Titlepage boek Het land is moe

Het land is moe --- Provocation is not enough

Publication: Uitgeverij Contact (2011, Amsterdam/Antwerpen)

First insertion on Heterodox Gazette Sam de Wolff: 11 august 2014

E.A. Bakkum is a blogger for the Sociaal Consultatiekantoor. He loves to reflect on the labour movement.

Tony Judt wrote the book Het land is moe (Ill fares the land), because he is dissatisfied with the political-economic order of the modern society. His arguments have met with a wide approving response, certainly among Dutch intellectuals. Apparently many believe that the book is an interesting starting-point for the political debate, and that fact justifies a review. Judt wants to stimulate an ethical-substantial debate about a better future. In this respect the book has definitely succeeded. Yet it is difficult to review the book, because Judt apparently wants to address a wide public, and therefore tends to enunciate platitudes.

Judt is a historian, and that is reflected in the arguments of Het land is moe. Judt is a clear representative of the Historical School, which tries to explain the economy by the social development. The referrals to the work of sociologists and economists about balance each other. Judt more or less supports the social-democratic ideals: democracy, equality, social justice, and a regulated market. He is especially worried about the increasing economic inequality, because she demonstrably undermines the social well-being. Unfortunately, this is the only theme, which Judt supports by means of a set of statistical facts. Most of the rest is merely words.

The well-being is affected by the corruption of the social morals. Judt acknowledges, that the social-democracy is not an electoral success, and as a remedy proposes to stress the social goals and the social ethics in the political debate. Left-wing politicians can win by defending moral rules, because the voters are sensitive to beliefs and convictions. People are willing to behave decently, when they have a good social life. They attach value to a common sense of direction, and they long for order and predicability. Rituals and symbols are important for the coherence. Thus Judt automatically embraces the social-democracy, with its appreciation for bonding1.

Perhaps it is not surprising, that Het land is moe is negative about the political-economic system of the United States of America, with the exception of the period of the New Deal of president Roosevelt and of the Great society of president Johnson. Judt does not appreciate the Third way of Blair and president Clinton, because the introduction of market operations has hurt the level of the public services. Here Judt is very critical, and on p.121 even calls it a return to the tax farming of the eighteenth century. Judt experiences the Third way as a period of political stagnation. He also rejects the New Left movement of the seventies, because there the left shed their natural decency. All in all, Judt is most satisfied with the system of the period 1945-1965.

Undoubtedly many people share this view of Judt, and thus it would suffice to shake his hand. But that is too simple. For, Judt makes here and there in Het land is moe many firm statements, which do not convince, and therefore irritate and create resentment. Now your reviewer is willing to believe, that Judt has pondered and studied before making his statements. But the meagre size of the book (240 pages in pocket form) prevents him from sharing his knowledge with his reader. The question arises, why Judt makes these controversial remarks, and did not restrict himself to the main message of the narrative. It may be that he wants to encourage the reader to reflect by himself - but then the book loses its value as a uniting manifesto. Or perhaps Judt just likes irony and sarcasm, to which your reviewer will evidently not object.

A first irritation is that Judt interprets the term "social-democracy" mainly in its British meaning, which is rather liberal. The Labour Party was closely associated with the trade union movement, which is actually an unsound construction. For instance, the German social-democracy is naturally more oriented towards the ideas of Lassalle and Marx. The French party even prefers the term "socialism", and does not identify with the social-democracy. This clashes in the argument of Judt, because he equates the term "socialism" to Leninism (at the time rather confusingly called communism), and therefore believes that it is blemished. It is of course strange, that yet he embraces the socialist paradigm, and notably from the period when the party members were proud to be socialists. Thus the position of Judt is rather hypocritical, which he indeed generously acknowledges on p.2272. Here is the devil to pay.

Furthermore, it makes an unbalanced impression, that Judt is plainly negative about individualism and austerity, which have become so common during the past decades. These virtues may evidently be questioned, but all in all they both have their merits. It is a mistake to want to return to the enforced morals of before. It must be acknowledged, that socialists traditionally have somewhat misjudged the human nature. Judt ignores this aspect, and therefore can not explain why the social-democracy decays. In his ardour to criticize the status quo, Judt exaggerates and everywhere sees endemic failures, such as broken highways and collapsing bridges (p.24). But that is empty rhetorics, at least for west- and central-Europe. The real problem is, that it is so difficult to evaluate the effects of the introduction of markets.

So it is not all gold, that glitters. Here several other dubious statements follow, which Judt confers upon the reader. "we congratulated each other with the winning of the Cold War, and that could naturally only be to the detriment of the peace" (p.142). "was it not Britain which meekly accepted measures in what now has become the most repressive democracy of the world?"(p.161)3. "The French president ignores, whenever he wants, the wishes of the members of parliament" (p.166)4. "The Austrian empire was the living proof of the internationalization of the modern economic life" (p.191, others, such as the then living social-democratic political scientist Karl Kautsky, believe that it is a backward regime). "The vandalistic demolition of Euston Station throws away our memory of how we must live in a self-assured civil society" (p.214). "Socialism aimed at the revolution. But the social-democracy is a compromise" (p.227).

All in all, Het land is moe remains a provocative book of a many-sided intellectual, who dislikes neoliberalism. But does that justify the attention, that the book has received? For, there are lots of similar books. Your reviewer believes, that Het land is moe does not positively differ from the others. Judt too often uses rhetorics, and does not offer solid proofs. Your reviewer knows many books, especially from a German origin, that are no less than Het land is moe. Besides, these discuss the Rhineland model, in addition to the Anglosaxon institutions. The interested reader may decide to read not just Het land is moe, but also shop in the websites of VSA Verlag, Westfälisches Dampfboot or, if need be, PapyRossa Verlag.

  1. The German cabaret performer Dieter Süverkrüp expresses his doubts in the song Das gesunde Volksempfinden: Ihr vertretet das gesunde Volksempfinden. / Das gesunde Volksempfinden ist die Basis der Demokratie. / Das gesunde Volksempfinden lehnt den Bolschewismus ab, / Die Homoseksualität und auch die Sodomie. / Das gesunde Volksempfinden wäscht sich jeden Tag die Füße / Und verabscheut die Genitalien. / Das gesunde Volksempfinden hat Humor und lacht / beim Biere gern über Nutten oder Fäkalien. / Das gesunde Volksempfinden geht von dem Empfinden aus / Daß keine Macht die Welt zum Bessern ändern kann. / Das gesunde Volksempfinden weiß: / Die Menschen sind nicht gleich. / Der eine wird ein Herr, / Der anderen stirbt als kleiner Mann. (back)
  2. Thus everybody has his own perspective on reality. The German singer Walter Mossmann sings in 1973 the Lied vom Betriebsfrieden: Dann redest du mit deinen Kollegen: / Bei uns kann doch jeder? Na wo denn? / Wenigstens laut überlegen / Die haut man die Herren auf die Pfoten. / Das Maul kann mir keiner verbieten. / Da hast du dich aber geschnitten. / Ein Boss namens Reimann schreit: Hetze! / Ihr stört meinen Betriebsfrieden. / Er hat an der Hand Gesetze / Die dem Arbeiters Maul verbieten. / Wer hat die Paragrafen gebraten? / Na mal raten, die Sozialdemokraten! It is curious that Mossman is the opposite of Judt, who disapproves of the socialists. (back)
  3. Several decades ago your reviewer read Samen onderweg, a wonderful volume of essays by Ruud Lubbers. On p.127 Lubbers writes in his article KRO en maatschappij (1975): Being a part of society means concretely, for an individual, to participate in several social structures. He influences these structures, and the structures influence him. Once someone has chosen, and started on a certain path, then it is true that his choices are limited, but that can hardly be called a lack of freedom; for he has chosen his own way. (back)
  4. The many wars between the British and the French have led to many jokes. Why is there never a fireworks in Euro Disney Paris? Because each time when it is launched the French army tries to capitulate. Or: a Frenchman asks in a London library for a book about the war. The librarian refuses: "Definitely not, because you will evidently lose it". And: a large fire in a factory, which produces white flags, disables the functioning of the French army. And finally, as a nuance of the preceding ones: an Englishman discovers that his wife had an affair with Pierre, and sends him an invitation for a duel. Pierre replies with a note: "I have received your circular letter, and will be present at the gathering". (back)