Tony Judt

The New Old World


I have just received my copy of Perry Anderson‘s The New Old World and I look forward to this week-end read. The book is the subject of a symposium in the last issue of the New Left Review (NLR73). After reading the four articles in the review I felt a compulsion to read the book. The Union’s current crisis – and its monetary collateral – is the most significant issue for Europe, understood to include both Union’s members and non-members, such as Turkey. Of course there are other issues of at least equal importance, such the Arab counter-revolution, or the continuing saga of capital markets vs democratically elected governments. All of those are essentially components of what Wolfgang Streeck described  as “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” in NLR 71.

The Markets vs Voters question has of course been typified by developments in Greece and Italy, where elected administrations – however fragile or controversial – have been displaced by decree by the massed ranks of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the (unelected) European Commission, under active supervision from the Federal Government of Germany. Those developments fall clearly within Streeck’s definition of “democratic capitalism” as “a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation: one operating according to marginal productivity, or what is revealed as merit by a “free play of market forces”, and the other based on social needs or entitlement, as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics.”

A writer in the symposium, Alain Supiot in Under Eastern Eyes, comments that “it was not until the fall of Communism that ultra-liberal ideology, despite its political successes in the US and UK and its adoption by international financial institutions, began to have a significant impact on the social systems of solidarity established after the War in Western Europe”. Supiot blames a “revolt of the elites” for the damage, and particularly for the ascent of the “communist market economy”. According to this interpreattion “the elites of all countries can now get astronomically rich – which was impossible under communism – without a thought  for the fate of the middle and working classes, which was impossible under the political  or social democracy of welfare states.”

Jan-Werner Müller – in Beyond Militant Democracy – disagrees, pointing out that “rather than contrasting those glory days (the  30-year “golden-age” of post-war capitalism) with our (supposed) sordid post-democratic condition, we ought to understand that European elites in the late 1940s and 1950s opted for a highly restrictive understanding of democracy – and that the EU, from the start, operated on this basis.”

A Final Victory

I was very moved by reading Jennifer A. Homans’ account of her husband Tony Judt’s last days in the NYRB. I will read Thinking the Twentieth Century. There are several reasons, all personal rather than intellectual, first Tony and I were of the same generation, and I shared his understanding of the issues of the post-war period (our half century), Palestine, Europe, growing social inequity, Europe, the rise of Hayekian tyrannies… Second, I do not share the views of writers such as Dylan Riley (A Cooler Look) as far as their “assessment” of Tony’s work and intellectual courage is concerned.

To Write or Not to Write

I have to admit that fictional endeavours, as well as other social activities, such as marriage, have kept me away from this “travel and political” blog. However this is Spring, and I will renew with this corner of my garden. For those readers so inclined my writing blog is here.

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Michel de Montaigne and the Independent Commission on Banking

The Memory Chalet

A must read this year is Tony Judt’s posthumous collection of essays “The Memory Chalet” reviewed by Thomas Nagel in this issue of the NYRB.

“The articulate recreation of the active life that he has lost, writes Prof. Nagel, is Judt’s answer to his imprisonment and impending death, and it gives him a more personal posthumous existence than do his historical and critical writings, important as they are. These eloquent personal recollections are infused with historical consciousness, but they also explain and reflect the strong opinions and attitudes that marked Tony Judt as a distinctive presence among us, unforgettable to those who knew or read him. Wary of group identity, he was an Englishman but exceptionally cosmopolitan, a Jew who became an outspoken critic of Zionism, and an egalitarian social democrat who was also an elitist and a defender of meritocracy.”

From the White House to Michel de Montaigne

I am not altogether desperate to uncover the identity of the author of “O: A Presidential Novel” but enjoyed Mark Lawson’s piece in the Guardian (22 January). Of particular interest to this reader were the references to Vivian Grey and to the lineage of the ” model political novel”. Disraeli, Trollope, R. Penn Warren and Allen Drurry… forbears indeed…

In the same Guardian issue Saul Frampton’s delightful extracts on Michel de Montaigne and the “true language of human nature” reminded me to push “When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?” to my trolley at the next opportunity. Another must read.

The Road to Serfdom

No surprise yesterday in the speech of John Vickers, chairman of the Independent Commission on Banking. Inadequacy of “Basel III”, nefarious effect of the disappearance of any barriers between ” retail” and so-called “investment” banking (remember “Big Bang”?), costs to society of bailing out the speculators, all have been debated to saturation since the onset of the what started as the “sub-prime” crisis. What is striking, on both sides of the Atlantic, is governments and regulators’ apparent incapacity to bring the “big banks” to any serious commitment to real changes. This appears equally to extend to any commitment to small businesses from the four largest UK banks (Preston’s Picks of 22 January). The choice is ever clearer: finance capital or society, them (obscene profits, speculation, derivatives of derivatives, plunder and wastage) or us (the real economy, households and businesses, our children’s futures).

Ill Fares the Land

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever reamains of our sense of collective purpose.” So wrote Tony Judt in the introduction to Ill Fares the Land, “A Treatise on our present Discontents’.

Tony Judt died on 6 August 2010. We shall miss his voice and courage. But his example will support us on our journey.