Friday, 4 March 2011

Tony Judt – one of the great political thinkers of the age

Tony Judt: Reappraisals, 2009, Vintage pp.420-424
“The Social Questions Redivivus” (living again) [essay first published in 1997]

Extracts: Discussion about the British and their relationship to the State

… The British were susceptible to the suggestion that their difficulties arose from the omnipresence of an inefficient and vaguely threatening central power, though they had no desire to squander the achievements of state-administered social legislation in the fields of health, welfare, and education, as the Tories' final, ignominious defeat revealed.

But the British example is equally inapplicable to the continental European case—and not just because of the amusing European propensity to speak of Anglo-American neo-liberalism as though the British and U.S. experience and examples were interchangeable. There are doubtless many European Socialists and liberals who would like to emulate Tony Blair. But the price of that would be to pass through the experience of Margaret Thatcher (without whom Tony Blair would still be an obscure Labour politician with no original ideas of his own), and no European politician of any hue imagines for a moment that his own country could survive that. It is not just that Thatcher produced double-digit unemployment and destroyed the traditional manufacturing base of the British economy, while briefly lining the pockets of the middle class with the windfall proceeds from privatization: some of that has already happened in France, Belgium, Spain, and elsewhere. But Thatcher demolished the theory and much of the practice of the providential state, and it is that which is unthinkable across the channel…

In continental Europe the state will continue to play the major role in public life for three general reasons. The first is cultural. People expect the state—the government, the administration, the executive offices—to take the initiative or at least pick tip the pieces. When the French demand that their government provide shorter-working hours, higher wages, employment security, early pensions, and more jobs, they may be unrealistic but they are not irrational…

The second case for preserving the state today is pragmatic, or perhaps prudential. Because global markets do exist, because capital and resources fly around the world …. there is a greater need than ever to hold on to the sorts of intermediate institutions that make possible normal civilized life in communities and societies.  We are accustomed to understanding this point when it is directed to the need for voluntary organizations, community structures, small-scale exercises of autonomy in public life, and local civic ventures or issues of common concern, such as safety, environment, education, culture. And we understand, or think we understand, the importance of intermediate institutions when we study totalitarian regimes and notice the importance their rulers attached to the destruction of anything that came between the isolated, anomic subject and monopolistic state.

What we have failed to grasp is that, on the eve of the twenty-first century, the state itself is now an intermediary institution too. When the economy, and the forces and patterns of behavior that accompany it are truly international, the only institution that can effectively interpose itself between those forces and the unprotected individual is the state. Such states are all that can stand between their citizens and the unrestricted, unrepresentative, unlegitimated capacities of markets, insensitive and unresponsive supranational administrations, and unregulated processes over which individuals and communities have no control.  The state is the largest unit in which, by habit and convention, men and women can feel they have a stake and which is, or can be made to appear responsive to their interests and desires.

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