Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ill Fares the Land

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. Toni Judt.

A couple of months ago, I headed out to Harvard Square in Boston while my eldest daughter was teaching Tonal Theory to undergrads. With a few hours free, I peeked into the storefronts of various shops, and even entered a clothing store. I would have tried on some of the outfits except, well, it was books that I bought, not clothes.

I can’t claim to have fully explored all the shelves of The Harvard Coop – which is apparently pronounced coop as in chicken coop not as in co-op. Hmmm. In fact, I was barely twenty feet into the store when I already had more books than I could reasonably carry, so I reshelved most them. I chose two for airplane reading, and kept a third that had simply found its way into my hand.
The third book didn't work for me, but 2 out 3 ain't bad.

I must have heard about Toni Judt. After all, I don’t live under a rock, and he was well known as both an historian and essayist. Still, his wasn’t a name that I recognized as I read the back jacket of Ill Fares the Land. If you are as ignorant as I was, you can find a quick fly past of his accomplishments at his obit in The Guardian

Judt sides with the kind of social democrats who believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. A central question for him was since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want. This doesn’t put him in the camp of fuzzy do-gooders. He argues for both honesty and clarity, and insists that you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it.

It seems to me that this is part of what many of the people participating in the various Occupy movements have been struggling to do. It is clear that the industrialized countries that have been most onside with the Washington consensus – including the championing of deregulation, the unravelling of the state, and low taxation – are also the same countries that are now exhibiting the worst of the resulting impoverishment: broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured.

Which is not the only reason to address inequality:

Inequality ... is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause. There is a reason why infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness, and anxiety are so much more marked in the US and the UK than they are in continental Europe.

Judt notes that although democracy entails a balancing of interests, we need to remember that:

The rich do not want the same thing as the poor. Those who depend on their job for their livelihood do not want the same thing as those who live off investments and dividends. Those who do not need public services – because they can purchase private transport, education and protection – do not seek the same thing as those who depend exclusively on the public sector. Those who benefit from war – either as defence contractors or on ideological grounds – have different objectives than those who are against the war.

We also need to find the faith and the will to rebuild trust, which is in even shorter supply in nations where inequality runs rampant.  In seeking solutions, he urges patience and moral courage in our rebuilding. We need to value dissent, and at the same time also value listening:

A closed circle of opinion or ideas into which discontent or opposition is never allowed – or allowed only within circumscribed and stylized limits – loses its capacity to respond energetically or imaginatively to new challenges.

Being an historian, he uses examples from history when he suggests how we might confront our currently ailing and toxic political landscape. He points out that in 18th Century France:

Unable to confront the monarchy head-on, they set about depriving it of legitimacy by imagining and expressing objections to the way things were and positing alternative sources of authority in whom the people could believe.

This is not unlike how the Soviet Union was undermined in the 1970s and 1980s. The West is now ripe for such subversion. It is worth appreciating that Victorian era reformers made significant beginnings in addressing poverty, overcrowding, dirt, malnutrition, and ill health of the new industrial cities. The Twentieth Century built on these early successes. Unfortunately, in the last 30 years, we have undone much of that, in part because we have grown up insulated from the cost of knowing the consequences. The Market Crash of 1929 is ancient history, as are the reasons that regulations and social programs were first introduced post WWII. The answers may be even harder to enact than they were then, but they are no less necessary and if they are going to be effective we will need to encompass contradictions.

If we have learned nothing from the 20th Century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequence.

About three decades ago, my husband was doing research about local resistance to Elderado nuclear and we visited a Hutterite colony. The dark-bearded senior elder asked us Do you know what the worst plague is?. Locusts? Frosts?  Floods? Blight? He listed every agricultural disaster imaginable, and then paused – the worst is affluence.  I suspect that Judt would have agreed.

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