Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Inclusive solidarity

Another engaging post by Tony Judt on the NYR blog (I discussed the two previous ones in the series here and here). He addresses what he terms the 'Edge', a place where
...countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.

He locates himself at the Edge: he's a London-born Jew of Eastern European provenance who studies European politics and now lives in New York. However, in defining himself he resists "rootless cosmopolitansism", which
...seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.
But the celebration is intermingled with the elegiac and, ultimately, the pessimistic: he sees the Edges narrowing, disappearing:
Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages—often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangiers, Salonica, Odessa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified—as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhhorod. By the standards of American conformism, New York resembles aspects of these lost cosmopolitan cities: that is why I live here.

I think any liberal-minded person familiar with these places understands the gravity of this loss. Such cities disappeared along with the multi-ethnic empires that harboured them: the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian. The Holocaust finished off what remained.

But I struggle to agree we live in a world without 'cities comprising multiple communities and languages'. It's just their locus has changed: a tolerance - which is actually more settled and thoroughgoing than that of the old empires - is now to be found in the cities of the West, that is places ruled by a pluralistic, civically-inclined nationalism. Judt's New York certainly doesn't stand alone as an exemplar: Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Paris, Berlin, London, Toronto, Los Angeles, to name just a few, abound in an Edgy diversity.

Judt's post culminates in a pessimistic prediction:
We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself—the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies—will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.
Being “Danish” or “Italian,” “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and a reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.” They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals: the edge people. My people.

Firstly, I don't believe there's any evidence that globalisation will culminate in a reactionary spasm, quite the contrary. Secondly, the strengthening of barriers in a world of increasingly fluid populations is surely something of a necessity if we are to retain the tolerance and solidarity that we prize so much.

Why should this be so? The liberal nations of the West - the home of the new multi-ethnic metropolis - exist in a state of constant and usually fruitful tension: they welcome, absorb and tolerate a steady flow of newcomers, but at the same time they're bound together by political, cultural and historical ties that generate sufficient solidarity to support welfare states.

London is as full of immigrants - some recent, some established for generations - as it is of native Londoners. Yet they all share in an abundance of GP surgeries, local health centres and hospitals, all covered by the rubric the National Health Service. This potential contradiction could become a source of conflict - but we keep it at bay for the most part by holding the balance between what we might term 'welcoming' on the one hand, and 'belonging' on the other. Limiting and controlling immigration is crucial in this, and is as important for the achievement of the goals of a man of the left such as Tony Judt as it is for someone more nationalistically inclined.

Earlier in the post Judt warns:
We know enough of ideological and political movements to be wary of exclusive solidarity in all its forms. One should keep one’s distance not only from the obviously unappealing “-isms”—fascism, jingoism, chauvinism—but also from the more seductive variety: communism, to be sure, but nationalism and Zionism too. And then there is national pride: more than two centuries after Samuel Johnson first made the point, patriotism—as anyone who passed the last decade in America can testify—is still the last refuge of the scoundrel.

It seems more complicated to me: whilst avoiding Judt's 'exclusive solidarity' we must take care not to sacrifice our own delimited but inclusive solidarities.

L’exil, West Berlin, 1977; photograph by Dominique Nabokov (from the NYR blog post).


worm said...

Is this not a case of ivory tower thinking, a la Toynbee - a member of the elite saying how much he loves multiculturalism, as to him it basically means a larger number of exciting restaurants, whereas to a poor person on the street, there can be some advantages, but also it can mean competing for an ever decreasing level of basic services such as healthcare?

Brit said...

Somewhere between Tony Judt and Paul Kingsnorth lies a sensible, interesting approach to national identity.

I found your post a lot better than Judt's, which said nothing new and irritated me from the opening CCTV canard (as discussed earlier on TofE) shunted together with wholly unconnected racist doings in Italy, to the not feeling 'English' as a thinly-disguised boast/sneer.

Gaw said...

Worm and Brit: I think you're both right. I just have a great deal of nostalgia for the classical old liberal-left. I find in a debate with them you tend to share common reference points, whereas if you were in a debate with Sarah Palin, Jacques Derrida, Paul Kingsnorth or Osama Bin Laden you'd feel more as if you were encountering an inhabitant from another planet.

Also (I hope unsneeringly but probably just as self-indulgently) I am interested in and identify with the not feeling 'English' idea.

Vern said...

That Judt post was kind of interesting then all of a sudden it got crap and disingenuous, and well... Brit hits the nail on the head. who is this Judt ponce? I'd never heard of him until you started excerpting his banal, bien pensant witterings.

Gaw said...


Personally I find these recollections interesting (the last two more than this one, it has to be said). He's also written good history. But I disagree with his conclusions.

Why dismiss him? He writes well, has had quite an interesting life, done honest work. Can't you bring yourself to read people you disagree with politically?

Vern said...

I do and I can- indeed, I read Judt's piece as suggested. And while his personal experience may be interesting, at the end I feel robbed by the poverty of his conclusions.

It's frankly bizarre to suggest that cities with multiple identities are disappearing as you point out; the old ones he likes were the product of an often iniquitous imperialism which I presume he opposes; then this bit:

"Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.”"

Reads like a parody of something you'd read on CiF (dig those inverted commas). I mean- imagine wanting to ensure that immigrants speak your language! Shudder, the horror! How reactionary!

And then his bit about "patriotism... last refuge... yawn" is- well- the reflex parroting of an ancient cliche.


I'm sure he's an intelligent man, but when it comes to politics he reads like a smug soixante retard to me. Maybe I'm wrong and should delve deeper into his work, but alas to quote King Solomon, life is short and books are many.


Recusant said...

Grrrrr. Why do so many totally miss the meaning of that Samuel Johnson quote? It's not a criticism of patriotism, but of scoundrels and there desire to protect their dishonesty by utilising its cover.

Gaw said...

Vern: But it sounds as if you enjoyed disagreeing with him as much as I did!

Further to my first comment I've realised one of the reasons I find Judt personally interesting is that his type is disappearing into history*: that whole Central European Jewish emigré leftist intellectual schtick, which I find fascinating.

I've also got a long-standing interest in leftish ideas and people. It probably started as my grandfather was a sort of cynical Welsh commie. I ended up studying communism as a postgrad and whilst obviously disagreeing with it found it absorbing (hearing about it all from Norman Stone was a particular joy.)

This stuff also interests me historiographically: different viewpoints on the past and how they arise is something I like to ponder.

*He is too, being mortally ill; these writings have the quality of final testimony.

Gaw said...

Recusant: Good point - though you might just squeeze Johnson's meaning out of his usage (though the chances are it was indeed meant in the less learned sense).

Vern said...

I had a similar experience- I grew up in parts of Scotland where there were still bona fide communists in the local councils; then I studied English Lit and was subjected to an onslaught of Marxist theory from sundry armchair radicals who were paid by the Tory government. And I have spent a lot of time in the post USSR. But rather than leave me with a fascination for the left, I instead developed impatience and irritation at their self righteousness, reflex parroting of received ideas, and wilful detachment from reality.

However I can see where you're coming from, esp. viz the disappearance of Judt's strand of human, and last testament thing. I just read that he is paralysed from the neck down.