Land of the Lost

Atlanticism lives. Berlin, 2010.

It is now nearly a decade since the death of Tony Judt. Judt’s work continues to present challenges, not least to those on the political left, of which he was a precise and unsparing (and occasionally irascible) critic. It is often the lot of the historian to have their work superseded. Societies and individuals alike abide in the darkness of the lived moment, creating post facto narrative to explain the products of immediate experience. One remarkable aspect of Judt’s work is its continuing capacity to generate interesting questions and perspectives even as the moment and circumstances of composition became ever more distant.

Among Judt’s manifold skills was his excellence as a reviewer. This quality was, perhaps, often lost on the subjects of his reviews. His scholarship was extensive and he was one of the most thorough and perceptive readers of texts. But he was also unstinting in his criticisms of the works that came under his scrutiny. In this respect, his work resembled that of the young Geoff Eley: the greater the praise found in the early sections of any review, the more precise and lacerating the critique to be found later on.

Both aspects of Judt’s writing, the laudatory and the critical, can be found in plenitude in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008). This collection of essays contains appreciations of the work of some of the most important intellectual figures of the last century, including Arthur Koestler, Manès Sperber, Hannah Arendt, and Leszek Kołakowski, as well as appreciations of contemporary works by the likes of Ernest May, William Bundy, and John Lewis Gaddis. Contained therein is a wealth of material from which to form a judgment about both Judt’s (prodigious) scholarship and his analysis of the modern world.

A full appreciation of this text must await a subsequent piece (or, given the incredible variety of themes and topics addressed, series of pieces). Here, I will limit myself to a discussion of some diagnoses and prognoses contained in Judt’s introductory essay, “The World We Have Lost.” There are other essays (or monographs) wherein one might search for the essence of Judt’s views. But this particular essay contains an account of the pathologies of modern political and scholarly culture which are particularly apposite to the moment in which we find ourselves.

Writing in 2007, Judt lamented the failure to make use of the opening presented by the era between 1989 and 2001. “In decades to come we shall, I think, look back upon the half-generation separating the fall of Communism in 1989-91 from the catastrophic American occupation of Iraq as the years the locust ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic.”

In this, subsequent events have proved Judt correct. On September 12th, 2001, the United States could have put itself at the head of a worldwide movement to resolve whatever problem of humanity might have seemed apposite. The 1990s were mostly taken up with the tech boom, and the appropriation of previously conservative ideas by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Instead of crafting stronger institutions either domestically or internationally, the North Atlantic democracies boggled, awash in cash from rapid growth and uninterested in any greater engagement with the less developed world than debt repayment and the imposition of the Washington consensus.

It was supposed by many in politics and the media that 9/11 opened up a new world, fundamentally disconnected from what went before. But history is never as easily dispensed with as that. As the United States and its allies began coming to terms with what was new, it seemed that elements of the previous order returned repeatedly like a sort of historical reflux.

In “The World We Have Lost,” Judt argued that two features of the contemporary world were central to its peculiar contours: historical amnesia and the disappearance of the intellectuals. The former robs our understanding of the current moment of its context. The latter deprives us of and organized culture of argument and understanding that played a crucial part in shaping the self-conception of the modern era.

The historian Richard White once wrote, “History is the enemy of memory.” Perhaps matters are slightly more complicated than that, but Judt showed himself in his scholarly work to be the enemy of certain kinds of memory. “The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory,” Judt noted, “are either avowedly nostalgio-triumphalist—praising famous men and celebrating famous victories—or else, and increasingly, opportunities for the acknowledgement and recollection of selective suffering.”

The transformation of memory (and also of history) into a sort of simplified, didactic enterprise geared to the production of easily digested lessons was, for Judt, anathema. While it was possible to learn from history, it was also the case that it had to be appreciated in all its manifold complexity. This, as readers of Judt’s often acid commentary on various historical figures and personages will recall, certainly did not preclude the exercise of judgment. But such judgments had always to be made on the terrain of the most extensive engagement with available facts, and the willingness to embrace truths that were difficult, or unpopular, or (occasionally) distasteful.

Judt commented perceptively on the changes in modern ecology of information. He argued that the modern era had been shaped by a process of fragmentation which made the common bases for argumentation and understanding decreasingly robust:

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, most people in the world had limited access to information; but within any one state or nation or community they were all likely to know many of the same things, thanks to national education, state-controlled radio and television, and a common print culture. Today, the opposite applies. Most people in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa have access to a near infinity of data. But in the absence of any common culture beyond a small elite, and not always even there, the particular information and ideas that people select or encounter are determined by a multiplicity of tastes, affinities, and interests. As the years pass, each one of us has less in common with the fast-multiplying worlds of our contemporaries, not to speak of the world of our forebears.

It has become common for scholars of all political tendencies to decry our post-truth society and to blame structuralism, post-structuralism, and a range of other anti-foundationalist intellectual movements for our current inability to agree on a common set of facts and narratives. But surely it is this massive expansion of the volume of available information and media content that is to blame, rather than the writings of a small subset of French and North American scholars whose actual work is little read and less understood.

Judt’s second major point, the decline of intellectuals, especially public intellectuals, ties into the first in important ways. The 20th century was the high point of the influence of intellectuals on public culture. This was true in the 1920s and 1930s, but especially in the era of the Cold War. Both sides of the conflict sought to press their case with a public more literate than ever before through a range of media: libraries, middlebrow journals, and talks and seminars, and a range of organizations such as the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the Kulturbund, geared to promoting them.

One might conclude that, as with so many other things (the welfare state for instance), the end of “actually existing socialism” led to the decline of public intellectual culture. Judt, lamented the decline of liberal public intellectuals in an essay also contained in Reappraisals but noted in a coda the irritation that he had caused some leftist intellectuals by limiting his consideration to people with enough public profile to matter.

Judt wrote copiously about the homeless (with Mannheim we might call them “free-floating”) intellectuals of the 20th century, figures like Manès Sperber or Arthur Koestler whose peregrinations were an expression of their lack of connection with particular places and cultures. The loss of a culture of public argumentation has synergized with the disintegration of the store of common information leading to a situation in which the public sphere is the preserve of technocrats and paid scribblers.

We live now, as Judt and others have noted, in an unpolitical, or a postpolitical age. In perhaps the most important passage in “The World We Have Lost,” Judt speculated about the possible pathologies that might arise from this:

It is not only nature that abhors a vacuum: Democracies in which there are no significant political choices to be made, where economic policy is all that really matters—and where economic policy is now largely determined by nonpolitical actors (central banks, international agencies, or transnational corporations)—must either cease to be functioning democracies or accommodate once again the politics of frustration, of populist resentment. Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe offers one illustration of how this can happen; the political trajectory of comparably fragile democracies elsewhere, from South Asia to Latin America, provides another. Outside of North America and Western Europe, it would seem, the twentieth century is with us still.

It is not hard to make the intellectual leap from this proposition to the rise of actual populisms in Europe and to that of Donald Trump in the United States. In both cases, the proximate cause is a breakdown of democratic institutions arising from a breakdown of democratic culture. Much of Mr. Trump’s electoral base is the class conscious white suburbanites, voting in clear recognition that his programs are basically an expressing of their own self-interested worldview, and less educated whites struggling to hold off the dangers of a world now clearly beyond their control.

This is, in a sense, is the pathology of the post-intellectual modern. The running of modern mass industrial democracies has been turned over to technocrats and wonks, whose very demeanour is off-putting, in increasing measure as one descends the income distribution. We have lost the capacity that once rested on the critical public sphere to rationally consider options for life and social organization. Perhaps it was always tenuous, and perhaps Judt’s faith in it represents a sort of epigonal liberal romanticism. But there were, and are, a lot of worse ways of making social and political choices. In the next decades, we may learn this bitterly.

It is also worth noting that Judt’s solutions, to the extent that he offered any, were usually unsatisfactory. The idea of relearning to think the state, which for him implied a recognition that the state did things well and others poorly, was an attempt to find a line between the extremes of totalitarianism and neoliberal anarchism. But neither of these political pathologies was a matter of a simple failure to think, but rather expressions of interests backed up by the willingness to employ violence. Judt also, arguably, undervalued the capacity of the state to organize markets. Certainly, the attempts to do this by communist regimes in the 20th century were brutal and inefficient, but to assume, as Judt did, that this is an intrinsic deficiency of socialism takes insufficient account either of the circumstances under which communist economies were organized or the transformation of conditions that advances in automation and computing power have wrought.

The foregoing hardly does justice to Judt’s dense and substantial arguments. Even within the confines of “The World We Have Lost,” there is a wealth of substance and nuance that defies brief summary. The shelf life of contemporary history is often quite short, but Judt’s writings repay close study, if for no other reason than the access they provide to a mode of intellectual life that was politically and morally engaged. This is lacking today, and the consequences of this absence may put the now-forgotten terrors of the 20th century in the shade.

Photo courtesy of Fridolin freudenfett . Used under a creative commons license.