We Need a New Language to Provide a Vision for a New Economy

The Late Tony Judt’s Last Book Focuses on Ending Concentrated Wealth and Creating an Economy That Works for All

I was saddened to read of historian Tony Judt’s death at too early an age. He was the type of historian we need to hear more from. He confronted the myths on which governments and their people build lives, myths that need to be confronted so the people can be uplifted and their necessities met “not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”

I recently read Tony Judt’s last book, Ill Fare’s the Land. His important premise was that we need to develop a new language that builds on the success of social democracy programs (in the U.S. those would be New Deal and Great Society programs) combined with putting forward a new vision for an economy that works for more than the top .5%. His views re-enforced the work we are developing at ProsperityAgenda.US – describing and advocating for a new economy in language that people can understand – post-capitalism, post-socialism, a new democratic economy.

He brought a broad review of the trends of history to analysis of current politics: How lassez-faire economics lost out in the middle of the last century and social democratic programs were put in place that created a growing middle class and a relatively consistently growing economy. Then the last thirty years, from the Reagan Revolution and through to President Obama (with President Clinton creating the neo-liberal version of Reaganism), has been undoing the most successful programs of the last century. Obama is poised to do some real damage to Social Security and Medicare through his deficit commission — that is the next big battle in which we are currently engaged.

Judt rings true when he writes, “To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as the generations yet to come.” It is that big picture approach that is needed to re-ignite the sense of community that is essential to keeping the fibers of community woven together rather than unraveling as they are now.

We are at a critical crossroads in history when many tens of millions see the corruption and unfairness of the current economy but do not know what to do about it and do not see an alternative economy. There is a real opportunity for change because of combined crisis in economy, environment and energy. It is a great time for Americans who want a new economy to create mass support for change. If the people do so, we will, no doubt, be building a monument to the next FDR who takes our work and runs with it. We will be aided in our efforts by the hubris and greed of concentrated corporate power which seems all to willing to go too far.

Unfortunately, right now the direction the leaders of both parties are taking the economy further into the economic ditch rather than out of it. The exaggerated fear of debt, rather than seeing that the economy is stalled on a fundamentally flawed foundation dominates political discourse. The Obama deficit commission is one example among many.

Judt asks and answers the critical question in Ill Fares the Land: “Why, for the past three decades, has it been so easy for those in power …?” “Because there has been no coherent alternative to offer.” His answer is partly correct. Alternatives have been offered, they are just not heard because concentrated corporate ownership of the media shuts out those views and advocates of fundamental change do not have the resources to break through that barrier.

Judt’s goes on to explain: “To convince others that something is right or wrong we need a language of ends, not means. We don’t have to believe that our objectives are poised to succeed. But we do need to be able to believe in them.” ProsperityAgenda.US and others working for re-making of the economy recognizes we are not poised for immediate success but we do present an “end” that, as Judt says can “re-open a different sort of conversation.”

Judt points to two starting points:

1. “The first task is to remind ourselves of the achievements of the 20th century, along with the likely consequences of a heedless rush to dismantle them.” We need to show that government does important, indeed, critical work that cannot be done by individuals for themselves. We can see this is today’s “hot” issues. On health care we need to highlight the incredible success of Medicare — it equalized health care after people turned 65. Research shows the unequal impact of treating various illnesses when people are under 65 and the better treatment people get across class, race and ethnic lines for those same illnesses once they are Medicare eligible. On financial reform successful reforms were put in place during the Depression and removing those in the 80s and 90s had the devastating consequences of todays economic collapse.

2. “Unequal access to resources of every sort — from rights to water — is the starting point of any truly progressive critique of the world.” “Those who do well in unequal societies would be happier if the gap separating them from the majority of their fellow citizens were significantly reduced.” There is no question that focusing on the wealth divide is a critical. The concentration of wealth is becoming evident to more and more Americans and causing government dysfunction. More are realizing that extreme wealth is not due to intelligence or hard work of the wealthy – there is plenty of hard work and intelligence among the poor. Wealth is created because of crony capitalist policies; e.g., failure to enforce anti-trust laws, massive corporate welfare, reducing progressive taxation so the extreme wealth do not pay their share, ending the estate tax, taxing wealth less and work more.

While there is probably truth in Judt’s statement “If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear,” I’m disappointed by it. Progress should not only come from fear. But sadly, Judt might be right. As more people fear losing their homes, jobs and bankruptcy those fears need to be responded to with the potential for change that shows them another world is possible where they can have economic security and more control of their economic lives. Fear needs to be turned into positive action.

The theme of Judt’s book seems to be: “If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently.” Getting out the word to people about the unfair impact of the current economy and that there are alternatives to it is where Judt’s analysis takes us. Democratization of the economy is a phrase that covers all these issues in a language that is consistent with American ideals. Democratization of the economy leads to economic security.

Kevin Zeese co-directs Popular Resistance and is on the coordinating council for the Maryland Green Party. Read other articles by Kevin, or visit Kevin's website.

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  1. teafoe2 said on August 10th, 2010 at 10:22am #

    anybody remember Tom Hayden’s “Economic Democracy”?

    whenever I read somebody parroting the term “social democracy” without reference to the history of the term, I know I’m reading the words of an apologist for capitalism.

    All those reforms of the thirties and forties would have never happened without two factors that are absent now, and that Zeese fails to mention: the existence of the Soviet Union, and the dedicated leadership of the CPUSA.