The West has forgotten its hard-won wisdom from the first half of the 20th Century. The political Left lost its way in the heady days of neoliberal economic dogma and assumptions about believing the inexorability of both peace post-Cold War and of globalization in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Meanwhile, the political Right, searching for identity after the Left took over centrist politics, adopted the mantle of nationalism and authoritarianism in response to inequality producing insecurity and political division.
In this brilliant analysis, Tony Judt reminds us why we created social democracies across Europe and North America following the world wars, foregrounding the wisdom of Keynes as a keen observer and architect of early 20th century history, politics, and economics. There are certain things only governments can do: ensure that economic gains do not unfairly accrue to the few (as capitalism is designed to do) and construct and maintain infrastructure and utilities that markets can never get right because they will always be natural monopolies and inefficient when provided equally (e.g. public transportation, the postal service). Social welfare programs ensure a basic human quality of life, which is all the more important when there are major disruptions in the economy (e.g. depressions/recessions, shifts between major industries and employment needs, automation).
When people lose jobs and perceive unequal economic outcomes among their fellow citizens, they get pissed. They feel insecure. They are susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians who promise stability and deflect the blame toward people that don’t look like them. This is how we ended up with fascism, with virulent nationalism that precipitates wars between groups and nation-states.
We were sold lies by neoliberal economists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, who misread history and mistook the postwar stability as inevitable as opposed to carefully constructed to ensure those terrible wars and the social inequality that preceded them would not return. We attacked “socialism” because it was politically convenient during the Cold War era, especially in the United States. It turns out everyone loves the stability of social security and Medicare, but they fail to realize that they are the product of a hard-won negotiation between capitalism (that is always captured by special interests without regulation) and socialism (that tries to blow up everything to create an elusive utopia). The product was social democracy.
Judt argues that the Left needs to be a bit more conservative in defending the value of social democracy and not give in to neoliberal dogmas about economics and the role of government. And we all need to remember that inequality within democracies are the causes of so much social turmoil. Democracy is delicately maintained because we observe a shared responsibility for our collective well-being. When inequality produces insecurity, democracy is easily lost as people pine for authoritarian programs of “law and order” and nationalist calls to fight against “others.”
Identity politics can help us understand the ways inequality plays out and have achieved limited wins for different groups, which feels like the only thing worth fighting for when the political landscape as a whole seems otherwise unresponsive. But it also distracts us from the core questions of what our governments should be doing.
If I could hand out copies of one book to elected officials, it might be this one. Tony Judt writing in 2010 explains how we get to Donald Trump and is prescient about the problems we are facing and what it will take to address them by reclaiming the value of social democracy.