Tony Judt on the State, Democracy and Religion

A recent interview with Tony Judt is of great relevance to the extended debate triggered by Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy. It touches on our conceptions of the state, democracy, religion and politics. It also reiterates the importance of conversations across ideological divides as a means to improving our understanding of the issues that are critical in our times. In this post we reproduce key excerpts and provide a link to the complete interview at the end.

You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The “liberal state” itself is a historically specific creation, isn’t it?

… With globalization, with the fear of economic change, with the insecurities that the twenty-first century is going to bring, which are going to be far greater than those of the twentieth, the level of insecurity is going to have the paradoxical effect of throwing people back on the state much more, looking to it for everything from medical protection to physical protection to job guarantees to protection against outside competition and such. So the question is not going to be, Will there be an activist state? The question is going to be, What kind of an activist state?

And that brings us to the second consideration, which is how we think about it. We’ve emerged from a twentieth century which we’ve learned to think of as a kind of seventy-year running battle between the over-mighty state and the wonders of individual freedom. Extreme forms of individualism versus extreme forms of collective enforced authority. Roughly speaking, Stalin versus the tea party. That’s a caricature of the twentieth century. But it’s one that we have to a large degree internalized, so when people think of the political choices facing them, they think of them in terms of maximized individual freedom versus maximized collective repression, or power or authority or whatever. And then they think of any changes with one or the other, regrettable compromises with freedom or so on. We need to change that conversation so we can think of the state not as some external creature that history has imposed upon us but simply as a way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves. In that sense the liberal state either has a future or it doesn’t, but it really is up to us.

So democracy becomes a real problem, right? If people continue to choose inequality, what can you do?

Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally–and it really is accidentally–get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies…  Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it’s not accidental that everyone is now a democrat…  Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high. The question is, What do we do now, in a world where, in the absence of liberal aristocracies, in the absence of social democratic elites whose authority people accept, you have people who genuinely believe, in the majority, that their interest consists of maximizing self-interest at someone else’s expense? The answer is, Either you re-educate them in some form of public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism…

Where is religion in Ill Fares the Land? You remark that “most people” have dispensed with it, but certainly in the United States it hasn’t gone anywhere.

… What’s missing from public conversation and public policy conversation is precisely a sort of moral underpinning, a sense of the moral purposes that bind people together in functional societies.

… What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy, so that abortion is a terrible thing and a necessary thing, and both statements are true. You see what I mean?… Then you could learn to think of difficult moral issues as part of social policy rather than just screaming at each other from either side of a moral barrier. Then we could reintroduce what look like religious kinds of conversations into national social policy debates.

I come from a very religious background, and it seems to me that people on the left are so embarrassed about the language of morality that they’ve ceded the ground to the right.

I totally agree. I think it’s a catastrophe for both sides. What it means for the left is that it’s got no ethical vocabulary. What it means for the right is that it smugly supposes that it’s got a monopoly on values. Both sides are completely wrong… I’d like to say parenthetically that I come out of a sort of secular dissenting Jewish background… in which there was a natural correspondence of social values and ethical criteria. And the divorce between them has been one of the disastrous results of the last half-century. I’d love to contribute to re-forming that link.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Ill Fares the Land is a book for anyone who cares about the collective world that we live in and are making for ourselves, whether we like it or not. It’s not a book written with a view to presenting a solution to a fixed set of problems, saying, Read this and do that. It’s a book deliberately designed to ask what’s wrong, how should we talk about it, how should we think about fixing it. And that’s all that it should be. Anything more than that would close off conversation. I want to open it up.

The complete interview is highly recommended and can be accessed here. The lecture and essay mentioned in the interview are archived here on this blog.


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