By Vikas Datta,
Title: The Retreat of Western Liberalism; Author: Edward Luce; Publisher: Little, Brown/Hachette India; Pages: 240; Price: Rs 599
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” begins Charles Dickens’ French Revolution drama “A Tale of Two Cities” — it could well describe our present times where people mourn or celebrate the re-creation of barriers and majoritarian, intolerant “democracies”.
The appetite for globalisation, whose triumph was extolled till recently, is steadily diminishing with free trade and immigration inviting suspicion, if not hostility. And liberal democracies, with their multi-ethnic societies, extensive economic and social rights, especially to free speech and dissent, are under grave threat, not only in their new homes but also in their Western citadels.
But Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory, or the far-right’s rise in Europe — or elsewhere — “are not the cause, but a terrifying symptom” of this trend, says Financial Times journalist and author Edward Luce in this incisive but scarcely comforting book.
Trying to gauge why Western-style liberalism, secured and safeguarded through wars and extreme ideologies, is losing ground to internal threats of populism and an exclusivist, “nationalist” rhetoric whipped up by “democratic” mass leaders, he cites a personal but telling example.
In November 1989, he and some other optimistic friends skipped college to see, and contribute to, the Cold War’s “physical demise” — by demolishing the Berlin Wall. In an “eerie coincidence” about three decades to the day, he suddenly remembered an invite to a Moscow conference when “America had just elected a President who was a big fan of walls and a big admirer of Vladimir Putin”.
“This book is my attempt to answer the question (why liberalism is in retreat),” he says, admitting that for someone who has seen the rise of democracy, the spread of market economics, and indications of a global acceptance, even token, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “merely to pose the question is troubling enough”.
But then, he says, we can no longer be confident that “the march of human freedom is unstoppable” or the West is still a model for the world.
The reasons include that history is not always linear — towards a better future, as most Western intellectual traditions from Christianity to Communism hold; or ignoring “non-Western versions of history, which were overshadowed by colonial rule but never forgotten”, particularly of India and China, both of which are again rising.
And then the internal, mortal threat to the Western idea of progress, exemplified by Trump and his ilk, but rooted deep in the growing economic inequality in their societies.
Luce combines some hard, and unsettling, facts about the “stagnant” state of Western economies and societies, with perceptive, even provocative, insights into their implications. He also dwells on other issues like the “West’s moral debt to its former colonies”, say India. The focus is mainly on the West, but China and India are also covered, especially Narendra Modi’s “Bonapartist traits”.
The book is in four sections. “Fusion” recounts how global economy’s integration had a radical impact on Western economies, where “the downward pressure on the income of the West’s middle classes in the coming years will be relentless”, while “Reaction” “explains the resulting degeneration of Western politics”, where liberal democracies are not held by values but the “strongest glue” of economic growth.
“Fallout” goes on to deal with the implications, particularly the loss of faith in existing systems, which results in success of leaders like Trump who “offers a cure worse than the disease”, and finally in “Half Life” he seeks to discern what, if anything, can be done.
Here, Luce is less than confident, noting it is not a temporary aberration as some would like to think, for his concern is not only with Trump but who or what follows him as “winter follows autumn”. It will be a hard task, needing a radical shift in prevailing political and economic systems, he says.
Among his recommendations are workplace reforms, upholding free speech on campuses and in the media, simplified tax systems, which target bad things like carbon instead of good ones like jobs, but above all, active participation of all citizens concerned beyond “signing up to the occasional Facebook protest”.
Can we do it — or be resigned to living under these circumstances? It is up to us.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)