Friday, March 19, 2010

Judt on Europe

Here is an interview with Tony Judt in the LRB.

It is somewhat remarkable that he is able to say 'we' just as easily about the US as about Europe. I wonder how many public intellectuals today would claim both these identities?

Asked about courage in politicians, Judt sensibly points out that courage isn't really an asset for democratically elected politicians. But he goes on,

My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I am more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it, and many names could be added. It is a generation that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political. There were no wars they had to fight. They did not have to fight in the Vietnam War. They grew up believing that no matter what choice they made, there would be no disastrous consequences. The result is that whatever the differences of appearance, style and personality, these are people for whom making an unpopular choice is very hard.

Although I'm not exactly well placed to disagree, I'm a bit surprised at the diagnosis. I would have said that this generation of politicians, rather than believing that any choice would be fine, never believed that there really was a choice to make at all. Any strong choice is a disastrous choice. This is, I would have thought, the point of the so-called 'Third Way,' and the gap between the youthful experience of 1968 and the 'mature' one of the 1990s.

Also striking are some brief reflections on the increasing uselessness of mass protest. I would like to hear more from Judt about what he thinks the relationship should be between such street-protest, the institutions--levers--he invokes, and democratic government as such. The interviewer's question is in italics.

In Greece, we saw mass protests, aimed in part at a neoliberal economic system that has generated increasing inequality and has left young people feeling they have no prospects. Yet there seemed to be an enormous disconnect between the protesters and their government, and an even greater one with Brussels. How have we reached the point where people on the streets don’t matter?

Part of the answer is that this is just as true in big countries. In London there were two million people protesting against the Iraq war, but the government took no notice, and it made no difference at all. So the disconnect is universal. Why? It would be hard to give a complete picture. However, what we might call a ‘connect’ only lasted for a very short time. It began in the late 19th century with mass newspapers, mass literacy, speed and ease of communication and, especially, trains. Governments were forced to be very responsive to popular feeling. They felt very vulnerable. Elections could remove them from power and if elections didn’t work, then the masses on the streets might achieve the same result. After World War Two governments retreated from politics. The French economic plan, for example, was not decided by the parliament, but by administrators and bureaucrats. The EU was institutionally invented by bureaucrats. The first elections were held only in 1979. Until then there were no elections, no polls, no votes, nothing. There was a feeling, partly a consequence of Fascism, that you couldn’t trust mass opinion any more. It was not reliable. Not only were the masses willing to throw you out, they might be willing to overthrow the whole system. Steadily from the 1950s onwards the influence of the street, of the media, newspapers, public opinion, of ideology, was pushed further and further away from the actual decision-making processes. In the end it wouldn’t matter very much anymore if you threw out the government since it wouldn’t change the fundamental policies, institutions, laws of the country or direction of the majority of the issues of public policy.

It’s only now that we are really seeing the results of a process that has been going on for a long time. Much of the 1960s, which I remember as a student, was about the argument that governments were losing touch with popular opinion and preferences, particularly with the young, and that the only way to reconnect was on the street. Now we are realising that even that doesn’t work anymore. The old ways of mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas, trade unions and political parties to leverage public opinion into political influence – they are no longer there. Yet you need those levers. Without them people jumping up and down on the street do nothing. They don’t matter even if they are in the capital and even if there are millions of them. We destroyed the levers of popular politics or allowed them to be destroyed. We are left with people as individuals, and when people come together as individuals they can only come together either to do one big demonstration or to communicate through the internet as verbal pressure groups at an election. The combination of the physical mass and political leverage has been lost.

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