More on liberalism

Pankaj Mishra reviews Tony Judt’s posthumous Thinking the Twentieth Century, bringing up some of Judt’s criticisms of modern liberalism that resonate with yesterday’s quote from Fukuyama.

As the global recession deepened, Judt also recognised that the liberals promoting democracy abroad had missed the big ideological shifts at home. The obsession with GDP and the fetishisation of individual wealth had shifted public debate from the moral realm of redistribution and justice to the narrowly utilitarian one of productivity and growth. “I think,” he tells Snyder, “we really are the victims of a discursive shift, since the late 1970s, towards economics. Intellectuals don’t ask if something is right or wrong, but whether a policy is efficient or inefficient.” Judt hoped that the young, forced now to deal with the mess left behind by his generation, would rediscover “the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes.”

Mishra is skeptical:

This reinvention of social democracy was, as Judt himself probably recognised, too optimistic (and, in America, positively utopian). Proposing it, he seemed to be nostalgic about the immediate postwar era in which a nanny state nurtured middle-class intellectuals like himself. “The great victors of the twentieth century,” he tells Snyder, “were the nineteenth-century liberals whose successors created the welfare state in all its protean forms.”

His foray into intellectual antiquarianism not only simplified the history of capitalism; it also ignored the extent to which welfare-state liberalism depended on its existential rivalry with communism and the continuing economic somnolence of the “east” beyond the Aegean Sea. Not surprisingly, liberals nowadays offer no real solution, apart from a warmed-over Keynesianism, to the severest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s.

Judt, too, failed to see how liberalism, quietly complicit in the long history of unregulated capitalism outside the west, could not but fail to respond to the inequities of liberal capitalist democracy in the west itself, let alone the new threats of environmental degradation. Still, one cannot point out the limitations of Judt’s thought without admiring how intrepidly he, in his last years, pushed its limits—an intellectual journey that promised many more surprises when it was cruelly curtailed.

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