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On Tony Judt . . . and the Social Good

There are people the world will miss even though it may not know it yet. Historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, who died a couple of weeks ago of motor neuron disease, was such a man.

(If you want to learn what it is like living with the disease, and about the intellectual brawn of the man, watch this short video interview with Mr. Judt conducted by The Guardian.)

I have only read two of his many books: Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, extraordinary in its scope and clarity, and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century which surveys thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, E. P. Thompson and Arthur Koestler, people whose ideas have more impact than the limited memory of them might suggest.

And I have just started his final "testament" as the Times Literary Supplement called his last book -- Ill Fares the Land --  in a review published a week before he died.

But I know that public discourse will miss his passion, compassion, clarity and knowledge of the truth of contemporary history.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the book he completed in the months before his death on August 6th. A penetrating polemic, astonishing in its clarity and passion, Ill Fares the Land is even more striking because it was dictated to a friend since Judt could no longer hold a pen or type a letter.

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 privitization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And, above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, he delusion of endless growth.

What has this got to do with business intangibles, a subject which I am sure Mr. Judt spent little time thinking about? Only, I suppose, that we should keep the goal of business in perspective: Creating individual wealth for a select few should not be its chief measure of success. Social good should play a role. And it is the 'free' market (which in truth has always needed the 'state', as the bailouts of the last few years have shown) that is often the primary cause of economic dysfunction and misery, even accepting that the ranks of the 'state' unlike business are sometimes filled with torpid, uninspired and inflexible individuals.

To paraphrase Mr. Judt, we have a responsibility to be critical of received 21st. century ideas about business, markets, the state, fashion, celebrity and our preoccupation with the accumulation of goods.

Professors and the Social Web

People Familiar with the Investigations