April 6, 2012

Tony Judt’s “Social Democracy” in America: A Call for Help!

Tony Judt’s “Social Democracy” in America: A Call for Help!

We in the West have lived through a long era of stability, cocooned in the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be deeply economically insecure. We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010. p. 218.

The late historian Tony Judt (1948 – 2010) is my inspiration and spur, in two remarkable testimonies, Ill Fares the Land and Thinking the Twentieth Century, both composed in the last throes of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Confession: I’m a quick study but a slow learner. Reading the Judt diagnoses and warnings, two big ideas are finally hitting home. First, that Judt’s ideal of “social democracy” is precisely the framework I grew up in — the era from 1945 to 1975, through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies, in which six Lydon sibs hustled their way out of poverty with big scholarships at great schools; and then, essentially indifferent to money, found absorbing and useful lives in the Foreign Service, teaching, journalism, music and community farming. Just to have bought a house and worked steadily through that long expansion meant that we came to live comfortably middle-class without much thinking about it. Like Mark Blyth’s academic colleague Sven Steinmo, we can tell our kids now that we “have everything.”

I’m embarrassed that the second point sinks in so late: that the “commonwealth” era in an America of carefully constructed and shared well-being is decidely over. My father, the child of illiterate peasant immigrants from the West of Ireland, gloried in the inscription carved in granite on the side of the Boston Public Library in 1895: THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY. We all took note of the welcome, in stone, over the library door on Copley Square: FREE TO ALL. My kids in Boston today agonize over scarce lottery openings at decent public schools for their kids. The alternative, full of allure and dread, is top-drawer private kindergarten at $30,000 per child per year.

The wide-open question, in short, is: what happened to the “social democratic” underpinnings of our birthright American way of life? What happened to the assumption, in a rough-and-tumble world, of a fundamental human equality and the progressive taxes that kept it in sight? What happened to our enthusiastic investment in expanding the blessed circle of entitlement, most especially through heavily subsidized education? What happened to plain talk in a open but accountable public conversation that we all took seriously?

I’m going to New Haven on Monday to record a conversation with the European historian at Yale, Timothy Snyder, who drew Tony Judt’s last great book out of him, Thinking the Twentieth Century. It is a tour de force of interviewing that saved the final urgent whispers of an English-American historian of Europe who became a prophet of Biblical fire. Tony Judt’s last work reads to me like the missing manual of what ought to be the 2012 presidential campaign. Not the last word but an eloquent starting point where a vast swath of us could find a foundation. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” Tony Judt wrote at the opening of Ill Fares the Land

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. We cannot go on living like this…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010. p. 1-2.

The worst of it, Tony Judt suggests, is that we simply do not know how to talk about these things anymore. I think he’s right. Despite the many blessings of the Web, we can seem worse off today than in 1988 when Joan Didion complained that “what strikes one most vividly” about the inside-baseball of the campaign was “precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Who has come close to voicing the common dread that underlies both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement? “We need to act upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe,” Tony Judt writes, and also to “theorize our better instincts.” Not the least of what he’s asking is: why do we experience such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society?

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  • Potter

    Thank you for this outcry. I have “Ill Fares the Land” on my shelf and it should come off and be read. I bought it awhile ago as I listened to his last interviews and watched him fade away so bravely. Judt so impressed me. I look forward to your discussion with Mr. Snyder.

    My own feeling is that we have been trained to consume, to be consumers. Even Paul Krugman. who I admire so much, seems to see through this window. We can’t go on consuming and having the world depend on it. Can we survive in a world so dependent on (bringing on board) more and more consumers?

  • Sutter

    “Ill Fares the Land” is terrific, and I’ve been recommending it for a year or so now. I agree, Chris, that we’ve lost the means of discussing social-democratic ideas, and that’s been part of a conscious effort to demean and delegitimize a whole set of arguments and thoughts in American politics. It’s amazing to me that studies show Americans wanting much more social/economic equality than we have (more on this below), and yet the President and other Democrats are so thoroughly cowed by the cry of “Socialism,” even when applied to, say, the idea of moving back to the marginal tax rates of the 1990s! On the eve of Election Day 2008, I commented to a friend that it was probably the last night of the Reagan Era. But I was wrong: Americans are terrified of the idea of social democracy, even if they support most of its key tenets.

    Some thoughts on others who might shed light:

    1. Dan Ariely (of behavioral-economics fame) and Michael I. Norton published a study in 2010 from which I drew the comment above re: Americans’ attitudes toward wealth distribution. See http://danariely.com/2010/09/30/wealth-inequality/. This, it seems to me, is a key part of the equation, and it would be interesting to hear one or both of them speak to this topic.

    2. I don’t know whether he’d do it, but I’d love to hear someone like Gordon S. Wood speak to the heritage of libertarianism in American thought. It seems clear that, while we ebb and flow, the American psyche is more firmly suspicious of social democracy than European nations. It seems to me likely that this traces back to the Founding and the Revolution. (Louis Hartz wrote about this, too.)

    3. In Ill Fares the Land, Judt writes about Sheri Berman’s book “The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s 20th Century.” http://www.amazon.com/The-Primacy-Politics-Democracy-Twentieth/dp/0521521106 I don’t know whether she is still alive, but it’s a 2006 book, so it might be interesting to speak with her.

    I will continue to think. This is a topic I care about a good deal. I’m so glad the Lydon brain will be focusing on it in the weeks to come!

  • Fred

    William Greider is an important voice on this subject.

  • Murray Reiss

    Speaking of the President/Democrats being “cowed by the cry of ‘Socialism’,” it would be great if you could find a historian who could unpack this most pernicious paradigm of American politics. The fear of being labelled “soft on …” (fill in the blank: Communism, terrorism, atheism, crime … ) I remember in the ’80s when I was active in Central American solidarity work, Congress kept funding the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador and Nicaragua out of fear of beinig labelled “soft on Communism.” Certainly McCarthyism provided the most recent template, which still holds such powerful sway, but I suspect the roots go deeper.

    • commonwealth

      Perhaps this is a stretch, but it is difficult to believe that the “fear of being labled soft on…” is not somehow connected to slavery and the civil war. Pre-War Republicans had a fear of being labelled soft on slavery by abolitionists; post-war democrats– who are now republicans and spokespeople for corporate citizenship and individuality– had a fear of letting the freed slaves actually be free; hence the various terms that ends in -lover.

      Again, stretching, I cannot help feeling that there is in the consciousness of today’s Republicans, as there was among post-civil war democrats, a feeling that the hoi polloi would rise up and smash the master class. Once the slaves were genuinely free citizens, who knows what poor whites would want? Education seemed to be a leveling influence, offering to raise the poor up out of their discontent and make them appear more like the elite who were educated. Only things got out of hand during the depression, when the people seemed to threaten social stability and only FDR’s intervention, limited though it was, seemed to have a calming influence. Then WW II became a distraction; the post war years were good ones in which education was extended to people of limited means, mostly white. The 1860’s, however, raised the very real specter that education had not calmed the hoi polloi, but was actually increasing their awareness, their anger, their abilities and thus their threat to the stability of the U.S. Education was no longer regarded as the answer to the threat that the have-nots might overthrow the haves.

      Perhaps this is a little paranoia on my part, but what is undeniable is that the children and grandchildren of those who were once able to threaten the ruling consensus are fast losing their access to education. This includes African Americans. And so we still wonder if slavery and racism don’t hover, unseen and unacknowledged, in the background. To believe that slavery and the attitudes it engendered are not at the root of current U.S. domestic policy and the conservative movement which is careening toward an educational system that is dysfunctional for all except the very well-to-do and the very well-connected simply seems implausible.

  • Sean McElroy

    Does “America” have it wrong? Definitely. But how is it wrong and how wrong is it? One recurrent possibility is that we are misremembering the past. I think we need to be careful about glamorizing a past that includes many a sticky gum that cannot be shaken from our shoe bottoms such that we’ve learned an awkward coexistence.

    Take nuclear power as an example – from Hiroshima to Three MIle Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima Daiichi. We enabled a complex technology whose overreach we cannot see clearly – is it clean? is it safe? can we control this thing? would it be better to go without so much energy?

    Another possibility is that the utopian views that drove the vision of a boundless future of economic growth have been revealed, like most utopian views, to be not too well constructed to begin with and indeed were self-fulfilling in nature for the time when they were considered promising. Progressivism was in the wane after WWII, given a terminal diagnosis in the 1970s and buried in the 1980s. To which the response was not to double down on the best of progress but to unbind the Atlas of free market economics and let him romp around for a while. Upshot: we’re suckers for utopia.

    But I take it from this standpoint: that we have never, ever been as well off as we are at this point in time and further: that somehow, somewhere, along the line, were established bases that we can and should build a future upon. Deterimining which bases are and which are not likely to enable a promising future is always unknown in the present. And so, the primordial anxiety, are we willing accomplices to the next social experiment which future generations reject soundly?

  • Wayne Alexander

    “The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition.” Tony Judt eloquently describes the female warriors in American society who “shop till they drop” because they can hire an immigrant to cook, clean, and do the chores that women have done for years. One has to ask: is it inherent in the human condition that women should take care of a household and become baby-making machines? And are men the hunters who collect income or suck in wealth just to give it to the new female shopping warriors? How much of what is bought in a materialistic frenzy is actually utilized? How much is eventually trashed or given away? There should be a deep sadness in our country about “what” we have become as we reach for our credit cards and our wallets to pay for things we care so little about. Instead of profligate spending on the things we are told we should want because it is the latest thing or it is a trendy must have item, maybe we could begin to talk about a new social democracy budget, where we brainstorm great ideas that help our community and then see how many of us want to become participants. How about ten people get together and buy ten gallons of paint, go to a house that needs the paint and ask permission to paint? Donate time on a Sunday, invest in one gallon of paint, donate your time and labor, and beautify the neighborhood. What is the opposite of materialism and selfishness? Devotion of time and love for the greater good. How does that get expressed? How does that become a living and breathing concept that lives and thrives in the human heart? How does that get taught and how does that get nourished in a world that focuses far too much on itself and its individual problems? Maybe if the collective “WE THE PEOPLE” were not being economically enslaved by our whims and desires that we are told we must feel, and instead feel our own feelings about the communities in which we live, then…well, then we might actually have a starting point from which to jump toward true social justice and democracy. Tony Judt should be smiling right now from wherever the soul gets to once it leaves this earthly domain.

  • Potter

    David Graeber economic anthropologist, involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.


    His recent book – Debt; The first Five Thousand Years reviewed in the New York Times:


    Graeber’s most important contribution to the movement may owe less to his activism as an anarchist than to his background as an anthropologist. His recent book DEBT: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, $32) reads like a lengthy field report on the state of our economic and moral disrepair. In the best tradition of anthropology, Graeber treats debt ceilings, subprime mortgages and credit default swaps as if they were the exotic practices of some self-destructive tribe. Written in a brash, engaging style, the book is also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of debt — where it came from and how it evolved. Graeber’s claim is that the past 400 years of Western history represent a grievous departure from how human societies have traditionally thought about our obligations to one another.

  • Søren Schmidt

    You should try to speak to Professor Adam Przeworski on this subject.

  • orangescissor

    The cutting back of government and social democratic institutions seems in part to come from a fear of totalitarianism. While the rise of nationalism, large bureaucracies and large military driven industries help to create the terrible forms of totalitarianism in the 20th century, things like the EU, Marshall Plan Europe, and Civil Rights America also show that government can also be a positive force. If a central lesson from 20th century totalitarianism (perhaps exaggerated late in the century) was to fear government, how can the we restore a faith in and purpose to government in the 21st century?

    While the Tea Party and Occupy are predominantly anti-government, it seems like politicians today would do well to respond to the discontent by reforming the role and function of government today. As Obama may attempt to plan large government projects and crystalize a political ideology in his second term if elected, what kind of new ideas can his administration put forward that would renew American progressiveness in a 21st century political and economic issues?

  • Nice conversation we got there! Reminds me of the good ol’ days of ROS on PRI. Is Nother around?

    It’s also a convo which makes me take on different hats…

    First, as a sociology teacher.

    As we keep saying in SOCI, a key feature of privilege is that it’s invisible to those who hold it. Not only was it a great way to respond to Richard Dawkins’s strident comments about someone else’s alleged privilege, but it can help explain something here. Including some apparent delays in Chris’s learning process. Having access to impressive academic credentials usually doesn’t “feel” like a privilege. In fact, a thorny issue in education debates revolves around the part which is considered a right but is in fact a privilege. At least, that’s part of what’s discussed, here in Québec.

    Rebecca Watson on Dawkins and “The Privilege Delusion”.

    The invisibility of privilege isn’t an excuse, but it’s a likely explanation. Acknowledging one’s privileged status is the first step in a deeper understanding of important social issues.

    Also sociological is the study of social movements. Not my specialty, but we talk about this in my intro to SOCI courses, using this Wikibook chapter.

    Might be especially useful as a way to go back to the Occupy and Tea Party movements. Both seem quite complex, but disenfranchisement may be a common theme.

    Another sociological thing to say is that we’re talking about the place of the US in a global context (hence the “American conversation with a global attitude, we call it”). No idea how easy he is to contact but Wallerstein would have interesting things to say about this. Incidentally, it seems that his latest post was about elections in the US and in France.

    Speaking of France and the US, putting on my hat as a public intellectual, my favourite “public economist” might be Jacques Attali. He blogs in both French and English. One of his most recent posts, “May 7 Hangover”, was about France’s public debt. Might broaden up the conversation a bit.

    Speaking of debt, putting on my anthro hat, I’d second the recommendation to get David Graeber on the line. I’m actually not intimately familiar with the specifics of his work but what I’ve heard about it sounds quite useful in this case.

    Also anthropological is Arjun Appadurai’s work. Since his ideas go way beyond national identities, he could expand the conversation to talking about a post-national future.

    Speaking of the future… Reading some of the comments, I got to think about the “Long Boom” concept most-famously exposed in Wired, back in 1997.

    Here’s how Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden introduced their ”history of the future”, in Wired issue 5.07: “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?”

    It’d be nice to get one of the Peters on the program. Or any of the GBN people, for that matter. I’m guessing Brian Eno may a bit difficult to pin down, but Stewart Brand could be a nice person to talk to, and Mary Catherine Bateson may bring in her anthro background with her.

    Putting a more personal hat, as something of an outsider to imperalism… One thing which strikes me is that some of the fears are about losing something which was taken for granted for a while. Living at the margins of what Wallerstein called the “Core”, I can’t help but think that it’s a transition phase at the end of any empire.

    Reminds me of a conversation I’ve had with two fellow lovers of craft beer: a MidWesterner who had moved to MA as one enters a new country, and a British-influenced Zimbabwean. (This soon took place in NoHo, MA, in 2006.) The US-born citizen was sharing his worries that the US would not be “at the top of the World, anymore.” What the Zimbabwean pointed out was very insightful. As he explained, Great Britain wasn’t that nice a place to live in, for most people, at the height of the British Empire. It became quite decent a place after it ceased being the centre of an empire.

    Much of this is related to many other things discussed on ROS in the past 5–6 years. For instance, ideas about the end of the American empire have been brought up on several occasions, three or four years ago. And some of these points could come in handy, now.

    What might be difficult to do, though, is to move away from the political lateralization embedded in US-centric thinking. Sure, the distinction between “Left and Right” has been at the core of many political discussions, in the United States as elsewhere. But, going back to my social sciences hats, I’d point out that these two positions are “two sides of the same coin” and that there are other “coins” about which we may think. For instance, to a social scientist, neoliberalism and neoconservativism are two names for the same position, not even two poles of a continuum. Wolfowitz and Krugman have a lot more in common than their use in political arguments may lead some to believe.

    Besides, we may be moving away from representative democracy into the realm of participatory democracy. Taking on my social media hat, I’d say that a lot is born out of disenfranchisement, and not just big social movements leading to demonstrations and marches. Contrary to what Friedman argued, the World isn’t “flat”. But there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening on the ground, if you look horizontally.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t take on my musician hat, in the context of ROS. There’s a lot happening in music, now, which shows the disruption in both business and social models. While there are still some rockstars and pop celebrities, a lot of what music is, these days, is more participatory. It’s been a while since the last music-themed episode of ROS…

  • Jim Salman

    I would think such a discussion shouldn’t leave out Chris Hedges, whose books eloquently examine the dysfunctions of contemporary American society and politics.

  • Great thinking, Chris.

    How about Robert Reich? He’s been speaking and writing energetically about this for some time.
    Thomas Frank, too.

    I second Potter’s recommendation of David Graeber.

  • dmf

    please consider talking with prof. Jodi Dean, thanks

  • nother

    That guy David Graeber that Potter is talking about sounds cool. For me I would love to hear a no-holds-barred discussion of Thomas Jefferson. I tie myself in to knots trying to get my head around this guy. Probably same can be said for America in general and I’m thinking there might be a connection there. btw, I’m also thinking that’s why I cried when I was in Mr. Jefferson’s study/bedroom last year in Monticello. I love him beyond words and yet I’m disgustingly disappointed.

  • Commonwealth

    When we were young, Chris– and I too grew of age during the 1960’s– there was a moral atmosphere which we took for granted. It was the context within which many, if not most, of us lived. Truth and falsehood, right and wrong, compassion and selfishness, honesty and dishonesty, humility and arrogance, love of country for the sake of our unique ideals of equality and justice and freedom. These were the air we breathed whether we were conscious of it or not. Even when we or others did not live up to our ideals, they remained our ideals, polestars for our life.

    A great book was written in the late 1990’s by a conservative thinker and political philosopher, Harry V. Jaffa, entitled, A New Birth of Freedom. Jaffa uses Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg address to examine our national ethos, comparing it with John C. Calhoun’s thought. For Jaffa, Lincoln is the pre-eminent spokesman for the natural law (Justice, anyone?) which holds us accountable by virtue of our very humanity. And Calhoun is the archetypal representative of positive law who states that law is merely what men decide it is and we are accountable to nothing higher than the values we choose to accept. This form of thought justified slavery in the Antebellum years, and it continues to justify rapacious capitalism in our time.

    Professor Jaffa studied with Leo Strauss, but had largely formed his intellectual character before meeting him, I think. Jaffa is in his 90’s now, but there are those who hold to his brand of conservatism still: That the Declaration of Independence, rooted in Natural Law, is the foundation of the Constitution, the edifice of American positive law. Without the one, the other permits law to lead us wherever the politicians and corporate leaders wish to lead. Under a doctrine of strict positive law, Nazism was perfectly legal because its principles were legally enshrined.

    Liberals are, by and large, uncomfortable with moral discourse– except those such as Chris Hedges and Bill Moyers who grew up with a religious calling that transformed into political activism. We need to become more comfortable with the morality of our own national principles. Jaffa’s work goes a long way to enable this. It may be the best book on the meaning of America that has been written.

  • Robert Zucchi

    This is such a valuable and timely discussion.

    I remember the instructive and terrifying words of the ethologist Konrad Lorenz: “A culture behaves exactly like a species.” What cultures within our country have been “specie-ized” … become distinct, separate, wary of and predatory or hostile toward other Americans … and are in consequence opposed to the settled norms of egalitarian democracy?

    Eric Hoffer in the “The True Believer” identified people who have been thwarted in their ambitions, injured in their pride, and who believe themselves to be devalued, as being ripe for recruitment into mass movements, where the vulgar energies of the whole compensate for a personal sense of being insulted or powerless. He also posited, I think correctly, that mass movements are interchangeable; i.e., they all exhibit a contempt for the status quo (Fascism in particular was stridently antimodern), combined with the vision of a bright future once the class, racial, internal or foreign enemy is defeated. These dynamics are characteristic of Communism and religious extremism as well, and they explain the defections from one to another “incompatible” system by people whose zeal to identify with an Invincible Cause is often greater than their need for ideological coherence. (In America as elsewhere this transmigration sometimes takes the form of religion to irreligion and vice versa, or far right to far left, and the reverse. (Cf. the “right-centrist” Ronald Reagan’s disavowal of his erstwhile “bleeding-heart liberalism.”)

    The present economic crisis, the futility … and the terrible cost in life and limb and treasure … of our “wars of choice,” and America’s decline relative to the rest of the world have widened the already growing circle of the aggrieved. The disaffected face a dilemma, however, should they want to voice their grievances. Our economic system is held to be sacrosanct. Our corrupt and self-serving non-parliamentary political system is held to be inviolable. Our Constitution is increasingly glossed by strict-constructionists, who implicitly identify it with the unassailable Word of the Founders, the Chosen of God. Our mythologies of equality, opportunity, general prosperity, and fairness before the law are held to be irreversible faits accomplis. Who or what, then, could be assigned the blame for our predicament, given that we are daunted by the threat of social sanction, and the resulting self-censorship, to subject any of the foregoing sacralities to rigorous thought?

    Thus does the personal become the political in America. And thus do the substantive issues lose their centrality. Instead of a national debate about the weaknesses, say, of our economic system (e.g., the dearth of living-wage jobs, declining exports and unending current accounts deficits; capitalism’s intractable paradox, that boom times create the inflation that destroys prosperity), we have instead bills of special-interest particulars from some:

    Christians who are affronted that the religion that defines their larger self is losing its power of moral suasion and even its adherents.

    Southerners who in my lifetime have gone from a kind of stoical abasement to a stigma-converting insistence that their mores and values are preserving the country.

    Westerners whose response to perceived neglect and ridicule (“fly-over country”) is to repurpose ancestral, rough-hewn “frontier” folkways as exempla of the authentic America.

    Bellicose politicos (none too popular) and their allies in the military (less popular than before) who have convinced themselves that ever more KA-BOOM technology, and the prolongation of failed wars because “der Endsieg ist sicher,” will restore to them the prestige and respect they have lost.

    Cynical plutocrats who, having abandoned faith in the economic system they did so much to sicken, are intent on gorging themselves on its carcass.

    In short, The Blind Men of Hindustan in the old tale have nothing on the blindly groping factionalists of America, each inferring the whole of the polity from their death grip on their piece of it.

    While you might not guess it from the pusillanimity of moderates of all persuasions, not to mention the Democratic Party, democracy is an ideology, too. While democracy as we claim to know it is little practiced in this world, every day brings fresh evidence that a zeal for democratic governance is driving people in the unlikeliest places to risk their lives in the streets in protest against authoritarianism. May their courage inspire Americans to deep reflection. But these rebellions, as with our own Revolution, are unpredictable as to their outcome. Some of the despots recently under threat have finessed the uprisings by making palliative changes (as in Burma), or by waging war against the citizenry (Syria); other dictators have been killed or brought to trial (Khadafy, Saddam; Mubarak). But it’s not clear that their successors will not impose some other form of repression once the world’s attention has turned elsewhere.

    So democracy as a system, as an ideology, is nearly everywhere a struggle. But striving for democracy arises from the deepest wellsprings of the human spirit. For that reason I would exempt it from Lorenz’s cultural speciation: it is not an elective affinity disguised as transcendent truth. It arises from a universal human need for respect, measured autonomy and freedom of action within the constraints imposed by a (theoretically, at least) ordered community.

    Here then is the small-“d” democrat’s ideology.

    Fair and respectful treatment of all citizens by those who claim authority over them. Equal justice under the law (NO to ex post facto in one state or the rebarbative piling-on of double or triple life sentences in another). Equality of access to opportunity (i.e., insistence that if society demands, as they legitimately may, that citizens support themselves through remunerated work, citizens can legitimately claim that capitalism and the government have a responsibility to facilitate their employment, especially in times of economic crisis). Defense, yes, but renunciation of “wars of choice.” Majority rule but with respect for minority rights. Leading and legislating in a spirit of compromise (including toleration of, and a pro-social response to, citizen demos, critical mail, phone campaigns, and other political actions).

    These are not merely desiderata. Insist on them. Proselytize for them. Adopt democratic nominism as your personal credo, and measure opposing views against it. The price of our liberty is not the vigilance of a watchman, but the ardor and courage of a patriot.

  • Potter

    E. O. Wilson is out and about:

    Lessons From Ants to Grasp Humanity

  • Methinks Yale’s Chris Blattman (@CBlatts) would make an interesting guest.
    After a good Keynes/Hayek Rap battle, who could resist Malthus in Nigeria?

    He’s among an apparently-expanding cadre of culturally-aware economists. He frequently discusses anthropology, understands important things about Africa, and could do a follow-up on David Graeber.

    Because of this thread and podcast series, I ended up listening to Russ Roberts’s EconTalk. Several of Roberts’s guests (or Roberts himself) could make cool Open Source guests, in my humble opinion.

  • Potter

    I concur with the recommendation of Robert Reich.

    We’ve settled into like-minded enclaves where we don’t need to think because everyone we meet confirms what we assume we already know.

    It’s not that the nation is more polarized than it’s been in the past. America has been through searing conflicts, some within the living memories of most of us. The communist witch-hunts of the 1950s were followed by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, battles over womens’ reproductive rights and gay marriage.

    What makes America’s current polarization remarkable isn’t the severity of our disagreements but our utter lack of engagement debating them.

    …..A democracy depends on public deliberation and debate. Without it, the members of a society have no means of understanding what they believe or why. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were notable not because they solved anything but because they helped Americans clarify where they agreed and disagreed on the wrenching issue of slavery.

    Hence the danger today – when deliberation has stopped.

    from his blogpost :
    Why Anyone Should Care that Bill O’Reilly Calls Me A Communist

  • Stephen E. Shaw

    Here are some names: Thomas Geoghegan, Joseph Stiglitz, Cornell West, Andrew Hacker, Bernie Sanders, Barbara Ehrenreich. I would have also included Andrew Bacevich. Thanks, Chris for continuing the conversation Tony Judt started. He had two bully pulpits: academia and his writings, especially his work in The New York Review of Books. Maybe your effort will carry that on.

  • Peter Lydon

    This is about modernization and gradually shaping a new modernity.

    Tony Judt’s indictment in “Ill fares the Land,” of the very capitalist countries, mainly the United States and others on its model, and his lamentation for the state of their culture are well founded.

    Judt’s title, with the foreboding it conveys for future if we go on as now, is not exaggerated. It is a perceptive and humane rejoinder to the hyper-individualistic and mercenary culture and economy, which mainstream social sectors in the U.S. are currently practicing, espousing and politically enforcing on the country as a whole, often in the name of “conservatism.” Absolutely central to the problem is our unsustainable and damaging concentration of wealth, our economic and social inequality, where Judt makes a strong reference to Wilkinson and Pickett’s indispensable “The Spirit Level.” It doesn’t have to be that way, he says, rightly.

    Chris Lydon says that Judt is raising matters which need talking about in a discussion aimed at working out action, even action that in some way can come into play in this year’s U.S. election campaigns. That’s right.

    Judt is an historian who sees situations in a path driven, past-dependent, way. The present picture is for him a regrettable falling away from a better past, one which he refers to as “social democracy,” fixing the downward political break-point around 1980, the advent of Reagan and Thatcher. But I suggest that that the postwar social democracy (which strongly favored the very bright young Tony Judt) never really existed quite as he remembers it. We are faced less with a task of recuperating and reviving an old form of better community and social solidarity than with a job of creating a new one.

    Judt’s perspective has two other structural elements in addition to being the frame of a person formed in one period and reacting to a succeeding one. Another frame operating here is the thinking of a person coming from a still family-focused semi-urban setting with a strong note of social solidarity, moving into a more fully urban setting, seemingly a chaotic whirl of unmoored individuals. A third shift of setting is that of someone coming from a small, relatively intimate social world into a larger one with necessarily diluted social bonds and very different political dynamics and economic institutions. Compared with 1950, the world facing a typical American or European is larger now in at least three ways: communication that can make people present to us is infinitely faster and more extensive, world population has close to tripled, and also many people who were more or less excluded from the active mainstream of national societies, such as blacks and other immigrants, sexual minorities, and even the half of the population that are women, are now very much more present.

    Both urbanization and larger and less intimate social and political worlds are important parts of modernity. Moreover, both are massive autonomous ongoing trends. If we are in an action mode, they are not controllable, or “operable factors.” They can be modified, but not stopped. We do not want to halt the broadening of social inclusion in the effort to renew community. Similarly, economic “globalization” is not a debatable and potentially reversible choice of political and corporate leaders, but is based on concrete technical changes: communication and information management by electronic means has come close to eliminating distance and indeed, locality, for everything that is informational and not material (which is a lot), while for concrete physical things, similar if weaker advances in transportation (for example, containerized shipping that brings a new car from Asia to America for $200 (1% of its price)), are not going to be reversed.

    So the challenge is not recapturing a lost “social democracy,” but building a new one in new circumstances. The discussion has to go deeper than politics. It is about society, and while it is about economic distribution, it goes a good deal deeper than economics, well into culture and and the most fundamental values. Freud said that the two great domains of human life are work and love, taking love very broadly to mean social and community relations in general. This subject is at that level of depth. It’s about creating and building a more favorable and humane social structure of modernity.

    There is at least one major asset that we have now, although it brings its own complications. Even before we get to issues of distribution, there must be something to distribute. Poverty is not a good thing, and by comparison with the earlier time, we now have a great deal more property or goodness to distribute. Since the seventies, there has been a great deal of production of both public and private goods —of houses, roads, buildings, transportations systems, communication systems, even institutions, factories and factory equipment, tools including the machinery of industrialized agriculture and so on. Not only have many infrastructural and even social goods been produced, but they are better and more durable than in the past, so that once built, they don’t have to be produced again, and their maintenance takes less work than their production. And not just fixed products, but productivity itself: there is a greater capacity to generate intellectual and physical goods and services, and do so using much less labor. We certainly have issues of distribution, but we have a lot more to distribute.

    But this achievement has left us with a big problem: The traditional mode of distribution of material and social goods has been in exchange for work (thinking of capital as “congealed work”). This exchange relationship is now deep, deep in our culture. Work is the basis of entitlement to share in social product and indeed to enjoy, both objectively and subjectively, integration in society’s self-respecting mainstream.

    Now, partly due to the already achieved stock of property and productive capacity which we have, in contrast to China which is building its stock, there is dramatically less work to be done than in earlier decades. Purposeful development of specifically labor-saving technology, over decades, has also reduced the amount of work needed, as does the offering of cheaper labor from countries at different stages of development, and the creation of channels, like “outsourcing,” that bring such workers into competition with those here. There is not enough work.

    How can we maintain social and economic solidarity and inclusion for people who would normally earn them through work, but for whom now there is no work. The long-term and unavoidable dwindling of traditional work, notably physical brawn work, demands that we cut the deeply traditional connection between work, on the one hand, and income and social entitlement and participation, on the other. Not only we, but all the developed countries are facing more or less overt crises of employment, falling particularly, and particularly ominously, on their young people. Our work-based system for the distribution of social goods is thoroughly out of whack. Although new forms of work, some of them fully meritorious, are emerging continuously, the active broad trend is toward a net loss and increasing scarcity of jobs.

    The proposition that is offered to young adults now: “Your must work, but, sorry, there is no work for you” is an impossible one. It is cruel for individuals, but it’s also not a foundation for a coherent and reliable society.

    There must be a redefinition of the mode of distribution of wealth and social entitlement, a redefinition away from the traditional channel or medium of work.

    One temptation is to preserve work of all kinds, to “create jobs,” without much regard for the genuineness or quality of the work. But in fact there is a large amount of bad or at least very dubious work which, case by case on the merits, should be ended not preserved, and certainly not created new. False work has many kinds, from hiring security guards where the better choice is to bring down crime, the now dispensed-with service station attendants and even retail store clerks, up to those in the medical insurance industry, or to those pouring brilliant tactical work into strategically bad causes, like soldiering in Vietnam or Iraq. Some work can and should be automated away. Some work is being exported to lower cost providers, e.g. China, but that is not straightforward or stable. Large amounts of work needs rethinking when it supplies large sectors that should be curtailed rather than perpetuated —for example, the urban automobile, or our current day defense budget, and perhaps even small-holder agriculture. Better city planning could silently eliminate the immense “work” of commuting two hours per day to a job-site. But it has to be admitted that, in practice, if we don’t create “make work,” the dwindling of work will continue and even accelerate.

    In principle, the new remedy to the employment dilemma will come from the left. A larger measure of social entitlement will come to be territorial (just being in the country) rather than economic—earning money. Once a floor level of income is provided for all, activities which are good human activities but which now are not paid or are not locally socially entitling, will be encouraged, perhaps with stipends, such as local sports, local music and theatricals and other forms of what are now considered hobbies or volunteer activities, and the social treatment of them will be more like “work.” The pattern of certain successful social groups which go, one generation after the other, from the hardest of work to more esthetic lives of cultural self-consumption will be seen more often, and be more accepted.

    At the same time, the field, and a broad one, has to be left open, and incentivized, for work. There has got to be room and rewards, for example, for the hardworking teacher of German language that Tony Judt had in secondary school, or for individual surgeons and groups of computer and instrument developers who are bringing us laparascopic surgery—we’ve just had a quasi-miraculous application in our neighborhood, or true miracle drugs. What should be the income/wealth differential between those who make the genuine and great contributions, and those who just stay out of jail and maintain a temperature of 98.6°? Maybe, once a baseline of adequate income exists for everyone independent of work, there could be an income multiple of three or four—Francois Hollande proposes to tax incomes above € 1M at 75%, which could be a useful marker.

    How to revalue work and handle both the distribution both of work itself and of its fruits, is one of the dilemmas in building a more solidary Judtian “new social democracy,” and there are lots more—where to draw the line between the market and the state? How to delineate roles among other circles and entities as well, such as the non-profit sector, and even among the local, intermediary, national and international spheres of action. I don’t think either Judt’s nostalgia or Siddartha Mukherjee’s call for innovation really fill the bill—we do need and want continuing innovation, but it is also basically dis-employing, is it not?

    What about applications to the curent political situation? Some parts of what would become a “New Social Democracy” program are total no-brainers and are already in play: universal access to medical care, more progressive taxation, free tertiary education, a much smaller defense budget, re-election of Obama over Romney, but the penitential note is how much opposition these simple and overdue steps have elicited —nothing is easy. Should the existence and undoubted public support and effectiveness of Mitch McConnell stop us from thinking and talking about how the country could be much better? Probably it should restrain the further flights of idealism, but otherwise, clearly no.

    • Potter

      Thank you Peter Lydon, excellent!

  • howard doughty

    Some of the most persuasive arguments for moderation have been made by people who have experienced loss — the loss of a homeland, an ideology or both. They are, no matter how successful in later life, often familiar and empathetic with those on the margin. Isaiah Berlin was something of a refugee before becoming part of Britain’s intellectual aristocracy. More obvious was Albert Camus. So, too, was Tony Judt, an immigrant Marxist Zionist, turned consummate liberal.

    In the United States, Judt is considered a man of the left (as is anyone who dares to stand two paces to the left of the centrist broker politician, Barack Obama. In the rest of the world? Not so much (I will not soon forget his diatribe against E. P. Thompson). So, I am not much interested in hearing what Americans (with noble exceptions such as Sheldon Wolin or the editors of The Monthly Review) have to say about him.

    I would, however, like to hear what some folks in the United Kingdom might comment: almost anyone at the New Left Review would be good. Also Terry Eagleton and any followers of men such as Ralph Miliband (though not his sons), Christopher Hill. Finally, try York University in Toronto, where the current editors of The Socialist Register can be found (e.g., Leo Panitch).

  • Potter

    Here is David Cay Johnston on Democracy Now ( short video)

    Welfare Queens and the Reagan Revolution

  • Vincent Alcazar

    Your astute articulation of Judt’s key premises evoked in me the inner sense of being aboard a ship taking on water far from safe harbor. The folks upstairs in the fine dining room and socialite salon forgot an important point: if this ship called America founders, we all wind up in one of two places: lifeboats or at the bottom. A life boat deceptively sounds like survival that we associate with safety when it is only a greater tilting of the odds of survival away from those who think themselves lucky to occupy a life boat. The ship enterprise of state: we continue to be in this altogether; despite the best attempts of the wealthy, hyper-wealthy to rewrite that truth and alter the gross underlying physics through an accumulation of undue influence from a disproportionate accumulation of wealth.

    Vincent Alcazar

  • Potter

    Some push back for Judt, unfortunately no longer here to discuss with us. I am reading “Ill Fares the Land” and agreeing with most everything and grateful for it, recognizing it’s truth, loving it’s simplicity and the angle on history he teaches. Except, as a former and active member of the so-called 60’s generation, I think he was unfairly judging it. Turns out the New York Times published an op-ed on July 4th, Kurt Anderson: “The Downside of Liberty”, I link, upsetting to me. It received similar reaction in these letters I also link. Anderson is no Judt, I realize. If they opened a comments on this op-ed I bet it would have run into the hundreds of entries.

    My own experience in the late 60’s just did not connect with what Judt was saying. There were those, undoubtedly, who were so self-indulgent only. Some ended up dead way too soon. There were also many who never “turned on”, so to speak ( I am talking about awareness, not drugs) maybe half that generation. I don’t know. Anderson blames the current greed on this so-called self indulgent greedy variety of late 60’s movement, broad brushing. Judt broad brushes similarly. I knew those who did not partake (and again I don’t mean of drugs) who never turned on or tuned out or dropped out for this interlude of a very few years.

    Self knowledge and self-love are steps to loving others, loving life, reaching out to help others… regardless of Anderson’s Jefferson quotes to the contrary. The ancient Greeks knew this: Know Thyself. Also the word blazoned everywhere in the late 60’s was LOVE- the song was “all you need is love”. Yes there was a lot of loud music ( which sounds quieter today- even classic I would say) which may have, in it’s way, helped clear the mind of some the old notions that had to go, notions that we grew up with. Emerson, Thoreau were popular!! The anti-war movement had us marching and gathering…. so did civil rights! Many cared about America, what this country was becoming. The organic food movement began then, and many even started to grow their own food, many lived communally in extended (intentional) families, learning to get along and work together. Some still do! I could go on.

    The Downside of Liberty:Kurt Anderson

    Letters Responding in the NYTimes:

    What Do the 60’s Tell Us About Today?