what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The way we live now

This blog has mentioned several times the advantages of the semi-nomadic life. Since renting the flat in Sofia last April, I’ve accumulated a fair number of books and paintings and may well end the rental shortly (the delight of the Carpathian mountains in spring beckons). So each trip north means a box of books, of clothes and a pile of at least 10 paintings. And therefore an opportunity to dip into some books as I travel. Yesterday I started to read, for the second time, Tony Judt’s short Ill Fares the Land (2010). The link gives the book's entire Introduction and is therefore well worth reading. It starts very powerfully "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today," Judt begins - We are obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community.
In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would keep us from the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect us from cradle to grave. These assumptions underpinned Butskellism in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy. In the 1970s, confidence in the state and a larger public realm fell apart. Since then, many have lost any sense of the state as either efficient or benign. Instead, we have come to believe, as Margaret Thatcher said, that: "There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families."
Judt pulls no punches. This new obsession with wealth, privatisation and the private sector is disastrous. The evidence of public squalor is all around us: "Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will." The first chapter, "The Way We Live Now", is a passionate argument against the rise of inequality, the collapse in social mobility and the "pathological social problems" that follow. "Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority," he writes, "translates into ill-health, missed educational opportunity and - increasingly - the familiar symptoms of depression." Inequality is "corrosive". "It rots societies from within," he says.
I suspect we can all save ourselves a lot of time by asking about the motives which spurred an author to write – mostly it has to do with academic reputation, money or hubris. When a man is on his death-bed and takes incredible trouble (and pain) to draft a book for posterity it will generally be worth reading. Here is how historian Judt explains its origins in the Introduction -
For thirty years students have been complaining to me that ‘it was easy for you’: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. ‘We’ (the children of the ’80s, the ’90s, the ‘aughts’) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us — just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a ‘lost generation’.

If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: ‘we’ know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?
This is an ironic reversal of the attitudes of an earlier age. Back in the era of self-assured radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the ’60s was that of overweening confidence: we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed; if the Left is to recover its fortunes, some modesty will be in order. All the same, you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it. This book was written for young people on both sides of the Atlantic.
The title of his book is taken from these lines of Oliver Goldsmith’s famous 1770 poem -
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.''
and, for me, one of significant things about the book is that each of its chapter headings echoes a famous book of the past century thus eg The World We Have Lost;  What is to be done?; Shape of Things to Come – thus subtly emphasising the recognition (as Google Scholar puts it) that we "stand on the shoulders of Giants”. Our selfish world has too few writers who properly spell out the relevant work by other writers and too many who pretend to have blazed a unique trail (modern book publishing seems to require such hyperbole). The academics go the opposite extreme of referencing so much and so generally that you are left with no real sense of intellectual development.
One extensive review summarised the book’s arguments thus -
He is the most important contemporary representative of a nearly extinct political tendency – the anti-communist, social-democratic Left. His manifesto is driven by his conviction that in rejecting social democracy 30 years ago the West stumbled badly, and by his hope that the social-democratic tradition can now be revived. His manifesto is sober but also urgent, written by a man who knows that time is not on his side, and for this reason deeply moving.

For Judt, social democracy is multifaceted and complex. Originally, social democracy was a response to the barbarity of communism, where the utopian socialist dream was moderated by a commitment to liberal democracy and where eventually a historic compromise with capitalism was struck. After the shock of the Great Depression, social democracy became, in addition, a distinctive form of political economy, inspired by Maynard Keynes. For a generation, under the Keynesian consensus, worldly wisdom triumphed over neo-classical academic orthodoxy. Social democracy was, accordingly, no longer merely one kind of politics but the animating spirit of an era lasting from 1945 until the election of Margaret Thatcher. During this era, social democracy was associated with a series of policy prescriptions: progressive taxation and the “mixed economy” of public and private ownership. It was also primarily responsible for the creation of the protective social-welfare state, its greatest achievement. Yet, for Judt, social democracy is even more than this. It is the most humane moral–political idea, in which, for once, both the two great values unleashed by the French Revolution – freedom and equality – are valued and pursued.
What went wrong for social democracy? Although Judt rather perfunctorily recognises that in the mid-1970s the social-democratic state hit unanticipated economic troubles, his explanation of the collapse places greater weight on cultural factors. By the 1970s, a younger postwar generation had begun to take the achievements of the postwar social-democratic era for granted, and even to chafe at the dullness of the security it had delivered. In addition, the New Left was by now more interested in the politics of personal identity – of race and gender, rather than class – than it was in defending the achievements of the postwar Left. Both factors made the social order vulnerable to an intellectual attack that was mounted by the Austrian émigrés – not only Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, but also Karl Popper, Joseph Schumpeter and Peter Drucker – who were mesmerised by the interwar collapse of liberalism throughout central Europe and who, grotesquely, mistook the creation of the social-democratic welfare state for a way station on “the road to serfdom”.
There is strength in Judt’s explanation of the fall of social democracy, but also weakness. Judt underestimates the degree to which the ‘stagflation’ crisis knocked the confidence of the conventional Keynesian economists, whose thought was premised on the idea that inflation and stagnation were the alternative illnesses to which the capitalist economy might succumb. He is also rather unbalanced about the legacy of the New Left. Even if there was a narcissistic tendency in identity politics, it is also true that the eruption of the ’60s helped trigger a vast cultural revolution that shook centuries-old habits of mind on issues related to gender and race. Not only did this transform Western sensibility unambiguously for the better, it also extended to women and non-whites one idea that Judt places at the heart of social-democratic values: equality.
For Judt it is because of the victory of neo-liberalism, especially in the UK and the US, that the land now fares ill. Most important for him is the toleration shown for the return to pre-Great Depression levels of inequality. Judt begins with tables taken from a remarkable recent study, The Spirit Level. They show that measuring almost everything we value – health, mental wellbeing, social mobility, trust, levels of crime – the more equal societies of north-west Europe perform notably better than the less equal societies of the UK and, especially, the US.

Because of the return of gross inequality, the participatory element of democratic politics has withered. For too long citizens have watched as the wealthy have fashioned the world according to their desires. Without the feeling of belonging to a common world, participation has no point. For Judt, the rise of the “gated” community is a potent symbol of the loss of this common world. Even political leaders – “pygmies”, such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, compared to their predecessors, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt – have become passive, leaving decision-making to the neo-liberal economic “experts” (the descendants of the Austrian school) whose central role has been to make the world safe for the bankers and brokers. The orthodox economists have, long ago, displaced political thinkers and convinced the world “there is no alternative” to their nostrums. Although discredited by the Global Financial Crisis, so far nothing has filled the void. At the coming of the crisis, Keynesianism made a return of sorts, but this was little more than a neo-liberal “tactical retreat”. At the moment of crisis everyone looked to government for action. Yet, according to Judt, no one is presently thinking afresh about the role of the state.

It is clear that for him the damage done will not be easy to repair. Although the welfare state has proven somewhat resistant to the neo-liberal assault – even Margaret Thatcher could not abandon the National Health Scheme – privatisation has made rapid gains in many areas, especially social services and transport, where its influence has been negative, or worse. But the spirit of neo-liberalism has also paralysed the vital organs of the culture. Universities are now overwhelmed by an economistic language of “outputs” and “impacts”. We have taught the young to value nothing more than the pursuit of wealth. Even intellectuals do not escape his scorn. Most are conformist and afraid to dissent. Even when they are not, they prefer to speak about morally straightforward issues rather than the complexity of public policy. (Ouch!) No one now seems capable of expressing, or indeed of feeling, the appropriate anger. Perhaps dangerously, Judt calls on intellectuals and others to trust their “instincts”.

Judt knows that contemporary social democracy is feeble. Since the collapse of communism, the Left no longer believes that its goals are, in the words of Bernard Williams, “cheered on by the universe”. More deeply, it has lost its language; its crisis is thus “discursive”. But he is still convinced that a rebirth of social democracy is possible. In part this is because neo-liberalism has been discredited. In part it is because the quest for equality has not lost its grip on our moral imagination. And in part it is because we live at a time of unprecedented uncertainty – about the economic future, about the dangers of global warming, about the pace and unpredictability of change. The Right is certain to try to exploit the mood of deep uncertainty. Yet, there is on the Left a long tradition of fighting to conserve the human world from the forces that threaten it. If there is to be a return to social democracy, it is almost certain to be what Judt calls “a social democracy of fear”.

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