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Review of The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

Pub. Little Brown, London 2017

Edward Luce’s previous book, “Time to Start Thinking: America and the Sceptre of Decline” was a timely account of the decline of the American state, this book, appears to be primarily a commentary on the rise of populism, with particular reference to the emergence of Donald Trump, together with an attempt to understand the widespread alienation of the Western working and middle classes, in the face of rising inequalities, globalisation, and technological change. At times the author comes close to writing a polemic, but his insights, are always useful, and if you are looking for an interesting discussion of recent social and political events within the United States, I strongly recommend this book.

It is not a criticism, to say that this book, is really an extended essay, it has the immediacy of journalism, however, non-American readers, may find the author’s focus on President Trump somewhat overwhelming. I was also, not convinced, by the fictional account of a future Chinese-American war; one thing we have learned in recent years is that the future is far from predictable. I do agree, the Western democracy, is today under threat, in a way that we could not have foreseen, at the beginning of this century.

I also believe that he is totally correct when he talks about the intellectual poverty of American liberalism. He says, “I have spent a fair amount of time interviewing leaders of ultranationalist movements, cult groups and fanatics of all kinds around the world. I have yet to come across a more airtight example of groupthink than Hillaryland.” He also suggests that the focus of American liberals multiculturalism, and the division of the voting population, into separate and exclusive groups, did not adequately reflect the reality of life for the supposed members of these groups, and that it created antagonism amongst many white Americans. He says, “Hillaryland was inured to how badly this game of favourites came across to non-college-educated whites, who still form America’s largest voting bloc, and will continue to do so for some time.” Luce adds, “by giving a higher priority to the politics of ethnic identity than people’s common interest, the American left helped create what it feared. …. Ethnic politics is a game of absence.”

I think that an analysis of American political life over the last hundred years or so, would have been useful. One of the factors, that Europeans too often ignore, is the level of corruption, common in American political life, something that the career of L B Johnson demonstrated clearly. Big business, has since the 19th century, played an important role in determining the course of policies, and politics, in the United States. One fact, that I believe, should have been mentioned, is the role of business donors, and right-wing think tanks, in determining recent policies. Jane Mayer’s excellent book, Dark Money, should be read alongside this book. A recent academic study, published by Princeton University, also found that United States is now an oligarchy, not a democracy.

There are unique elements, within the American political experience, which do not read across to other long-established democracies, which in essence, are the states of north-western Europe, and their direct colonies. Luce also falls into the trap, of equating Brexit with Trumpism, Brexit was essentially the rejection by the British, of membership of a European superstate, an assertion of nationalism, which was sui generis. There is no reason to suppose that the United Kingdom, will move away from its established policies, once it leaves the European Union, it is not an American colony in Europe. I think better title for this book, would have been, The Retreat of American Liberalism, because so little attention is paid to the politics of other long established democratic states, other than the United Kingdom, no mention of Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the Nordic states; these are all countries, where democracy is functioning, debate is informed, and democracy is not under threat. It may be, that the countries, he mentions, as moving away from democracy, including Turkey and Hungary, were always dominated by powerful oligarchies, and that democracy was essentially a form of window-dressing, which served to enhance the international reputation of the country concerned.

The author has a number of useful comments on Russia, under Putin, and on modern China. Although in my opinion, he fails to identify the economic fragility of the Chinese model, which has become dependent on overinvestment, and the maintenance of loss-making state enterprises; which the Chinese Communist Party, cannot close down for fear of serious social unrest and political ramifications. The Chinese have also been very careful not to create obvious confrontations with the United States, and there seems no reason why they should do so. China’s historic enemy is Japan, and from time to time anti-Japanese sentiment is allowed its voice. The appalling behaviour of the Japanese army during its occupation of China in the Second World War gives plenty of reasons for the expression of anti-Japanese sentiment. China has no need of a confrontation, the main concern of China’s leaders, is to maintain their power, to ensure that the Communist Party maintains its control of the country, that there is not serious internal unrest, and that the economy does not experience a major retreat. Its main concern, in its dealings with the United States, will be to maintain its trade relations; a mutual dependency has been created between these two countries, and neither can afford to sever it. As for Russia, Putin has played a clever hand, but Russia is a country in economic decline, as oil ceases to be the driver of economic progress, replaced by renewable energy, and as its declining population, further reduces its workforce. Russia today, remains dependent on the export of raw materials, notably crude oil and gas, as well as minerals, its industry is not world class, save for certain types of armament. In the long term, Putin’s successor, is likely to wish to strengthen ties between Russia and Europe, an alliance that will be in the interest of both parties, and which may be perceived as a threat by a future American government. The author does refer to India, about which he is positive, and contrasts it with China, but a better comparison may well be with Pakistan, which is a flawed democracy, subject to periodic interventions by its military.

In short, this book, is like the curate’s egg, good in parts (I assure you that parts of it are excellent!). Despite its defects, and the author admits that he has not considered factors like climate change, which he says is beyond the scope of this book. I would have thought that consideration of the policy changes that climate change will inevitably impose on all states, is a strong argument for democratic involvement and debate; to overcome the claims of special interest groups, who have much to lose from such matters.

I recently read George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written in 1940, which begins, “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” Orwell’s was writing about the essence of Englishness, he said that, “an all-important English trait: the respectful constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ is something above the state and above the individual something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but it any rate incorruptible.” He adds, that, “The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root.” Orwell believes that national culture, is deep rooted, that, what he refers to as, “The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with suet puddings and the misty skies.” I think that what Orwell says is important, that England, is more than its democratic institutions, important and deep-rooted though they are, its culture is about an attitude to living, and for the respect for norms and behaviour. In other words, I think we have to look at the national culture, of each country, in order to assess how it is likely to behave. Arguably, the rise of Internet companies in the United States, was in part possible because at least some of them were prepared to operate at the borderline of the law, disregarding regulations when they did not suit the business purposes of the organisation, avoiding taxes and workers’ rights. One obvious example was the refusal of Transport for London (TfL) in September 2017 to renew Uber’s licence to operate in London, on the grounds that, “Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.” TfL also cited Uber’s approach to reporting serious criminal offences, background checks on drivers and software called Greyball that could be used to block regulators from gaining full access to the Uber app. We saw this with Enron, and there have been many other examples of American companies disregarding environmental and other regulations in order to maximize profit. Strangely I see a similar attitude in the reaction of German car manufacturers, caught red-handed in the diesel scandal, protesting their innocence, arrogance will always be the undoing of the powerful.

In short, I agree with Edward Luce we live in difficult times, but perhaps, we should pay less attention to democratic forms, and more to national character. Arguably, the greatest threat that we face today, apart from climate change, is the rise of economic inequalities within countries, and the most important outcome, must be that nations are governed fairly, that is that the interests of all members of society are taken into account, and that national culture is respected, because the nation state remains, despite the efforts Brussels and multinational corporations, the key building block of individual identity and well-being.

I recommend this book, it is a contribution to a debate which we should all contribute to, I believe that it is inevitably flawed, but it deals with the vast subject, which the author says is an ambitious book on a large topic.

(c) Andrew Palmer, 2017, not to be republished without permission.

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