Thinking the state

Tony Judt on the language of social democracy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a link to some remarkable video of the historian Tony Judt giving the Remarque Lecture at New York University in October. Immobilised by Lou Gehrig's disease, and incapable of breathing without the aid of a machine, Judt nevertheless managed to speak for more than an hour on the topic "What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?". Now, thanks to the New York Review of Books, we have the text of that extraordinary performance.

Judt begins with a nod to domestic concerns, rehearsing a century-old question: "Why is there no socialism in America?" And he canvasses some familiar explanations for the failure of socialism and social democracy to take root in the US: the sheer size of the country, for one, and the "distinctively American suspicion of central government", for another. But Judt's real interest is not so much in America's social democratic exception as in a generalised crisis of social democracy itself.

That most Americans find it hard even to imagine "a different sort of society" cannot be explained by the idiosyncrasies of the local political culture alone. Rather, over the past 30 years, the language of social democracy has been emptied out, corrupted by what Judt calls "economism", the "invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs", at the expense of moral considerations -- considerations, that is, of something like the common good, the "spider's web of reciprocal services and obligations that bind citizens to one another via the public space they collectively occupy".

In other words, "the problem lies not in social democratic policies, but in the language in which they are couched". The challenge for social democrats, Judt thinks, is to rethink the state. His lecture does not begin that task, but suggests the directions in which it ought to go:

We have just survived a century of doctrines purporting with alarming confidence to say what the state should do and to remind individuals -- forcibly if necessary -- that the state knows what is good for them. We cannot return to all that. So if we are to "think the state" once more, we had better begin with a sense of its limits.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit… Leg-sit

A new poem by Jo-Ella Sarich. 

Forgot Brexit. An ostrich just walked into the room. Actually,
forget ostriches too. Armadillos also have legs, and shoulder plates
like a Kardashian.  Then I walked in, the other version of me, the one
with legs like wilding pines, when all of them

are the lumberjacks. Forget forests. Carbon sinks are down
this month; Switzerland is the neutral territory
that carved out an island for itself. My body
is the battleground you sketch. My body is
the greenfield development, and you
are the heavy earthmoving equipment. Forget
the artillery in the hills
and the rooftops opening up like nesting boxes. Forget about

the arms race. Cheekbones are the new upper arms
since Michelle lost out to Melania. My cheekbones
are the Horsehead Nebula and you are the Russians
at warp speed. Race you to the finish. North Korea

will go away if you stop thinking
about it. South Korea will, too. Stop thinking
about my sternum. Stop thinking about
the intricacy of my mitochondria. Thigh gaps
are the new wage gaps, and mine is like
the space between the redwood stand
and the plane headed for the mountains. Look,

I’ve pulled up a presentation
with seven different eschatologies
you might like to try. Forget that my arms
are the yellow tape around the heritage tree. Forget
about my exoskeleton. Forget
that the hermit crab
has no shell of its own. Forget that the crab ever
walked sideways into the room.
Pay attention, people.

Jo-Ella Sarich is a New Zealand-based lawyer and poet. Her poems have appeared in the Galway Review and the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear