June 14, 2024

The World We Lost and How We Get it Back: Book Review of Ill Fares the Land

Europe has lost its direction. Seven years after the financial crisis, most of the continent has still not recovered. An unresolved sovereign debt crisis, thousands of immigrants dying to enter the European borders and increased xenophobic discourses are only a few of the problems that haunt the old continent. In Britain, Conservative and Labour parties are cross-dressing; the former promising more access to health and education and the latter vowing to cut down public spending. Greece is threatening to break away from the European Union. Spain’s traditional two-party system is going to be challenged for the first time this year. Where’s the political compass?

Fear and insecurity are dominating the public discourse, Tony Judt argues in Ill Fares the Land (2010). There needs to be a serious conversation about what we want our future to look like. In the frenzy of globalization and increased inequality, politicians are running in xenophobic, Eurosceptic and austerity agendas; nation-states are taking refuge in their old borders. But what is, and more importantly what should be, the actual role of the state?

Judt argues people forgot how to talk about, and “think the state.” Ill Fares the Land is both an urgent invitation and a catalyst to that conversation. In this short historical overview of the rise and fall of social democracies during the second half of the 20th Century, Judt makes the reader re-think our current political values.

When market-oriented economies took over politics after the 1970s market deregulation, not only did they change our way of conceiving what government is, but they also created a new language to talk about it. Words like “community” or “collective purpose” don’t carry much weight any more. “Is it efficient?” has come to substitute questions like “Is it fair?” or “Is it good for the general public?” As Judt writes, “if we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private sector and, in particular, the cult of privatization.” The book is an effort to fight against any declaration that market oriented-democracy and economic globalization are natural results of history; it encourages the readers to re-think what kind of world they want to live in and empowers the next generation with a renewed political vocabulary.

His views in the book are apocalyptic and dramatic. This is both because of the external reality when the book was written, the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, and his internal struggle, fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He wrote the book—or more accurately, he dictated the book—while he was “losing control of words,” as he explained in the New York Review of Books, where he was a regular contributor; “vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate.” Indeed, Ill Fares the Land was published some month before he passed away. In this sense, the book reads as a cri de coeur for social democracy from a communist-turned-leftist historian in his deathbed.

Ill Fares the Land is a compass of sorts for a younger generation, those who have been born in a self-complacent society that no longer can discern right from left. His romantic recount of the past (the quaint descriptions of railway stations that will have us travel back in history) might at times seem delusional, especially if one has ever tried to take a train at Roma Termini in rush hour. But his avid readings of history—let’s not forget Postwar (2005) is probably one of the most enlightening book on the second half of the 20th century in Europe—provide a lesson or two for those willing to listen.

Judt argued in Postwar that, against all expectations, “the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe.” He added, “it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes.” Even if that is a far-fetched prediction, in Ill Fares the Land, Judt resorts to Europe again. Perhaps it’s a self-expiatory exercise, a way for him to understand what went wrong at the turn of the century and how we can learn from it. Perhaps it’s a last cry to resuscitate the “20th-century illusions,” which the author regrets younger generations have lost. As he said in Thinking the 20th Century (2012), the transcribed conversation with the American historian Timothy Snyder published posthumously, “You cannot fully appreciate the shape of the 20th century if you did not once share its illusions.” Be that as it may, it seems fitting to culminate his intellectual legacy trying to find that modest advice that Europe has to offer. He draws from his lifetime research in history not to look back, but forwards: What is next?

Social democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others.

“But what is social democracy?” a fellow political science graduate student asked me when we were talking about the book. Social democracy is not in the vocabulary of most Americans. The whole concept is a byproduct of the European nation-state, a compromise between working class and liberal traditions that never took root in the United States. The ideologically charged Cold War made it impossible for Americans today to talk about anything socialism. In the book, a 13-year-old tells Judt, “(when) the word socialism is mentioned, sometimes it is as though a brick has fallen on the conversation and there’s no way to return it to its form.”

But Judt concedes the U.S. sometimes has been a pioneer in welfare programs and social reforms, the clearest case being the New Deal. During the 1950s, taxation was not a contentious issue even among conservatives, and it was Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, who authorized the federally-overseen project of the interstate highway system. Keynesianism was in vogue after World War II. The war had meant, for the United States, the mobilization of the whole country for a collective purpose. After the war, wealth redistribution and market regulation were implemented in the U.S. and its European counterparts to keep the gap between rich and poor close.

The welfare state or social democracy was, indeed, a product of its times. And as anything human-made, it was not meant to exist forever. Judt makes no effort to disguise his despise for Reagan, Clinton, and Thatcher, and the market deregulations that started in the 1970s. But he guides the reader through recent history to understand how all these policies came about. Not without sarcasm, Judt writes, “To hear Bill Clinton or Margaret Thatcher explain it, making welfare universally available to all who need it would be foolish. If workers are not desperate, why should they work? If the state pays people to be idle, what incentive do they have to seek out paid employment?”

Social democratic policies created a complacent generation. The axiom that the children would be better off than their progenitors was uncontested. The disaffection of the children of the sixties or what Judt calls the “paradoxes of meritocracy” was “the successful byproduct of the very welfare states on which it poured such youthful scorn.” During the 1960s, Judt argues, there was an intellectual shift in the Left. “‘Individualism’ … became the left-wing watchword of the hour. Doing ‘your own thing’, ‘letting it all hang out’, ‘making love, not war’: these are not inherently unappealing goals, but they are of their essence private objectives, not public goods.” The postwar consensus of collective purpose had been broken; the political arena became a pulse between “praiseworthy private freedoms and irritating public constraints.”

So what is next for the children of the generation who had it all? We live in a world of materialistic self-indulgence with a level of economic inequality that has made intergenerational mobility strand. “We have entered an age of insecurity—economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity.” And the solution, to Judt, is to look back at history and ask ourselves what worked and did not work, what we want to reproduce in the future and how to achieve it. In a tone that resembles the infamous Churchill quote, Judt seems to say, perhaps social democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Judt’s words might have slid out of his mouth in his deathbed, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t shrewd. We need to actively think how we want the future to be. People in over ten countries in Europe are going to the ballots this year; a debate is happening about the future of the European Union, especially after the so-called “eurocrisis”, and its outcome will largely depend on our ability as citizens to engage with it.

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” warns us Judt at the beginning of the book. Rethinking the state is the first step to change that; his legacy is to enable a new political vocabulary so that the 13-years-old of the next generation can talk about social democracy without a brick falling on the conversation.


Ill Fares the Land 
Tony Judt
Penguin Books, 2011

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