Tony Judt is dying. The distinguished historian ( Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is perhaps his best-known work) has ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive, incurable, always fatal neurodegenerative illness. Paralyzed from the neck down, desperately racing against the impending end, Judt has become prolific in his last days, writing an extended, and often affecting, series of personal essays for the New York Review of Books.
And now, in Ill Fares the Land, he delivers an impassioned envoi about the way we live now (the echo is Anthony Trollope's 1875 novel of that title; the "we" is the West). For Judt, "the materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life" negates any usable notion of left vs. right. Do not put this down to any fogeyism about the young. Judt is attuned to his students and notes that they have long said how much they envy the "overweening confidence" of those, like the present reviewer, who grew up in the '60s, thinking, "We know how to fix the world."
Well, of course, we didn't, but the point is that we thought we did. What Judt sees among the young is a lack of direction, or even hope. He sees the disillusioned young as a lost generation: "The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposeless of their world was in the 1920s." You may well read this book as a dying professor's valediction to his graduation class. And you wouldn't be far wrong. It's poignant imagining Judt in his wheelchair on a bright June day, addressing his heretofore disengaged audience, issuing a call to intellectual arms.
Leftish liberal, or social democrat, that he is, Judt argues passionately in this slim volume that the model of laissez-faire markets is broken; witness the economic meltdown and the still very shaky recovery (Greece, anyone?). What he proposes is that we need the state to play a significant, and even shaping, role in the lives of its citizens. That's hardly a novel argument, but given the crass materialism of the age, and the imminence of Judt's departure from it, he claims that "the practical need for strong states and interventionist governments is beyond dispute."
Yet despite the opportunities afforded by the staggering levels of wealth and corruption, "occluding the arteries of democracy," the left has been unable to rise to the occasion. And in fact, in the United States, at any rate, it is the right that has now radicalized.
Even worse, this is an age of insecurity, not just political, economic and physical, but deeper, involving issues of personal and national identity. I hear echoing in Judt's brain the famous lines from W.B. Yeats's poem The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."
Judt claims that it was the 1970s, the age of Reaganism and Thatcherism, that saw the erosion of the state in favour of the individual, the obsession with wealth and tax-cutting, with the private sector. The result: collapsing infrastructure, an increase in disparity between haves and have-nots, loss of upward mobility and the consequent social problems: drugs, crime, rootlessness. He trots out charts to show that countries such as Sweden and Denmark, with strong interventionist systems and high taxes, fare much better on all social scales. The implication: Public ownership of resources, and an active welfare system, reduce social harms and promote social cohesion.
So far, so good. But here's a problem with Ill Fares the Land. In relatively homogenous countries such as Sweden and Denmark (though they are changing), there is a sense of shared identity, shared history, shared community, shared fate. North America, though, is highly diverse, made up various ethnic, cultural and religious groups.
And, in fact, official government policies encourage, and sometimes compel, special attention to diversity; groups rights have become part of the political and social landscape. Judt's argument is that we need to begin serious discussion about a commons, the way in which resources exist for the benefit of all and may be shared by all. But he never addresses how to manage that conversation in diverse societies in which groups are often at odds with one another, and in which policy threatens to become nothing but a competition among interest groups.
As a diagnosis of what ails us and a plea for a renewed commitment to social democracy, Ill Fares the Land is passionate and often persuasive. As a prescription for how to get there, it is much less so.
Martin Levin is Books editor of The Globe and Mail and a political skeptic.