Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Cheer for the State

Asked to write about an issue "likely to be of significance in years to come," the late Tony Judt first published "The Social Question Redivivus" in Foreign Affairs in 1997. Including it a decade later as the final chapter in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), Judt noted that "nothing that has happened in the intervening decade" had led him to moderate his "gloomy prognostications - quite the contrary." Yet another decade later, his "prognostications" still seem to me to be every bit as relevant.

Judt's focus was on "the failure of the political left to reassess its response" to the "dilemmas of globalization." What he produced, in effect, was an essay on the abiding salience of the modern State. Then as now, Europeans were anxious about a "neo-Fascist right, whose program constitutes one long scream of resentment - at immigrants, at unemployment, at crime and insecurity, at "Europe', and in general at 'them' who have brought it all about." (Since then, of course, the "scream" has only gotten louder and has likewise consequentially crossed the Atlantic.) In postindustrial Europe, Judt warned, "the economy has moved on while the state, so far, has stayed behind to pick up the tab; but the community has collapsed, and with it a century-long political culture that combined pride in work, local social interdependence, and intergenerational continuity" (emphases mine).

Writing when neoliberalism had seemingly triumphed - in the US in the Clinton years and in the UK with Tony Blair - and before the global collapse of capitalism of 2008, Judt recognized the "cultural and historical rather than economic" reasons for US neoliberal economics - "possible, in part, because even some of those who stand to lose thereby are culturally predisposed to listen with approval to politicians denouncing the sins of big government" - a model he concluded was "not exportable." Europeans, he argued, expect the state "to take the initiative or at least pick up the pieces." Moreover, in a world where "much of what happens in people's lives today has passed from their control," he argued "there is a greater need than ever to hold on to the sorts of intermediate institutions what make possible normal civilized life in communities and societies." And, in today's world, it is the state that is the largest such intermediate institution that can respond to citizens' "interests and desires." Finally, he considered "the need for representative democracy" to be "also the best argument for the traditional state." It is especially "the losers in today's economy" who "have the most interest in and need for the state, not least because they cannot readily imagine taking themselves and their labor anywhere else."

All of this remains relevant - and even more so - since the 2008 collapse of capitalism and the loud scream of political "populism" which that collapse produced in the "Tea party," the "Occupy" movement, and, above all, in the Trump presidency, and some of the responses to it.

Judt's conclusion says it all:

The postwar social reforms in Europe [with which we Americans may associate at least partially our New Deal and Great Society reforms] were instituted in large measure as a barrier to the return of the sort of desperation and disaffection from which such extreme choices were thought to have arisen. The partial unraveling of those social reforms, for whatever reason, is not risk-free. As the great reformers of the nineteenth century well knew, the Social Question, if left unaddressed, does not just wither away. It goes instead in search of more radical answers.

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