Society is indeed a contract. But it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature… As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
–Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
The often controversial Anglo-American historian Tony Judt passed away this year on August 6, at the age of 62. His death was not sudden or unexpected, as he had been suffering from a rapidly advancing case of “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” diagnosed in 2008, that had already left him bedridden before he finished Ill Fares the Land, his last book – and his last political testament, an attempt to bequeath his life’s political project to his survivors. With the author’s recent passing in mind, I found myself going through his words with special care and intensified focus, more conscious than usual of the reader’s role in resurrecting the spirit of a writer – just as, when I write about the book, I become more poignantly aware of the convention that requires us to discuss an author’s arguments in the present tense: “Judt argues…,” one will say, as if he is holding forth in the other room or is currently on a nationwide speaking tour…
During the 2009 lecture that provided the outline for Ill Fares the Land, delivered from a wheelchair, Judt mentioned that he had been advised to find something uplifting to say about his illness. “I’m English,” he said. “We don’t do ‘uplifting.'” Yet despite Judt’s disdain for false cheer; despite the book’s circumstances of composition and its thoroughgoing, often alarmed and angry perspective on recent history, Ill Fares the Land is not a gloomy piece of writing. No reason to hide from it in fear of fear itself: Judt’s review of 20th to early 21st Century history mainly emphasizes the measures taken, with creditable success, against the greatest of public “ills,” including totalitarian and other temptations, in the shadow of catastrophes both real and threatened.
His themes come together in a passage a few pages from the end (again, it’s hard to disassociate the end of the book from the end of a career and a life):
We must revisit the ways in which our grandparents’ generation handled comparable challenges and threats. Social democracy in Europe, the New Deal and the Great Society in the US, were explicit responses to them. Few in the West today can conceive of a complete breakdown of liberal institutions, an utter disintegration of the democratic consensus. But what we know of World War II – or the former Yugoslavia – illustrates the ease with which any society can descend into Hobbesian nightmares of unrestrained atrocity and violence. If we are going to build a better future, it must begin with a deeper appreciation of the ease with which even solidly-grounded liberal democracies can founder. To put the point quite bluntly, if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear.
It’s both typical and appropriate that Judt turns fear into his and our last and surest friend, though he is not advocating a campaign of alarmism – of fear-mongering. He emphasizes that “‘defensive’ Social Democracy” has a long and respectable history, based on the “close relationship between progressive institutions and a spirit of prudence.” He is pointing to what he believes must be the main, concrete and durable, and thoroughly rational inspiration for a return to the bosom of the state.
In other words, Judt views the kind of leftism he advocates as distinctly and fundamentally conservative. He is therefore happy to turn our contemporary political vocabulary on its head:
It is the Right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. From the war in Iraq through the unrequited desire to dismantle public education and health services, to the decades-long project of financial deregulation, the political Right – from Thatcher and Reagan to Bush and Blair – has abandoned the association of political conservatism with social moderation which served it so well from Disraeli to Heath, from Theodore Roosevelt to Nelson Rockefeller.
At other points, his defense of the progressivist state strikes a self-consciously Burkean note: “To abandon the labors of a century,” Judt says, “is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come.” The statements from the “father of conservatism” to which Judt is alluding were written in defense first and foremost of the English constitution – a whole system of laws, traditions, and customs whose defense was a conservative’s duty and privilege, to be exercised in major part on behalf of those unable, because dead or not yet born, to speak for themselves in present deliberations. Explaining why those “labors of a century” are worthy of a Burkean defense against reckless innovation is one of the main objectives of Ill Fares the Land. What Judt is calling on us to conserve, the modern administrative state with its egalitarian, progressive, and re-distributive purposes, is, of course, what many or most nominal conservatives, especially in America, blame for all our woes.
If Judt was paying much attention to politics and public discussion in his last months, he would have seen further evidence for this thesis of political-historical inversion: The Summer of his passing has been the Summer during which even somewhat sober American conservative publications and web sites have turned to hyperbolic, quasi-revolutionary attacks on “the ruling class” alongside celebrations of a populist “great awakening” unified by hostility toward the state in all of its manifestations (except the armed forces, of course). Yet, in his response to conservative thinkers and leaders – from the Austrian economists, to Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, and Palin – Judt seeks something more substantial than mere revulsion at immoderate voices. He wants to encourage a revivified dialogue, particularly among young people, about political values, about what we really should demand from politics. A typical passage develops as follows:
Is a system of “cradle-to-grave” protections and guarantees more “useful” than a market-driven society in which the role of the state is kept to the minimum?
The answer depends on what we think “useful” means: what sort of a society do we want and what sort of arrangements are we willing to tolerate or seek in order to bring it about? …[T]he question of “usefulness” needs to be recast. If we confine ourselves to issues of economic efficiency and productivity, ignoring ethical considerations and all reference to broader social goals, we cannot hope to engage it.
Of course, such reflections, or claims that “among the options available to us today, [social democracy] is better than anything else to hand,” may ring rather less stirringly, than “Yes, we can!”
2008-2010 may not have been the historical moment to advance the conversation, and policies, that Judt and his ideological allies most wanted, even if conventional wisdom is now that Mr. Obama missed a major opportunity that may not come again for a very long time, if ever. Judt himself was something of a skeptic about Barack Obama, and in this book he refers to Obamacare as a “débâcle.” Viewing the reactive swing to the right in the U.S., an ideological enemy might choose to go much further, grouping Judt with the other “liberals,” and seeking to depict his politics as also suffering from an advanced, possibly even terminal malady. Other critics might be inclined to wonder whether Judt’s socio-political diagnoses involved inescapable elements of projection. Yet such readings would require a culpable disregard for Judt’s courage, and for the sacrificial dialectic of a message empowered, in our traditions even sanctified, by the death of the messenger.
That message, and new messengers, may be ready, or at least readier, when summoned by a greater crisis. Their next moment may not come until after a perceived failure of conservative governance, or even a perceived success that still leaves the populace unsatisfied and insecure. If a resuscitation and revival, a last ditch effort at salvation, or a transfiguration of social democracy is not on today’s political agenda, that may be all the more reason to pass this book on, following Tony Judt’s last requests, to a young person looking forward. It may even be the conservative thing to do.