Tony Judt’s Last Prevarications
Tibor R. Machan
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.