Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

APRIL 11, 2016

An exceptional book, articulating and echoing long-held sentiments and provoking new ones.


  • Out of the disasters of 1914-1945 arose key attitudes:
    • Scepticism of unregulated market and willingness to intervene
    • Commitment to social supports and a universalism in their provision
    • Relative equality
  • These then broke down between mid 1970s and early 90s
  • Why did it break down?
    • Excesses of the planners
    • Reduction in trust with immigration, greater uncertainty (?)
    • The new left and its turn towards individualistic self-regard (identity politics)
    • Conceptual assault based on Austrian economists (hayek, von mises etc). Led to “the cult of the private” (Fundamentally misguided as assertions that state planning led inevitably to totalitarianism was demonstrably false by the time they received political traction)
  • What then is to be done?
    • Move away from nouveau “laissez-faire” and market obsession to a more balanced approach that recognizes the limits of markets and crucial importance of their underpinnings: trust, community, collaboration and traditions.
    • Reinvigorate social democracy and the social democrat consensus
    • Create a new compelling ethical and political narrative within and around this. Reclaim the highground, for example security and a sensible “conservatism” (it is the right who are radical).


Unless otherwise noted all emphasis is added.

On the obsession with economics and a narrow definition of profit and loss:

Indeed, the thought that we might restrict public policy considerations to a mere economic calculus was already a source of concern two centuries ago. The Marquis de Condorcet, one of the most perceptive writers on commercial capitalism in its early years, anticipated with distaste the prospect that “liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than the necessary condition for the security of financial operations.” The revolutions of the age risked fostering confusion between the freedom to make money . . . and freedom itself.

On trust, its source, its decline and its relation to markets

Clearly we cannot do without trust. If we truly did not trust one another, we would not pay taxes for our mutual support. Nor would we venture very far outdoors for fear of violence or chicanery at the hands of our untrustworthy fellow citizens. Moreover, trust is no abstract virtue. One of the reasons that capitalism today is under siege from so many critics, by no means all of them on the Left, is that markets and free competition also require trust and cooperation. …

Markets do not automatically generate trust, cooperation or collective action for the common good. Quite the contrary: it is in the nature of economic competition that a participant who breaks the rules will triumph—at least in the short run—over more ethically sensitive competitors. But capitalism could not survive such cynical behavior for very long. So why has this potentially self-destructive system of economic arrangements lasted? Probably because of habits of restraint, honesty and moderation which accompanied its emergence.

However, far from inhering in the nature of capitalism itself, values such as these derived from longstanding religious or communitarian practices. Sustained by traditional restraints and the continuing authority of secular and ecclesiastical elites, capitalism’s ‘invisible hand’ benefited from the flattering illusion that it unerringly corrected for the moral shortcomings of its practitioners.

These happy inaugural conditions no longer obtain. A contract-based market economy cannot generate them from within, which is why both socialist critics and religious commentators (notably the early 20th century reforming Pope Leo XIII) drew attention to the corrosive threat posed to society by unregulated economic markets and immoderate extremes of wealth and poverty.

From a later section - focused on attitudes to market:

English Labour politician Anthony Crosland could write, with still greater confidence, that there had been a permanent transition from “an uncompromising faith in individualism and self-help to a belief in group action and participation”. He could even assert that “[a]s for the dogma of the ‘invisible hand’ and the belief that private gain must always lead to the public good, these failed entirely to survive the Great Depression; and even Conservatives and businessmen now subscribe to the doctrine of collective government responsible for the state of the economy [The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 65]

Then later again:

… “So why did it [the post-war system in western societies] work so well?”

The Regulated Market

The short answer is that by 1945 few people believed any longer in the magic of the market. This was an intellectual revolution.

Change in attitudes - focus on wealth for itself:

In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well.1 Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.

Data in footnote is interesting. TODO: dig this out. Reminds of reference in another book (which one!) about change in interests of Harvard MBA graduates between 1973 and 1983 from public service to personal money-making. [TODO: dig that out too!] See

The Sixties were Special (or rather 1945-1975 was special)

“The years 1945—1975 were widely acknowledged as something of a miracle, giving birth to the ‘American way of life’. Two generations of Americans—the men and women who went through WWII and their children who were to celebrate the ’60s—experienced job security and upward social mobility on an unprecedented (and never to be repeated) scale. In Germany, the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) lifted the country in a single generation from humiliating, rubble-strewn defeat into the wealthiest state in Europe. For France, those years were to become famous (with no hint of irony) as “Les Trente Glorieuses”. In England, at the height of the “age of affluence”, the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan assured his compatriots that “you have never had it so good”. He was right.”

With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics abated. The ‘West’ entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they could ever have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.



All collective undertakings require trust. …

… “Whom exactly do we trust?” …

So what is it that defines the workable scope of a community of trust? Rootless cosmopolitanism is fine for intellectuals, but most people live in a defined place: defined by space, by time, by language, perhaps by religion, maybe—however regrettably—by color, and so forth. Such places are fungible. Most Europeans would not have defined themselves as living in ‘Europe’ until very recently: they would have said they lived in Lodz (Poland), or Liguria (Italy) or perhaps even ‘Putney’ (a suburb of London).

The sense of being ‘European’ for purposes of self-identification is a newly acquired habit. As a result, where the idea of transnational cooperation or mutual assistance might have aroused intense local suspicion, today it passes largely unnoticed. Dutch dockworkers today subsidize Portuguese fishermen and Polish farmers without too much complaint; in part, no doubt, this is because the dockworkers in question don’t interrogate too closely their political masters as to the use being made of their taxes. But this too is a sign of trust.

There is quite a lot of evidence that people trust other people more if they have a lot in common with them: not just religion or language but also income. The more equal a society, the greater the trust. And it is not just a question of income: where people have similar lives and similar prospects, it is likely that what we might call their ‘moral outlook’ is also shared. This makes it much easier to institute radical departures in public policy. In complex or divided societies, the chances are that a minority—or even a majority—will be forced to concede, often against its will. This makes collective policymaking contentious and favors a minimalist approach to social reform: better to do nothing than to divide people for and against a controversial project. [A classic argument why the US has had a (relatively) minimalist state]

Trust is essential to well-being and well-running of society and its members:

The absence of trust is clearly inimical to a well-run society. The great Jane Jacobs noted as much with respect to the very practical business of urban life and the maintenance of cleanliness and civility on city streets. If we don’t trust each other, our towns will look horrible and be nasty places to live. Moreover, she observed, you cannot institutionalize trust. Once corroded, it is virtually impossible to restore. And it needs care and nurturing by the community—the collectivity—since with the best of intentions no one person can make others trust him and be trusted in return.

Some structural determinants of trust, or, put concisely, small is beautiful.

The kind of society where trust is widespread is likely to be fairly compact and quite homogenous. The most developed and successful welfare states of Europe are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria, with Germany (formerly West Germany) as an interesting outlier. Most of these countries have very small populations: of the Scandinavian lands only Sweden tops 6 million inhabitants and between them all they comprise less people than Tokyo. Even Austria, at 8.2 million or the Netherlands, at 16.7 million are tiny by world standards—Mumbai alone has more people than Holland, and the whole population of Austria could be fitted into Mexico City . . . twice. But it is not just a question of size. Like New Zealand, another small country (population 4.2 million, even smaller than Norway) that has succeeded in maintaining a high level of trust.

But it is not just a question of size. Like New Zealand, another small country (population 4.2 million, even smaller than Norway) that has succeeded in maintaining a high level of civic trust, the successful welfare states of northern Europe were remarkably homogenous. Until fairly recently it would only have been a slight exaggeration to say that most Norwegians, if they were not themselves farmers or fishermen, were their children. 94% of the population are of Norwegian stock, and 86% of them belong to the Church of Norway. In Austria, 92% of the population are self-ascribed ‘Austrian’ by origin (the figure was nearer 100% until the influx of Yugoslav refugees during the 1990s) and 83% of those who declared a religion in 2001 were Catholic.

Much the same is true of Finland, where 96% of those who declare a religion are officially Lutheran (and nearly all are Finns, saving only a small Swedish minority); Denmark, where 95% of the population affirm a Lutheran faith; and even the Netherlands—neatly divided between a primarily protestant north and the Catholic south, but where almost everyone who is not a member of the tiny, post-colonial minority of Indonesians, Turks, Surinamese and Moroccans defines themselves as ‘Dutch’.

Contrast the United States: there will soon be no single majority ethnic group and a slight protestant majority among those affirming a religion is countered by a substantial Catholic minority (25%), not to mention significant Jewish and Muslim communities. The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.

This raises serious issues for naive multiculturalism as well as for the more grandiose integrationist ambitions around the EU. From the following it would seem plain that the cultural and social cohesion required for a greater, grander EU (“one federal nation, under Monnet” etc) is distinctly lacking – and its pursuit likely to makes matters better rather than worse. A relevant point too for the current “Brexit” debate.

Size and homogeneity are of course not transferable. There is no way for India or the USA to become Austria or Norway, and in their purest form the social democratic welfare states of Europe are simply non-exportable: they have much the same appeal as a Volvo—and some similar limitations—and may be hard to sell to countries and cultures where expensive virtues of solidity and endurance count for less. We know, moreover, that even cities do better if they are reasonably homogenous and contained: it was not difficult to build municipal socialism in Vienna or Amsterdam, but would be a lot harder in Naples or Cairo, not to speak of Calcutta or Sao Paulo.

Finally, there is clear evidence that while homogeneity and size matter for the generation of trust and cooperation, cultural or economic heterogeneity can have the opposite effect. A steady increase in the number of immigrants, particularly immigrants from the ‘third world’, correlates all too well in the Netherlands and Denmark, not to mention the United Kingdom, with a noticeable decline in social cohesion. To put it bluntly, the Dutch and the English don’t much care to share their welfare states with their former colonial subjects from Indonesia, Surinam, Pakistan or Uganda; meanwhile Danes, like Austrians, resent ‘paying for’ the Muslim refugees who have flocked to their countries in recent years.

There may be something inherently selfish in the social service states of the mid-20th century: blessed for a few decades with the good fortune of ethnic homogeneity and a small, educated population where almost everyone could recognize themselves in everyone else. Most of these countries—self-contained nation-states exposed to very little external threat—had the good fortune to cluster under the umbrella of NATO in the post-1945 decades, devoting their budgets to domestic improvement and untroubled by mass immigration from the rest of Europe, much less further afield. When this situation changed, confidence and trust appears to have fallen off.

However, the fact remains that trust and cooperation were crucial building blocks for the modern state, and the more trust there was the more successful the state. William Beveridge could assume in the England of his day a high measure of moral accord and civic engagement. Like so many liberals born in the late 19th century, he simply took it for granted that social cohesion was not merely a desirable goal but something of a given. Solidarity—with one’s fellow citizens and with the state itself—pre-existed the welfare institutions which gave it public form.

Cult of the Private

Excellent point that “right wingers” are fundamentally hypocritical when it comes to reducing state involvement: they may pursue it vigorously in economic affairs but in areas of surveilliance and civil rights they are stridently interventionist.


“So what have Keynes’s ‘madmen in authority’ done with the ideas they inherited from defunct economists? They have set about dismantling the properly economic powers and initiatives of the state. It is important to be clear: this in no way entailed reducing the state per se. Margaret Thatcher, like George W. Bush and Tony Blair after her, never hesitated to augment the repressive and information-gathering arms of central government. Thanks to CCTV cameras, wiretapping, Homeland Security, the UK’s Independent Safeguarding Authority and other devices, the panoptic control that the modern state can exercise over its subjects has continued to expand. Whereas Norway, Finland, France, Germany and Austria—all of them ‘cradle-to-grave’ nanny states—have never resorted to such measures except in wartime, it is the liberty-vaunting Anglo-Saxon market societies that have gone farthest in these Orwellian directions.

Some excellent evidence on welfare impact of privitizations e.g.

What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient. Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.

For just this reason, such public goods were inherently unattractive to private buyers unless offered at a steep discount. But when the state sells cheap, the public takes a loss. It has been calculated that, in the course of the Thatcher-era UK privatizations, the deliberately low price at which long-standing public assets were marketed to the private sector resulted in a net transfer of £14 billion from the taxpaying public to stockholders and other investors.

To this loss should be added a further £3 billion in fees to the bankers who transacted the privatizations. Thus the state in effect paid the private sector some £17 billion ($30 billion) to facilitate the sale of assets for which there would otherwise have been no takers. …

… “The best study of UK privatizations concludes that privatization per se had a decidedly modest impact upon long-term economic growth—while regressively redistributing wealth from taxpayers and consumers to the shareholders of newly privatized companies. [Citation is: Massimo Florio, The Great Divestiture: Evaluating the Welfare Impact of the British Privatizations 1979-1997 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), p. 342.]

British Rail:

In its last year of operation, 1994, state-owned British Rail cost the taxpayer £950 million ($1.5 billion). By 2008, Network Rail, its semiprivate successor company, cost taxpayers £5 billion ($7.8 billion).”

The impact pp.119-122

In effect, privatization reverses a centuries-long process whereby the state took on things that individuals could not or would not do. The corrosive consequences of this for public life are, as so often, rendered inadvertently explicit in the new ‘policy-speak’. In English higher educational circles today, the market-as-metaphor dominates conversation. Deans and heads of departments are constrained to assess ‘output’ and economic ‘impact’ when judging the quality of someone’s work. …

Moreover, a social service provided by a private company does not present itself as a collective good to which all citizens have a right. Unsurprisingly, there has been a sharp falling off in the number of people claiming benefits and services to which they are legally entitled.

The result is an eviscerated society. From the point of view of the person at the bottom—seeking unemployment pay, medical attention, social benefits or other officially mandated services—it is no longer to the state, the administration or the government that he or she instinctively turns. The service or benefit in question is now often ‘delivered’ by a private intermediary. As a consequence, the thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum, with nothing except authority and obedience binding the citizen to the state.

This reduction of ‘society’ to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented today as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers. But we should never forget that it was first and above all the dream of Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Nazis: if there is nothing that binds us together as a community or society, then we are utterly dependent upon the state. Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.

There is nothing mysterious about this process: it was well described by Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution. Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of its state, must soon be “disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality”. By eviscerating public services and reducing them to a network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty.

The Democratic Deficit

Internet, globalization and community p.123

This problem highlights a misleading aspect of globalization. Young people are indeed in touch with likeminded persons many thousands of miles away. But even if the students of Berkeley, Berlin and Bangalore share a common set of interests, these do not translate into community. Space matters. And politics is a function of space—we vote where we live and our leaders are restricted in their legitimacy and authority to the place where they were elected. Real-time access to likeminded fellows half a world away is no substitute.

Interesting aside on unintended impact on the imagined community of the state of the move to online government interactions and “government as a service” (or even more disturbingly government as a platform) p.123-4 :

“Think for a minute about the importance of something as commonplace as an insurance card or pension book. Back in the early days of the welfare states, these had to be regularly stamped or renewed in order for their possessor to collect her pension, food stamps or child allowance. These rituals of exchange between the benevolent state and its citizens took “place at fixed locations: a post office, typically. Over time, the shared experience of relating to public authority and public policy—incarnated in these services and benefits—contributed mightily to a tauter sense of shared citizenship.

Gated communities p.131

It is claimed on their behalf that gated communities act as a bulwark against violations of their members’ liberties. People are safer within their gates and pay for the privilege; they are free to live among their own. Accordingly, they can insist upon rules and regulations with respect to décor, design and deportment that reflect their ‘values’ and which they do not seek to impose on non-members beyond their gates. But in practice these excessive exercises in the ‘privatization’ of daily life actually fragment and divide public space in a way that threatens everyone’s liberty.

Interesting point for me about need for secular “religion” or secular purpose. Reinforces my own thoughts on this point:

In an age when young people are encouraged to maximize self-interest and self-advancement, the grounds for altruism or even good behavior become obscured. Short of reverting to religious authority—itself on occasion corrosive of secular institutions—what can furnish a younger generation with a sense of purpose beyond its own short-term advantage? The late Albert Hirschman spoke of the “liberating experience” of a life directed to action on the public behalf: “[t]he greatest asset of public action is its ability to satisfy vaguely felt needs for higher purpose and meaning in the lives of men and women, especially of course in an age in which religious fervor is at a low ebb in many countries. [ed: my view is that this has disappeared since 60s/70s. Why? Explains some of attraction of radical religion. Need something here and believe we have something]

The fragmentation and “consumerization” of politics


We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals – fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers – are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this.

Aside: a clear tilt at Occupy and the like. It would be interesting to assess the (non-)impact of Occupy 5 years on. Perhpas the first post-modern protest in history united only by what it was against, without leaders or program, satisfying an urge to protest without an ability to articulate it into an alternate coherent future.


Wonderful quote from Krzysztof Kie??owksi heading the “The Ironies of Post-Communism” section (p. 143):

“[W]e achieved everything, but for me it turns out that what we achieved satirized what we had dreamt about.”

What is to be Done


Most critics of our present condition start with institutions. They look at parliaments, senates, presidents, elections and lobbies and point to the ways in which these have degraded or abused the trust and authority placed in them. Any reform, they conclude, must begin here. We need new laws, different electoral regimes, restrictions on lobbying and political funding; we need to give more (or less) authority to the executive branch and we need to find ways to make elected and unelected officials responsive and answerable to their constituencies and paymasters: us.

All true. But such changes have been in the air for decades. It should by now be clear that the reason they have not happened, or do not work, is because they are imagined, designed and implemented by the very people responsible for the dilemma. …

We need to start somewhere else. Why, for the past three decades, has it been so easy for those in power to convince their constituents of the wisdom—and, in any case, the necessity—of the policies they want to pursue? Because there has been no coherent alternative on offer.

The return of distinctions:

… “It has become commonplace to assert that we all want the same thing, we just have slightly different ways of going about it.

But this is simply false. 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 defense contractors or on ideological grounds—have different objectives than those who are against war.

Societies are complex and contain conflicting interests. To assert otherwise—to deny distinctions of class or wealth or influence—is just a way to promote one set of interests above another. This proposition used to be self-evident; today we are encouraged to dismiss it as an incendiary encouragement to class hatred. In a similar vein, we are encouraged to pursue economic self-interest to the exclusion of all else: and indeed, there are many who stand to gain thereby.”

Critique of markets

p.165 The classic “drunkard and the lamp-post” critique of markets – a profound and complex one I feel:

… markets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria or economic measurement. If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being. But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification?”

I would add that those things the importance of things the market does not provide has been growing as we grow wealthier. Or, more subtly, follows a U-shaped curve: very high at low income levels (community, collectivism, friendship etc), falling as material growth starts to kick-in and then growing. So, as we get wealthier all these other things that are not “marketizable” grow relatively more important (we already have enough food, enough housing etc).

A New Moral Narrative

“What we lack is a moral narrative: an internally coherent account that ascribes purpose to our actions in a way that transcends them. "

The Shape of Things to Come (aka The Future)

The re-rise of the State pp.187-188:

“After decades of relative eclipse, nation-states are poised to reassert their dominant role in international affairs. Populations experiencing increased economic and physical insecurity will retreat to the political symbols, legal resources, and physical barriers that only a territorial state can provide. This is already happening in many countries: note the rising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of “anti-immigrant” parties across Western Europe, the ubiquitous calls for ‘walls’, ‘barriers’, and ‘tests’.”

More of an aside, but a lovely put-down of the American myth of the laissez-faire state (esp applicable to Reagan and Reaganites cf the memoir by head of OMB):

“In the United States of America, the country most given to disparaging the role of government in the affairs of men, Washington has supported and even subsidized selected market actors: railway barons, wheat farmers, car manufacturers, the aircraft industry, steel works and others besides. Whatever Americans fondly believe, their government has always had its fingers in the economic pie. What distinguishes the USA from every other developed country has been the widespread belief to the contrary.”

The re-rise of insecurity p.207-8:

“We in the West have lived through a long era of stability, cocooned in the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be deeply economically insecure. “We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own.”

what is to be done-y

“We have freed ourselves of the mid-20th century assumption—never universal but certainly widespread—that the state is likely to be the best solution to any given problem. We now need to liberate ourselves from the opposite notion: that the state is—by definition and always—the worst available option.”

Interesting, in some parts, it becomes a straightforward – and justified – appeal to support broader taxation for broader public goods (p.197):

We would all like a nice playing field in our village, just as we would all like a good rail service to the nearest town, a range of shops carrying the goods we need, a conveniently-sited post office and so forth. But the only way we can be made to pay for such things—including the free riders among us—is by general taxation. No one has come up with a better way of aggregating individual desires to collective advantage.

Note: oddly, his critique a few paragraphs earlier of the standard “market / laissez faire” objection to this approach (viz: why not leave to private enterprise to provide it and then charge entry) is rather weak being limited to “option demand” (that many users have low willingness to pay or may only use infrequently). This is far too limited a critique of the private provision of public goods (or even nonrival goods). This either a limitation of space or because, in this rare case, he is not aware of the broader analytical issues.

The challenges to come mean that security and order may be ever larger priorities. In such circumstances, we must be ever mindful of the vulnerability of simple liberalism (p.211):

" 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.

Very interesting point that social democracy can regain the group of being conservatives (i.e. guarding against in cautious or too rapid change). In fact, it the right who has been busy enabling an unprecedented and radical (even out-of-control) social and economic change (p.212-3):

“We do not typically associate ‘the Left’ with caution. In the political imaginary of Western culture, ‘left’ denotes radical, destructive and innovatory. But in truth there is a close relationship between progressive institutions and a spirit of prudence. The democratic Left has often been motivated by a sense of loss: sometimes of idealized pasts, sometimes of moral interests ruthlessly overridden by private advantage. It is doctrinaire market liberals who for the past two centuries have embraced the relentlessly optimistic view that all economic change is for the better.

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.”

And connecting us back to his earlier point that we need to rehabilitate rhetoric and a narrative he suggests that which we need to renovate is the rhetoric of “injustice, inequality, immorality” p.221:

“However, social democracy cannot just be about preserving worthy institutions as a defense against worse options. Nor need it be. Much of what is amiss in our world can best be captured in the language of classical political thought: we are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality—we have just forgotten how to talk about them. Social democracy once articulated such concerns, until it too lost its way.”

In Conclusion - we must act!


In writing this book, I hope I have offered some guidance to those—the young especially—trying to articulate their objections to our way of life. However, this is not enough. As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge.


This is rousing call to arms so I do not want to engage in too much nit-picking generally – if these support the larger theme and make sense let us run with them. A few areas though are worth commenting on.

Narrative vs Structures

p.167 part of WITBD we have a general point that may be better to focus on inventing a new narrative or even a new langugage as a means of disrupting the status quo rather than focusing on particular institutional change. Draws analogy with ancien regime pre revolution:

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.

This is rousing stuff but not sure quite so. Causes of the FR were complex. Nevertheless, basic growing discontent e.g. over bad harvests and spiralling price of wheat played a huge part. The critique then is whether Judt is underplaying structural and classical political challenges: the rise of the bourgeoisie etc etc vs “the new discourse”. (Aside: I also worries that intellectuals, such as Judt, may be overestimating the power of language and hence the benefits of inventing a new one.

That said, I think there is something in it: we do need to invent a new inspiring purpose, other than the crassly technocratic, economized politics of selfishness we live in now. That needs something, a vision of what is possible.

How Bad Is It


However, poverty—whether measured by infant mortality, life expectancy, access to medicine and regular employment or simple inability to purchase basic necessities—has increased steadily since the 1970s in the US, the UK and every country that has modeled its economy upon their example. The pathologies of inequality and poverty—crime, alcoholism, violence and mental illness—have all multiplied commensurately. The symptoms of social dysfunction would have been immediately recognizable to our Edwardian forebears. The social question is back on the agenda.

Is it really this bad? Need to check these. Violence in US has gone up and come down etc.

Asides to Self

The “real issue” for Beveridge – and for us p.171:

“The real issue, for Beveridge as for us, is “. . . something wider—simply the question of under what conditions it is possible and worthwhile for men as a whole to live.“27 By this he meant that we have to decide what the state must do in order for men and women to pursue decent lives. Merely providing a welfare floor below which people need not sink does not suffice.”

Strongly agree.

And closing the circle (in that it provides a purpose for life and an effort to provide circumstances for all to pursue decent lives):

The time has come to reverse this trend. In post-religious societies like our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our ‘benevolent instincts’ and reversing our selfish desires that we can “. . . produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety.”

Abundance as opium:

Abundance is the American substitute for Socialiam [attributed to Bell and I assume cultural contradictions]

Oakeshott on imperfect competition (interesting in that is shows even classic conservative thinkers saw a major role for state in industries where competition functioned poorly – today an increasing number of them):

Michael Oakeshott, who regarded inefficient or distorted competition as the worst of all possible outcomes, proposed that “[u]ndertakings in which competition cannot be made to work as the agency of control must be transferred to public operation.

Another wonderful one-liner:

Social democrats are characteristically modest – a political quality whose virtues are overestimated.

  1. T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class (London: Pluto Press, 1991), p. 48. ↩︎