Books for Our Times: "The Retreat of Western Liberalism," by Edward Luce

09/25/2017 06:55 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2017

Ninth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times

Written since the earthquake election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, this book is a head-clearing attempt to explore the underlying disorder and distemper in liberal democracy, in America and throughout the West, that produced such presidency. As this author states repeatedly, Trump is merely a symptom, not a cause, of this disorder. For readers looking for context, this primer is a good start.

Looking back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when liberal democracy was declared the winner in the long struggle against the Soviet communist system and, in victory, spawned democratic transformations around the world, the author charts the retreat of liberal democracy worldwide since those heady days, beaten back by the powerfully disruptive counterforces of nationalism and populism.

The principal cause of liberalism’s retreat? According to the author (and I think he is right), stagnant wages over several decades, causing existential insecurity and understandably vengeful anger in the working and middle classes.

Edward Luce, a British-born journalist, is a columnist and commentator for the well-regarded British newspaper, The Financial Times. Long based in the U.S., he has reported from the Philippines and India. With a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford (the ideal major for these chaotic times), Luce has a wide-ranging c.v., including stints as speechwriter to Pres. Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary and, earlier, as trainee at the European Commission, an experience that “inoculated me for life against working in a bureaucracy…. Journalism promised wind in my hair on an open road.” His book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, traced the advent of America’s decline in the hollowing-out of its middle class.

This book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, is heavier on diagnostics than therapeutics and is written in a churning discursive style, rather than the tidier theme-driven style of a historian. Luce is writing from the barricades, sending us bulletins. Though he says he wouldn’t dare venture a manifesto so early in Trump’s tenure, he does call in a few coordinates for attack.

Luce opens with a crackling, wind-in-the-hair start: Hearing East Germany had opened Checkpoint Charlie, uniting Berlin, Luce and four other students are driving at high speed to Berlin, to get their piece of the Berlin Wall. Having grown up in the Cold War’s nuclear shadow, the prospects were Wordsworthian: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.” “Democracies would take the place of the Warsaw Pact, whose regimes were falling like dominoes to peaceful demonstrators. It was not just autocracy that was dying but nationalism. Borders were opening up. Global horizons beckoned. A unipolar world was dawning.” That “unipolar” world was dominated by the big winner---America---the hyper-power.

Flash forward nearly thirty years later, after Trump’s election, Luce is in Moscow to attend a conference on the “polycentric world order,” which, he writes, “is Russian for ‘post-American world.’” “While my friends and I had danced on the rubble of the Berlin Wall, a brooding [Vladimir] Putin had watched his world crumbling from 130 miles away, at his KGB office in Dresden….. Later he would describe the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.’” Now America was led by a man “who admired the way politics was done in Russia.”

How did this happen? How came America to be on the downside? Luce rightly cites America’s hubris, our “oceanic post-Cold War triumphalism.” Putin championed the idea of “multipolarity” in a bid at power-sharing, but America disdained the move. About the idea of multilaterialism: “As Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State in the late 1990s, put it, ‘It has too many syllables and ends with an ‘ism.’”

But the present disarray of liberal democracy is also the result of oceanic forces, beyond America, to which Luce devotes the bulk of his book, divided in four parts.

Part One, “Fusion,” tracks the radical impact of globalization on Western economies. While the rest of the world is catching up to the West in material progress, “between half to two-thirds of people in the West have been treading water---at best---for a generation.” And with the coming automation, artificial intelligence, and “the rise of the rest,” most notably China (“the most dramatic event in economic history”), “The downward pressure on the incomes of the West’s middle classes in the coming years will be relentless.” Though, relatively speaking, we still enjoy advantages, “The West’s souring mood is about the psychology of dashed expectations rather than the decline in material comforts,” manifested in falling rates of workforce participation, opioid addiction, rising intolerance and incivility. It is very un-American to feel shut out of society: “The West’s drift to pessimism has been most radical in the land of optimism.” In our newly-digital world, grievance is given a powerful voice.

Economic growth could help---if it occurred. Fast economic growth is a historical anomaly: “Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages there was basically none.” But in America, we got used to it: “Between 1870 and 1970---the century of the West’s greatest productivity growth---incomes grew far faster than ever experienced.” “Within the blink of a historical eye, life went from nasty, brutish and short to pleasant, bright and relatively lengthy.” But no more: “Half of Americans would be unable to pay a $400 medical emergency bill without going into debt.”

Business’ response has been sub-optimal: In addition to off-shoring production, “The fastest-growing units in the big Western companies are the legal and public relations departments. Big companies devote the bulk of their earnings to buying back shares and boosting dividend payments. They no longer invest anything like what they used to in research and development. The future loses out.” Meanwhile, the wealthy get wealthier, exacerbating the problem of income inequality. And the “losers” are multiplying: In 2000, a third of Americans described themselves as lower class; by 2015 that number had risen to almost half.

Part Two, “Reaction,” explores the degeneration of Western politics. Sadly, it was America herself who did greatest damage to democracy’s “brand,” with its response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: Not only enacting the Patriot Act, “which gave the green light to multiple dilutions of constitutional liberties,” but the tragic invasion of Iraq on false grounds, both of weapons of mass destruction and bringing democracy to Iraq: “It is highly questionable whether democracy can be installed from the barrel of a gun.” And there was the moral degradation of Abu Ghraib, the torture chamber where the U.S. meted out humiliations on Muslim prisoners. “It is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did…to the credibility of the West’s democratic mission.” We stand accused of bad faith in our own democratic traditions.

Equally, the Wall Street-induced financial crash of 2008---whether you blamed it on “greedy investment bankers or the incompetence of financial regulation”---dealt another blow to the West’s democratic reputation. Luce is insightful in noting that the “so-called global recession was primarily an Atlantic one,” while “the rest of the world continued to expand.” Indeed, “growth in China, the world’s largest autocracy, picked up….after 2008. The contrast did wonders for China’s global image. It was also a boon to its political reputation.” Autocrats around the world took notice.

Thus we see the emergence of “illiberal democracy,” erstwhile democracies taking on undemocratic qualities and turning autocratic, as in Hungary, Poland, Venezuela. The numbers are sobering: Around 1970, there were some 30 democracies in the world, but, inspired by Democracy winning the Cold War, by the millennium there were more than 100 worldwide. Today, however, reflecting this turn toward autocracy, we have 25 fewer democracies. “What we do not yet know is whether the world’s democratic recession will turn into a global depression.”

Meanwhile, liberal parties in the West took a wrong turn: When the jobs went away, instead of campaigning on strong economic platforms, they advocated identity politics. Luce cites Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, while also noting Labour in the U.K. was blind to labour’s increasing distress. “Millions who backed Trump in 2016 had voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Did they suddenly become deplorable? A better explanation is that many Americans have long felt alienated from an establishment that has routinely sidelined their economic complaints.” Enter, Donald Trump: “To be clear, Trump poses a mortal threat to all America’s most precious qualities. But by giving a higher priority to the politics of ethnic identity than people’s common interests, the American left helped to create what it feared.”

Reflecting these distressing trends, Luce notes polls showing growing numbers in the West, most concernedly the youth, who feel a slackening allegiance to democracy, even preferring the army or a strongman in charge. He notes that both China and Russia aim “to rupture the West’s claim to universalism.” The reader notes how this rupture is being achieved by the West against itself. Luce also files a cultural note: the disappearance of heroes (“Everyone has some tawdry angle”) and the need to revive the humanities. “In Enlightenment terms, our democracies are switching from John Locke’s social contract to the bleaker Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. We are on a menacing trajectory brought about by ignorance of our history, indifference towards society’s losers and complacency about the strength of our democracy. It has turned society into a contest of ethnic grievances, in which ‘awakened whites’---as the alt-right now call them---are by far the largest minority.”

Part Three, “Fallout,” explores the implications of declining Western hegemony. “Though the U.S. remains the most potent military power on earth, and its most technologically innovative, Americans are losing faith in their system. Donald Trump offers a cure worse than the disease.” Luce predicts that “chaos is far likelier than China to fill America’s shoes.”

Part Four, “Half Life,” poses the question Lenin and Tolstoy posed, “What is to be done?” Understandably, Luce’s recommendations are skimpy; he cites other thinkers also scrambling. And he confesses to “grave doubts about history’s long arc.” But enlightened policy would at the least call for a fortified social safety net, with universal healthcare, increased minimum wage, perhaps Universal Basic Income. Mainly because both business and government, of the left and right, have successfully divested themselves of the responsibility to protect their employees/citizens: “To one degree or another---most sharply in the U.S. and the U.K.---societies are creeping back to the days before social insurance. What was once underwritten by government and employers has been shifted to the individual,” or what’s called “privatizing risk.”

Here we come to a subject worthy of attack: the elites. “Whatever your remedies to the crisis of liberal democracy, nothing much is likely to happen unless the West’s elites understand the enormity of what they face. If only out of self-preservation, the rich need to emerge from their postmodern Versailles.” Luce is wicked on the Davos elite, that annual gathering of “the world’s wealthiest recyclers of conventional wisdom,” nattering on about “disruptive thinking” and “the digital public square.” For elite obtuseness, Luce cites Wall Street banker Stephen Schwarzman’s over-the-top response to Pres. Obama’s proposed modest tax hike: “It’s like Hitler invaded Poland.” “Eight years later Schwarzman was silent when Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. But he was jubilant at the news Trump was planning to scrap Obama’s Wall Street reform.... I very much doubt the future of Western democracy crossed his mind.” This must change. These elites’ allegiance is to the international economy, whence come their profits, not the nation. Meanwhile, angry populaces are raising national flags. “The world’s elites have helped to provoke what they feared: a populist uprising against the world economy.”

The other subject for attack, of course, is Trump himself: a faux-populist who as president is pushing policies favoring the elite (tax cuts, deregulation); a channeler of rage, not knowledge; a strategist of confusion (“The war against truth is being waged from the White House”); a man totally bereft of character or conscience. Luce believes Trump ultimately will fail, causing even more destabilization: “America will not become great again under Trump. There will be a lethal mood of betrayal and frustration when he fails. Who knows where that could lead.”

The reader trusts Luce will point the way with future books, hopefully with less wind-in-the-hair churn and more hand-on-the-wheel focus. As this book outlines, there is no end of subject, nor urgency. And, there is hope: The “retreat” of Luce’s title suggests the possibility of a revival, a comeback. As the author writes: “Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade. The bad news is that populists such as Donald Trump....are winning the fight. The good news is the fightback has a lot of room for improvement.”

For public appearances by Edward Luce about this book, see here, here, and here. For Luce’s commentary for The Financial Times, see here (subscription required).

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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