With a crucial ‘mid-term’ election in the USA coming late this year, others in France, Germany, Hungary, the UK, and one this spring where I live, Ontario, Canada, I get a sense of foreboding at how pessimistic and cynical the public has apparently become.
Despite his adroit political handling of the response to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the problem of inflation, and earlier Covid-19, USA president Joe Biden seems to be slipping inexplicably in his approval ratings. With the hard-right Trumpists barely out of power, and still talking and behaving in outrageously dishonest ways, polls re the November elections suggest that the democrats are on the way to losing seats.
In Ontario where our conservative majority government (PC) looked to be headed for reduced seats and, at best, a minority govt, simply promising to return motor-vehicle licence plate fees of approx $100 yr (supposed to come in April – we don’t even have the money yet) has apparently caused a 14% rise in the polls for the PCs. Can votes be bought so cheaply?
What has gone wrong?
Whenever I find myself asking that question, one of the key thinkers I turn to is historian Tony Judt. He died prematurely in 2010 of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), at only 62 years old, but not before leaving us his thoughts on these growing problems.
Contrary to most people, Judt didn’t see the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 as a reason for festivity. While it was good to have a corrupt authoritarian government disappear, the problem he said was the other things that disappeared with it. In particular the ‘Left’ and social democracy began to fade.
The Left had been tied to a set of 19th century ideals, and 19th century language, he wrote. In his book Ill Fares the Land, written as he was dying, he added:
That is why the fall of Communism mattered so much. With its collapse, there unravelled the whole skein of doctrines which had bound the Left together for over a century. …..
This was a peculiarity of left-wing politics. Even if every conservative and reactionary regime …. were to implode tomorrow, its public image hopelessly tarnished by corruption and incompetence, the politics of conservatism would survive intact. The case for ‘conserving’ would remain as viable as ever. But for the Left, the absence of a historically-buttressed narrative leaves an empty space. All that remains is politics: the politics of interest, the politics of envy, the politics of re-election.
So, the need for what we have call socialism – a society in which we care about and look after each other, including the environment around us – is still there, but,
The problem today lies not in social democratic policies, but in their exhausted language.
By ‘exhausted language’ I think he means that our political language has become a set of political cliches, that the ideals that belong in politics have lost, or abandoned. The young people who are the future are uninspired by contemporary politics. Though they changed for a moment – came out in large numbers for Barack Obama – many of them have turned cynical again. If the USA democrats lose in November, it will be because of their reluctance to vote again.
Did Tony Judt have an answer? Not really. But he had a lot more to say in that book that is compelling on this issue. For example, under the heading of “The Ironies of Post-communism’, he added:
The only thing worse than too much government is too little ………..
The vision of total social organization ….. lies in ruins. But the question of how to organize ourselves for the common benefit remains as important as ever. Our challenge is to recover it from the rubble.
There is no shortage of people ……… today who would enthusiastically second the view that the point of political freedom is to make money.
On the cheering at the fall of the Soviet Union:
But why should the sight of a handful of greedy businessmen doing well out of the collapse of an authoritarian state be so much more pleasing to our eyes than authoritarianism itself? Both suggest something profoundly amiss in a society.
Yes, he was writing mainly about Europe then, especially eastern Europe, but if he were alive today I’m sure Tony Judt would agree with me that the disease has spread through most of the world. That’s why his closing words (which come from the book’s introduction), were these:
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.