Book Review: Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt

Tony Judt’s call for a rethinking of the way we live today

Marcel Duchamps, Nude Descending a Staircase | Photo: jezblog

Delusions of Prosperity

“Perhaps we should begin,” writes historian Tony Judt, “by reminding ourselves and our children that it wasn’t always like this.”

That there was a time, not so long ago in America and Britain, when social decisions were made for social reasons, when the public dialogue was about the public welfare, and when justice – not damage awards – was the goal of law.

It is to remind us of who we once were, and thus who we might be again, that Tony Judt has written his latest book, Ill Fares the Land, a sweeping defense of social democracy and call for a rethinking of the way we live today. [see excerpt, p.8]

In a series of gracefully written, well documented short chapters, Judt presents a remarkably concise and focused discussion describing the tangles and taboos that have led to our current dilemma. He traces how, from the late 19th century until the 1970s, western societies were all becoming less unequal; even in hard times, the gap between rich and poor was shrinking in real terms.

But as the generation passed away that had lived through the chaos following World War I in Europe, that had supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, the Bretton Woods Agreements, founding the IMF and the World Bank, and the sweeping post war programs like the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration mortgages that launched a thriving new U.S. middle class, many forgot why they had installed these reforms in the first place.

“Over the last 30 years, we have thrown this all away,” Judt writes. And while the degree varies from country to country, only in Britain and the United States has there been such an unwavering commitment to deregulation, to “the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight” so carefully built up after the last financial meltdown, the one we know as The Great Depression.

“For anyone old enough to remember what had gone before, the crescendo of social expenditure and welfare provision must have seemed little short of miraculous,” sustaining full employment for nearly three decades, while maintaining growth rates “more than competitive with those of the trammeled market economies of the past.”

Today, the picture has degenerated for many into ugliness of unrelieved poverty and dead end lives, with a loss of mobility and the collapse of hope. And here Judt details the staggering income inequalities (from a 60 to 1 ration of CEO to worker at General Electric in the 60s, today the CEO of Walmart takes home 900 times more than his average employee, while most new jobs are created at the minimum wage. In the U.K., there is a wider gap in nearly all the basic measures of incomes, wealth, education and opportunity that at any time since the 1920s. But if Britain is “broken”, at least it still has the vestiges of a safety net.

“For a society trapped in delusions of prosperity and good prospects, with the losers left to fend for themselves,” Judt writes, “ we must – regretfully – look to the USA.”

The puzzle, however, is why the public – the voters and citizens – have permitted this to happen. After six decades, European social democracy in all its forms remains as popular as ever; no one who is a beneficiary of a welfare state – of the national health care, effectively free public education, the investments in public transit and recreation facilities – has the least interest in taking these programs apart.  Why is it, then, he asks, that critics who claim that the social nets in Europe are too expensive are allowed to go unchallenged?

Why do the British, and even more so the Americans, expect so little?

As anyone who has spent any length of time in the United States in the decades since 1980 can attest, the neo-conservatives have long since hijacked the public dialogue, intoning eulogies to efficiency, beating the drum of deregulation, while investing millions in conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise and Hoover Institutes, assigned with the task of taking on the civil rights-anti-war-feminist progressive movements of 1970s and turning the dialogue around. They succeeded, one can imagine, beyond their wildest dreams.

The result of has been a paralysis in public dialogue, and an inability to engage in any kind of meaningful discourse on the issues of the deepest public concern. Liberals are ashamed to be called liberal, feminists to be called feminists. As the gap continues to widen the sense of helplessness grows. And any sense of common purpose is lost, without which no meaningful community life is possible.

We are running out of time. And between the lines, a reader can’t help wondering how close all this comes to the seeded ground for revolution. But of course, this is merely terrorism under another name.

Tony Judt is also running out of time; struck down a year ago with a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, he is now paralyzed from the neck down, unable to move his limbs, much less to write. Thus the British historian’s latest book, Ill Fares the Land, is all the more astonishing, dictated, sourced and proofread by a small army of assistants, colleagues, friends and relatives, who together, helped him bring it to publication in just four months.

Reading this book, I was reminded of a famous story I about the New York Armory Show of 1913, the scene of a startling exhibition of modern art, intended to introduce American audiences to the world of European avant garde. The show included works of Picasso and Matisse, and especially Marcel Duchamps, whose ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ was explosively controversial.

One viewer, a banker named James Stillman, was as disturbed as anyone by what he saw, but found he couldn’t dismiss the work, as others sought to do, but saw it instead as a kind of ‘writing on the wall.’ And as he walked slowly through the exhibits, he commented to a friend:

“Something is wrong with the world. These men know.”  Even though he disliked them, he bought several paintings. It was a message he knew he and others needed to hear.

Tony Judt knows that something is wrong with the world; we need to listen.


Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt
Penguin Press (March, 2010)

Available at
Shakespeare & Company Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2
01 535 5053

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