Sunday, December 26, 2010

Notes for a Commonplace Book (7)

Tony Judt:

We often find ourselves asserting or assuming that the distinctive feature of modernity is the individual: the unreducible subject, the freestanding person, the unbound self, the unbeholden citizen. This modern individual is commonly and favorably contrasted with the dependent, deferential, unfree subject of the pre-modern world. There is something in this version of things, of course; just as there is something in the accompanying idea that modernity is also a story of the modern state, with its assets, its capacities, and its ambitions. But taken all in all, it is, nevertheless, a mistake—and a dangerous mistake. The truly distinctive feature of modern life—the one with which we lose touch at our peril—is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society. More precisely civil—or (as the nineteenth century had it) bourgeois—society.

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

From "Bring Back the Rails!," in The New York Review of Books

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