This article was first published in Reaction
Edward Luce’s book, “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” is an ambitious and well-informed attempt to provide us with a handbook for understanding the strange state of Western politics in the second decade of the 21st century.
When the book was penned, the General Election in the UK had not been called and the outcome of the French election was just a matter of speculation. The sudden ascendency of Macron, in France, and the surprising appeal of Jeremy Corbyn, in the UK, add further changes to the Western political landscape and serve to underline the realisation that something bigger than fluctuations in conventional party politics is afoot.
In “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” Luce, an established political insider and journalist, uses his extensive first hand experience of watching power at work in the US, UK and Asia to flesh out his arguments. Such close scrutiny has left him with a lack of faith in the Western establishment’s ability to cope with the Armageddon of change heading its way.
For Luce, the issue does not rest on the outcome of one or two national debates, nor does it rest on Brexit or even the election of Donald Trump in the USA. To him, these are just symptoms of a much wider malaise. His concern is about the state of democracy itself. This foundation stone of liberalism is at risk, he asserts, and we are all to blame.
He even raises the question of whether democracy even deserves to survive, so devalued has it become. It is a question he believes most of us, in our affluent complacency, are wilfully ignoring at our peril. The book itself is split into four sections entitled; Fusion, Reaction, Fallout, Half Life, just in case the reader is under any illusions that what the West is going through is anything other than seismic.
Putin’s aggression, Chinese ambition and Indian optimism are held up as more honest assertions of power than the democracy we in the West continue to give lip service to but which in reality has become little more than a figleaf used to defend a Western elite’s position and shore up their economic hegemony. This tiny minority base themselves in the West, and purport to support its democratic values, but they are equally happy to skim across the global pond if the conditions here don’t suit them. To Luce, they don’t appear to care whether those conditions are met in a democracy or an autocracy.
Meanwhile, the educated middle-classes, long defenders of democratic and liberal values, have become too focussed on financial self interest to really care what is happening to our politics, Luce says.
Luce regularly refers to the lessons of history to show us the warning signs, of democracy being warped, but he says that societies do not learn from history. All history has done, he claims, is given us an over-confident faith in the enduring nature of Western democracy.
As ever, it is those at the bottom of the heap who are suffering currently, says Luce, but even the middle classes can no longer hide behind a cloak of liberal values when the real damage is being done with the insidious creep of illiberal developments such as temporary contracts and poor working conditions. Rather than seeing productivity growth we are in long term productivity decline. Then there is the coming impact of technological development, with more than half of existing jobs soon to be vulnerable to takeover by robots.
While we refuse to face up to the situation, our leaders support us in this fantasy, says Luce. That in turn is leading to a growing lack of trust in leaders. Trust in political institutions has fallen to an all time low and people feel they are being tricked by those they have put in power, he argues. He warns that the consequences are the rise of populism and points to the rise of Trump as one result.
Luce’s prognosis for the West is bleak – plutocracy or populism, accompanied by ever diminishing economic and political status. Such a sweeping theme requires an equally sweeping conclusion. For Luce the last big hope for democracy now lies in the East. China and India, autocracy and democracy, sit side by side, each with everything to play for. Which ever one of these Asian powers wins out in a world where social values have been so badly devalued will determine whether liberalism, of the sort we once identified so closely with in the West, has any future at all.