Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ill Fares the Land

File this under recent reads. I recently finished Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land. This his the second work of his I have read. He is a great stylist and very adroit at tying themes together. I think his Post War is required reading for anyone interested in the 20th Century. Ill Fares the Land is a lamentation on the decline of the welfare state over the last quarter century of the twentieth and first decade of the twenty-first centuries. The theme that resonated most with me is that social democracy was fashioned in response to both the revolutionary left and greed of the plutocrats (sound familiar SHGAPE fans?). Thus it might seem out of place in a world in which communist revolution seems a quaint historical notion, but he retorts that the greed of the plutocrats was not swept into the ash bin of history. One threat, he argues, is enough to justify the maintenance of the social welfare state. He makes Gramsci -like arguments that big business has established such an hegemony in the last few decades that we don't realize how pervasive it is and how threatening it can be to individual liberty, quality of life, and democracy. Too many assumptions go unchallenged, he argues. He argued that the clock on social reform is being turned back so quickly it is as if the 20th century did not happen. What an extraordinary idea. The first thing that popped into my mind was Bill Buckley's comment that the conservative movement stands athwart the tracks of time yelling stop at the moving train. Now the train, at least according to Judt, has reversed direction. This, I think provides some great fodder for classroom discussions (which I will try in the fall in my US 2 survey). First, how accurate is it? The medicare prescription benefit is of recent vintage as is the new healthcare law (aka Obama or Obameny care). Judt cites the welfare reform law of 1996 (he has no use at all for Clinton or Blair) and the European privatization of hitherto public services as examples of decline. Either way, this, I think, can be a good discussion point for the Progressive Era. Start at the beginning and then ask students what they think about it 100 years later. Second, and more to Buckley's point, can the 20th century be disentangled? Was the search for order that created social democracy also the same search for order that produced totalitarianism, global war, and mass death? In other words, can the good be separated from the bad in historical experience? Finally, if Judt is correct, does it stand to reason that we revert to the Gilded Age?

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