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Reviving social democracy

· 2 August 2014 |  by Maarten
· Published in: FOCUS · politiek
· Tagged with: ·

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.
— Karl Marx, Thesen über Feuerbach (1845)

Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land

Tony Judt was a historian with an unparallelled breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding about recent European history and politics, as evidenced by his celebrated book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Thus he thoroughly understands social democracy, which of course played a major role in recent European history.

Ill Fares the Land is a passionately argued book in which Judt attempts to blow new life into social democracy. He argues that we need to include social values again in our political discourse, that we need to recast our public conversation, and that young people should again act on their feelings of unease about the political direction the world is heading in.1

It is a book about contemporary politics, written with history firmly in mind. As Judt stated elsewhere: “Anyone who tells you that the past was better, period, is an idiot; he knows only about the past. Anyone who tells you that the present is better, period, is not only an idiot; he knows nothing at all.”

What follows is a short outline of the book: it’s just so convincingly written that I had to repeat it.

The Way We Live Now

First, Judt shows that indeed the land—and he’s talking mostly about the first world—is faring ill, politically speaking. Though individual wealth has reached unprecedented levels, it is accompanied with rising public indifference and income inequality. And those in turn give rise to all kinds of social evils: lower health standards, more criminality, more mental illness, lower intergenerational social mobility, and so on. The US and the UK, the most enthousiastic proponents of deregulated market capitalism, fare the worst, while countries with a strong social democracy, like Sweden and Norway, fare the best.

Not only are these social evils on the rise, we also don’t know any more how to challenge this set of affairs, or how to imagine a serious alternative. The Left has lost its voice.2 Judt writes:

Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more. For the last thirty years, when asking ourselves whether we support a policy, a proposal or an initiative, we have restricted ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense. But this is not an instinctive human condition: it is an acquired taste.

The Way We Lived Before

Taking a historical view, Judt first explains how social democracies became successful in the post-war decades. This was far from expected in 1945, when the world was not only physically devastated, but also carried a bitter history of political extremes. Several factors enabled the socio-economic miracle that followed.

There was a broad consensus that the state had an important role to play in public life—this was an important lesson learnt from Roosevelt’s New Deal after the 30’s crisis. No one believed in the magic of the market. Public policy debates were moral in nature. And, importantly, there was trust in the collective undertaking and in taxation, because communities were very homogenous in religion, race, and even class.

So what is that post-war world that we’ve now lost? Judt:

What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945? The short answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality. We have grown accustomed in recent years to the assertion that the price paid for these benefits—in economic inefficiency, insufficient innovation, stifled entrepreneurship, public debt and a loss of private initiative—was too high. Most of these criticisms are demonstrably false.

But he doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of those same years. There were plenty of unthoughtful, patronizing or outright bad policies. The Left also became individualistic, losing all sense of collective purpose. Sexual freedoms, minorities’ rights, even college gate hours became more important than factory working practices. Its identification with morally bankrupt regimes such as Soviet Russia and Mao’s China also did not do the Left much credit.

Still, it took several decades until the Right again became the dominant paradigm. Reagan’s famous statement in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. These ideas trace their history to Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, and others, who wrote against totalitarianism, against central planning, and for free markets.3 But their intellectual heirs took those ideas a step further: “the sanctification of […] anyone with access to large sums of money has led to unstinting admiration for a minimally-regulated ‘financial services industry’.”

Reagan, Thatcher, and their successors set about dismantling the economic powers of the state. (At the same time they augmented the repressive and information-gathering arms of central government.) They privatized many public services—railways, postal services, schools, hospitals—theorizing that these services would work more efficiently thanks to the profit motive. Judt shows that the practice was different. Private institutions shirk the public responsibility that comes with the service they’re offering, for example, offering “public” transport also in small villages. Also, there is the classical moral hazard problem: since these services are for the public good, the government will anyway pick up the bill in case of private mismanagement. Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac are a sobering point in case.

This disintegration of the public sector has led us to lose our sense of community, and to favour private individualism. Just think of the concept of a ‘gated community’: those fenced-off rich neighbourhoods where people close themselves off for the rest of society.

The Way We Want to Live

So what now? We know there is a lot wrong with how we live today, and we know what we don’t want from the past. But do we know what we do want?

Apparently we don’t, really: the Left’s language is exhausted. With this book Judt has put up a strong defense of the welfare state against neo-liberal attacks, but even so, he urges us to invent a new moral narrative. We must challenge the economic high priests’ blind faith in unregulated markets, and relearn how to hold to account those who govern us. Seeking ways to recast public conversation, he suggests that we should quantify not just economic objectives, but other things we value as well: well-being, fairness, equity. We could reinterpret what “wealth” actually means.

Thus, Judt leaves us with many questions, but also with a clear challenge: we must articulate our objections to our contemporary way of life, and act upon our knowledge of what’s wrong.


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  1. In one of his public lectures, Judt also warned against acting purely ideologically, with a twist on Marx’s words quoted above: “The intellectuals have hitherto sought to change the world in various ways. The point, however, is to interpret it correctly.”

  2. Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? discusses exactly this problem in depth.