woensdag 9 oktober 2013

Tony Judt's Last Will

On August 6 2010 Tony Judt passed away at 62 due to the complications of the neuro-muscular disease ALS. Judt was a historian specializing in post-war Europe. But above all he was a great thinker about the political landscape we inhabit. His last will was the lecture 'What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy', in the fall of 2009 in New York.

In this lecture Judt explains how the Western welfare state had its roots in the horrors of the first half of the last century. The years after World War II were drenched with the widely supported insight that a welfare state was needed to prevent a recurring of the wartime violence of recent decades: Europe had just experienced the bloody consequences of inequality and insecurity.

But Judt also observed how these carefully constructed social arrangements had been demolished at a breathtaking pace during the last thirty years. Social-democracy suffered from its own success. Precisely the prosperity and the social peace that where its main results made people forget the reasons for the existence of the welfare state. In the recent past we thought about public arrangements in moral terms of good and bad, today everything is measured by economic output.

Today we witness an attenuation of the political debate and a hollowing out of concepts like solidarity. This is both regrettable and dangerous, warned Judt. And foremost Judt was angry about the fact that the demise of neo-liberal politics did not lead to a renewed cry for a more just society.

In his last public appearance Judt's passionate plea therefore was to vividly remember social-democracy. In 'Tony Judt's Last Will' Backlight shows crucial parts of Judts appeal. And his words ring through in three portraits of current victims of the market-fundamentalism Judt so despises. John Gerrits from Sittard in the south of The Netherlands, where Wilders's populist Freedom Party has gained a lot of votes, witnessed the demolition of the community-centre he ran for thirty years because the municipality wanted to speculate with the plot. Mark Goossens worked in the Opel-factory in Antwerp, Belgium for fifteen years when General Motors decided to close the plant by December 2010. And Laurent Giacomelli lost his job and his health due to the privatization of the French public telephone-service France Télécom.

Tony Judt: A Man of his Word
Peter Jukes discusses history, life and justice with the late Tony Judt—a master of morally charged rhetoric

Tony Judt and friend in Israel in 1967: being an ex-Zionist has helped him tackle the controversial issue of America’s relationship with Israel.
Tony Judt died, surrounded by his family, on the the evening of August 6th, 2010. The New York Times obituary can be read here.A full transcript of Peter Jukes’s interview—the last in-depth interview Judt undertook before his depth—can be read on our website here.
Though not one to run shy of controversy, Tony Judt—historian, thinker, professor; commentator on the French left, American identity politics, Israel and much more besides—has never been one of those controversialists whose opposition can be predicted. In the many times I’ve heard him speak, I have never been able to guess in advance what he would say next.
Part of this unexpectedness is no doubt due to his career spent dealing with the exigencies of history rather than the sweeping formulations of philosophy or cultural theory. Born in London in 1948, Judt took a doctorate in history at Cambridge before moving to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale Superieure. His first book, Socialism in Provence 1871-1914, appeared in 1979 and explored a small slice of time in forensic depth. Next came a series of essays on the French left, followed by a book on postwar French intellectuals; it was only gradually that Judt moved on to larger canvasses. As he put it to me: “My first non-academic publication—a review in the Times Literary Supplement—did not come until the late 1980s. And it was not until 1993 that I published my first piece in the New York Review of Books. So that’s a 25-year learning curve.”
I interviewed Tony by email earlier this year (a full transcript of this exchange is available here). The motor neurone disease he was diagnosed with in 2008 has rendered him quadriplegic and he dictated his replies to an assistant. Tony and I have known each other for 12 years, having met at the 1998 Remarque Forum—a conference he sponsored as professor of history at New York University and the first of what would become almost an annual institution,


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