Wealth, wellbeing and change
Tony Judt has died. In his important last book, Ill Fares The Land, dictated under the impact of his fatal motor-neurone illness, he reflects on why social democracy has failed to offer effective resistance to the onslaught of late 20th century capitalism, let alone organise an alternative to it. In a striking section he argues that in the late 18th century the revolution had already been won as enlightenment arguments changed the language and terms of debate in which society was conceived.
Here in Britain we face a double-crisis. Our partly pre-enlightenment constitution (becoming ever more pre-enlightenment, indeed) is heading towards complete system failure, while the Labour Party suffers from acute exhaustion after the rhetorical inflation of the Blair-Brown years. This has led us in OurKingdom to plan a relaunch that connects with the need to renew democracy across Britain in ways that go much further than what is currently on offer and includes engagement with issues of nation, culture and language as well as the economy, the media and our worm-riddled institutions.
Reading Ill Fares The Land I was struck by one short section (pp 167-73) that spoke directly to what we are trying to do and I asked Tony Judt if he would give us permission to reprint it as part of our relaunch, which we are now planning for September. He kindly and generously sent his agreement and best wishes. We publish it immediately to salute him and his exceptional achievement. AB
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. There is little point in asking the US Senate to reform its lobbying arrangements: as Upton Sinclair famously observed a century ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” For much the same reasons, the parliaments of most European countries—now regarded with sentiments ranging from boredom to contempt—are ill-placed to find within themselves the means to become relevant once again.
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. Even when there are significant policy differences among major political parties, these are presented as versions of a single objective. It has become common- place 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.
However, 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 them-selves to quantification?
What of well-being? What of fairness or equity (in its original sense)? What of exclusion, opportunity—or its absence—or lost hope? Such considerations mean much more to most people than aggregate or even individual profit or growth. Take humiliation: what if we treated it as an economic cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to ‘quantify’ the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens as a condition of receiving the mere necessities of life?
In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidized public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. I readily concede that such an exercise is inherently contentious: how do we quantify ‘humiliation’? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society?
Even ‘wealth’ itself cries out for redefinition. It is widely asserted that steeply progressive rates of taxation or economic redistribution destroy wealth. Such policies undoubtedly constrict the resources of some to the benefit of others—though the way we cut the cake has little bearing on its size. If redistributing material wealth has the long-term effect of improving the health of a country, diminishing social tensions born of envy or increasing and equalizing everyone’s access to services hitherto preserved for the few, is not that country better off?
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.
Today, we are encouraged to believe in the idea that politics reflects our opinions and helps us shape a shared public space.
Politicians talk and we respond—with our votes. But the truth is quite other. Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.
The perverse effects of this suppression of genuine debate are all around us. In the US today, town hall meetings and ‘tea parties’ parody and mimic the 18th century originals. Far from opening debate, they close it down. Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment. In the UK, television has been put to strikingly effective use as a safety valve for populist discontent: professional politicians now claim to listen to vox populi in the form of instant phone-in votes and popularity polls on everything from immigration policy to pedophilia. Twittering back to their audience its own fears and prejudices, they are relieved of the burden of leadership or initiative.
Meanwhile, across the Channel in republican France or tolerant Holland, ersatz debates on national identity and criteria for citizenship substitute for the political courage required to confront popular prejudice and the challenges of integration. Here too, a ‘conversation’ appears to be taking place. But its terms of reference have been carefully pre-determined; its purpose is not to encourage the expression of dissenting views but to suppress them. Rather than facilitate public participation and diminish civic alienation, these ‘conversations’ simply add to the widespread distaste for politicians and politics. In a modern democracy it is possible to fool most of the people most of the time: but at a price.
We need to re-open a different sort of conversation. We need to become confident once again in our own instincts: if a policy or an action or a decision seems somehow wrong, we must find the words to say so. According to opinion polls, most people in England are apprehensive about the helter-skelter privatization of familiar public goods: utilities, the London Underground, their local bus service and the regional hospital, not to mention retirement homes, nursing services and the like. But, when they are told that the purpose of such privatizations has been to save public money and improve efficiency, they are silent: who could dissent?
Ill Fares tbe Land by Tony Judt was published by Allen Lane (Penguin) in March 2010. Thanks go to the Wylie Agency as well as Tony for permission to republish.
Tony Judt, historian, social thinker and essayist, was Director of the Remarkue Professor of European Studies at New York University.