Ill Fares the Land

In the early 1990s, Tony Judt was in his mid-forties, a fairly obscure British historian specialising in the history of the French left. Then, in 1993, he started writing for the New York Review of Books and found a new voice as an essayist. His timing was perfect. After 1989, modern European history and the debate about communism were exciting. The atrocities of 11 September 2001 followed, and Judt wrote a number of articles attacking Israel and Bush's war on terror. He became one of the best-known public intellectuals in the US.

Two years ago, at the height of his fame, Judt was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. By the end of last year, he was paralysed from the neck down. He appeared in a wheelchair to give a major public lecture on the crisis of social democracy, which was published in the New York Review of Books and became the basis for Ill Fares the Land.

It is hard to imagine a more timely book in the run-up to this year's general election. It is a short, passionate polemic. "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today," Judt begins. We are obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community. In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would keep us from the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect us from cradle to grave. These assumptions underpinned Butskellism in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy.

In the 1970s, confidence in the state and a larger public realm fell apart. Since then, many have lost any sense of the state as either efficient or benign. Instead, we have come to believe, as Margaret Thatcher said, that: "There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families."

Judt pulls no punches. This new obsession with wealth, privatisation and the private sector is disastrous. The evidence of public squalor is all around us: "Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will." The first chapter, "The Way We Live Now", is a passionate argument against the rise of inequality, the collapse in social mobility and the "pathological social problems" that follow. "Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority," he writes, "translates into ill-health, missed educational opportunity and - increasingly - the familiar symptoms of depression." Inequality is "corrosive". "It rots societies from within," he says.

This jeremiad is familiar from some of Judt's earlier essays, his attack on Blair and the Third Way at the time of the 2001 election, the chapter on "The New Realism" in Postwar (2005) and the two concluding essays in his outstanding collection Reappraisals (2008). Unfortunately the problems are also familiar.

Oddly, there is too little history. Why were the 1970s the turning point in disillusionment with the state? Because of economic crisis, the beginnings of globalisation and deindustrialisation (all of which feature far too little here), and not, as Judt argues, because of a small group of Austrian intellectuals (Popper, Hayek et al) or because of the "ironic legacy" of the 1960s.

The social and cultural analysis, too, is weak. During the 1980s and 1990s, the new passion for DIY, gardening, cooking, computers and home entertainment was a sign of how the private home had displaced the public realm at the centre of our lives. This new culture was not just about corporate greed or private gated communities for the super-rich. It spoke - and still speaks - to deep aspirations that run right through society.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the bleakest. What underpinned the faith in the postwar state, Judt argues, was trust, a belief that we will pay taxes to help people with "similar lives and similar prospects". The more homogeneous the society, as in Scandinavia, the greater this sense of trust; the more diverse - racially, culturally and religiously - the more this sense of a shared community is eroded. This argument has huge implications, but Judt deals with it far too quickly.

What kind of new politics follows from this? Judt offers no way forward. His heart is in the right place, but his book lacks both a compelling historical overview and any sense of a politics that speaks to the here and now. Coming from one of the best essayists and historians of our time, this is disappointing. Nonetheless, Ill Fares the Land is a start for important debates that will surely follow.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD