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Ill Fares the Land
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Ill Fares the Land

4.5 23
by Tony Judt

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Something is profoundly wrong with the way we think about how we should live today.

In Ill Fares The Land, Tony Judt, one of our leading historians and thinkers, reveals how we have arrived at our present dangerously confused moment. Judt masterfully crystallizes what we've all been feeling into a way to think our way into, and


Something is profoundly wrong with the way we think about how we should live today.

In Ill Fares The Land, Tony Judt, one of our leading historians and thinkers, reveals how we have arrived at our present dangerously confused moment. Judt masterfully crystallizes what we've all been feeling into a way to think our way into, and thus out of, our great collective dis-ease about the current state of things.

As the economic collapse of 2008 made clear, the social contract that defined postwar life in Europe and America - the guarantee of a basal level of security, stability and fairness -- is no longer guaranteed; in fact, it's no longer part of the common discourse. Judt offers the language we need to address our common needs, rejecting the nihilistic individualism of the far right and the debunked socialism of the past. To find a way forward, we must look to our not so distant past and to social democracy in action: to re-enshrining fairness over mere efficiency.

Distinctly absent from our national dialogue, social democrats believe that the state can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties. Instead of placing blind faith in the market-as we have to our detriment for the past thirty years-social democrats entrust their fellow citizens and the state itself.

Ill Fares the Land challenges us to confront our societal ills and to shoulder responsibility for the world we live in. For hope remains. In reintroducing alternatives to the status quo, Judt reinvigorates our political conversation, providing the tools necessary to imagine a new form of governance, a new way of life.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
…a slim and penetrating work…this book's bleak assessment of the selfishness and materialism that have taken root in Western societies will stick to your feet and muddy your floors. But Ill Fares the Land is also optimistic, raw and patriotic in its sense of what countries like the United States and Britain have meant—and can continue to mean—to their people and to the world…If Ill Fares the Land sometimes reads like a graduation speech, then it is the Platonic ideal of one—concise, hardheaded, severe in its moral arguments.
—The New York Times
George Scialabba

Until a year ago, Tony Judt was a prolific historian of twentieth-century Europe and a frequent critic of American foreign policy. Then he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's disease"). As his mobility has dwindled, his thoughts have turned from scholarship and polemic to memoir and prophecy. A series of exquisite autobiographical essays have appeared in the New York Review of Books, revisiting his boyhood and adolescence in post-World War II England. Ill Fares the Land is a political valediction, a distillation of his career-long engagement with the vicissitudes of twentieth-century history and ideology.

Thinking back on many conversations in recent years with "young people on both sides of the Atlantic," Judt recalls hearing frequently "a general sentiment of frustration: 'we know something is wrong and there are many things we don't like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?'" An intellectual could hardly put his or her ebbing energies to better use than by offering, with eloquence and humility, an answer to these questions, as Judt does here.

Anyone of an age to have asked Judt the above questions has lived through a period of decline. For a golden quarter-century, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the promise of American life seemed at least partly fulfilled. Thanks to the New Deal, labor unions, and a flexible economic policy aimed at full employment, prosperity was more widely diffused and more solidly based than in any other period of American history. But over the last few decades we have lost -- mostly squandered -- our apparently insuperable advantages and seemingly indestructible national well-being. How?

Judt reprints a very striking set of charts showing that, compared with twenty or so other developed countries, the United States, though at or near the top in per capita Gross Domestic Product, ranks at or near the bottom in measurements of mental and physical health, trust, law-abidingness, and intergenerational mobility. (One could also add leisure and job security to the list of things Americans generally have less of than their European, Canadian, Japanese, and Australian counterparts.) The reason for America's poor performance emerges clearly from those same charts: economic inequality is far more acute in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world -- except for the UK, which also scores relatively low on most measures of well-being. The lesson of the data is hard to miss: large-scale inequality is not good for a society.

It's a little easier to miss this lesson, however, if you agree with Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum: "There is no such thing as society." What explains that apparently puzzling assertion is the second, less often quoted half of Thatcher's remark: "there are only individuals and families." In other words: every man for himself and his kin; others can look out for themselves. Social solidarity is a sentimental fiction; the common good is a bureaucratic hustle. Private enterprise is always more efficient than public; market outcomes are optimal, by definition. Above all, taxes are theft, except for the purpose of funding high-tech weapons and unnecessary wars, subsidizing Big Oil and Big Agriculture, or rescuing Wall Street shareholders and executives.

Although Thatcher and Reagan liked to pose as traditionalists, their (selective) hostility to government was hardly traditional wisdom. As Judt emphasizes, from the 1930s through the 1970s it was generally agreed that the state had an indispensable role: to moderate the business cycle, to insure equal opportunity, to guard the society's natural and cultural heritage, and to help the hapless and helpless. Americans called this set of undertakings the "welfare state"; Europeans called it "social democracy." Judt defines it pithily as "belie[f] in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good."

The trauma of the Great Depression and the authority of Keynes, who explained it more convincingly than anyone else, stood behind that consensus. The shared sufferings of World War II also predisposed European societies, in particular, toward a modicum of trust and cooperation. It paid off handsomely. From roughly 1948 to 1973 -- that is, from the Marshall Plan to the end of the Bretton Woods international economic regime -- social-democratic policies produced unprecedented prosperity and stability.

The main reason for the decline of social-democracy in recent decades is the ascendancy of free-market economic theory, which Judt traces back through Milton Friedman and other University of Chicago economists to the Austrian refugees Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Joseph Schumpeter. At first Keynesian economists and policymakers paid no attention to their views. "Only when the welfare states whose failure [Hayek and von Mises] had so sedulously predicted began to run into difficulties did they once again find an audience for their views: high taxation inhibits growth and efficiency, governmental regulation stifles initiative and entrepreneurship, the smaller the state the healthier the society, and so forth."

Judt's explanation is mostly right but perhaps leans too heavily on a belief in the causal priority of ideas. He quotes Keynes approvingly: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." True, but there are always plenty of defunct economists and academic scribblers, with every variety of opinion. Why do some, but not others, prevail?

In fact, free-market ideology did not triumph because economists and statesmen began to find it more persuasive than they had formerly. It triumphed because a great many businessmen never accepted the New Deal, never stopped trying to roll it back, and eventually found the right strategy: concentrated ownership of the media; increased business funding (and with it, control) of scientific and economic research; the growth of corporate public relations and business-funded think tanks, directing a constant stream of propaganda at Congress and the media ; increased spending on electoral campaigns and political debate, especially through new forms like PACs; revolving-door employment of former legislators and regulators; and coordination of these efforts by the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and industry associations. They became a juggernaut, then simply hired or promoted economists and statesmen with suitable opinions. "In every age," Marx pointed out, "the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas."

Still, however we lost social democracy in the United States, Judt is unquestionably right about the importance of regaining it. He has packed a great deal of wisdom into this short book and leaves us very much in his debt.

--George Scialabba

Publishers Weekly
James Adams delivers a noteworthy performance in this audio version of Judt’s manifesto on how humanity has arrived at a potentially disastrous place in history and how we must rework out contract with society and the state to preserve our economy and our environment for future generations. Adams’s reading is compelling and confident; he is elucidative without being didactic. With a steady pace and reflective tone, he expertly brings to the reader the late Judt’s cri de coeur for the Left to revitalize and reorganize itself. A Penguin Press hardcover. (June)

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Tony Judt was born in London in 1948. He was educated at King's College, Cambridge and the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, and has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley and New York University, where he is currently the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies and Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995. The author or editor of twelve books, he is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The New York Times and many other journals in Europe and the US. Professor Judt is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Permanent Fellow of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Vienna). He is the author of Reappraisals: Reflections On The Forgotten Twentieth Century and Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, which was one of the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2005, the winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Ill Fares the Land 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a book all persons interested in the future should read and , if possible, discuss with others. Early he states, "One of my goals is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties- and argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about the sort of state we want." Tony Judt has a rearkable ability to condense history into readable passages. Nevertheless, although it is a relatively small book, it requires time to reflect upon and often to reread many pages. His observations historically, politically and economic include mostly European countries and the United States, although other countries are also included. In his "Conclusion" he recalls, after deliverng a lecture in New York in 2009,a twelve year old boy posing a question , which in effect said, in any debate when the word "socialism" is raised, the debate is derailed and how can the conversation be resumed. In answer Judt proposes two possibilities. One, set aside socialism, acknowedging that the idea has been polluted by association with 20th century dictatorships. He warns that although this method is simple it is subject to the charge of hypocracy.Second, the more positive method, is to discriminate between "socialism" and "social Democracy". The latter is a compromise, accepting capitalism and "parliamentary democracy" (legislative) as the "framework within which the hitherto neglected interests of large sections of the populations would now be addrssed." Near the end of his book he brings to or attention a significant statment of Edund Burke. "Society is a partnership not only between those who are living but betwee those who are living,those who are dead and those who are to be born." A call to remember history, consider the best of the present but be mindful of those whose future will depend upon our decisions today. A book well worth reading for the broad picture.
JPFred More than 1 year ago
Tony Judt is an excellent historian of post-WWII Europe and a close observer of the U.S. in many New York Review of Books pieces. He has written a probing book that examines the decline of democracy in the West and thoughtfully rebuilds a path back to fully democratic societies. The book is short, but small sections demand serious reflection on the reader's part, so it takes time and energy to get the full import of what Judt has written. This is his final book, as he has ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and is declining. The book is Tony Judt's gift to thoughtful citizens everywhere.
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Very readable - immediately engrossing. Important message for Americans at this time. Excellent.
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