Saturday, 7 August 2010

Tony Judt RIP

I'm very sorry to hear that, according to the New Statesman and a number of other sources, the historian and essayist, Tony Judt, has died.  He will be a big loss.

His magnus opus, which probably has the pride of place in plenty of bookshelves around the country, is his massive, scholarly and utterly readable 'Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945'.  He has also been responsible for some great studies and reappraisals of the French left.

Along with the likes of David Marquand and John Gray, he has played a role in making the intellectual case for the state and civil society against a market driven hegemony.  Alongside Marquand's majestic 'Progressive Dilemma' and John Gray's prophetic 'False Dawn' (I remember trying to persuade so-called 'Socialists' of the ultimate insecurity of unregulated global financial markets - as predicted by Gray- at the same time as they tried to sell me deregulation in the late 90s), Judt's 'Ill Fares The Land' has to be regarded as a guiding text for those of us who believe that the market should serve society and not vice versa.  Judt argued that society (and the parties of the so-called left) has become so infatuated with the market that it has forgotten how much can be achieved when we work together and Government is used for noble aims.

He didn't believe that liberty was enough without a belief in equality of opportunity.  He believed in freedom to, not just freedom from.  He said in the London Review of Books (via Guardian on line):

I think what we need is a return to a belief not in liberty, because that is easily converted into something else… but in equality. Equality, which is not the same as sameness. Equality of access to information, equality of access to knowledge, equality of access to education, equality of access to power and to politics. We should be more concerned than we are about inequalities of opportunity, whether between young and old or between those with different skills or from different regions of a country. It is another way of talking about injustice. We need to rediscover a language of dissent.

In 'Ill Fares The Land' , he says that:

"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 remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them."

What really marks out Judt in my eyes is his ability to show both ambition and a belief in the power of ideas (and, in an age where such an ambition can be limited, the power of politics and Government to change things for the better), but also his scepticism when other scholars seemed swept aside by big ideas.

Take his Grand Illusion essay on the Common Market and its successors.  He acknowledged the benefits that the Common Market had brought to the Benelux countries since the war and to relations between France and Germany in particular.  But he displayed caution as 'progressive'voices around him suggested that the then  embryonic European Union suggested the best way forward.  He pointed out that achieving homogeneity in an utterly disparate continent (the point that Tony Benn made very well when pointing out the EU's many flaws) was  virtually impossible.  He pointed out the lack of democracy inherent and obvious in the European project, comparing it to some of the "enlightened despotisms" of 18th Century Europe.

Judt always understood that radical principles should include and be governed by the sovereignty of the people and democratic representation.

In an age in which politics is too often driven by people who 're-tweet' the latest spewing of 'facts' by Labour, Liberal or Tory HQ, Tony Judt represents the embodiment of what we should be seeking. The politics that is that of thought and independence rather than subservience.  The social media that represents open argument and debate, rather than the views of political parties.  Hopefully politics will rediscover the inquiring, intellectual spirit; the spirit of  Tyler and Lilburne; that Judt stood for.

Tony Judt RIP

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