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The Retreat of Western Liberalism

by Edward Luce

Luce is a columnist and commentator for the a Financial Times. He's British. Wikipedia describes him as having "a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from New College, Oxford in 1990" and as having "received a post-graduate diploma in newspaper journalism from City University, London." His publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, describes him as a "prescient voice on our current social and political turmoil." A few, or perhaps more, who have read his book think otherwise.

Luce doesn't buy the idea of that history guides humanity. He sees in history a "timeless repetition of human folly and correction." He writes that " and adds that "humankind's moral progress is a question that can never be settled. In other words he is not assuming the optimism held by some of us. "Westerners," he writes "have taken a linear view of history, in which time is always marching us toward a happier place." He counters:

Material conditions may improve. But humanity's moral condition is constant. There is no spiritual or political finale toward which history is guiding us.

He isn't buying Dr Francis Fukuyama's concept of Western liberal democracy having triumphed in Hegelian fashion (End of History) so as never to be challenged. His title, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, is about that challenge.

He writes of no more talk of the "inevitability of democracy or the US-led global order." He sees a shift to a "polycentric world order," which he describes as Russian for a "post American world".

Luce:

Beijing, Ankara, Cairo, Caracus, and even Budpest, share Russia's hostility to Western notions of progress, as do growing numbers of apostates in the West. Are they wrong?"

He adds that his book "is an attmept to answer that question."

Economics and Politics

Luce writes that "Much of the world is starting to catch up with the West's material advanages." Since 1970, per capital incomes in Asia have increased fivefold. In Africa, the worst performing continent, "incomes have almost doubled."

Luce:

In some parts of Asia, such as Singapore and South Korea, incomes have either overtaken or are level-pegging with the West. In others notably India, they still langish at less than a tenth of the Western average. But the direction is clear.

And "automation, including artificial intelligence, which some call the fourth industrial revolution, is still in its early stages." We can't be sure that these others are going to adhere to the kind of traditional liberalism and democracy that we in the West are said to believe in. Nor can we be sure, suggests Luce, that we in the US will stay with it.

Luce:

We are taught to think our democracies are held together by values. Out faith in history fuels that myth. But live democracy's strongest glue is economic growth. When groups fight over the fruits of growth, the rules of the political game are relatively easy to uphold. When those fruits disappear or are monopolized by a fortunate few, things turn nasty ... the losers seek scapegoats.

The West's past also tells us to beware of "times of stark and growing inequality." Luce writes of change and political ineptitude. In 1950 it took the median worker forty-five hours per month to pay the median rent in one of America's big cities. "A generation later it had edged up to fifty-six hours. Today it takes 101 hours." (Market economics and population growth are involved.) Luce goes on: "Much the same rising unaffordability applies to the cost of decent health insurance in America, and higher education ... The runaway costs of acquiring social capital are why so many are so pessimistic about their children's life prospects."

Luce sees the center-right and center-left as shrinking. He writes that a sense of personal stagnation — and the fear that you may be sinking (relative to others) — casts an enervating pall over the human spirit. "In the last decade, America's share of people in full time jobs has dropped to European levels ... There is now a higher share of French males in full-time jobs than Americans."

He mentions Hillary Clinton's "otherwise gracious" concession speech:

Mrs Clinton reeled off all the Americans who had contributed to her coalition. This included 'people of all races and religions,' 'immigrants', 'LGBT people', and 'people with disabilities'. Her list did not extend to the guy in the pick-up truck or the blue-collar labourer. They had been forgotten.

Luce refers to Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who has "impeccable liberal credentials", being branded by a colleague as a white supremacist. Lilla favored the Democrats moving beyond identity politics. Luce says Lilla "was on firm ground. Fascism is based on group rights. Liberal democracy is founded on individual rights." Luce writes that Trump's victory was an "accident delivered by the dying gasp of America's white majority – abetted by Putin.

Luce asks,

Can the West regain its optimism? If the answer is no — and most of the portents are skewing thet wrong way — liberal democracy will follow. If the next few years resemble the last, it is questionable whether Western democracy can take the strain. People have lost faith that their systems can deliver. More and more are looking backwards to a golden age that can never be regained ... The search for Ede always ends in tears.

There will be a lethal mood of betrayal and frustration when [Trump] fails. Who knows where that can lead.

A reader of the book, at Amazon.com, believes as some of us do that our traditions and institutions will not be completely erased, that "various degrees of liberal democracy are probably here to stay." (Like me he is a little more optimistic than Luce.) It is easy to reject absolutes (the complete sweeping away of our benevolent inheritances from the past). But fascist Italy retained elements of its modern parliamentary system, and political systems require more than spotty remnants. A liberal democratic political system by definition is overwhelmed by consistency and commitment.

Another reader comment at Amazon gives the book one star and describes it as "just another, albeit sophisticated, Trump bashing." Another sees the book as Chinese Communist Party propaganda. You may find the book's four and three star reviews interesting and worthwhile reading.


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