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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SRSLY #99: GLOW / FANtasies / Search Party

On the pop culture podcast this week: the Netflix wrestling comedy GLOW, a new fanfiction-based web series called FANtasies and the millennial crime drama Search Party.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

GLOW

The show on Netflix.

Two interesting reviews: New York Times and Little White Lies.

Screen Rant on the real life wrestling connections.

FANtasies

The show on Fullscreen.

Amanda Hess’s NYT column about it.

Search Party

The show on All4.

For next time:

We are watching Happy Valley.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #98, check it out here.

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