Talking With Tony Judt

Talking With Tony Judt

A discussion with the author of Ill Fares the Land about social democracy, trains and our desiccated ethical vocabulary.


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?

And that brings us to the second consideration, which is how we think about it. We’ve emerged from a twentieth century which we’ve learned to think of as a kind of seventy-year running battle between the over-mighty state and the wonders of individual freedom. Extreme forms of individualism versus extreme forms of collective enforced authority. Roughly speaking, Stalin versus the tea party. That’s a caricature of the twentieth century. But it’s one that we have to a large degree internalized, so when people think of the political choices facing them, they think of them in terms of maximized individual freedom versus maximized collective repression, or power or authority or whatever. And then they think of any changes with one or the other, regrettable compromises with freedom or so on. We need to change that conversation so we can think of the state not as some external creature that history has imposed upon us but simply as a way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves. In that sense the liberal state either has a future or it doesn’t, but it really is up to us.

So democracy becomes a real problem, right? If people continue to choose inequality, what can you do?

Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally—and it really is accidentally—get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state. Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it’s not accidental that everyone is now a democrat. The Chinese are for democracy. George Bush was for democracy. The Burmese believe in it; they just call it something slightly different. South African whites believed in democracy; they just thought it should be arranged differently for blacks. Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high. The question is, What do we do now, in a world where, in the absence of liberal aristocracies, in the absence of social democratic elites whose authority people accept, you have people who genuinely believe, in the majority, that their interest consists of maximizing self-interest at someone else’s expense? The answer is, Either you re-educate them in some form of public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism. And that’s the risk we run. Not a risk of a sort of ultra-individualism in a disaggregated society but of a kind of de facto authoritarianism.

You’ve been working on a study of the modern railway. What are you learning?

I’ve for many years fantasized about writing a study of the place of the railway in the modern world, economically, topographically, in town planning, in the creation of space and the idea of time, in movies and literature and so on. I knew some of this stuff in the abstract, but I’ve learned much more concretely about the astonishing degree to which the railway—literally the railroad, trains, the whole economy it created—changed our world in ways that planes, cars, the Internet, even electricity maybe didn’t quite match. The very notion of society existing in terms of classes, in terms of collective life, public and private space, cities and the relationship between city and country; the idea of time, of time as something that organizes us rather than we organizing it—these were all railway creations. If you try to imagine the world that existed before 1830, before the first railway line in England, between Manchester and Liverpool, it’s quite literally unimaginable. It takes an effort of will to realize that in Roman times the sense of distance was about the same as it was in 1780, let’s say. For most of human history, people never came into contact, or did very rarely, with either someone who was not born where they lived or some artifact that was not made either by them or by someone they knew or in the town in which they were born. But within one generation they are living in a world that makes today’s globalization look like nothing in terms of the transformation. That’s the work of the railway, much more than anything else in the world, and that’s what I want to try to capture in the book.

You’ve spoken to the Guardian about how your condition has led you to write with the aid of a memory palace. Can you walk me through it? What kind of furniture is there?

Sure. Well, first, it’s not a memory palace—I’m not a sixteenth-century Italian aristocrat. It’s a memory chalet, because I like Switzerland. In my mind’s eye, it’s a building about the size of a large Swiss house or a very small Swiss hotel, with cute little gables and pretty little red and white flowers in the windows. I go in, and on the left, let’s say, there will be a little room where you keep skis and boots and sleds, and on the right there will be a toilet. And in the next room there’ll be a kitchen on the left, and on the right there’ll be a little dining area or something. And maybe if you go to the hallway toward the back, there’s a large living area. There will be a staircase in the back, which is where they are in Swiss chalets, going up to the bedrooms.

Now, I’m lying in bed—it’s not much fun, lying there thinking about this thing, a particular chapter, or story, memoir or complicated argument—and I think, How is it going to be organized? The first part will go down with the ski boots, on the left. Then I go into the kitchen and there’s a series of drawers, and in each of the drawers there will be, maybe with the silverware, the introduction. The main argument will be with the china, or in the pasta cupboard—the pasta cupboard might be convenient because it will make me think of substance. And so it goes until I’ve got the whole ground floor, roughly speaking, packed away. And then I’ll go through it once more. And the next morning, while I’m waiting to be set up, given my coffee, washed and so on, I go through the mind of the Swiss chalet again, and in each of the relevant bins and rooms and so on I will easily remember what goes where. If I’m lucky and the thing was worth preserving, which it may not be, when my assistant, Eugene Rusyn, comes in I can say, I’ve got an idea for a little memoir; can you jot down some points before we start writing? And that’s how it works.

Where is religion in Ill Fares the Land? You remark that "most people" have dispensed with it, but certainly in the United States it hasn’t gone anywhere.

One of the things that struck me over the course of the last twenty-five, thirty years, probably because I got very involved in Eastern Europe, was that there was no reason or principle why religion and what I think of as a sort of socially responsible state should be remotely incompatible. What’s missing from public conversation and public policy conversation is precisely a sort of moral underpinning, a sense of the moral purposes that bind people together in functional societies. And part of the attraction of someone who otherwise didn’t appeal to me in the least—like, say, Pope John Paul II—was how he managed to connect with young people. Whether it was in Eastern Europe or Latin America or wherever, his was the sense of an absolutely, unambiguously, morally noncompromising view about what is right and what is wrong. It seems to me that we need to reintroduce some of that. We need to reintroduce confidently and unashamedly that kind of language into the public realm. And not expel it, so to speak, into church for Sunday. It’s not only on Sunday that some things are right and some things are wrong.

In my second marriage I was married to someone who was a very active American feminist and very anti the antiabortionists. I would find myself listening to her angrily say that abortion is a good thing and these people are crazed fascists and so on, and I’d think, This conversation is taking the wrong turn. What you have here are two powerfully held moral positions, incompatible socially, backed by different perspectives. But it’s not a question of one of them being immoral and the other being moral. What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy, so that abortion is a terrible thing and a necessary thing, and both statements are true. You see what I mean? With decent medical services and proper prophylactic facilities and real contraceptive education and proper support for young people, particularly in poor areas, abortion would not be nearly as big an issue as it is. Then you could learn to think of difficult moral issues as part of social policy rather than just screaming at each other from either side of a moral barrier. Then we could reintroduce what look like religious kinds of conversations into national social policy debates.

I come from a very religious background, and it seems to me that people on the left are so embarrassed about the language of morality that they’ve ceded the ground to the right.

I totally agree. I think it’s a catastrophe for both sides. What it means for the left is that it’s got no ethical vocabulary. What it means for the right is that it smugly supposes that it’s got a monopoly on values. Both sides are completely wrong. There used to be a tradition of left-wing ethics, Orwellian if you like, or pre-Orwell. I’d like to say parenthetically that I come out of a sort of secular dissenting Jewish background, but one with some of the same thoughts of the old dissenting churches—Christian, Jewish—of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which there was a natural correspondence of social values and ethical criteria. And the divorce between them has been one of the disastrous results of the last half-century. I’d love to contribute to re-forming that link.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Your first question, about young people, is true, but I’d enter a caveat: Ill Fares the Land is a book for anyone who cares about the collective world that we live in and are making for ourselves, whether we like it or not. It’s not a book written with a view to presenting a solution to a fixed set of problems, saying, Read this and do that. It’s a book deliberately designed to ask what’s wrong, how should we talk about it, how should we think about fixing it. And that’s all that it should be. Anything more than that would close off conversation. I want to open it up.

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