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Tony Judt: 'I am not pessimistic in the very long run'

Full transcript of Stephen Foley's interview with Tony Judt

Wednesday 24 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Stephen Foley: Ill Fares the Land is about what needs to be done to revive social democracy. I don’t get the sense that you are sure it will be done. Would it be fair to describe it as a pessimistic book?

Tony Judt: I’m rather pessimistic about the quality of political life in Western democracies at the moment, for a variety of reasons, but I am not pessimistic in the very long run.

I was asked the other day if I see a slide into something like authoritarianism or totalitarianism. I don’t see that. In a way I see something much more corrosive, which is a loss of conviction, a loss of faith in the culture of open democracy, a sense of scepticism and withdrawal which is probably already quite far advanced on both sides of the Atlantic

But I also think we are likely to see within the next half-generation a resurgence of political enthusiasm in the form of protests of political anger, of organisation among young people, at the stagnation of the last 25 years. So medium term optimism, short term pessimism.

SF: Where do you see those protests stirring?

TJ: I see it stirring it firstly from observation, from people like my students here, an increased sense that has moved from indifference to anxiety, to frustration, to energetic criticism of the failure to engage the things that matter to young people, whether it be issues of climate change or political unresponsiveness in this country to – to take the obvious case – the problem of healthcare reform.

Healthcare reform is a paradigmatic case. It is self-evidently necessary and inevitable and has been on the agenda for 35 years and the political class seems completely unable to respond to it.

The question is, how would you rethink ways to make the political class responsive? What has to change is the assumption which has characterised young people’s political enthusiasms in the last generation, which has been a single-issue assumption: that you mobilise around a particular issue, whether it is climate change, or a political policy, or a social issue such as abortion or the rights of minorities. The question is how to regroup these into a conversation about society at large, that’s what’s been lacking. There’s been no difficulty getting people angry about the failure to do something about global warming, but to get them to think about this as a question of political action rather than moral self-expression has been much harder.

I do believe that’s the fault of my generation – the Sixties generation, baby boomers – which unraveled the conventional forms of collective political action – political parties, political ideologies, trade unions and so forth – in favour of either identity politics, sexual politics, and the politics of personal interest, whether they be self-expression, expression of culture or sexual preference. That disaggregated the natural coalitions that were the basis of democracy in the modern era.

We forget that what created mass democracy was not the coming of political freedoms as such, or the coming of representative government, it was the coalitions of interest around very loose ideological languages – left, right, socialism, liberalism, Christian Democracy, whatever it might be – which allowed people to feel part of a larger political family in which their own interests were represented along with those of others. We lost that, and we need to recover that somehow.

SF: Wasn’t Barack Obama’s election campaign an example of young people, who might previously have been single-issue campaigners, coming together in just the kind of over-arching political movement that you propose?

TJ: I’ve got two young kids, relatively young, 15 and 12, and my students at university, so I was just as swept up as the next guy. It does mean something that the country which still had slavery just four or five generations ago, and which was still de facto segregated when I first came here in the early Seventies in many places, could elect a black man whose forebears were from Africa very recently as its president as the representative of one of the two major parties, it was an astonishingly emotional moment.

But I remember thinking at the time, though I didn’t say it to my kids, that you don’t get to be the first black guy as president of the United States by being a radical, awkward upturner of traditions and institutions and habits. There’s got to be a certain conformist quality to this guy that makes him acceptable to the middle ground, and indeed there was.

He speaks in a tradition of moral mobilisation which goes straight back to Lincoln via people like Adlai Stevenson and to some extent FDR, and he appeals to a very mainstream American tradition of what, in a very different key in Britain we used to call moral rearmament: the idea that you recharge the language with energy and optimism and enthusiasm, and instead of remaking policy you remake rhetoric to make people feel enabled to change the world, rather than actually substantively changing it and then telling them that’s what they have done.

The difference here is that I call for it to be much more about issues of social substance. We need to start talking about inequality again, we need to start talking about the inequities and unfairnesses and the injustices of an excessively divided society, divided by wealth, by opportunity, by outcome, by assets and so forth. Whereas Obama, effectively and laudably, talked much more about mobilising people around political capacity – “you can do it, you can make changes, you can make this a better society” – he was rather careful not to talk too much about what he meant by “better society”. Many people didn’t notice that. Of course, you weren’t supposed to notice. And I was happy not to notice it some of the time, too.

But it’s become very clear that what we now have is a man who to some extent is a believer in his own rhetoric. He was a wonderful candidate, but not necessarily a particularly good executive politician. So the enthusiasm was doomed to some extent, but what can you do? Our choice was that or Hillary Clinton, who was unable to generate any enthusiasm except around a distinctive constituency of middle aged feminists, which was nice but not enough, not if you want to change the world.

SF: There’s a temptation to blame "the system", to throw our hands up and say nothing can be done. In the book you dismiss them in a single sentence. Those who blame the system have nothing to contribute, you say.

TJ: There’s nothing wrong with the system of elections to Congress, nor indeed with the principle of a Congress which disposes after an executive proposes. That’s perfectly functional. What’s got in the way is the basis on which individual members of Congress make their calculations as to which way they will choose to vote and on which issues. It’s a failure to control the relationship between private interest and public policymaking. Or to put it bluntly, the problem of the lobby.

These lobbies function in very different ways. Some of them are cultural, you could think of the gun lobby or the Israel lobby as cultural lobbies which use financial clout to enforce a particular set of votes on things that people don’t care about at all, but they do care about the loss of the money if they don’t vote that way. Or you have lobbies like the pharmaceutical lobby or the insurance industry, where people have been suborned into following money that will favour them afterwards, so that when they leave Congress they are very likely to end up as lobbyists for industries themselves that supported them.

What’s missing is the political will radically to revise the workings of the institutions.

SF: Much of what you argue for, with regard to a moral language in defence of government action for the collective good, sounds to me like it could have been argued by Gordon Brown, a "son of the manse" whose early political career could be said to have embodied that. Yet you include him on your list of political pygmies. Why?

TJ: Blair grew into pygmyhood. Brown has shrunk into it. It’s a small moral difference but I guess it matters.

My father saw him in the mould of the Labour party of the Twenties and Thirties out of which Attlee and Bevin came, the kind of moral Celtic fringe, slightly austere, aware of the publicly-focused responsibilities of the political class towards society at large. So it’s a very interesting question as to why Brown has not performed in that light, in the way we might have expected.

I think part of the answer is this: he really has been deflected by the belief that New Labour inculcated in the party at large, that you cannot win an election or govern the country from that part of the political spectrum any more.

You see this in his attitude to the City of London, traditionally the bete noire of provincial Labour politicians. You would expect a man who has grown up in the Presbyterian tradition of stark Scottish politics to hate the City of London on ethical, moral, prudential, all kinds of grounds. Instead you have a diabolical pact here that we will combine the rhetoric of social justice and social intention with an economy we don’t understand but whose priority and whose primacy we have simply decided to accept as though it was a truth that we could do nothing about.

I suspect the difference is that Blair famously liked rich people, Brown simply thinks that you have to work with the rich if you wish to govern Britain today. But it is a failure of will and failure of moral will, an evacuating of a tradition of ethical social evaluation which really was at the heart of what Labour was as a political movement until the early Seventies. Brown is therefore the saddest of all these figures. Mandelson is contemptible and Blair is miserable but Brown is a sad figure, because he’s a reminder of what we’ve lost.

SF: You are pessimistic about the UK general election?

TJ: It seems a very strange, almost disembodied election, in which you’ve got the child of a classic Labour tradition of Scottish, moralising, rectitude Labour politics, but who has single-handedly, or double-handedly with Blair, led the country to a political and financial disaster over the last 12 years, facing a man who has very successfully tidied up the Conservative party sufficiently to make it a plausible alternative government, but whose strongest argument is that the country is broken socially – except that he can’t acknowledge that the source of the breakage goes back to the great period of Thatcherite government.

So neither side can directly speak to the depths of the problems that they claim they would fix. Both of them are fraudulent and can’t help themselves but be fraudulent.

I guess what I would like to see – strange as it sounds given my politics – is a catastrophe for New Labour, such a catastrophe that the centre-left was really forced to think again about what it wants out of public policy, what it wants as a set of social objectives, what it stands for, who it represents, what kind of society it wants Britain to be and so on. Anything short of that is going to leave us dragging on with the same sense of a corrupted, half-evacuated political culture that nobody believes in.

SF: How did you write the book?

TJ: You’re looking at the team. [Judt’s writing assistant Eugene Rusyn is with us in the room, as is his caregiver.]

I come in in the morning, I am "put together", as it were. Quite literally. I have to be moved into position, washed, fed, rendered able to speak, which is clearing my throat and all that, which is a tricky business. The thing about this disease is that in itself it does you no particular direct harm, but it has a whole series of knock-on secondary effects. It’s difficult to clear your throat, difficult to breathe, difficult to speak at great length and so on, but once I’ve been bashed into place, put into my wheelchair, Eugene arrives, we sit down, you see two screens in front of you, and over my left ear, you see two bits of paper stuck on the wall, that’s the design of the book. Then I dictate straight, paragraph after paragraph. The book was basically dictated cold, as a first draft, in under eight weeks.

SF: Is that a writing method you recommend?

No. The upside is you don’t get bored, the other upside is there is a certain elegy to much of the text, I hope. The downside is that I can’t write about it and think about it as I write it, so you can’t always be as elegant and coherent as you wish, certainly not first time round. As a writing process it’s a little scruffier than I would prefer but there is much more of a sense of directness. There’s no yellow pad between me and the text.

When I first got sick, I thought: That’s it for writing. I’d never dictated a book before. I did, as a substitute, do some interviews with a colleague at Yale University, who put together with me what may become an interview-based book of conversations about the Twentieth century, but as I did that I realised that I could talk quite coherently. With this disease you have no idea how fast you will decline, how fast you will lose your voice or your swallowing capacity. In my case, although I lost my arms and legs quite fast, as you can hear I haven’t lost my voice, so I thought, I can still do this.

SF: You are planning books of memoirs and interviews and also possibly a book about trains, about their role in society, art, design, town planning. Why trains?

TJ: I just like being on my own on trains, traveling. I spent all my pocket money travelling the London Underground and Southern Railway, what used to be the Western region, and in Europe as much as I could afford it. My parents used to think I was going places, but I wasn’t, I was just travelling the trains. So I’ve always been crazy about that.

SF: Is there anything else that you had written off ever being able to do again, but in fact have worked out a way of doing?

TJ: Not much else. This is a real world disease. You can’t walk, you can’t use your arms, you’re not mobile. Going outside is a real nuisance, perfectly doable but it’s a big hassle. You can’t read as well as you used to, because someone has to turn the pages or press a computer button. What you lose is autonomy, what you gain is – well, I wouldn’t say you gain anything, but what you get is a sense of what you can do with your head alone.

SF: When did you realise you had Lou Gehrig's disease?

TJ: It was all in my right hand. It always starts in one limb, one part of one limb, normally. It’s completely arbitrary and in my case it was the right hand, and I’m right handed so I started to notice that taking the corks out of wine bottles was getting harder. I thought they were using lousy cheap corks these days, or I’ve got rotten equipment, that I’m getting old or rheumatic or whatever.

And then I started to notice that I started to make mistakes on the keyboard. My right index finger would hit the wrong keys occasionally and I’d think dammit. I’d had an operation on my left hand when I had cancer in my left arm ten years ago and I thought my right hand was starting to become sympathetically weak as well. Then I noticed I got tired up hills, not impossible tired just more tired than I used to. My wife thought I wasn’t getting enough exercise, I though I was getting too much exercise. It was a very slow process.

I think subliminally I knew what I had even before I knew it. It’s a wonderful irony. I was throwing a baseball around with my kids and I remember thinking goddammit I throw this ball as hard as I ever used to and it only goes half the usual distance. And then I remembered seeing a documentary about Lou Gehrig in which a journalist said that he watched him in spring training in 1939 and saw him throw the ball with his usual power – he was a huge man with a tremendous arm – and the ball hardly travelled at all. And I thought, Jesus Christ, do I have some muscular problem similar to Lou Gehrig?

I went to see a neurologist at the end of that summer and was immediately tested and told that I do, and in fact I’ve probably got his disease. And from then it was incredibly fast.

In October is could still drive a gear-shift car. In December I had to be helped into a car, I couldn’t use my arms at all. By February, I couldn’t walk safely without risking falling down. In May I was in a wheelchair using this air pump. It’s not oxygen, but the pump helps the diaphragm muscles do what they aren’t strong enough to do which is to suck air in and push it out. Without it, I would probably last about three minutes, long enough to wash my face and eat. After that I get very short of breath. I haven’t experimented but I doubt it will be very long. It’s been on 24/7 since May 2009.

I went much faster in the early stages, so I should be dead by now, but I’ve gone much slower in the middle stages. The next thing to go in my case will almost certainly be swallowing and speaking, because that’s all that’s left, and after that you are much more machine dependent, and in my case there would be much less reason to want to keep living, because I wouldn’t be able to communicate, which is crucial.

SF: Have you thought about what you want to happen then?

TJ: I’ve thought about it very carefully and clearly – which is not the same thing as saying I know what I would do because you’re perspective changes. If someone said to me five years ago, how would you feel about living in a wheelchair with a piece of Tupperware on your face all your life, I would have said no way, forget it, give me euthanasia, but in fact it’s perfectly doable.

But the agreement I currently have with my wife is that if either I was hospitalised or there was some kind of accident or some dramatic downward shift so that I could not speak and had to be put on a tube and have a tracheotomy which meant I would never be able to speak, then I would rather not be put on that tube. Because I don’t want to be the passively alert vegetable in the corner that takes in everything but can’t communicate, which I think would suck a lot of life out of my family without giving very much to me.

SF: Do you know where the legal lines are?

TJ: I know there has been discussion of this issue in England. Because this is classified as a terminal disease – there’s Stephen Hawking, but technically you are not supposed to survive it – it is not a crime for you to accelerate your death if it is more comfortable and the final stages are intolerable.

Obviously I can’t ask Eugene just to come along and pull the plug out, because he would be in legal trouble, but if I make it very clear I don’t want a tracheotomy, and that is the only way to keep are going in, I can say I don’t want that.

No one can predict how they will feel at the point at which they would have to make that decision. I might feel that I would still rather sit in the armchair and watch my kids grow up even though all I could do is wink and nod. Right now I don’t feel that, but who knows?

SF: You described the experience of your disease powerfully in the piece Night in the New York Review of Books.

TJ: The choice was either just to accept it was happening and say nothing about it and just live it as an experience, or try to live it as an expressed experience.

Since I live by words, it’s a sense of having some sort of control over the illness. If you can name something, famously it’s assumed you have some power over it. If there’s some long slithering thing on the ground and I don’t know what it is, it’s very frightening, but if I call it a snake, I immediately know a few things about it.

Well, I’ve called this disease what it seems to be to me and that’s helping me understand what I can do through it: that I can think, I can communicate and convey what it’s like.

And I’ve discovered – and this what not my intention – that I am actually quite useful to a lot of people, who write to say thank you for saying what it was like. That’s not why I did it, but it’s a good feeling.

SF: But Night was hardly an uplifting or saccharine piece of writing.

TJ: There’s nothing saccharine about this, it’s a crappy disease. It imprisons you, it turns you into a bundle of jelly, it’s going to kill you sooner or later and it’s going to kill me in a very unpleasant way, because it does. It almost certainly strangulates you or chokes you, the inevitable statistical likelihood given the kinds of things that go wrong. So there’s nothing good, okay?

But having said that, I get satisfaction out of understanding things, and understanding what I’m going through, which I can only achieve by describing it with almost an externalised dispassion, it makes me feel like I’m not dead yet. I also think that it helps my family feel that I’ve got some control over my situation. I’ve got young kids so I think that’s good, but no, I’ve nothing uplifting to offer except that you don’t have to die before you’re dead.

And Night was followed by a whole series thinking back on ex-wives and ex-lives, jobs I did, stupid mistakes I’ve made.

SF: Have you become more philosophical?

TJ: I’ve certainly found myself combining things I didn’t used to combine, combining direct first-hand memories with political moral reflections of the kind that I would have previously done in a more abstract way.

I find myself becoming a little more philosophical in the popular sense of the world about the condition of finite existence. The interesting difference between my situation and yours or his [Eugene’s], or indeed my situation and my situation two years ago, is that I know something about my future, which is that it’s not going to be very long and I know roughly what it’s going to look like. I can turn away from it, and pretend I don’t know that, or I can get something out of it and add to my understanding of the human condition in my particular corner of life and that’s a sort of exercise in philosophising.

The only seriously philosophical conversations I’ve had have been with the philosopher Thomas Nagel here at NYU, who’s a friend of mine. We’ve had long conversations about the responsibilities of the living for what happens after they die. In other words not about life after death but about life after one’s own death and about what responsibilities one has to the world one leaves behind, in terms of behaviour now, in terms of what one says or tries to achieve and so on.

Those responsibilities are very substantial. We do die – we don’t live after we die, or at least if we do, I don’t know anything about it and I have no proof and no arguments to offer in support of it – but we live on in other people in ways for which we are responsible. The memory we leave behind, the impression we leave of the shape of the ideas we had, and the reasons people might have for continuing to engage those ideas, are responsibilities that we have now for a world that we can’t be responsible for. There are grounds for acting now as though we would live on, as though we were going to be there to take responsibility for our words and our deeds, a sense of living for the future even though it’s not your own future.

SF: How have you come to these conclusions.

TJ: Having children is the first and obvious reason. Second, if there’s anything that’s coherent about the way I think it’s that I do believe we have responsibilities for others not just across space but across time.

We have responsibilities to people who came before us who left us a world, whether a world of institutions or of ideas or possibilities or opportunities, for which we in turn owe them something. One of the things we owe them is not to squander them, another thing we owe them is to pass them on to others. Now I’m much more conscious of that as a personal not just as a political thought.

SF: It seems to me that the only political philosophy that has truly grown in influence since the financial crisis has been the libertarianism of the likes of Ron Paul in the US. You make it sound obvious that the response to the financial crisis should be additional government intervention in the economy, so why isn’t that the idea that is on the march?

TJ: The centre-left is much more grievously handicapped by its own contribution first to the success and then to the unraveling of the post-war consensus than we may realise. The argument that the problem is government per se, rather than a set of policies, has been allowed to pass largely unchallenged. If we, the centre-left, don’t propose grounds on which we think the state should and can act, then we will be faced with people who believe either that the state can’t act or and shouldn’t act, or can and should act but in ways that we find abhorrent.

It’s a sort of Cheshire cat problem. The reason the libertarians, the ultra-individualists, the minimal tax people, the get-government-off-your-back people have so much space to operate is that the rhetorical culture of politics was almost completely taken over with the idea that the whole point of government is to reduce it.

Part of that was legitimised by an interpretation of the Twentieth century that said the dominant defect of the century had been excess power accruing to over-mighty government. While that’s obviously a way to think about the main challenge to democracy in the middle of the century as it came from the far right and far left, fascism and communism, it’s not in fact an intelligent way to think about the Twentieth century at large when the role of government as a positive presence in social change, social reform, social stability, individual opportunity and so on, was huge.

But we hollowed out that conversation until it became a conversation by the 1980s between those who were thought to believe in over-mighty government for its own sake and those who thought government was the problem.

We need to fill that centre space and if we don’t do that we will find that we have created the thing we were trying to avoid, the choice between the Ron Pauls, as you put it, and the strong-state, anti-immigrant protectionist politics of anti-globalisation that you are going to see in the next 10- 20 years in Western Europe and the United States.

SF: Isn't the problem that the financial crisis wasn’t "big enough", in the sense that it was depression and war that first forced people to coalesce around a social democratic consensus?

TJ: There’s no law that says you have to have major economic meltdowns and political incompetence on a huge scale before people realise what’s necessary in order to protect the minimum of desirable public social economic values and institutions. But in my experience of my generation of New Labourites – I was in King’s in Cambridge with both the governor of the Bank of England and the husband of Cathy Ashton, so I am exactly in that generation which is now in charge of the political mainstream – I am struck by the absence of internal dissent from the consensus around the New Labour paradigm.

Financial capitalism as the chief source of income, maximised market freedoms across borders as well as within them, the assumption that globalisation is simply the new truth about the way the world works, the idea that class and economically-determined interests are behind us as ways to organise people’s elective political affinities, these are all assumptions that came in with the early Eighties either with Thatcher or as a consequence of believing that Thatcher had reshaped the world and you had to go along or else be left behind.

It seems to me they are now deeply unquestioning, they don’t interrogate the world any more, they have become the new conservatism. The only way for New Labour to become something capable of grasping new ideas is for it to be seriously defeated in its present form, pretty much in the same way that its predecessor was.

What the financial crisis always was, was a challenge to the model of deregulated markets, and the response has been just enough extra regulation to make it politically acceptable to do no more. That’s partly the explanation for the Tea Party movement over here, because it’s invited a right-wing demagogic backlash that says there’s a diabolical coalition of socialists and wealthy bankers in Washington who are running the world for their own constituents.

By the way, the last time you saw that kind of rhetoric was in the 1890s when the idea grew up that Washington and the East Coast were organising the economy for their own interests with the dollar firmly tied to gold. That’s when you had the Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum’s little allegory of a president sitting in Oz running a fake government based exclusive on illusion and the pot of gold.

We’ve entered a world in which politics has no shape, people don’t feel they fully understand the rules of the political system they operate in, hence the sense that what needs to change is to have less of it. That’s frightening, because all the precedent that I can think of then points against faith in democracy, rather than the belief in more democracy.

This sense that Washington has lost touch with real people has become rhetorically central to opposition and I think we are probably going to see a new age of reform grow out of it, but whether it is a new age of reform or a demagogic backlash is of course not predetermined.

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