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Ill Fares The Land: A Treatise On Our Present Discontents
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
When I started to read this book the riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester had just kicked off. They only lasted a few days but brought with them fear, anger and alienation to be followed speedily by blame and retribution and much confusion and soul searching. Something was clearly amiss.....

Tony Judt's book is a little gem. He challenges the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher and their ideas on free market capitalism. Material self-interest dominated for thirty years but has led to a more unequal and less happy society. The trickle down effect has simply not trickled down enough.

For such a complex subject this book is brief and concise in its statements and arguments. This is both a plus and a minus. It is not a difficult read (though I needed the dictionary for "fungible"!) but I sometimes wanted to delve further into his arguments and tease out some of his ideas.

His ideas are based on the social democratic model - and he is willing to challenge many of the current political ideas. He is particularly interesting on what should be run by the state and what can be safely left to private individual. "Why are we so sure that some planning, or progressive taxation, or the collective ownership of public goods, are intolerable restrictions on liberty; whereas closed-circuit television cameras, state bailouts for investment banks `too big to fail', tapped telephones and expensive foreign wars are acceptable burdens for a free people to bear?"

By the time I finished reading Ill Fares the Land the Occupy Movement had started in New York and quickly spread round the world. These activists do not have all the answers but in highlighting the differences between the 1% and the 99% they are asking plenty of challenging questions. Tony Judt would have approved.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2012
Most of this book is a distillation of the broad critique of the post-banking crisis shared by most cultural critics. The crash horribly exposed a number of fictions discussed and dismissed in this book: that markets are always self-correcting; that making the rich richer helps the poor; that privatization produces efficient public services; that regulation is bad, but taxation is worse and so on. This we know for ourselves, through direct experience and some embarrassment about our silence as the banks took control of the world's economy knowing that if the risks they took didn't turn out there was always the taxpayer to bail them out. There is little original in this, though this is not to say it does not bear repeating regularly, or that Judt, even whilst dying, produced anything other that crystal clear prose in setting out the case.

For me, the more interesting diversions are the Marxist interpretation of the real impact of technology in deskilling the workforce and the call to arms of a generation (my own) who have been hitherto silent about the conduct of public life and politics, and have pursued more selfish interests as a means of fulfilment. For this much, Judt should be properly lauded, castigating as he does the know-nothing politicians of our time, content with the egoism of power, uninterested in their responsibility and bereft of capacity to respond to a changed world. Where I would diverge from his thinking is in suggesting the state is all we have. All states, especially the United States as the economic bully-boy of the West, ought now to be considered as failures, especially in the Keynesian terms that Judt likes to invoke. What will replace them is by no means yet clear, though it seems likely that if the powerful economic interests get their way, it won't be anything benign or offer much protection for ordinary people.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 17 September 2010
This is quite simply the best single book that anyone who is trying to understand what is going on in our present troubled times should read. It is a book which soars far above the petty squabbles of our career seeking and venal politicians and shows how the long term tide of history both limits what can be done for the human condition and shows what each of us could do to get politicians to think about something other than the next election.

Poignantly the book was written, or rather dictated, as Tony Judt was dying of motor neurone disease. In a final effort of will he distilled his immense historical knowledge into a short book where each page reminds us of the scars of the past and how easy it is to fall into the same traps into which our parents and grandparents fell.

It has often been said that 'happy is the country which has no history' we should perhaps add 'happier is the country which remembers its history - and learns from a great historian'.
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70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on 17 April 2010
This is a stunning essay by one of our best historians on how far western societies have fallen in the last 30 years in the pursuit of efficiency. Doom and gloom books are ten a penny these days - full of ecological disasters, commercial greed, academic simpletons and political pygmies. Prescriptions are rather more rare (Will Hutton and David Korton are exceptions). Probably only a historian can give us this sort of perspective on how the model of "social democracy" which seemed to have emerged a stunning victor in the ideological struggle of the 20th century so quickly was consigned, in its turn, to the waste basket. And with what catastrophic results. Of course, we have heard the story of neo-liberalism and its legacy many times before. But, generally, from journalists, economists or campaigners in a fairly strident manner. Judt suggests the story is a bit more complicated - with the new left having to shoulder considerable blame for its stress in the 1960s on "rights". "However legitimate the claims of individuals and the importance of their rights, emphasising these carries an unavoidable cost; the decline of a shared sense of purpose" Gated communities are the result. The book's language is simple to the point of elegance - probably because his debilitating illness required it to be transcribed from his spoken word. But the words (and chapter headings and sub-headings) reflect the vast range of his reading and knowledge. This is a very rare book in which a highly intelligent and sensitive historian takes stock of what he has learned in his life - in an effort to give the younger generation both a memory and some hope.
I was initially disappointed at the smallness of the book - but its contents and message and the format given to it by the publisher make it a book to treasure and consult for a long time to come
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 28 August 2012
Tony Judt detects signs of failure within the Western political discussion. With a foot on either side of the Atlantic, he dissects the post-war political and social consensus with a particular focus on the last 30 years ending in the 2008 financial crash. His conclusions include the undirected extension of the state, the increasing tensions between the private and public sectors and the increasing lack of any real national conversation about politics as it becomes dominated and annexed by a professional political class, a partisan media and `experts' (predominantly `think tanks' and pressure groups).

It is easy to be put off by this book, particularly if you do not associate yourself with the `progressive left.' Mr Judt is careful to locate himself in that particular part of the particular spectrum and makes no apologies for writing his book from that perspective. In doing so, however, he claims for that group (`the liberal democrats' in American rather than British usage) a centre ground that is common to many from both wings of the political debate. He is equally scathing of the libertarian right as he is of the hard socialist left and positions his treatise firmly in the compromise space between the two. Associating this work then with a particular creed -with the objective of improving discourse on the left- both reduces his readership and influence for a message which should resonate with a far larger constituency.

There is some very adroit analysis here. My attention was particularly caught by the increasingly economic terms in which politics are played, the notable social impetus toward the pursuit of wealth as an ethical good, the disenfranchisement of large portions of the public from the political debate (and the failure/inability of the political elite to do anything about this) and the escalating violence of the debate as to the value of the public versus private sector. Judt addresses all of these with a relatively objective eye and identifies significant deficiencies in the practices of society, government and the characters of those who govern.

Judt identifies his subjects well; all have been picked up in one form or another by the intelligentsia of the broadsheets over the last four years but never as part of such a coherent package. I often disagree with Judt's intimated solutions -then rule #1 in Judt's playbook is never engage in grand plans; the future cannot be predicted- but he focuses on the points of weakness accurately and judiciously.

Even if I don't share his political creed, Judt makes a solid case that we are right to be concerned about a political society that recycles identical hacks and lawyers with ideals but no experience. He is right to be worried about three or four generations cut out of political discourse, who see no value in broads spectrum, compromise politics but only in self-serving `issue' politics (eco politics; sexual politics; human rights). He is right to worry about communities with no interplay between the richest and the poorest. He is right to be worried about a state that abdicates its responsibilities by privatising industries that will never be economically viable without huge transfers from the public purse to private individuals. He is right to worry about the pursuit of wealth with no apparent moral framework.

Alternative solutions to all of these modern Herculean challenges are available from the right, the left and the pragmatists. Where there are weaknesses in Judt's work is that he does not recognise these within his hypotheses, which is built on a social democratic consensus and a pragmatic reading if the late twentieth century socialist trope. The problems, however, are real; the causes may (or may not) be properly identified but a wider debate is needed -possibly outside of the traditional, bilateral political experience- to find appropriate solutions. Perhaps that was really Judt's point.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Subtitled `A Treatise on Our Present Discontents', the name of the late Tony Judt's last book is derived from Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 work, `The Deserted Village'. The book is dedicated to his adolescent sons: "It was thanks to our conversations across the dinner table that I first came fully to appreciate just how much today's youth care about the world that we have bequeathed them - and how inadequately we have furnished them with the means to improve it."

Judt's book comprises an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. (There is, inexcusably, no index.) Its shortish length means there is little room for longueurs and digressions. There is a direct focus on matters at hand, one side effect of which is that virtually every sentence could be quoted as an aphorism or as worthy of comment. Take, for example, this from the first chapter: "The wealthy, like the poor, have always been with us. But relative to everyone else, they are today wealthier and more conspicuous than at any time in living memory." But Judt's is not an empty hulk riddled with the worms of cliché. There is also much meat on his bone with much reliance on academic research (in particular the effects of inequality recently published as `The Spirit Level' by Wilkinson and Pickett) to support his contentions. Unfortunately, though, may claims go unsourced.

The story Judt has to tell can be summarised by looking at his six chapter headings: 1. `The Way We Live Now' refers to our present state from about 1980; 2. `The World We Have Lost' reviews how it was from 1945 to around 1980; 3. `The Unbearable Lightness of Politics' chronicles profound changes in the political landscape in the 1960s and 1970s; 4. `Goodbye to All That?' posits how we can return to a more meaningful political debate; 5. `What Is to Be Done?' questions what we can focus on to begin this process; and 6. `The Shape of Things to Come' suggests aims.

Having been born in 1965 and having taken a more than passing interest in politics, there was nevertheless much here that I learned from Judt's deep readings. For example, I discovered how the `old left' became the `new left', how collective concerns became individualistic, and why. I learned more about the mistaken political prophecies of Hayek, but also how he had reasoned them, and how his followers hijacked his economic theories.

The demise of idealism since the 1960s is certainly something to which I can testify and with which I can sympathise. Touching on the Aristotelian `mean' and the Enlightenment's concept of progress, Judt writes how "Some sort of mutual restraint will be required if we are to take seriously all our desires: this is a truism for any consensual system. But it speaks volumes to the degradation of public life that it sounds so idealistic today." Judt concludes that, "Of all the competing and partially reconcilable ends that we might seek, the reduction of inequality must come first."

However, except in very general terms, I am not sure that what Judt has to say about company railway monopolies and supermarket competition is necessarily sound. Judt declares "We too readily assume that the defining feature of modernity is the individual." But by taking the question of the railways as an example, he shows how powerful can be the collective, for railways "cannot exist without common accord and ... common expenditure: by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something neither the market nor globalisation can accomplish." Without the politics of community, Judt concludes, we might be left with the politics of fear. Some might say that day has already dawned.

But in many respects the battles fought in the past by social democracy have been won, but then the threat of an alternative in the shape of socialism or communism was enough to make elites in the west sit up and listen to their peoples. Now those threats are no longer there, it seems the most sublime ambition these days is to make money.

So what indeed is to be done? Judt says, "We need to rediscover how to talk about change. ... We need to re-learn how to criticize those who govern us. But in order to do so with credibility we have to liberate ourselves from the circle of conformity into which we, like they, are trapped." This is indeed pertinent, but what Judt fails to point out explicitly is that the politics and economics of the past thirty years have not been imposed on us without our tacit agreement: the governments of Thatcher, Major, and Blair were elected into office by a sizeable number of votes. In an echo of the `false consciousness' concept beloved of Marxists, the man in the street needs to rediscover independent thoughts and act accordingly. Fat chance! But at least Judt's book, if widely read, would be a start.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 18 August 2011
What a brillant book about politics, the meaning and conditions of democracy and simply, what means now to have "left wing"opinions ! Tony Judt has found simple words to translate my vision of what should be a state in a world almost invaded with neo-liberal concepts. Yes, an efficient state is still possible, there are basic solutions. No, privatization is not an efficient solution to pay the depts, and yes, we can rethink the state to be more fair, bring more equality amongst us and sense and security through a "social democracy" system. Judt also reminds us that past experiences matter and that we can keep some great ideas from the 20th century history.

The content of this essay is not a revolutionary one. Judt just helps us to remember what matters in a state.
I like very much his last quotation from Leo Tolstoi : "There are no conditions of life in which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him".
If Neo-liberalism continues on its way in the future, it is really urgent to remind the young generation that there are other solutions and political philosophies for a democracy and that "Social democracy" is still a very valid system.

I'm just sad not to have been able to meet this great man before he died (in 2010).
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 January 2012
Tony Judt was clearly a very learned man, with an astonishing range of knowledge and a profound insight in the social and political history of the Western world. How he analyzes 'The Way We Live Now' in chapter one, and 'The World We have Lost' in chapter two demonstrates an astonishing intellect, and what he says about the fall of 'the Left' in chapters 3 and 4 rings very true. Equally so, the suggestions he makes in 'What Is To Be Done?' in chapter 5 seems to me sound advice well worth listening to. The bitterest pill to swallow is perhaps the near certainty that those in power will not read this book, nor - if they do - take its lessons to heart.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 11 June 2010
Tony Judt, one of our leading historians of modern Europe, has written his political testament (sadly, he is dying of an incurable disease). He dissects the attacks on social democracy, focussing on the USA and UK, but also bringing to bear his wide knowledge of Europe. His analysis reminds us of the enormous successes of social democracy, from the New Deal to the welfare state,that have lifted numbers of the less well-off out of misery and deprivation. He reminds us what we have lost in the last twenty years in our heedless pusuit of material wealth, and how that has led to the discontents he describes. Tony Judt writes clearly, applying his range of learning to illuminate, not dazzle. Anyone who is worried about the social and political situation we find ourselves in will benefit from reading this short but important book.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
This is about half of a useful book. Tony Judt does a good job of identifying the central problems of our moral and social lives - anxious materialism, hyper-individualism, burgeoning inequality, the decline of any meaningful sense of a public realm and communal values, the disappearance of any convincing political counter-discourse to market liberalism - but is far less convincing when it comes to solutions, where he confines himself to a vague recommendation of meliorative social democracy and pious hopes for youth activism.

The book is at its best when Judt makes the case for the role of the state, drawing heavily on Keynes and on the authors of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better among other defenders of progressive values against mere economic efficiency. However, as a prescription for the action that he insists is the goal of all meaningful political discourse, this extended article is likely to be judged wanting - a well-intentioned compilation of the obvious.
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