Review: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt,
“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.” With these opening words Tony Judt launches into his highly acclaimed polemical essay about the ills of the modern world and what can be done to remedy matters. The sentences which immediately follow set the tone and the theme for the entire book.
“For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.”
There you have it. There is the whole book in a nutshell. In a sense you could stop reading there, but of course there is more. Some flesh is put on the bones of the argument.
The opening pages deal at length with what is clearly a major issue for Judt – inequality. He is not the only one and indeed he readily acknowledges that he has drawn heavily on the research of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett as documented in their revealingly entitled The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009. The argument is that the greater the income inequality in society the more likely are a host of factors to be worse, for example social mobility, ill health, crime and mental illness. It seems surprising but the statistics are there.
Equality was once an ideal
So Judt is in favour of greater equality – not equalisation but a lessening of the enormous gap between the rich and the poor (within societies, as well as across the world). This used to be a favoured goal of social democratic parties and movements, and in many respects social democratic ideas became the norm in the post-1945 era, at least in developed, Western countries. State intervention was one means of redressing the inadequacies of the market. Sometimes it would be directly done, through public ownership of enterprises, and sometimes indirectly via taxation and/or social welfare policies. Often there was a combination of both approaches.
The last three decades, Judt observes with dismay, have witnessed the dismantling of those mechanisms and the grinding into the dust of the ideas behind them. The Reagan-Thatcher-Bush-Blair era was characterised by a dismissal of the notion of a “public good” and its replacement with the ideology of “enrich yourself and forget the rest”, or, in its more sophisticated form, “enrich yourself and the economy will improve, which is good for everyone”.
There’s nothing new in Judt’s critical approach and there’s nothing new in suggesting that it’s not only an unethical way of living, but also nonsense in terms of economic reality. What makes him somewhat different is his passionate belief that now is the time to halt all the nonsense and implement something better, fairer and more just.
Take on the global economic crisis
The current international economic crisis has obviously raised serious doubts about the “free market” theories as idolised by Reagan-Thatcher-Bush-Blair, and thus Judt believes there’s a window of opportunity to start talking about alternatives (again). His view is that the role of the state should be reassessed. As a good liberal he shudders at the thought of a totalitarian state but he argues persuasively for allowing the state a greater role in the economy than has been fashionable in recent times.
Part of his argument is based on post-Soviet experience: “… despite the purported ‘lessons’ of 1989, we know that the state is not all bad. The only thing worse than too much government is too little: in failed states, people suffer at least as much violence and injustice as under authoritarian rule… ”
Not living in isolation
It’s a fair point but not an argument which will appeal to everyone. What might be more acceptable to more people are his views which form the background to that comment, namely the concept that there really is such a thing as a “public good” because we are not simply individuals living isolated lives with individual needs, but members of communities and societies with shared needs and shared interests.
Whether statist means are the best way to serve common interests or whether other, non-statist but communal forms could be imagined for the 21st century is something Judt doesn’t explore. It’s a pity because otherwise his argumentation is quite compelling, even if you don’t agree with everything he writes.
Buy the book
Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt
Paperback, 237 pp.