The Historical Gadfly — Episode 9: Avner Offer’s Journey “From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism”

We live in the shadow of market liberalism. As the current crisis in the US Congress shows, Americans – or at least their ostensible representatives – continue to be deeply divided about the proper scope of government and what they are willing to pay for. Many were pleased to receive a Medicare prescription drug benefit under President Bush, and I have vivid memories from a California adolescence of many would-be high school hawks supporting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. More recently, Democrats were glad to see the health reform package come into law under President Obama. But the debt ceiling has exposed many of the attitudes towards risk, entitlement, and the scope of the public sector that diverge in American life. Am I all right with having the government “coerce” me into buying health insurance? Discounted prescription drugs for seniors may sound great, but is it theft from either myself or my children’s prosperity if it costs the USA billions of dollars to do so? These familiar questions, which are not only an American phenomenon (think of the student protests in the UK and Germany) reveal the extent to which trans-Atlantic élites have failed to offer ideas or policies to overcome the present crisis with a creative political vision.

I'll take taxpayer-funded healthcare, but there's no way my taxes will fund death panels

Normally, the fact that your government might go insolvent and smash your investment portfolio is enough to make anyone nervous – me included. But the present circumstances afoot in the United States provided an opportune background for this most recent episode of The Historical Gadfly with Avner Offer, the Chichele Professor of Economic History at All Souls College of the University of Oxford. That’s because Professor Offer, whose most recent work has focused on the limits of affluence – whether the consumerist social model that emerged in the USA and UK since the 1950s-1960s – is in the process of completing a work on the macro trends that got us to this point.

Provisionally titled “From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism,” Offer’s present research seeks to examine, as I have alluded to before on this blog, how the shift from what he sees as social democratic norms to market liberal norms took place in the latter half of the previous century, primarily in the United Kingdom and the United States. Since brevity is the soul of wit: how did we come from a social model that proposed to protect citizens in times of dependency (childhood, old age, and illness) to one that saw markets as the ideal institution not only for the exchange of capital or consumer goods, but just about everything? To be more concrete, how did we move from a world of Medicare and Social Security to one in which Presidents have proposed private investment accounts and commercial health insurance schemes as the best way to ensure our treasure and welfare? It’s a big project that promises to bring Professor Offer’s combination of historical insight and social science training to analyze a troubling trend, one that others have written and produced documentary films on.

Privatizing social democracy, all before hitting the links

 For better or for worse, in this interview, taped in the All Souls College Hall (the dining hall – hence the echoes at time), we ended up delving so much into Avner’s own biography and the influences that have shaped his intellectual work over the last few decades, that we ended up spending up less time on the project itself than I had anticipated. But I still think it’s a wonderful conversation that opens up several themes.

One theme that I saw coming up throughout Avner’s memories was the contrast between life on the kibbutz in Israel where he grew up, and the “greed is good” mentality that he saw beginning to creep over the Atlantic World in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Kibbutz life, it seemed to me in Offer’s memories of it, was hardly glamorous; the policies of various kibbutzim varied, but at many, agricultural produce was shared among the members, and some even shared clothing. Given the obvious limits of small-scale agriculture and some rejection of the division of labor, they weren’t places to get rich. And they couldn’t support the massive cultural institutions, like, say, the Lincoln Center or the Tate Modern, that have proffered in the cities that represent the arch-capitals of market liberalism. Part of these limitations, combined with the troubling direction of Israeli domestic politics after 1973, led to Avner’s decision to live in the United Kingdom rather than trying to contribute to an opposition/reform movement within Israeli.

At the same time, aspects of the radical egalitarian vision that underwrote the kibbutz movement may seem appealing in contrast to the vision of high capitalism that Wall Street bankers at their worst can represent, and that authors like Bret Easton Ellis and the late David Foster Wallace have effectively parodied. Avner’s descriptions of life in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s seem to me to have an affinity to those of the late historian Tony Judt, a British Jew who was an ambulance driver in the IDF for several years in the late 1960s, the same period that Avner was both a soldier and a reservist. For idiosyncratic reasons, I have typically not found the history of Israel as scintillating as, say, modern European, Russian, or South Asian history. But parts of this conversation – and the possibility for a comparison between two different intellectual biographies – make me want to probe more how a unique kind of Israeli liberalism might have emerged from a disenchanted Israeli Left after the 1960s and 1970s.

Avner Offer, my guest on this episode of The Historical Gadfly

But enough of things to add to my growing list of potential future projects. For now, enjoy the conversation with Professor Offer, which you can download here.


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