Tony Judt's Last Prevarications
As a loyal though reluctant reader of The New York Review of Books – too masochistic an experience at times but in my line of work unavoidable – I have read a lot of essays by the recently deceased public intellectual and NYU professor Tony Judt. A skilled and erudite writer, with some subtlety to his viewpoint, Judt has been trying to juggle his social democratic stance with his recognition that socialism itself is no answer to our socio-economic wows. But his hostility to free market capitalism has shown through in most of his political writings. (You really cannot be a writer for TNYRB if you show even a minimal appreciation for that economic system, what with Paul Krugman at the helm of their team of economic pundits!)
In what is likely to prove to be his final piece for the magazine, published posthumously in the September 30, 2010, issue, Judt once again lashes out against all those who find the free market system a promising way to arrange a communty's economic affairs. In the piece, titled "Captive Minds" – recalling Czeslaw Milosz 1950s book by the same title – Judt engages in some character assassination directed at anyone who disagrees with his assessment of capitalism. As he writes, "But 'the market'--like 'dialectical materialism' – is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers – mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers – who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see."
To this Judt adds his demeaning, belittling, and snide comment about how those who find the free market superior to other systems of political economy suffer from a "collective inability to imagine alternatives," and similar unsubstantiated throwaway lines. Just like so many who complain about how you and I are stuck in a box we must escape, Judt ultimately wants us all to climb into his box mostly as a show of his version of compassion and kindness. (He even brings up Margaret Thatcher, quoting her saying about the free market that "there is no alternative," missing entirely the instructive fact that the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who shared Judt's politics, said exactly the same thing in an interview he gave to Alitalia's in-flight magazine back in the late 1980s.)
For Judt the respectable thing to do is to be "debating genuine competitive social models – whether social democratic, social market, or regulated market variants of liberal capitalism." Of course. The sole alternative that is verboten is one that spells complete freedom from government intrusion! Where would he and his ilk be if they didn't have a chance to whisper their instructions to politicians and bureaucrats?
Judt then lashes out, once again recklessly and indiscriminately, at all Americans, by quote Milosz saying "the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are." What bunk! The man of the East has nothing over the man of the West or North or South – what kind of geopolitical prejudice are we supposed swallow here?
Professor Judt (RIP) had some fine qualities, mostly a knack for observing and artfully recording elements of the ebb and flow of contemporary culture East and West, but as to political economy he was no more than a sophisticated sentimentalist (and someone whose elitist thinking fit perfectly with the editorial stance of The New York Review of Books).
Let me end with a personal note about Judt's slam against those who favor the free society, namely, that they suffer from a "collective inability to imagine alternatives." Not only have a lot of us who favor the fully free market system managed to imagine alternatives but we also experienced several of them, including Soviet style socialism, market socialism, and, of course, the regulated market.
Most of us have spent a career studying these as well as the free market so as to figure out what would suit human community life best, what would be the most fitting order for men and women embarking upon a successful (economic and related) life. And only after we have done our work reasonably thoroughly did most of us end up championing the system Judt held in such contempt. Nothing dogmatic here and to charge otherwise betrays intellectual laziness, the disinclination to argue things through.
Posted by Lila Rajiva on 10/02/10 04:10 PM
"other parts of the globe have their own sociopathic intellectual communities."
- true, but they have marginal or no global significance...mostly they aren't even influential in their own countries. NY writers are.
How to deal with the media?
They'll try to cut back in, by coopting language, themes, market.
Ignore them, except as subjects for deconstruction.
Posted by Cat Writer on 09/21/10 01:55 AM
Your characterisation of New Yorkers is accurate. However, other parts of the globe have their own sociopathic intellectual communities.
Your final statement is correct; however, these people get underfoot and in the way, just like cats wanting attention and food.
They surely merit no analysis, but neglect is not enough. What else is to be done?
Posted by Mark Humphrey on 09/20/10 02:56 PM
Listen to an authoritarian talk, and his demands always come down to this claim: "the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are."
Authoritarians love to argue that "facts are slippery" and that, in effect, no one can know anything ultimate, because knowlege is (supposedly) an illusion. In a world in which knowlege is impossible, they inform us, we need the guidance of inspired soothsayers endowed with the mysterious ability to see how things really are. These philosopher kings will tell us what to do. If we don't want to do it, they'll make us do it. Becuase we don't know, but they do.
Years ago, I read several chapters of "Women Who Run with the Wolves"--an anti-intellectual pot boiler in which the author set herself up as a witch doctor. Her motives seemed clear.
Posted by Bob Hand on 09/20/10 12:58 PM
@ DB and Lila,
Your comentaries, perhaps, are part of the same channel of thinking. I like what you have said.
Some people seem to be worried over the fragmantation of the Tea Party movement and/or the infiltration of it by power elite operatives. As for me, I think the thing to do is ignore all those who use only character assassination, inuendo, and name calling to fortify their arguments for more and more statism. Yes, ignore them. And go on growing the free-market thinking with its reasoned and logical analysis as if the others did not exist.
Despite current appearances, the end of statism might be in sight.
Posted by Puzzled on 09/20/10 08:59 AM
If I remember correctly, this country started out, after 1776, a free market republic, did we not? Haven't we experienced every other type of market since, now being socialist or monarchial? What is it we need now to get this nation back on it's feet?
It is Freedom from government taxes and constraints!
Someone, somewhere must have a list of Tea Party nominees to publish, so we the People can make our voices heard!
Let us the people, clean up Washington with true patriarchs.
Reply from The Daily Bell
Well, Puzzled, we are not so sure the answer lies in Washington. We do see the Tea Party movement growing, however, and eventually we expect it to delink, at least partially, from the political process. The evolution, if we are correct, is inexorable. The ramifications could be extraordinary.
Posted by Lila Rajiva on 09/20/10 08:09 AM
To my ear, the sophistication is only in the style.
These are people who only talk to each other and think all the wit on earth is contained in their rent-controlled coops. They think anything west of the Hudson is rural and red-neck.
And everything east of it is barbaric.
They merit neglect not analysis.