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The Left must find its voice again
April 10, 2010 1:59 AM   Subscribe

Poverty is an abstraction, even for the poor. But the symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it. And yet something is seriously amiss.
Historian Tony Judt, dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, makes a passionate call for a new New Left. [Previously]
posted by Sonny Jim (59 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
I appreciate the sentiment and hate amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as much as the next Gehrig but, well...
Here's hoping passion talks to rhetoric and they agree to meet with reason and write something sensible.
posted by vapidave at 3:29 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. Folks may like to know that the NYRB has been publishing a series of short reminiscences by Tony Judt since January. Some of them are collected here. I think they are delightful and engaging.
posted by pasici at 4:04 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools.

Government has failed at maintaining highways, running cities, maintaining bridges and operating schools. Government has taxed us and poured the money insane wars in the Middle East. So ... we need more government.
posted by Faze at 4:25 AM on April 10, 2010


This was beautifully put and to me, is the message for our times. There is no form of government that doesn't eventually try to justify itself as being better for everyone: those who support our recent fetish for government nonintervention in the increasingly chaotic economic lives of citizens try to argue that their position is derived from some abstract natural law, but it seems clear from our history that unregulated capitalism overseen by purely self-interested voters is a leech on the throat of those nations that allow it.

Which is to say, free market politics don't create anything other than a power vacuum that is filled by self-destructive private industry. The challenge of the twenty-first century will be how to create a structure that fills that vacuum responsibly, responsively and humanely.
posted by Valet at 4:28 AM on April 10, 2010 [12 favorites]


This is good.

No, strike that. This is very very good. It deserves to be ranked up in the realms of classic social and societal commentaries essays, alongside the likes of Malthus, Wells, and Orwell. It's short, it's readable, and it's accessible.

Faze: "Government has failed at maintaining highways, running cities, maintaining bridges and operating schools. Government has taxed us and poured the money insane wars in the Middle East. So ... we need more government."

Private enterprise has failed at maintaining profitability, running healthcare, maintaining employment, and operating banks. Private enterprise has dragged us to the brink of financial ruin, then held out its hand and cried poor. So … we need more private enterprise?

Actually, he's not saying what you think he's saying. He says, right there in the middle of it, "since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want". He's not giving you a solution; he's saying that the step before deciding on a solution is to first decide what sort of result you want.
posted by Pinback at 4:38 AM on April 10, 2010 [21 favorites]


He's not giving you a solution; he's saying that the step before deciding on a solution is to first decide what sort of result you want ~ Pinback

quoteworthy in its own right.
posted by infini at 5:39 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


As always, Judt writes beautifully, and I think it's really important that those of us who consider ourselves 'of the left' keep having this conversation, keep bringing it into the wider political discourse, highlighting its importance as a goal and a destination.

This said, as always with Judt, he's very euro-centric in his views - and frankly, for the vision he's advocatiing, I think that's retrograde and even further, it's actually part of the problem he's diagnosing. It's understandable; Judt has spent his whole life thinking and writing about Europe in particular and the west in general, but I think we should - we must - move beyond it, if what he's advocating has a chance of becoming part a resurgent part of our political dialogues.
posted by smoke at 5:46 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


If it is to be taken seriously again, the left must find its voice stop supporting the center-right because it is the "lesser of two evils".

FTFH.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:56 AM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


Faze, that's the American government. Perhaps you should let Swedes run your country.
posted by atrazine at 6:19 AM on April 10, 2010 [8 favorites]


What does the statement "Poverty is an abstraction, even for the poor." mean?
I don't know that I've ever been impoverished but I've been poor and I read and reread the definition of abstraction. I can't find where "impoverished" or (even) "poor" and "abstraction" intersect.
posted by vapidave at 6:30 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Vapidave: I think the idea is that individuals feel the lack of something: food, shelter, medicine. That's the individual experience. 14th-century merchants weren't poor by their standards or the standards of the time -- it takes an abstract understanding of the distribution of wealth in a society to realize that some people are poor and some are rich. It's not something you feel yourself: it's something you conceptualize in relationship to others.

This is how some lower and lower-middle income conservatives find themselves defending the freedom to practice unrestricted commerce when they have neither the capital nor the education to benefit from it, while their political allies drink imported champagne at strip clubs. The lower income voters don't, for better or for worse, consider themselves poor in the abstract, even though they are by most quantitative measures.
posted by Valet at 6:43 AM on April 10, 2010 [12 favorites]


vapidave,
I think what he is saying is that "poverty" as a construct itself is abstract. We had a War on Poverty, not a War on Poor Mass Transit, or a War on No Funding for Poor Children's Health. "Poverty" is stigmatizing in a way that we would recoil from if we were to be described as being within it...but we are surrounded by the many, many manifestations of poverty, manifestations we that realize are present when they are concretely pointed out.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:24 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


“There’s been very sad experience of the last generation of ill-planned routes, transit routes,” she said. “This is partly the onset, the genuine onset, of a genuine Dark Age. The traffic engineers have forgotten how to plan successful routes. They used to know how. Their ancestors used to know how.”

“During a Dark Age,” Jacobs argues, “the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness.”
posted by larry_darrell at 7:35 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


The history of our social concerns in the US indicates that the plea is going to go unheeded. If we have begun to fix our infra-structure, it is only becfause the ravages of an unregulated market economy required stimulous money to go into public works.

All we need do is look at how narrow a victory the nation got on so vital a thing as health care reform to observe how unliekly it is that we are going to shift to the left in our political system.

The problem is actually simple: our current lobby laws allow massive money feeding to political figures to get them elected or re-elected, and they listen to those who pur in that money. Those without little or no resources do not get hang out at K Street, influencing what goes on, though
a union here and there does has some input.

Madison a long time ago realized the potential problem of special interests but seemed to have felt better to risk this than to put in major restrictions upon the way we were to be governed.

He might have been right back then. He is wrong now.
posted by Postroad at 7:36 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wasn't sure whether this should be an FPP in its own right but seeing the flow of conversation here makes this apropos at this moment,

The Collapse of Complex Business Models (Shirky)

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

posted by infini at 7:46 AM on April 10, 2010 [14 favorites]


This is good stuff. Thanks for posting it. For some time I've wondered how best to categorize this place I've been drifting to (in a generally leftward direction), and social democrat might be just the ticket.
posted by jquinby at 7:55 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wasn't sure whether this should be an FPP in its own right but seeing the flow of conversation here makes this apropos at this moment,

The Collapse of Complex Business Models (Shirky)


At the risk of straying off topic, the distressing aspects of what Shirky's saying are that (a) no one's making any money off the video of the baby biting his brother's finger, and (b) while the video of the baby biting his brother's finger is drawing an astronomically larger audience than more complex programming, I think most of us would agree that more complex programming is pretty much invariably more worthwhile programming on an artistic level. I mean, even Two and a Half Men is more worthwhile programming on an artistic level. It's not surprising that network television executives would respond badly to the idea that the future is cheap bullshit that you post to YouTube, even if the future really is cheap bullshit that you post to YouTube; if that's the future, we really need to figure out a better future, because that future sucks.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:05 AM on April 10, 2010


/derail

the grandmother of my kids is dying of Lou Gherig's as well.
it's a horrible disease :(

/derail
posted by liza at 8:09 AM on April 10, 2010


kittens for breakfast - from an essay just received on this topic by a young creator with his permission to use his words (ignore the grammar please this is his third language):

The “traditional” producer works in a complex corporate world and has to take into account clients, executives, budgets, timetables, company based goals etc. In many cases this becomes a limitation to what the actual output can be while the production remains expensive. On the other side, the “grassroots” creator can freely produce from his or her point of view. At the same time modern technology allows the creator to produce the same quality of output as the traditional producer for a fragment of cost.

Both sides are struggling economically. Because the traditional production system is complex, it is vulnerable whenever the company based ideal of constant growth stagnates. The complex system also makes it very hard, or even impossible, to adapt to cost efficient production. On the other side, the grassroots creator is often giving out the productions for free. The creator is forced to be active and have a high quality of output in order to have a chance to gain reputation. This reputation, while crucial, is getting harder and harder to gain because of the increasing amount of creators online.

However, when the grassroots creator gains reputation he or she will automatically find more opportunities due to the internets self feeding open structure. The creative environment of the grassroots can in some opinion be considered a platform for enhancing creativity, rather than as a developer of one field of expertise. This allows a creative person to explore creativity and use it in various forms to survive. Because the grassroots environment also requires activity, it can be considered to behold the knowledge of how to gain the virtual and social capital necessary for economic ground. This might be one of the leading conducts of keeping the paradigm shift moving.

posted by infini at 8:17 AM on April 10, 2010


GovernmentConservonomics has failed at maintaining highways, running cities, maintaining bridges and operating schools. GovernmentConservonomics has taxed usthe middle class and poured the money insane wars in the Middle East. So ... we need more governmentsome Leftists.
posted by DU at 8:36 AM on April 10, 2010 [8 favorites]


All we need do is look at how narrow a victory the nation got on so vital a thing as health care reform to observe how unliekly it is that we are going to shift to the left in our political system.

OTOH, the fact of a victory (however slim in both votes and actual reform) could be the beginning of a shift. The Right is completely confused over how to proceed in opposing Obama, since the base is not a majority and wants something completely different than everyone else.
posted by DU at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Valet: Thanks for the considered answer. Although I agree with your extended definition and many maps demonstrate that clearly, there is "poor" though that has nothing to do with voting. I should probably have not entered into this discussion having only picked one of what I see as many absurd statements. I'm on to the airport but I'll take a little time now.

"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."
I think material self-interest has been going on for a few thousand years and really by most metrics everything is better now. (Not that it can't be better.)

"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?"
Yes we do. Probably now more than ever.

"Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them."
Once again? Seriously? I'm only 46 but it seems if you look (internet be thanks) that these questions are being examined more closely now than ever.

"The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears "natural" today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor."
Um Bullshit. I like my computer and cooking things. My mattress is so much better than sleeping on the ground. Comfortable shoes are nice. 1980's? This shit is as old as Kings and Kingdoms. I agree about disparity, our politicians are bought too cheaply at too great a cost though I'll agree.

"And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of "capitalism" and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of "socialism." By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the "left–right" distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs."

OK, what did I we all hear about the brown acid?

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one's distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.

That the right doesn't have a leg to stand on doesn't mean I'm not squarely planted.
And on and on. Enough.

Liberals need to stop behaving as though they just watched their cat being run over.

There are so many better arguments made for liberalism.

OP thanks also Hypnotic Chick
and I'm sorry for that liza
posted by vapidave at 8:44 AM on April 10, 2010


Hi, Vapidave!

I've got to go to bed, but I love this kind of stuff, so apologies to everyone.

I think material self-interest has been going on for a few thousand years and really by most metrics everything is better now.


The question is not whether it's existed, because you're right that it has, but that it hasn't been considered a virtue. Judt more or less divides US history into pre-"Greed is Good" and post-"Greed is Good". He doesn't say that greed can't or shouldn't exist, but that it can't be the foundational value of a sane society.

We generally disagree about whether or not people are currently having moral, humanist conversations about prospective government policies -- I don't think we can convince each other either way, but I'll point out that the Obama administration did much more selling of health care reform with respect to its dollar cost, and very little with respect to its human benefit (which is huge, as it extends insurance to millions). I think that's less about him and more about us -- his audience, which is increasingly interested in CBO numbers and our personal bottom line.

I like my computer and cooking things. My mattress is so much better than sleeping on the ground.

I think there's a difference between objects owned for use value, and those owned to fill a spiritual void -- there's money you spend to buy things you use, and then there's money as a scorecard for self-worth. We are the world leader in the latter -- why, for example, are we bankrupting our industries because we have to pay their CEOs more than any sane person could possibly ever spend? What's the difference between a pro baseball player who makes $14 million/year, and one who makes $20 million?

I don't follow some of your other arguments -- I'm well post-Woodstock, so I don't know anything about brown acid, and your foot-planting metaphor eludes me (although I do have feet, so that might be my fault). In general, though, I don't think my cat's been run over -- but I do see and feel a lot of suffering in the US, and I think it's unnecessary, and I find Judt's basic recommendations -- take care of one another, work together, share -- to be practically the only set of ideals I can get behind. To me, libertarianism and nationalism and free-market capitalism seem cold, hateful and unstable respectively -- it's "collective action for the collective good" that makes me want to get up in the morning.
posted by Valet at 9:20 AM on April 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


That was a very good read. It got me thinking a lot about where ego and identity fit into this picture. Both collective and individual. Have there been any philosophers, historians and the like that have written modern essays about these topics with respect to ego or identity? The 'age of insecurity' really got me thinking about this...I think about pride and when the effect of capitalist failings must be realized. By the individual and to the country he or she belongs to...what that must mean for the identity and values of a nation, from the inside looking out and that person's imagined perception of the outside looking in.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:31 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The failure is that 10% of the population controls 75% of the wealth.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:45 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some people are fond of saying about creationists that they ought to have the courage of their convictions, and abstain from the fruits of modern biology (such as, for example, much advanced medicine).

I think we need to go the next step and say that people like Judt and those who agree with them ought to have the courage of their convictions, and abstain from the fruits of capitalism (such as, for example, every good and service that wasn't invented by the government, and anything invented by government employees who themselves, or their parents, fled communist hellholes.)
posted by MattD at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2010


jquinby at 9:55 AM:
I bear a sentimental fondness for "creeping socialist", myself.
posted by cookie-k at 11:02 AM on April 10, 2010


If it is to be taken seriously again, the left must find its voice stop supporting the center-right because it is the "lesser of two evils".

FTFH.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:56 AM on April 10 [3 favorites +] [!]


I know this is your favorite dead horse, but did you actually read the article? Given the article's discussion of what "Left" can entail (liberal v. social democrat, etc.), you really didn't fix any thing for anyone.
posted by Amanojaku at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The real thing that escapes market fundamentalists is that the relationship between public infrastructure and private innovation is symbiotic. Each improves the other, but when you stifle one, you hurt the other.
posted by ifandonlyif at 11:41 AM on April 10, 2010


What a long, whiny screed. Much the same thing could have been written 100 years ago in a call for communism. The question is when and why capitalism should be used, and why and when government intervention is appropriate.

Judt also doesn't mention that income/wealth inequality is often a necessary evil, and allows for long-term investments.

From the article:
The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse the social problems: a statement that appears to be true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is. Thus Sweden and Finland, two of the world's wealthiest countries by per capita income or GDP, have a very narrow gap separating their richest from their poorest citizens—and they consistently lead the world in indices of measurable well-being.

And a cursory glance at the ratio of the richest 10% to poorest 10% of a population by country reveals that countries which have similar inequality ratios to Sweden and Finland include Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. Not exactly leaders in "measurable well-being."
posted by shivohum at 11:44 AM on April 10, 2010


I think we need to go the next step and say that people like Judt and those who agree with them ought to have the courage of their convictions, and abstain from the fruits of capitalism

Sure thing, just as soon as you and your buddies abstain from enjoying the fruits of the state. I suggest — self-interestedly, perhaps — that you begin with the Internet.
posted by enn at 11:54 AM on April 10, 2010 [9 favorites]


The failure is that 10% of the population controls 75% of the wealth.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:45 PM on April 10


Your implicit assumption is that it is a zero sum game. It isn't. The real failure is that 90% can't do better than they are. And the point of the essay is that we through the state have given so little support of real education (not "so you can get a job" education, but "understand the world" education), that the 90% is staggeringly ignorant not only of how to address what ails them, but that they are ailing at all.

This is an important essay not because it so effectively criticizes the right. It's criticisms of the right are obvious. The implicit criticism is of the left. The left of the last 20 years has completely and utterly failed, to only to accomplish anything, but to even articulate what it wants to accomplish.

The essays point that wealth inequality determines happiness and life expectancy regardless of how well off the poorest are relative to those in other countries is an important one, but it doesn't argue for wealth equality. It argues for understanding the mechanisms of envy and materialism so those forces can be neutralized, so that people will be happy regardless of their income. This means addressing problems of perception and moral valuation among the rich and the poor. The poor need to understand that it is their lack of education that makes them poor, not their lack of BMWs. Etc.

For me, the most brilliant part of the essay was the acknowledgment that the most damaging effect of our society's psychosis is that the most educated and intelligent of our young people are motivated only to pursue lucrative careers. Historically, they have pursued careers that were interesting to them or that addressed long-standing problems.

If we really want to address the problem of infrastructure, energy, medicine and the like we need many many more smart people building careers in those fields. And yet a huge percentage of the nations top grads waste their talent in finance.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


shivohum, do those statistics take into account the social safety net that exists in Sweden and Finland and does not in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh?

This is close to debating PPP versus per capita income in absolute terms converted to usd

imho, ifandonlyif's statement

the relationship between public infrastructure and private innovation is symbiotic. Each improves the other, but when you stifle one, you hurt the other.

makes a powerful point and underscores the above disparity gap, as the infrastructural differences between the two sets of countries being compared is vast
posted by infini at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder's family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the US population: 120 million people."

holy. shit.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 12:01 PM on April 10, 2010


Judt also doesn't mention that income/wealth inequality is often a necessary evil, and allows for long-term investments.
I don't know, shivohum, the fact that you could just put that out there—without even blinking—kind of underlines Judt's argument about the pure moral vacuum of econometric thought. How much human misery, wasted potential, anger, and hopelessness are elided in that nice, bloodless abstraction "income/wealth inequality [that] allows for long-term investments"?

Anyway, I have to walk home from the office along a poorly lit, deserted redway now. I hope one of the products of the "income/wealth inequality" continuum doesn't decide to scone me a baseball bat. Wish me luck!
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:02 PM on April 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


iamkimiam — maybe try Erich Fromm's The Sane Society. He discusses society through individuals, humanistically; it's a beautiful book that finds noble and realistic conclusions through thinking quite sagacious, discussing along the way neurosis, religion, integrity, love, narcissism, Freud's "prostitution of the mother goddess and raising of the father into the central figure of the universe," the patriarchalism of the Old Testament, golden calves, alienation, object relations, tourism, Taylorism, the "market character" in modern individuals, traditional Marxism's mistaken overvaluing of political power and oversimplifying the human drives, the disappearing messianic pathos from the socialist worldview, etc, etc. He doesn't explicitly address the negative aspects of ego creation and identification, I think, but his concept of the "escape from freedom" — summarized in this book, but developed extensively in another obviously named book — carries with it a diagnosis that reminds me of Alan Watts's book The Wisdom of Insecurity, which I recommend to everyone.
posted by mbrock at 12:20 PM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is an important essay not because it so effectively criticizes the right. It's criticisms of the right are obvious. The implicit criticism is of the left.

Its criticisms of the left are also fairly obvious to anyone who's been paying attention.

I like Tony Judt, but I think he really kind of misses the point a bit fundamentally here. In particular, the decaying-moral-fiber-of-our-materialistic-youth argument is more than a little shopworn. The desire for material security is particular neither to the 1980s nor to the right, as Sam Gompers knew when he famously characterized the goal of organized labor as getting "more."
In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well. Today's schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.
To blame this state of affairs on some vague handwaving about ideals is to miss your own point. "An interesting career at a reasonable wage" is no longer a realistic goal for the average college student. The interesting careers to which a 1949 schoolboy might have aspired — in arts and letters, or the academy, or in public service — are now monopolized by the children of the ruling class who can afford to live off the accumulated wealth of their forebears while earning an entirely unreasonable wage (or no wage, as discussed in the unpaid internship thread of a few days ago). Moreover, even the less interesting but reasonably-paid careers in the middle of the wage spectrum are increasingly disappearing, and those that remain are becoming more difficult and less secure. It should come as no surprise that under these circumstances students are scrambling for the safest places to land they can find, fulfillment be damned. To go into contortions to paint this entirely predictable reaction to increasing material insecurity and loss of job control as symptomatic of some kind of Ayn Randian greed-is-good malaise of the spirit is typical of the weird Boomer antipathy toward economic improvements as the legitimate ends of social movements but a little disappointing nonetheless in an otherwise interesting piece.
posted by enn at 12:25 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


shivohum, do those statistics take into account the social safety net that exists in Sweden and Finland and does not in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh?

Probably not, but Judt's statement probably doesn't address those either. I mean, when most people talk about income inequality, they are talking about a simple, easily calculable and hard-to-dispute ratio of incomes, not the total package of benefits, I think. Because the latter's so much more subjective.

I mean, imagine a system which had a Swedish-style safety net but where the rich had extremely high incomes compared to the poor. The poor are better off there than in a country where everyone was uniformly poor. Also, the rich and poor are often using the same infrastructure, so that reduces inequality in a broad sense, like you suggest.

However, such a place is not a country where there is low income inequality in the conventional way people talk about income inequality. I mean, clothes dryers are rare in many parts of Europe, but they're common even among the poor in the United States. Does this mean that the poor are more equal to the rich in the United States in that respect? It should, but I don't think people who talk about income inequality take these kinds of factors into account, though I'm hardly an expert. It probably falls into far more disputed questions of the relative standard of living of rich and poor people, rather than income inequality per se.

--

How much human misery, wasted potential, anger, and hopelessness are elided in that nice, bloodless abstraction "income/wealth inequality [that] allows for long-term investments"?

How much misery, etc. were created by idealistic systems that didn't take account of economic realities and human nature?

I hope one of the products of the "income/wealth inequality" continuum doesn't decide to scone me a baseball bat. Wish me luck!

Heh.
posted by shivohum at 12:28 PM on April 10, 2010


shivohum, while I can appreciate your well written and rationally sound response, i have actually focused my efforts over the past three years on understanding the mindset, value system, buyer behaviour and decision making of those who are considered the 'bottom or the base of the pyramid' in social and economic terms, as well as how they manage their household expenses on irregular income streams.

to casually dismiss the impact - both tangible and intangible - of having a safety net, state supported as well as private systems and structures that 'work', public infrastructure - both access and quality - while focusing simply on absolute income viz.,

I mean, when most people talk about income inequality, they are talking about a simple, easily calculable and hard-to-dispute ratio of incomes, not the total package of benefits, I think. Because the latter's so much more subjective.
[...]
Does this mean that the poor are more equal to the rich in the United States in that respect? It should, but I don't think people who talk about income inequality take these kinds of factors into account, though I'm hardly an expert. It probably falls into far more disputed questions of the relative standard of living of rich and poor people, rather than income inequality per se.


is both demeaning to those at the lower income demographic (regardless of country of origin) as well as dismissive of the issues faced by them as well as the challenges posed by the increasing disparity.

Judt is talking about the increasing increasing disparity in the United States. Both the 'rich' and the 'poor' are exposed to the same systems, infrastructure and safetynets. Whereas, you brought in Sweden, Finland, compared them randomly to bunch of less developed countries and are now backpedaling by telling me that none of the above matters because most people are too ignorant of and incapable of taking all these contextual factors into consideration ?

Please.
posted by infini at 1:31 PM on April 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


15 charts about the "mindblowing" gap between rich and poor in America.

The reality is really vulgar.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:58 PM on April 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Infini, I'm simply saying that there's an inextricable confound between higher levels of absolute wealth in a country and lower levels of inequality, if inequality is defined in a broad sense. This really follows from the diminishing marginal utility of money. The poor in a rich country will rarely be nearly as bad off, broadly speaking, compared to their own country's rich, as the poor in a poor country. That's because having a third house or whatever is simply not as relevant a good for equality in a broad sense (ie equal chance to enjoy life, support your family, grow as a human being, etc.).

But Judt's article, if you note, does not talk about giving everyone basic provisions of life. That gospel - equal opportunity - is not what the income inequality folks are talking about. They want more equal distribution of property.

Of course, the two are intertwined, but they are not the same, and arguably equal (or "sufficiently equal") opportunity might be better guaranteed by a system that allowed for a great deal of inequality in property distribution (see John Rawls' difference principle) whereas equal result would want more equality in property distribution even if it meant lower absolute wealth levels.

It's this latter kind of equality Judt is talking about, and while social safety nets can tend to increase it, they could just as easily be applied to the more equal opportunity model which tolerates much greater income inequality.
posted by shivohum at 2:04 PM on April 10, 2010


very nice with the "simply saying"

so if I have confoundedly interpreted your complex sentence structure correctly, you're saying that equal opportunity is a continuously perpetuated myth in America, given that disparity of income (and property holdings, that is per five fresh fish's link, 50% of the population hold only 2.5 % of the wealth) is increasing and so the goalposts are always out of reach for the aspirants?
posted by infini at 2:47 PM on April 10, 2010


Hah, yes I guess that wasn't so simple after all. Actually, I'm saying that equality of opportunity can't necessarily be measured by property and income inequality.
posted by shivohum at 3:36 PM on April 10, 2010


I'm no fan of Judt. So it probably comes as no surprise that I find his rhetoric here facile at best, and nearly impossible to parse, in the main. As when, in his second sentence for this piece, he says
"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."
What the hell does that even mean? That we're desperate, as a nation, to buy Greek national debt in this present crisis, and then foreclose, so coming into possession of historically valuable ancient sites and artifacts, as possible new air base sites in a troubled region? The "pursuit of material self-interest" has typically been understood as the inclination of individuals to amass personal wealth; I don't know how you congregate that to "collective purpose," unless you are trying to make some long winded, tired argument about how evil Coca-Cola, U.S. Steel, General Motors, IBM, Microsoft and the other members of the Standard & Poor 500 are in their dealings with the disadvantaged of the rest of the world, as a result of being the de facto aggregators of the base desires for "material self-interest" of millions of individual and institutional investors.

Even Tea Party attendees, Randians and Libertarians laugh at sentences like that, these days.

Most of this article is just the same kind of empty Judt rhetoric that he's built a fan base on, in his public life, outside of academia. If you're a fan of Judt, fine, you're entitled to your predilections, I guess. But don't suggest that his series in the NYRB, or his latest books, are anything more than his "personal pursuit of material self-interest." Not that I begrudge him any royalties he earns (although his calls for greater altruism might have more moral weight if he, you know, donated his royalties to appropriate causes), even if they result from plugging his own books in NYRB column inches. ALS is a hella expensive disease to die of, and a horrifying one, and he'd be the very last person to die on a private health insurance policy, if by sticking around, however painfully, for one more day, he could somehow die on a government blessed one, thereby setting an example. So, good luck to him, if that be his ambition.

As one human being to another, I wish him a good death. As one human mind to another, I wish his were a quiet one, soon.
posted by paulsc at 3:47 PM on April 10, 2010


This really follows from the diminishing marginal utility of money.

And from the exponential growth of money. So long as we have interest, the wealthy can become wealthier exponentially faster than the poor. We need an inverse curve of applied taxation to counter the unreasonable results of exponential growth.

I am unable to think of any case where exponential growth has a good outcome. I think it is very unlikely that wealth is an exception.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:14 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


you're saying that equal opportunity is a continuously perpetuated myth in America

Check the 15 charts link. It is a myth: the poor don't have much of a chance to get up the ladder.

I think my previous post isn't an appropriate response to shivohum. I re-read his/her post several times over again, and I think I misunderstood; my response is a non sequitor.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:18 PM on April 10, 2010


As one human mind to another, I wish his were a quiet one, soon.

Paul, whatever your disagreements with Judt (and I would argue, like pastabagel, that you are not his audience), that is a very uncharitable and small statement. You are capable of better.
posted by smoke at 5:36 PM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


paulsc: What the hell does [we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest] even mean?

It means that although we don't agree on, or even really try to seriously discuss, our disagreements about ideals -- how we would like to see our society function -- we can all agree that there's something special about Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Donald Trump (although admittedly, most of the legends about Trump's wealth are just made up) as well as Paris Hilton. We don't have any kind of working vision of the way we want government to treat people -- the kind that social democracies in Western Europe sometimes have, and which serves them well -- but we can all agree to remain complicit in the domination of political speech by moneyed interests. We govern ourselves in part by a group consensus; Judt is saying that our consensus right now is an admiration and desire for massive wealth. That consensus is expressed in terms of 'individual rights', but practically, the system it creates centralizes our wealth in the hands of very very few.

Put another way, it means that a new generation of Christian preachers like Joyce Meyer teach very directly that obeying god will make you rich. That our children study business and not physics, engineering, theology or literature.
posted by Valet at 5:55 PM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


"... You are capable of better."
posted by smoke at 8:36 PM on April 10

That's a level of civility that calls for better, smoke. Kudos to you, and so, you shall have it.

And yet, what would you have me post, that is honest on my part, when Judt is making his imminent end, by a terrible disease, part and parcel of his continued public persona? Unlike Gehrig, Judt, apparently, doesn't consider himself "the luckiest man on earth." Judt, in fact, will go to his grave, dis-satisfied with the rest of us, of his "generation," on grounds such as these:
"In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a "lost generation."
He and I have no common memory of 1967, 1968, or 1969, or 1970, or 1971, or 1972, if he insists those were "easy for us." I was in school at what is now the University of Memphis, in 1969, in a very troubled city, where my white, bearded face on a city bus late at night, was sufficient reason for 15 or more tired black faces to get up and leave the bus, within 2 blocks, on a desolate section of Poplar Avenue in Midtown Memphis. My draft lottery number on that evening, in a small Kansas county, was 162, but there wasn't a chance anyone with less than a 4F deferment from my county, wasn't going to Vietnam. He and I have no common ground when remembering Newark or Detroit burning, or Kent State, or the day I went to Jackson State, from Memphis, in May, 1970, to see for myself the National Guard marching on a college campus, and firing into the brick of student dormitories, if not the open windows.

I don't need Judt's rhetoric, and he, apparently, doesn't need or want my memories, to make his "argument." Show me Judt's dated civil rights arrest records from that time, against statements he publishes today, such as I've quoted here, and I'll take thought for his continuing welfare, on grounds of his contribution of greater wisdom to our common understanding of history.
posted by paulsc at 6:11 PM on April 10, 2010


...if he insists those were "easy for us."

He means morally clear, right? With a strong sense of purpose? I don't think he was talking about lack of practical difficulties or lack of opposition.

Compare your experience in the 60s-70s to mine in the 90s, where the group struggle was to do as well as possible on our AP tests so that we could go to good schools and get good jobs. Your experience was not 'easier' as in I ever got tear gassed, or really had to do anything but sit at a desk -- but it sounds to me that you had a sense of higher purpose that my fellow-students and I didn't, and it sounds like you're very rightly proud of that purpose. This is what I think he means by 'easy' -- you have done something in your life for your fellow human, you have the ease of a clearer conscience. I can draw the Krebs acid cycle by hand as part of a complicated set of preparations for top-level employment.

I feel like we're reading different essays!
posted by Valet at 7:04 PM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


Paul, that's exactly what I would have you write, instead of wishing his death!

Engaging with your point, I think what Judt is arguing, is not that your generation had it easy, but rather that in possessing so many clear and immediate threats to your liberty, your ways of life, the worlds in which you wished to live, the terms of battle were clear cut, undeniable, and they required a response.

Moreover, the fight wasn't merely to escape the draft or what-have-you, but to live in a world where there was no draft, nor a need for it. There was a 'grand project', and its existence was a fundamental part of the discourse of the left. Politicians of the left, by engaging with the immediate considerations of the day - like the draft - could not help but becoming part of the larger discourse. Thus, there was not only a feeling of progress but a feeling of a need for progress.

Judt's contrast, is what the UK (and to a lesser degree Australia. I can't speak for America) would call "Third Way Labour" as typified by Tony Blair's time as PM. A time when the left may put a stake in the ground on particular issues (climate change, Iraq, health policy), but they have - by and large - accepted the tenets of the right. They are making an argument but implicitly agreeing to the terms of the debate. Part of this is what crude marxists would call capitalism, but I personally think it goes beyond this, to get a little hegelian I would say that Judt is arguing that the left has forgotten historicity, and with it a capacity for not only contextualising the past, but envisaging the future.

Now, I do think Judt - as most people when reminded of their mortality - is a little bit dewy-eyed about back in the day: these struggles and debates were always to a large degree a debate of vocal minorities. He also, I think, ignores what happened and is happening in the developing world, and the (sometimes inconvenient for his vision, certainly heterogeneous) political realities that accompanies those movements of the left.

So, in this respect, I think what Judt is really writing about is the identity and goals of the (somewhat) bourgeois left in developed countries. And I think a vision so restrictive is in many ways a prisoner to the very limitations he rails against. And we need to move well and truly beyond that to achieve what he is asking for. (I personally think that climate change and its associated problems will provide precisely the global platform and all-encompassing scope he talks about).

But, despite my criticisms, I think he has outlined an important issue for the broad left in developed countries, one that we cannot continue to sweep under the carpet - not only because of its effects in mainstream political discourse, but because the planet itself will brook little more equivocation. And I think this issue is extremely important, and I value anybody discussing it, and using their profile to talk about what - in many circles - is viewed as hopelessly naive, old-school, almost pre-modernist in its formulation.

The "safe" left-aligned leaders we supported for their capacity to change lead us into Iraq, dismantled our labor protections, turned away our refugees and continued playing the same game as their predecessors. To be satisfied with their peacemeal reform abrogates (in my view) our responsibility as private citizens to advocate for more - to be more. A responsiblity that politicians in our western, two party systems, feel is too sensitive, too risky for them to articulate, or even participate in (an assessment that, my own disappointment aside, I think is fair enough).
posted by smoke at 7:14 PM on April 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


As one human being to another, I wish him a good death. As one human mind to another, I wish his were a quiet one, soon.

What a small, nasty person would say this. Let's see... a god-fearing Christian - why, yes. Generally, skewing conservative - check. Ah, but this mind, no, I do not wish to be quiet... I wish it to keep spouting, so that we can always have a good example of what it stands for - and stands for so unsurprisingly. Children, time for a lesson: behold that mind - and when one day you can vote, don't ever forget what such minds stand for.

"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."

Veblen just spun in his grave.
posted by VikingSword at 8:43 PM on April 10, 2010


paulsc: "As one human being to another, I wish him a good death. As one human mind to another, I wish his were a quiet one, soon."

Am I misinterpreting what you wrote? Are you wishing that a sick man die as soon as possible? One, I'd add from reading this article, who seems to be a really decent human being.

To want someone to die just because he disagrees with your ideas is simply wrong. The fact that your ideas are poorly-thought-out and hostile is just icing on the cake.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:57 PM on April 10, 2010


[A few comments removed. Have your comma fight over email if you need to.]
posted by cortex at 7:32 AM on April 11, 2010


smoke: I would say that Judt is arguing that the left has forgotten historicity, and with it a capacity for not only contextualising the past, but envisaging the future.

I loved your post, but I never studied Hegel. Could you briefly unpack this for me? What is historicity and how would it enable one to envision the future?

Also: I too am interested in iamkim's question above, regarding whether there have "been any philosophers, historians and the like that have written modern essays about these topics with respect to ego or identity?"

mbrock suggested a book by Fromm, but that book was published in 1956. Are these sorts of books still capable of being written? Or is the lack of them just another signal that the left has lost its ability to make sense of the world?

Just wondrin!

Finally: kudos to valet, smoke, and paulsc for a very engaging debate. encore!
posted by Hobbacocka at 8:45 AM on April 11, 2010


"As one human mind to another, I wish his were a quiet one, soon."

My word...I don't really know what to say to that, other than that I have to assume this was a joke to retain a proper level of respect for you. If not, I'd recommend some self-examination.
posted by jaduncan at 1:28 PM on April 11, 2010


Sure, Hobbacocka. :)

Simply put, historicism is the view that a given society's norms and structure have been influenced by its historical development, as opposed to some kind of "natural" evolution, or an alignment that all works out for the best.

Hegel and Marx are probably best known for this kind of thinking - from a Marxist perspective it's relevant to Judt's criticisms because he's arguing that the broad left - even moreso post-Soviet collapse - now assumes that capitalism and, indeed, a particular type of capitalism, is the natural state of play, and it is within that framework the left must, not just operate, but also cogitate.

Marx's predecessor Hegel was a bit more encompassing than this, and it plays into what he called a "dialectic", essentially the historical dialogue of competing ideas. So for, Hegel, an idea's progression went along the lines of thesis (abstract), antithesis (negative), synthesis (concrete). Of course, the synthesis is itself a new idea, a new thesis, and thus represents the cycle begun anew, a kind of spirally corkscrew of humanity's development.

Seen through this lens, you could slot the intellectual approaches or 'eras' Judt outlines into different parts of a dialectic or history, and he's (naturally, as a first-rate historian himself) calling for an acknowledgement of this development in discussions for the modern left.
posted by smoke at 3:48 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]



posted by Hobbacocka at 8:24 AM on April 12, 2010


above: my - huh - moment.

that done, thanks!
posted by Hobbacocka at 8:25 AM on April 12, 2010


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