Ill Fares the Land

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Arnold Nursing Home, 7 Mile Road; photograph by Andrew Moore from Detroit Disassembled, just published by Damiani and the Akron Art Museum. For a slide show of Moore’s photographs, see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.

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.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.

For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for…


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