The Effects of Indifference
Ill Fares the Land is a somewhat philosophical study of the socio-economic and political troubles that have defined the latter half of the twentieth century. Tony Judt articulates several ways in which modern Western societies (particularly the United Kingdom and United States) have experienced a decline in social and financial poise, largely due to an abandonment of the vital economic and political commitments to the welfare state. The depletion of “good jobs”1 and poor planning has produced dismal consequences for supporting welfare programs that, among other things, reduce inequality and reinforce communal scope and responsibility. More importantly, the incessant propagation of certain deregulated economic activity and unmitigated political discourse has furthered this disproportion, while also desensitizing and demoralizing the public. Judt begins by reaffirming an important historical fact:
From the late 19th century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services and guarantees against acute misfortune, modern democracies were shedding extremes of wealth and poverty.2
Nevertheless, in about half a century much has changed. As Judt notes: “Since 1973, inequality in take-home pay increased more in the UK than anywhere except the US.”3 He argues that these consecutive years of socio-economic volatility have “convinced the English and Americans…that this is a natural condition of life about which we can do little.”4 Yet, the fundamental cause of this ‘condition’ happens to be inorganic, considering that wealth (money) is the primary measure of success or progress in contemporary society.
Judt recognizes that “our moral sentiments have been corrupted,”5 noting that “we have become insensible to the human costs of apparently rational social policies, especially when we are advised that they will contribute to overall prosperity and thus—implicitly—to our separate interests,”6 citing the 1996 Clinton-Gore “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”7 and 1991 Norwegian “Social Services Act”8 as notable past examples. In both aforementioned proposals, the goal was to “shrink the nation’s welfare rolls…by withholding welfare from anyone who had failed to seek (and, if successful, accept) paid employment…an employer could thus hope to attract workers at almost any wage he offered.”9 Furthermore, “welfare acquired an explicit stigma…a sign of personal failure.”10 Yet, as Judt writes, “relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the postwar decades.”11 So how is it that society experienced such a dramatic and fairly rapid shift in its position towards welfare and collective goals?
By the 1970s, there was an increasing sense that “the ‘responsible’ state was unresponsive to the needs and desires of those for whom it spoke…[this] contributed to a widening social gulf.”12 The subsequent ‘backlash’ prompted by this growing distrust took shape in what was appropriately dubbed the “new Left,”13 which “rejected the inherited collectivism of its predecessor [the old Left].”14 The public was no longer interested in the classic “debate between defenders of ‘capitalism’ and its critics; usually identified with one or another form of ‘socialism.’”15 Instead, they were united by a notion of ‘individualism,’ which Judt defines as “the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large.”16 Still, this was a distorted sense of ‘liberty,’ with much of the public discourse being centered on the topics of ‘identity’17 and individual rights at the expense of “a shared sense of purpose.”18
During the post-war decades, conservatism “was a minority preference.”19 Interestingly, Judt