So I hoped for a similar intellectually exciting encounter with Judt's new volume, Ill Fares the Land. I can't say I found it, but Professor Judt (New York University) has forced me to work at thinking yet more about what has shaped my society and hence why I can't fully find accord with his prescriptions.
Judt's title is from a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem, The Deserted Village.
Goldsmith was bemoaning appropriation of common land by wealthy landowners in order to run their herds on land once shared by all, a movement that drove English peasants out of their rural villages and into wage labor in the rising industrial economy. This forced social change was an experience of violent degradation for most who involuntarily lived it, even if their descendants eventually benefited. Goldsmith looked on with horror -- and what to us must appear as hopeless nostalgia for a social system that was passing away/being killed.
This morning the New York Times led with a slightly gloating screed on the impending doom of the Western European welfare state. Is Judt simply striking a note similar to Goldsmith's, engaging in a sort of prospective nostalgia, seeing moral collapse ahead for a continent that since 1945 has replaced perpetual war and insecurity with a social contract that guarantees peace and prosperity to most people?
Judt bemoans the poverty of ideas we are able to offer in response to decline of trust in government and the accompanying privatization of what welfare state systems treated as public trusts -- education, poverty-reduction, health and welfare.
Throughout, Judt lumps the social supports created in the United States by FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society into the same category as the much more developed welfare states of Western Europe. Though at times this seems plausible, I think my failure to embrace this book derives from a sense that the equation rings false. What was going on over here is not really comparable, for good or ill.
Thus, I think he is insightful about how the Depression and World War II did create a morally unified United States.
But Judt's insistence that young Western European beneficiaries of state-facilitated peace and posterity childishly chafed in the 1960s at the prosaic achievements of their elders, undermining them in favor of a selfish individualism, don't ring nearly so true about the 1960s generation in the United States whatever our psychedelic excesses. Here's the indictment:
I can't evaluate how fair that is about Europeans, but it simply is inadequate to explain the 60s generation in the States. We fed off the energy of the civil rights movement, the struggle to overturn the country's original sin of white supremacy that had marked every phase of our society's development. And through the heroic efforts primarily of African-Americans, racial oppression's legal pillars were toppled. Subsequent movements for gender justice took their cue from this surprising, costly, victory.
And concurrently, that generation came to understand it lived in an illegitimate empire fighting an immoral war under lying leadership. Sure, not everyone, possibly not even a majority, ever took in the full implications of the perfidy of Vietnam -- but confidence and trust in the state was broken, probably for good -- and for good, legitimate, reason.
Judt simply doesn't seem willing to take these broken realities seriously. And the broken legitimacy of the United States, much reinforced under the post-democratic, strictly rapacious incarnation of state that has existed since Reagan, is the context in which people in the United States must struggle to imagine a moral state and moral society. I think this context is simply different than the European one from which Judt takes primary reference in this book.
He does offer a discussion that seems to offer a point of departure for future movements for a more just state and society.
Can we conceive of alternative sources of authority to the rule of force and private wealth? What would such a society look like? How would we live? Striving to answer those questions is as much part of winning a different future as organizing and agitating. On that, I can agree with Professor Judt.