Tony Judt, the distinguished European history scholar, writes of his fears for the moral direction of the United States in this week's issue of The New York Review of Books:
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.
And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.
For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”
If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?
This is an ironic reversal of the attitudes of an earlier age. Back in the era of self-assured radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the 1960s was that of overweening confidence: we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed; if the left is to recover its fortunes, some modesty will be in order. All the same, you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it.