The Retreat of Western Liberalism- A Review

The Retreat of Western Liberalism- A Review

What do you get when theory is blended with praxis and woven into a compendium of perspicacious insights from domains as diverse as history, political theory, international relations, sociology, economics and political economy- all interspersed by poignant anecdotes culled from Western Classics? An ouvre by a Financial Times journalist, Edward Luce that accords the reader sophisticated , real and grounded understanding and perspectivese on the drift of the Western world. Titled, “ The Retreat of Western Liberalism”, Luce’s work is a must read for anyone and everyone interested in the nature and drift of world politics, economics , the liberal creed and its erstwhile chief protagonist, the United States.

Luce, calling attention to what may be called the “ return of history”, debunks the assumption(s) that undergirded the West’s “infallible” faith in “freedom” and “progress” , its corollary, the triumph of the isomorphism of Western Idea(s) across the world and a linear view of history that undergirded these. While non-Western view(s) of history are staging a comeback in various avatars, the real danger to the West’s Idea of progress emanates from within, emblematized by the ascension of Donald Trump to power which, in itself is not the real malaise, but is symptomatic of deep structural forces at work, according to Luce. There is, in the words of the American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, who employing a politico-economic phrase, states that “ a democratic recession in the West”.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown (4 May 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408710412
ISBN-13: 978-1408710418

Luce ties the reasons for the West’s “democratic recession” to profound structural changes , which are leading to a “dramatic power shift” in an idiom and form “ whose prime beneficiaries are India and China”. Harking back to the so called post war “Golden Age” of the West’s middle classes, the Financial Times journalist asserts that “this age has been replaced by stagnation, among whose symptoms include falling tolerance for other people’s point of view” and what may be called declining social capital. The causal loop for this, might lie in rising income inequality, which , defying conventional economic theory, is encapsulated by rise of “global cities”- often touted as “multicultural entities”” but are in reality disconnected from their “ national and regional anchors and which reflect the West’s “ oligarchic reality”.

The tone and tenor of the contemporary era is different from the past, according to Luce. For example, “the digital revolution, underway is profoundly different from the Industrial Revolution which occurred in the context of incipient democracy” . The concomitants of the digital revolution or the “gig economy”- robotics and automation, are and will affect varied domains of life. “All except the very few non- tradables will be washed away on the altars of “ virtual presence” and “ holographic tele-presence”, writes Luce.

All this has led to a “populist backlash against the world economy”, which, among other things, is upending the “tool kits of the West’s teleological journal- democratization and its economic accoutrements, like the “Washington Consensus”. These developments and the themes they have given rise to have , cumulatively led to a “crisis of liberal politics where “established political parties, are detached from their societies” , which has bred indifference”. This has created a void in politics in the West. Commenting on the political left’s focus on what Luce , quoting a political philosopher, Mark Lilla, on “Identity Liberalism” has been at “ the expense of left behinds” of the forces of globalization who, no longer have a party to speak for them”. This has bred and engendered the populist gale that finds an echo across the West. “Populist headwinds, caution’s Luce, should not be mistaken as racism”. What is actually happening is “establishment alienated populism”- that is, racial politics-, which is actually the concomitant of “ lack of growth”, according to Luce. This is manifested in the fraying of the Lockean social contract and is supplanted by a “bleak Hobbesian condition” in the West. The result is best encapsulated by the term “ oikophobia”, which means , “ an aversion to home surroundings but actually refers to the fear of your won people- the opposite of xenophobia”, posits Luce.

The West is in deep crisis mode but the cure to the West’s crisis and its antidote may not lie in either the system , laws or the politics but “ in the character of individuals down the pecking order”. This holds a resonance for the future of the world’s largest democracy- the United States. The “loudest echo” of the conjunctural point of these developments and trends , according to Luce, is “geopolitical”. The crisis of the West and its corollaries might be projected onto China and the frustrations attempted to be sublimated by Trump by a confrontation with the emerging great power.

All these themes come together and create what Luce calls “radical uncertainty”. The components of this are “the return of nationalism , at the same time, as technology is obliterating walls between nations. “This is creating, according to Luce, two existential challenges for the world in the years ahead. The first is changing the nature of relations between nations. The second is an upheaval in the internal character of states. Each feeds off and reinforces the other”, states Luce. These throw familiar markers and past shibboleths like nuclear deterrence into a tizzy, posits the Financial Times journalist. Coalescing into cyber warfare where “confusion is a strategic goal” and which leads to the problem of attribution, might lead to “the high risks of nuclear conflict”.

All these conjunctural trends constitute “the crisis of liberalism which is actually a crisis of international relations”, asserts Luce. However, the good journalist adds that “Western liberal democracy is not dead but it is far closer to collapse . It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, the enemy has been conjured from within”. If there is hope, especially in Europe, to paraphrase Luce, for Western internationalism, it lies in Angela Merkel of Germany. Luce then goes as far as stating that “ if Germany fails to lead Europe, the European Union will fall apart”. However, “ to save itself, Europe needs to make extremely difficult tradeoffs”. In terms of a “safe home” for democracy, Luce takes a jog down the memory lane and approvingly, or in fact, longingly, calls attention to India. He goes to the extent of stating that “ so ingrained is India’s culture of noisy dissent and sheer pluralism that I would rate democracy as safe in India rather than in parts of the West”.

Last, Luce asks a question about whether the West can regain its optimism and avers that , “ there is no precise measure of the health of liberal democracy. But we can be sure that America will never become great under Trump. There will be a lethal mood of betrayal and frustration when he fails”. Taking recourse to the cliché that “ the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”, Luce counsels liberals “ to resist the temptation to carry on with their comfortable lives and imagine they are doing their part by signing up to the occasional Facebook protest” . The Financial Times journalist then concludes by sagaciously advising Trumps opponents and enjoins them , “to learn to separate the man from the people who vote for him”. It would according toLucet , “be lethal malpractice to continue writing half of society as hidebound”.

Luce’s ouvre, “ The Retreat of Western Liberalism” is in the nature of a clarion call for the West to save it from itself. The hubris engendered by the creed of Liberalism’s apparent successes appeared to have bred a curious conceit in the West about its sense of self and concomitantly, role in the world. The bugle for this , in a different permutation and combination , were raised by the Canadian scholar, John Ralston Saul in his classic, “ Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” . Saul had asserted that the West’s creed was taken over for “narrow feudal purposes by usurpers of reason and rationality”. Shorn and disconnected from humanism, the West’s creed had been transformed into something that the foundational philosophers of the West would not recognize. I may interject a personal observation here. Despite the “hyper-individualism” that transformed individualism engendered, shorn of Comptean assumptions, led to a “society” and polity where justice for the individual was almost nonexistent in the West. I would call this the paradox of liberalism wherein the creed would place the individual onto a pedestal, promising him or her a nirvana but , in reality, this floundered on the rocks of a system monopolized by the elite and lawyers- rendering access for the individual almost inaccessible. The idea of rights, never really reified, was then notional for many people in the West.

Liberalism also morphed into what may be called a “ missionary impulse” wherein the problems it begat ,at home, in the West appeared to have been elided and then projected onto the “Other” . The Second Gulf War, even though emanating from the school and ideology of neo-conservativism, might constitute an example of “Liberal Imperialism”( the ideological impulse that undergirded the Second Gulf War was referred by some as “Fukuyama with a Gun”).

The liberal conceit and the various problems and issues it begat- immigrant flows, the large megatrend called globalization induced by the Information, Communication Technology(ICT) revolution, difficulties in obtaining and access to justice coupled with what Luce refers to as “ Identity Liberalism” appeared to have created the conditions for populism in the United States and the rest of the West- all encapsulated by the assumption of Donald Trump to the highest office of the country. This conceit also led to the assumption that the “Rest” or the Non West, clamored for and aspired to the so called “liberal ideal”. But , the prosaic fact is that the “non West” took recourse to what V.S Naipaul referred to as “mimicry”. While the structure and context- the international system, development economics, the isomorphism of the nation state and so on- to the Non West’s post colonial rise was “Western” but its “modernization” and/or “Westernization” was skin deep. It was neither authentic nor original. The West’s liberal protagonists appeared to have mistaken this for the non- West’s conversion to the liberal creed. In reality, the non West- except for some ululating elite- either gyrated to its own rhythm or sought to synthesize some utilitarian aspects of liberalism with its own cultural and political dynamic. China perhaps constitutes an eloquent example of the latter.

The world that we inhabit is indeed, to cite Luce, at the cusp of “radical uncertainty”. How this will pan out and denoue remains in the domain of the “unknown unknown”. History, despite Luce’s reference to non-Western Idea’s of the same, does not appear to have a clearly defined terminus nor has it ended. It is being made, unmade and remade as I write this review. Drawing a terminal point about it is sheer hubris but embedded in hubris is decline and downfall which the United States appears to be in the midst of.

If Western liberalism is to survive- especially within- it has to inject a sense of proportion and sobriety. Broken down, this would mean disavowing conceit and allowing for what may be called “ the battle of ideas”. The West’s rise , as stupendous as it was, again, if judged by historical time, might or might not be the ultima ratio for all mankind to aspire to. This is not to demean the West or undermine its genuine achievements but a call for sobriety and prudence. Since the inception of the Industrial Revolution , the West’s Renaissance and its Imperial adventures, the non West has struggled to articulate itself in an organic, authentic idiom. Liberal capitalist modernity , its trajectory and even reach , was such a juggernaut that it left challengers as almost “ road kill”. But, this might be incipiently changing as the non- West begins to assert itself albeit, to repeat, in a structure and idiom, determined by the West. What might accrue from this incipient and putative development is what has been termed as “multiple modernities“ or “hybrid modernity” wherein the non West chips in to the efflorescence and crystallization world history and civilization.

The world , its politics and political economy, is in the midst of great churn and fluidity; its form and shape might not correspond to the post War liberal underpinnings in the future. But, this is no reason to be alarmed. Liberalism as a creed will neither die nor will it be the same again. “Relativism” –once almost in the nature of a taboo term- and synthesis might be the new idioms and practices that will determine our world. This outcome might not be bad at all and, in the final analysis, might constitute the good that emanates from the populist gale that has swept the West. To sum up, the West has had its share of power- ideational and material- and, it may now be the turn of the non West to command a share of this power. This rise need not be confrontational. While traditional categories might not suffice to capture the world’s drift, but it might be that a rough balance of power, both in the ideational and real sense might be good for the West, the Non West and the world at large. Luce’s dirge and commentary of lament then, viewed from this perspective, and becomes superfluous.

Last, viewing reason and rationality in mere teleological terms and articulating these in a technocratic idiom is a recipe for disaster- the eloquent expression of which can be found in the West’s contemporary drift. For the West, to reclaim its essence and foundational philosophy, gale of populism , might be in the nature of a much needed course correction and review. The concomitant of this course correction could be in the nature of an “ideological retreat” , and to countenance diversity of Ideas and thought. This might also mean a sense of proportion which gives short shrift to hubris and , it might especially for the United States, mean what has been held to be in the midst “managed decline”. The habitat of the West’s political philosophy might actually only be the West and not non Western locales like India, which Luce looks toward longingly and admiringly. India too is in the midst of a review wherein political Hinduism seeks to supplant the ideational sub and superstructure grafted upon it by a tiny elite which got incubated in imperial metropolises. Luce either seems oblivious to the “nouveau nationalism” that India is in the grips of or is guilty of the projection of a fantasy- perhaps typical of some Westerners who are structurally able to overcome their proclivities. The West’s democracy and its liberalism, at the risk of repetition is perhaps safest in the West. It is not isomorphism , spread and imitation of the foundational ideas and ideas of the West that guarantees its survival bu, to repeat, a sense of proportion which allows for relativism, diversity of thought , practice and countenancing multiple modernities and points of view within and without the West- even it means relative decline. Let, to quote, Mao, a thousand flowers bloom!