The Implosion of Western Liberalism – Quillette

Western liberal democracy is closer to collapse, he believes, than it has been since the Second World War. “This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within.” It is not only that “we have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade,” but worse: the contempt for liberal democracy is growing, regardless of who wins or loses particular elections. “One in six people of all ages in America and Europe,” he writes, “now believe it would be a good or a very good thing for the ‘army to rule’.” To put that in perspective, this response was “one in sixteen in the mid-1990s.” While longing for “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” is also on the rise, esteem for democracy declines, especially among rich millennials—the very people who will inherit this crisis. “If today’s rich young are tomorrow’s thought leaders,” Luce concludes, “democracy has a shaky future.”

What happened? Luce focuses on three main causes: globalization, labor automation, and “the rise of the rest,” namely China, which is returning to the status it had enjoyed through much of recorded history until the 19th century. Weaving together statistics about each and stories from others, as well as anecdotes from his own adventurous career, Luce presents a gloomy prospect for Western liberalism.

The Implosion of Western Liberalism – Quillette

Amazon.com: Customer reviews: The Retreat of Western Liberalism

This book is an attempt to hijack all political development back to Magna Carta and to make them equal to the neoliberal & neoconservative politics that emerged in the 1990s after the cold war. The basic message is the same message that George W. Bush offered in the lead-up to the Iraq War; You are either “with us* or “against us*. Its a rejection of true liberalism in favor of what can be best described as “managed democracy”. The formality of elections are observed, but the electorate is expected to produce what is considered the correct result. That many basic economic and political decisions (trade, immigration, war) are beyond the reach of democracy and treated as if they were laws of nature come down on stone tablets. Democracy becomes equal to the shared values of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. To even question certain political policies is to both threaten democracy and threaten all the political evolution since Manga Carta. Rather than liberalism, often what is being presented are intensely conservative ideas. Ideas that assume a natural order to the world and a status quo which should not be changed through politics.

The book is in four sections:

1) He covers the decline of the working class under western liberalism. Ironically, he forgets that these were often the people whose interests “western liberalism” was supposed to be championing. He attempts to show that their economic decline is both inevitable and necessary. He sees them as being inevitable losers in a “game” of improving life globally.

2) The “losers” he defined in (1) are becoming a serious problem because, rather than accepting their inevitable fate, they are daring to vote against the liberal establishment. He considers them to be making “scapegoats” of liberals. After all, their increasing poverty is to be seen as simply a result of nature and inevitable. Nothing can be done about it and nobody can be held accountable for it. The working and middle classes are simply “interest groups” fighting over a share of insufficient declining resources.

3) He sees the losers as being a danger to the military and trade alliances which (apparently) are the heart of western liberalism. Its the old neoconservative ideas from ten years ago of the world as a battlefield where the world is divided into “western liberalism” and “enemies”. Following Trotsky’s theory of revolution, if the frontiers of western liberalism (as an economic and military alliance) are not expanding, they have to be pulling back. if NATO is not expanding into Ukraine and Georgia, NATO is failing. Its the same thinking that led to the Iraq war and ironically the Vietnam War. He sees a moral failure in working-class Americans who don’t believe in the imperial project. The same working class Americans whose economic decline into poverty is simply inevitable are supposed to die fighting wars. The neoliberals and neoconservatives have for many years been predicting the inevitability of a war between the US and China. The author never quite understand that one of the key problems of western liberalism in the modern era is that its conclusions are equal to what is inevitable.

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And of course he concludes that to not follow a liberal establishment which promises only poverty and a soldiers’ grave is simply selfishness (and by extension racism). He somewhat represents a return to the self-destructive narratives of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. In particular when Carter after deep reflection as to the country’s problems concluded that the their true root of the problem was the lazy, stupid and greedy American people.

I also think that Luce has a poor grasp on the realities internationally. China is not a healthy state in many ways. There is material prosperity for the few, but the elite don’t believe in the system or that it can last. Many have elaborate escape plans when the end comes. China has become an industrial nightmare where the lives of the many are so bad that death becomes preferable to life. The NAFTA-built industrial zones along the US border are a nightmare world of abuse, corruption and environmental destruction. The reality of “free trade” is a race to the bottom.

In fact, a whole lot of the book sounds very familiar. Luce has turned the page back to the post-1968 ideas of liberalism. A world of economic stagnation, declining living standards for most, social policy as a zero-sum game where one must take to give and a vision for the future where people’s children will have less than they did.

4) In the end, he doesn’t offer up much of anything of use. He makes a plea for the western liberal elite to give up on identity politics and re-capture the middle classes. But that is at least 30 years too late. Worse yet, he has nothing to offer them. The core of western liberalism is open migration of labor, free trade and wars. Western liberalism can’t invite the working-class back while it stands for policies which it knows (or at least Luce knows) can only lead to the impoverishment and destruction of the working class. Modern liberalism is about dividing people and putting people into competition with each other. Even if they wanted to, decades of commitment to dividing people and creating victim narratives cannot easily be undone.

What Luce and many others simply cannot totally understand is that since 1968, “western liberalism” has become a narrow elite movement whose agenda is equal to its own selfish interests. They don’t care and they make it very clear to everyone that they don’t care. While they claim the legacy of “liberalism”, its often difficult to find anything liberal about their ideas. Wars, cheap imported labor and free trade are about *business*. As a former minion of Larry Summers, Edward Luce is part of the problem and has been for decades.

As with other books on this topic, this one fails to understand that what calls itself today “western liberalism” has no claim on that term. The people who own the term today were its grave-diggers after 1968.

Politics is about delivering people a better life. If all a politician can promise the majority of people is a better managed decline into poverty and hopelessness, they need to find a new career. Trump is the symptom, not the problem.
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Q&A

– “Likewise the book is hardly a defense of the “narrow elite movement” which Luce describes as spanning both parties and doomed in their modern version of Versailles.”
+ The “Western Liberalism” that the book describes as being in “retreat” is (and was) a narrow elite movement. The faults of the present don’t erase the historic faults of “Western Liberalism”.

– The comments about China as a place where death is preferrable to life are also off base….the suicide rate in the US is about 50% higher than China’s, per the WHO.
+ What I can tell you is that I’ve personally visited facilities in China that had to install “suicide nets” around buildings to prevent workers from throwing themselves off the buildings. I think the reported numbers for suicide in China vastly underestimate the actual problem. I can only speak to my own experiences in China and I found it to be a very troubled place.

– The final section of the book, which includes potential remedies, is admittedly brief but does offer some plausible solutions, not including the unlimited immigration and wars cited by Mr Bennett
+ The final section of the book was dealt with under (4) within the review and did directly mention one of his ideas. The review does not limit itself to notions of “Western Liberalism” cherry picked by the author. The reviewer holds (among other things) that the retreat of what Luce calls “Western Liberalism” cannot be divorced from its attachment to the three unpopular causes mentioned (including wars).

Amazon.com: Customer reviews: The Retreat of Western Liberalism