a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Tony Judt: asking questions about state

Posted on the January 11th, 2010

Speaking of the idea of social democracy. For several weeks now on my computer desktop I’ve kept a link to a recent essay by Tony Judt (“What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy” The New York Review of Books, Dec 17, 2009).

I give sixteen thumbs up to this essay. It brings attention to what I think is one of the thorniest problems facing political progressives – how do you persuade people to think with an open mind about what kind of government serves them best?

Judt’s essay helps answer this question. He traces the historical influences that are shaping — and misshaping —  our public conversation about government, and he sketches a roadmap out of the ideological swamp this conversation often sinks into.


“…Margaret Thatcher reportedly asserted that “there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and families.” But if there is no such thing as society, merely individuals and the “night watchman” state—overseeing from afar activities in which it plays no part—then what will bind us together? We already accept the existence of private police forces, private mail services, private agencies provisioning the state in war, and much else besides. We have “privatized” precisely those responsibilities that the modern state laboriously took upon itself in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

What, then, will serve as a buffer between citizens and the state? Surely not “society,” hard pressed to survive the evisceration of the public domain. For the state is not about to wither away. Even if we strip it of all its service attributes, it will still be with us—if only as a force for control and repression. Between state and individuals there would then be no intermediate institutions or allegiances: nothing would remain of the spider’s web of reciprocal services and obligations that bind citizens to one another via the public space they collectively occupy. All that would be left is private persons and corporations seeking competitively to hijack the state for their own advantage.”

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  1. […] nails down about some of the meatier issues at the center of the accelerating conversation about social democracy versus free market […]