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Ill Fares The Land – Tony Judt (2010)

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Free market atrocities have to be balanced by government. Judt describes how the wellfare state, built upon the ruins of the Second World War, has been squandered since Reagan and Thatcher adopted neo-liberal market fundamentalism. Every statesman and citizen should read this book. I think the argument is powerful and of life-saving importance. On top of that, I like timely and seemingly-pathetic statements.

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Social democracy and the nation state are severely underrated. The trust we have put on liberal market economy has induced still-increasing intra-state inequality that has disastrous consequences for our societies. For me this is the main point of Tony Judt’s powerful account of current day political affairs and our ‘current discontents’ in particular.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. (Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, 1770)

Every statesman and citizen should read this book. I think the argument is powerful and of life-saving importance. On top of that, I like timely and seemingly-pathetic statements.

Interesting is how Judt rejuvenates the ‘social question’, referring to a pre-first world war political discourse. Indeed the question seems relevant again: “how was a liberal society to respond to the poverty, overcrowding, dirt, malnutrition and ill health of the new industrial cities?” (p. 174). This question has been properly addressed earlier, but poverty “has increased steadily since the 1970s in the US, the UK and every country that has modeled its economy upon their example.” (p. 175).

While states have interfered ferociously since 2008, the prevailing ideas about government still circle around free market economy and minimal state intervention. Judt proves this thinking wrong. “We would all liek a nice playing field in our village, just as we would all like a good rail service to the nearest town, a range of shops carrying the goods we need, a conveniently-sited post office and so forth. But the only way we can be made to pay for such things – including the free riders among us – is by general taxation” (p. 206).

The state is needed for providing services that the market simply will not deliver (like public transport), and for protecting the market from distortions by “monopolies, trusts, unions, etc.”, (p. 203) and to “contain the effects of immoderate gains.” (p. 204). The recent large-scale bank bailouts seem to underwrite this argument seamlessly, as “governments and central bankers have performed remarkable policy reversals, liberally dispersing public money in pursuit of economic stability and taking failed companies into public control without a second thought.” (p. 7)

The effects of inequality constitute the main argument of the book: as (welfare)states have been dismantled starting in the 1970s inequality has risen with devastating effects. Highly unequal societies have less healthy citizens who are less socially mobile, are more criminal and have more mental illnesses than their more equal counterparts. (p. 15-19) Trust is also undermined by inequality: “the more equal a society, the greater the trust” (p. 66).

Morality has given way for unchecked capitalism. (p. 37). Greed and selfishness have been suppressed by the implications of the two World Wars, but returned just as quickly as the first post-war (babyboom) generation rose to power.

“Privatization is inefficient,” Judt argues (p. 109), as many public goods like roads are inherently unattractive to investors and thus have to be offered at discount prices while ultimately risks will be covered as in case of impeding default of for example a railway the state will eventually pick up the bill (p. 111).

Gated communities are “excessive exercises in the ‘privatization’ of daily life [that] actually fragment and divide public space in a way that threatens everyone’s liberty” (p. 128). They are signs of a democratic deficit, inherently present in systems of indirect representation, which is problematic because both citizens then deny responsibility and rulers are prone to exercise dishonest authoritarian excess (p. 132). “We no longer have political movements” (p. 134), and the younger generation defaults to supporting NGO’s when they feel responsibility.

“for the Left, the absense of a historically-buttressed narrative leaves an empty space” (p. 142). “The problem today lies not in democratic polities, but in their exhausted language (p. 144). While socialism as a discourse and ideology mutes conversations (at least in the US), social democracy is far from dead and should be revived. Something has to be done; “We need to act upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe” (p. 166).

The empty space could be answered by reacting to José Harris’ question: “under what conditions it is possible and worthwhile for men as a whole to live” (p. 176). We are entering an “age of uncertainty” because “a growing number of people will have good reason to fear job loss and long-term redundancy” (p. 177). Dependency upon the state will have to be an outcome.

Moderation and – other – new social values will be needed (p. 181), along with new sets of shared values with inherently conflicting properties; freedom vs. equality, wealth creation vs. environmental protection (p. 183).

Solutions begin with striving towards equality (p. 184). This increases social cohesion (p. 185). Increased educational opportunities will enable populations to “lead better lives” and “adapt faster and at less cost to disruptive technical change” (p. 186). This in my opinion will prove crucial in dealing with today’s turbulent world.

Ill Fares the Land – Tony Judt. London: Penguin, 2010.