Tony Judt, 1948-2010

Tony Judt passed away last Friday after a torturous two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – a degenerative neurological condition to which there is no cure. Best known for his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt flirted with both Marxism and Zionism during his days as a student at Cambridge before becoming a consistent defender of social democratic principles. A vocal critic of Israel and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, he caused a wide ripple of controversy in 2003 with the publication of his essay “Israel: The Alternative,” where he called for a one-state solution to the conflict.

Judt first went public with his disease last fall, when he addressed an audience at NYU’s Remarque Institute, which he established in 1995. The lecture, titled “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?” and given with clearly visible effort on Judt’s part, for by then he could no longer move or breathe on his own, received wide acclaim as kindling a hope for a return to a form of social democratic politics based on commonly shared principles and public goods. I expressed some qualified reservations about Judt’s reasoning upon hearing the lecture and reading its transcription in the New York Review. Yet there’s no question that it will go down as a testament to his legacy as a public intellectual  – one who straddled the line between academia and timely commentary in a way that few were capable of.

One can’t help but have the feeling Judt still had much more to say and write. He deserves to be remembered as one of the best and brightest intellectuals of our time.

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Social democracy and the State

What is living and what is dead in social democracy? asks Tony Judt in what will probably be his last piece for the New York Review of Books. Sadly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease last year, Judt delivered this lecture at NYU back in October. In it he lamented the increased privatization of public industries and services. Judt argues that the ideals carried by social democracy in the early 20th century are impossible to revitalize today, but that we should still focus on the state as the bulwark for mitigating the damages of privatization. Furthermore, according to him we must redefine the economistic terms on which we think about society and its needs.

There is something hollow in Judt’s analysis. Perhaps the most prominent critique against social democracy is precisely that its reliance on the state is an anachronism. Instead of learning to “think the state once again,” as Judt suggests, we should begin to think how we can provide alternatives to the state while still providing public goods to all. Interestingly, Judt identifies the state with the public realm, arguing that it is needed because it, and not society, is what binds citizens together. In the past I would have been more convinced by this rationale than I am now. The public services that the state provides–transportation, health care, and so forth–are clearly not the same as the public we speak of when talking about citizenship and the political realm. To equate public services with the political public is to play a game of reductionism that ultimately does lead to still calling upon the regulative and administrative functions of the state.

Judt does make one interesting, although tangential, point: “It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project.” Where does this leave the left today? Is it supposed to accept this trade off and actively propagate a form of conservatism by defending the state, as Judt thinks? To me this seems to go directly against his own skepticism about social democracy in the 21st century. Instead, without any idea of universal teleology to back it, the goal of the left should be to innovate new ways of thinking about both socialism and democracy, and so fill a much needed conceptual void.