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15 December 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Thinking the state

Tony Judt on the language of social democracy

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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:

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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.

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