reforms had been stronger to begin with). Again, Judt’s case is strengthened by both his consistently lucid writing, and his expertise as a historian. Still, it is heartbreaking to read sentences such as: “In the course of little more than a decade, the dominant ‘paradigm’ of public conversation shifted from interventionary enthusiasms and the pursuit of public goods to a view of the world best summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s notorious bon mot: ‘there is no such thing as society, there are men and women and there are families.’”

The last two chapters, “What is to Be Done” and “The Shape of Things to Come” both, as their titles suggest, offer paths toward revitalizing the left, encouraging dissent, and bringing a sense of moral righteousness back to the table in left-wing politics. Advocating solutions is the most difficult task for any writer—you’re more likely to lose readers here than anywhere else—and it is a measure of Judt’s ambition that he has devoted nearly a third of the book to this focus. Many writers suffice themselves to, as Chekhov said, “present the problem accurately,” foregoing the harder work of trying to solve it. And these chapters are, in fact, much less specific. This may also be on purpose: Judt is trying to foment political resolve in the next generation of left-wing activists more than to provide any exact steps toward that solution. As chapters meant to spur on social progress and encourage people to strengthen our governmental protections, the final chapters of Ill Fares the Land are largely successful. But they do not contain the rhetorical force that accompanies more provocative fare from the left’s traditional firebrands like Chomsky, Zinn, or West. Instead, Ill Fares the Land relies on more than emotional outrage for conveying to readers a sense of moral fairness or justice: it relies on common sense.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.