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He appeared in a wheelchair to give a major public lecture on the crisis of social democracy, which was published in the New York Review of Books and became the basis for Ill Fares the Land. It is hard to imagine a more timely book in the run-up to this year's general election.
It is a short, passionate polemic. 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.
Ill Fares the Land (Paperback)
A benign welfare state would keep us from the poverty of the s. It would protect us from cradle to grave. In the s, 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.
This jeremiad is familiar from some of Judt's earlier essays, his attack on Blair and the Third Way at the time of the election, the chapter on "The New Realism" in Postwar and the two concluding essays in his outstanding collection Reappraisals Unfortunately the problems are also familiar. Oddly, there is too little history. Why were the s the turning point in disillusionment with the state? Because of economic crisis, the beginnings of globalisation and deindustrialisation all of which feature far too little here , and not, as Judt argues, because of a small group of Austrian intellectuals Popper, Hayek et al or because of the "ironic legacy" of the s.
The social and cultural analysis, too, is weak.
„Ill Fares the Land“ by Tony Judt
During the s and s, the new passion for DIY, gardening, cooking, computers and home entertainment was a sign of how the private home had displaced the public realm at the centre of our lives. An active welfare state reduces inequality, and therefore brings all these benefits in its wake.
This is a passionate work of advocacy written under extraordinary conditions, not an ordinary academic treatise, so it would be wrong to expect Judt to back up every statement or define every term. But there is something awkward about his blurring of distinctions here.
Nationalised industries are one thing, welfare services are another; governmental regulation is different from economic planning.
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Where does that leave those of us who want proper welfare services and proper regulation, but do not want dirigiste planning or industries run by men from the ministry? The historical perspective of this book is rather odd, too. Yet a large number of the things privatised in the last 30 years had been nationalised only 30 or 40 years before that — railways, coal mines, steelworks, gas companies and many others. And if nationalised industries and an all-encompassing welfare state are the precondition of any sense of political community, how did this country manage to have any genuine political life before the late Forties?
Yet during the Thatcher years, state spending on health and personal social services increased by 50 per cent in real terms; other sectors, such as education, also saw large increases. Like many passionate spokesmen of the Left, Judt cannot really believe that someone like Mrs Thatcher acted on a set of moral principles; if they were not the principles he believes in, then he thinks they were not moral principles at all.
But ignoring the deepest concerns of your opponents is not the way to build a strong argument. But the idea that welfarism and state control might encroach in some way on human freedom is otherwise wholly ignored.
On that account, if the state takes over the running of my life, down to the last detail, I am still entirely free, so long as I am permitted to express my dissatisfaction. This book was written to energise a new generation.
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Perhaps it will. But to my eyes, it reads more like a work written to console and fortify those who lived through the last 30 years and found one simple object of blame for everything they disliked about them. Ill Fares the Land.
Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt | Book review | Books | The Guardian
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