Thursday, 1 July 2010

WHERE DID WE ALL GO WRONG? An essay on Tony Judt's ILL FARES THE LAND


When I was in school, some 50 years ago, we learned that among the reasons we won our revolution was that the British were fat and happy, didn't care enough about fighting for their American colonies, and hired at great expense mercenaries from Hesse to do the fighting for them. The yeoman farmers who fought for independence cared far more about winning than some Germans fighting so their lords and masters could rake in more English gold. Ten years later, Tom Disch's story 'Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire', part of his novel 334, would make the same point to me about the decline and fall of our own short-lived empire.

Tony Judt's Ill Fares The Land recalls those moments, even though he doesn't make the points explicitly. But his examination of what has gone wrong over the past 30-40 years in American and British society rang more than few familiar bells. Partly because Judt, who is only a few years older than I am, is contrasting those decades to the era immediately after WWII, say 1945-75, which saw those two societies at both their most prosperous and least unequal ever. This implies, as I've often suggested, that we baby boomers grew up as the most broadly privileged generation the world had ever seen, and were given more advantages of the sorts unavailable even to our fathers (who had grown up in depression and fought in a world war) when they were young (though again, GI housing and education opened up doors for them too).

Judt's is also a book with particular immediate relevance, as our governments, having thrown their treasuries away first on two illegal and impossible wars, and then on preserving the extreme financial privilege of those who manipulate money for a living, now face the so-called 'hard choices' which they will inflict on the rest of us. Hard choices is a euphemism; as Judt points out, courage used to mean enduring pain, not inflicting it on those weaker or poorer than yourself.

Ill Fares The Land is also a rich garden of aphorism, starting with its title, which comes from Oliver Goldsmith and reads in full: 'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay'. It's good to see him gather John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith as advocates for social justice. As you might intuit from that, the book is not so much a history of the rapid decline of the three decades since Reagan and Thatcher took power and changed the world-view of their societies so completely, as a moral treatise on what that all means. It is argued with exceptional reasonability, only the odd spark of ill temper slips out, and if occasionally the evening glow of Marxism circa 1968 still illuminates the background, it is by and large realistic too. Though even Judt can't help conflating the activists of that era with its entire generation. Perhaps it's because it seemed to him, in Paris, that everyone was!

But there of course is the rub, and one which he never really addresses. We can understand the children of Reagan and Thatcher embracing Bush's compassionless conservativism or Cameron's unsociety, because they have grown up in that world, but what explains US? How does a generation which benefitted from both more wealth and equality than any in history, which saw the end of apartheid in America, and the end of another divisive illegal war, wind up concentrating on ways to enrich itself, to rebuild the gilded-age barriers between the wealthy and rest, and to lock themselves up in gated communities and second homes? Judt can quote DeToqueville on the concept that money talks and bullshit walks, and yes it's always been true, but that really isn't enough of an answer. He does engage with the idea of 'protest' quickly moving to more personal levels, to self-interest or to single-issue activism, and he is right as far as it goes; I think there is a good case to be made that baby-boomers were, on the whole, spoiled, that it was no coincidence that the 'me' decade of the 70s came as they reached maturity and faced having to make a living, and that much so-called activism may have been no more than people worried about avoiding the draft for an unpopular war (which brings us back to the mercenaries who fight alongside the professional army in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Judt does lay out the promised land of the post-war era, drawing heavily on The Spirit Level, a book whose immensely revealing graphics and charts illustrate how social and economic equality correlate with all sorts of benefits to society. It is odd to see virtually every graph clustered the same way; the Scandinavian social democracies and Japan down in one corner, where low levels of imbalance and/or high levels of mobility seem to deliver better health, longer life, lower murder rates and so on, while the US is always at the opposite end of the scale, with the UK and, oddly, Portugal, floating just below them. Judt also reprints a revealing bar graph, showing how social mobility in the US (measured by son's incomes being explained by father's income) increased sharply in the 60s (as the baby boomers began to enter the workforce) then declined far more severely in the 90s and again in the 00s.

Social democracy, as practised in Scandinavia, is itself a relatively recent phenomenon, one born of a certain practical bent of mind when those societies transformed themselves from peasant economies into industrial ones. And it arose in both the US and UK out of a certain practicality as well, in America during the depression, as Franklin Roosevelt fought to lessen the ravaging effects of the economic collapse (again, one caused by speculators--recall that despite the words we now use for the 'crises' they are not natural phenomena, beyond avoidance, though they are inevitable in the face on unregulated greed) and in Britain after the War, as veterans and those who had suffered through its effects felt they deserved a fairer deal. Judt's hero in all this is John Maynard Keynes, whose economic theories underpinned the post-war successes of both societies.

If Keynes is the hero, Friedrich Hayek and his fellow Austrians whose economic theories underpinned Thatcher and Reagan economics, and were based on the demonstrably false premise that 'state control' of economic planning inevitably led to Hitler, or dictators in general. They felt economic justice and individual freedom were thus incompatible, which seems a huge jump. That the Chicago school took such theories and ran with them conceals the hollowness of the assumptions that lie at their base. As Judt demonstrates the failings of the past three decades, the false accounting of privatisations and cuts in government series, and the cheerleading for inequality which has been the result of all this, the arguments will seem familiar to anyone who has lived through this period with their eyes, as well as their pocketbooks, open.

Which is the weakness of the book. There is a certain sense of preaching to the converted, something one often feels when reading the New York Review of Books, which is especially disheartening when you are among the converted. There is precious little practical advise for how to reverse this decline, especially in the face of the new ConDem government in Britain, and the seeming inablity of Barack Obama to transform the promise of his election into any sort of meaningful change. There are other factors which Judt barely touches on, like the stultifying effect of modern media in acclimating its audience to lower expectations, and of the web in fragmenting society even further into smaller groups of self interest. Were it a social history he would have to address the problems of race in America, where the post-war consensus began to crumble in the face of civil rights legislation in the mid-Sixties, and class in Britain; in both countries the real problem is not with engineering equality of opportunity, it is in extended it to the untouchables at the bottom.

But the strength of the book is its inescapable moral rightness, which forces the reader into associations. I have mentioned the one which immediately occured to me about a society that relies on mercenaries, and it has provoked the reflections above about my own generation. I think the argument about the transformation of our societies into increasing Orwellian, and even more prophetically, Philip K. Dickian worlds, is one which needs to be addressed. And in the wake of his scorn poured on the huge bonuses paid out at Goldman Sachs, it suggests the thesis that, given their virtual control of the US treasury in the past two decades, 2008's huge financial meltdown was part of the Goldman Sachs plan, giving them total domination of the marketplace as well.

I don't think Judt is dreaming of a golden age that never existed, nor of an age of relative justice that can never exist again. But I confess that rarely can a book create such a feeling of uplift by bringing on such a sense of depression. It's a rich but bleak story. That it was written by a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease merely adds to the sense that he, and we, need to focus our minds more intensely on the moral dilemma which we have brought upon ourselves. This compact moral treatise reminds us eloquently of that fact.

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