What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy? by Tony Judt

Tony Judt and William Beveridge were great progressives and crusaders for the social state. In the US, the middle class benefited enormously in the postwar years from subsidized housing and subsidized education. Why is it we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present.

to read Tony Judt’s essay “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy? published on December 17, 2009, click on


“Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, “A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind.” For the purposes of mental emancipation this evening, I propose that we take a minute to study the history of a prejudice: the universal contemporary resort to “economism,” the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs.

For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.

We have been here before. In 1905, the young William Beveridge—whose 1942 report would lay the foundations of the British welfare state—delivered a lecture at Oxford in which he asked why it was that political philosophy had been obscured in public debates by classical economics…”

Minds like parachutes work best when opened. Without facing market failure and state failure, we live in a world of selective perception and neoliberal myths – as though the 1930s Great Depression and the 2008 financial meltdown never happened!

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1 Response to What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy? by Tony Judt

  1. Marc says:

    Neoliberalism began as an ideology and became a quasi-natural mystification where adjustment is survival, ruthlessness, avarice and selfishness are virtues and sharing, the social state and solidarity are degraded to pre-modern tribalism. The market and competition become fetishes and mystifications and day is sold as the night. Neoliberalism crushes curiosity, free time and rhythm and stylizes difference as a threat not a strength and sets survivalism above solidarity. The social state is not Bolshevism but the future!

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