Capitalism is in crisis, and liberal democracy doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge. Technocrat governments have been installed in Spain and Italy, and ordinary people have been joining in protests across the developed world. In times like these, we desperately need new ideas about how to make democracy work; and Tony Judt was one of the few people coming up with them.
An eloquent and humane realist, hugely generous to humankind and its hopes, he began his thinking life in Britain as a Zionist and a Marxist, became a historian of modern Europe, and ended it in America as a "universalist social democrat" – his phrase. He died, aged 62, in August 2010. He is much missed.
Penguin have just published what may be his last original book, Thinking the 20th Century (here's a rave review from the Guardian). It's a dialogue with another historian, Tony Snyder, on the intellectuals and the ideas that brought us to this century. Last month the New York Review of Books, Judt's regular writing home, ran a moving memoir by his wife Judith Homans and an excerpt from the new book. Here's some paragraphs:
The Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others has some—but limited—truth. Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.
Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like—that’s the Orwellian point about language. They corrode because most people don’t care very much about them... The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing the people who will rule over you is well attested. And the reason why we need intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors.
Further reading: In a lecture given by Judt at New York University in 2009, titled What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?, he asks: "Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?"