Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land

The basic premise of Judt’s great book is that the West is in a very bad way and this is because of its ever growing inequality. The rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. The solution is a retooling of the conversations we have around public policy.

He’s for social democracy. Social democracy is not socialism, mind. The latter is an old-timey notion that tried to displace capitalism for some other regime. Social democracy, Judt argues, uses capitalism as a means to address the “hitherto neglected interests of large sections of the population” (229). It’s basically how the U.S. operated from like 1939 to 1980.

Here’s the problem, as he paints it: the decline in social democracy since the postwar period (accelerated by Reagan’s top-first policies) has resulted in just one section of the population getting its interests met: the superrich. Let’s call them Satisfied Americans (this is my term, obviously). We could call them the not-poor, but let’s call the Satisfied Americans.

They’re not you. You’re not one of these people.

When Satisfied Americans comprise just the superrich there’s very little incentive to get anything done that might have some virtue or benefit for the rest of us. Air travel and TSA regulations? Satisfied Americans fly private jets. Public school reform? Who cares; Satisfied Americans pay private-school tuitions. Libraries? Please. Satisfied Americans buy whatever books they might (or might not) read. Trains? Buses? Don’t make Satisfied Americans laugh.

And regarding elections in this country and the way our congress is run, the decline of social democracy is to be lamented. Satisfied Americans have little interest in reforming Senate lobbying procedures or campaign financing laws. Why change what works so well for Satisfied Americans. (Judt quotes Upton Sinclair to back him up: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”)

What’s to be done? Stop talking about the individual and start talking about the public. I’ve got friends (who don’t read this blog I don’t think, but if they do listen up) that gleefully admit to not voting. “You can’t beat the system,” goes the argument. “You’re stupid even for thinking you can.” As Judt writes, “Those who assert ‘the system’ is at fault, or who see mysterious maneuverings behind every political misstep, have little to teach us” (155). This is smart. No one benefits or learns a damn thing from this old complaint.

But more so, Judt shows that “democracies exist only by virtue of the engagement of their citizens in the management of public affairs” (164). Disdain or dismissal are not stances to be taken in opposition to ‘the system’ as the disillusioned see it. It’s the very cause for the trouble that’s dismaying them,

Ugh. Wait. Judt said it so much better in the very next sentence: “If active or concerned citizens forfeit politics, they thereby abandon their society to its most mediocre and venal public servants” (164).

In short: Congress is your problem. You need, in market metaphors, to be more hands-on in your management style.

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