A Social Democrat Assesses How is the Land Faring?

           Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
           Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
            Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade—
            A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
            But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, 
            When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
                        The Deserted Village: Oliver Goldsmith

  This column follows on from ‘Whence Europe; Whither Europe’.

Less than a year before he died, Tony Judt, paralysed from the neck down by motor neuron disease, gave a much-acclaimed two-hour public lecture. Shortly after he extended it to a book, Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on Our Present Discontents, setting out his commitment to social democracy.

He was mainly addressing an American audience, which tends to use the term ‘liberal’ as an alternative to ‘social democrat’.* Judt, an intellectual historian, uses liberal in its classical meaning, writing:

     'A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behaviour. Liberals have historically favored keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose. ... Social democrats, on the other hand, are something of a hybrid. They share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy social democrats believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. Like most liberals, social democrats favour progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.'

Judt accepts that social democracy is hard to sell in the United States but he sees the European dilemma as different. While many European countries have long practised something resembling social democracy, he says they ‘have forgotten how to preach it’. Instead today’s social democrats are defensive and apologetic. His book is a feisty alternative in which he applies his principles to some particular examples.

I read some of the reviews of the book when it was published. What struck me was that his critics generally seized on one or other of his examples rather than engaging with the underlying philosophical issues. (For instance, as a train buff, Judt’s defence of a public railway system makes more sense in a British context than it does here.)

The book reminded me that my position can be a bit too economically narrow. I tend to assess the need for collective action in terms of economic ends so that I support public healthcare because it gives demonstrably better healthcare than private provision. Judt is arguing that we should also celebrate such collective action; that it is vital for an effective community and nation. Thankyou, Tony, for the reminder.

Yet Judt is deeply puzzled why social democracy does not get more public support – especially among the young. He can identify when the support collapsed: in the 1980s under Reagan and Thatcher (and Rogernomics). But why?

Part of the story might be found in his explanation of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. They had been governed by men born before the Great War, who clung to power rather than adapting to changing circumstances. Those who followed them could not work out how to transition to the new world of globalisation, rapid technological change and affluence (among other things). Their failure led to the ending of the regimes that ran the Soviet Empire.

Postwar social democrats were a generation younger but they too could not work out how to adapt to the evolving circumstances – in part created by the success of social democracy. The neoliberal revolution (including Rogernomics) simply swept the generation aside; Roger Kerr remarked (with pride) that the age of business chief executives had been cut by ten years. But it also swept aside many of the achievements of social democracy.

Why did social democrats not fight back? Many did, but it was from positions of weakness whereas once they had held all the political heights. More fundamentally, I think, most social democrats have tended to be backward looking, trying to resurrect the policies of the past rather than ask what had changed in order to renew policies for the changing circumstances – maintaining the principles of social democracy but applying them differently.

Suppose you asked a leftish or centrist politician – or an aspiring one – whether they were a social democrat. They would probably answer ‘yes’. Ask them what it means and they would, rather than a vision, probably nominate an incoherent handful of policies; few would be particularly well articulated; most would be backward looking. Ask them what caused Rogernomics, they would cite (wicked) people rather than the inability to adapt to underlying economic and social change.

Not surprisingly then, today’s politics is more focused on personality than on principles. (No, this is not only about New Zealand social democrats – it is about all politicians, here and abroad.) That leads to the identity and single issue politics which Judt is scathing about.

    'We are all familiar with intellectuals who speak only on behalf of their country, class, religion, 'race,' 'gender,' or 'sexual orientation,' and who shape their opinions according to what they take to be the interest of their affinity of birth or predilection. But the distinctive feature of the liberal intellectual in past times was precisely the striving for universality; not the unworldly or disingenuous denial of sectional identification but the sustained effort to transcend that identification in search of truth or the general interest.' **

Not surprisingly, so much political criticism is grumbling about the current situation, implicitly accepting the system except that the grumbler thinks he or she could run it a bit better. What is almost invariably missing is a explanation of why the system is failing or how it can be significantly changed.

Ill Fares the Land is filled with shrewd insights. You would not expect Judt to have predicted Trump who only appeared as a politician six years after he died. But he points to the 43 percent of voters who endorsed Sarah Palin in 2008; it is only a small step to 48 percent for Trump in 2016. So Judt broadly got it right although I expect he would be as uneasy as are most social democrats.


* Judt distinguishes social democracy from democratic socialism which places greater emphasis on public ownership.

** Author’s italics. The quotation comes from his posthumously published Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century