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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State