Monday, May 24, 2010

A call for new moral and political imaginings

Encountering Tony Judt's history Postwar was a mind-expanding experience for me. Here was a narrative that suggested possible understandings of my own lifetime that I had hitherto not considered. That's not an easy realization to invoke in someone over 60 who thought she had been paying close attention.

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.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

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.

Why do we experience such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society? Why is it beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage? Are we doomed indefinitely to lurch between a dysfunctional 'free market' and the much-advertised horrors of 'socialism'?

Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more. ...

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.

...trust and cooperation were crucial building blocks for the modern state, and the more trust there was the more successful the state. ...

Even in the United States the concept of trust and the desirability of fellow feeling became central to public policy debate from the 1930s forwards. It is arguable that the remarkable achievement of the US in converting itself from a semi-comatose peacetime economy into the world's greatest war machine would not have been possible without Roosevelt's insistence upon the shared interests and purposes and needs of all Americans. If World War II was a 'good war', it was not just thanks to the unambiguously awful character of our enemies. It was also because Americans felt good about America -- and their fellow Americans.

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:

The politics of the '60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. 'Identity' began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism. Curiously, the new Left remained exquisitely sensitive to the collective attributes of humans in distant lands, where they could be gathered up into anonymous social categories like 'peasant', 'post-colonial', 'subaltern' and the like. But back home, the individual reigned supreme.

However legitimate the claims of individuals and the importance of their rights, emphasizing these carries an unavoidable cost: the decline of a shared sense of purpose.

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.

As the reader may observe, I am using words like 'wealth' or 'better off' in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale -- to recast our public conversation -- seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently.

There are precedents for this way of conceiving political change. In late-18th century France, as the old regime tottered, the most significant developments on the political scene came not in the movements of protest or the institutions of state which sought to head them off. They came, rather, in the very language itself. Journalists and pamphleteers, together with the occasional dissenting administrator or priest, were forging out of an older language of justice and popular rights a new rhetoric of public action.

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. In effect, they invented modern politics: and in so doing quite literally discredited everything that had gone before. By the time the Revolution itself broke out, this new language of politics was thoroughly in place: indeed, had it not been, the revolutionaries themselves would have had no way to describe what they were doing. In the beginning was the word.

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.

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