In October historian Tony Judt gave a lecture at New York University, where he is a professor and director of the Remarque Institute, on the fate of Western social democracy. The talk was remarkable not only for what was said but for how. Judt—who has advanced amyoptrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is paralyzed from the neck down—had memorized his talk, which he delivered from his wheelchair, his face partially obscured behind the breathing apparatus he calls his "facial Tupperware." Several months later he published a version of the talk in The New York Review of Books, and when that caught fire he expanded the talk into a short book. Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Press; $25.95) traces the history of the postwar state in the United States and Europe, showing how rampant privatization, an excess of individualism and the worship of the market have produced unacceptable levels of inequality. Disparaging both extreme left- and right-wing solutions, Judt makes a case for social democracy, advocating a new conversation about our collective responsibilities as citizens, humanists and human beings. —Christine Smallwood
You write that Ill Fares the Land is for young people. When you were young, was there a book that did for you what you want this book to do for others?
It was a very different world. I was born in 1948, so I’m a ’60s kid, and in the ’60s everyone talked all the time, endlessly, about socialism versus capitalism, about political choices, ideology, Marxism, revolution, "the system" and so on. I grew up in a world where the social democratic state was the norm, not the exception. So when I think of books that really influenced me, they were books that went against the grain of those times. They were, for example, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Or the book edited by Richard Crossman called The God That Failed, which was a collection of six essays, all by ex-communists, all by guys who were still on the left, by and large, people like Koestler, or Ignazio Silone in Italy, or Richard Wright, who were disillusioned communists but still committed leftists in one respect or another. Those are the kinds of books that influenced me, and it was because they were written by people with a very strong voice who were not necessarily simply opposing everything that existed. They were neither conservative nor revolutionary, but autonomous voices. What I’m trying to do in Ill Fares the Land is to write not from an ideological or political position but against the grain of current thought.
You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The "liberal state" itself is a historically specific creation, isn’t it?
Look, just as nothing has to be, nothing has to disappear. Things didn’t need to be the way they are, but there’s no law that says they cannot survive or cannot recover. We don’t live in a world of fixed historical laws that says the—as you describe it—liberal state was born at a particular time, lived and died, and that’s what we’re stuck with. But there are reasons why some things are much harder to retain, to invent, to reinvent than others.
There are two different considerations here. The first is the social reality of the social democratic state—the activist state, if you like—with collective responsibility across space and time for other people’s interests. That is almost inevitably going to survive in one form or another. In my world it was pretty clear which aspects of my parents’ world would survive into ours; in my kids’ world, it’s not at all clear which aspects of my world will survive into theirs. With globalization, with the fear of economic change, with the insecurities that the twenty-first century is going to bring, which are going to be far greater than those of the twentieth, the level of insecurity is going to have the paradoxical effect of throwing people back on the state much more, looking to it for everything from medical protection to physical protection to job guarantees to protection against outside competition and such. So the question is not going to be, Will there be an activist state? The question is going to be, What kind of an activist state?