The Left Must Find Its Voice

Book Review – Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt

Tony Judt is perhaps best known for ‘Postwar’, the encyclopaedic survey of European history since 1945 which cemented his status among the world’s most eminent historians.

Today, wracked by the same motor-neurone affliction as Stephen Hawking, Judt is confined to dictating his thoughts to an assistant at NYU where he is Professor of European Studies. While his body may be weakened, however, his mind remains piercing, engaging and energetic.

In ‘Postwar’, Judt explored what he called the ‘Social Democratic Moment’, the grand societal bargain which allowed Europe to rebuild from the wreckage of a devastating world war and the Great Depression which preceded it.

‘A practice in lifelong search of its theory’, the great insight of social democracy, he said, was its ‘central belief that genuine improvements in the condition of all classes could be obtained in incremental and peaceful ways’.

In ‘Ill Fares The Land’, he harks back to social demoracy’s illustrious past, to the great achievements of the New Deal, the Great Society, the NHS and the modern welfare state. He laments its later descent into meaningless managerialism, without vision and without the propensity to inspire.

The end of the golden age of social democracy, according to Judt, coincided with the election of Thatcher and Reagan. Enthralled by a coterie of Austrian free-market fundamentalists, they came to power with the reforming zeal once the preserve of the left. They denigrated the public sector and decimated the means to pay for it. They glorified the profit motive and revelled in a form of social darwinism not seen since the 19th Century.

If this was the original sin, then what followed was, according to Judt, the final insult. Rather than challenge the doctrine of their forbears but one, Clinton and Blair embraced it and made it their own. What they championed was not social democracy, but a Third Way that shunned egalitarian politics as a relic of antiquity.

It would seem from the opening shots of the UK Labour Party’s current leadership battle that even New Labour’s protégés have come to recognise the moral bankruptcy of a Labour Party in thrall to the market. They no longer appear so intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

With echoes of Galbraith’s ‘Affluent Society’, Judt serves up a bleak assessment of the way we live today; the modern obsession with material wealth, the illusion of endless growth, the decline of the public realm. His central message could well be summed up in the words of the 18th Century Irish poet and author, Oliver Goldsmith, quote which give the book its name: “Ill fares the land… where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Judt cites three paragons of Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism – the US, the UK and our own ‘plucky little Celtic Tiger’, an unregulated low-tax regime that attracted inward investment and hot money, but whose low taxes were subsidised by EU transfers. Its bubble burst, he says, ‘it will not soon reflate’. Indeed.

‘Ill Fares The Land’ is a book written avowedly for an American audience, the Obama generation, the many young activists inspired, empowered and politicised by a man and a movement committed to progressive social change.

Judt is far from optimistic that Obama can deliver on the hope he inspired in his supporters, not least because of his handling of healthcare reform. He urges them not to lose hope, however, but to rediscover that sense of mission and idealism that elected the first black man to the White House.

At points, Judt falls guilty of romanticising the past. At times, his heart overrules his head. But throughout, he remains a passionate advocate of the Good Society and of the capacity for renewed social democracy to achieve it.

The Good Society is a more equal society. Drawing on recent research set out in Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’, Judt explains why inequality matters greatly, and why more equal societies achieve better outcomes across a range of pertinent indicators.

In 2010, capitalism is in crisis, so why can’t the left capitalise? Because it has lost its voice, its vision for radical reform, and its belief that a better world is possible. This is the inescapable conclusion set out in Judt’s thought-provoking book, but his treatise is not important so much for the answers it provides as for the questions it poses.

‘Ill Fares The Land’ is not a manifesto for change. It is a call to arms for the next generation to relight the torch of social progress and carry it boldly into the 21st Century.

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