One sign that the death of neoliberalism was exaggerated when first reported in 2008 could be found in the reactions of the business press. ‘Crisis, What Crisis? Enough Kerfuffle, It’s Just a Slowdown’ was how Bill Emmott, the Economist’s editor, greeted the news in a Guardian op ed. Five months later, ‘I wasn’t right. But that’s ok’. If denial characterized the response to the onset of the Great Recession, the twin political shocks of Brexit and Trump almost a decade later have had the opposite effect—waves of despair and defiance crashing over commentators, stunned by popular anger at globalization, with a flurry of titles now claiming liberalism, the West, or both, are in crisis. The two moments have a certain dialectical unity about them, on display in the marriage of alarmism and complacency that characterizes Emmott’s 2017 book, The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Idea, in which he doubles down, calling for a dose of ‘neo-neo liberalism’ to ‘restore and nurture equality’, although with the proviso that this should not be ‘redistributive and material’. Above all, we should refrain from criticizing capitalism, which would be ‘rather like attacking “life”.’
Into this field steps the contrasted figure of Edward Luce, a leading Financial Times columnist, whose Retreat of Western Liberalism strikes a somewhat different note. ‘It was remarkably arrogant to believe the rest of the world would passively adopt our script’ after 1989, Luce writes. ‘Those who still believe in the inevitable triumph of the Western model might ask themselves whether it is faith, rather than facts, that fuels their worldview. We must cast a sceptical eye on what we have learned never to question.’ What was more, the roots of Western liberal democracy’s crisis are economic—Trump and company are a symptom, not a cause. The basis for democracy’s flourishing in the Atlantic world after 1945 was not ‘Western values’, but rising living standards and economic growth. Yet unstoppable economic processes—automation; the age of convergence with China and the rest—will put relentless pressure on wage earners in the years ahead. Globally, Washington’s credentials as the world’s sheriff have been badly damaged by Bush’s pre-emptive wars and are now being trashed by Trump; a declining us is at risk of insecure over-reaction to the rise of China. But it would be a mistake to think all would have been well with Clinton in the White House. ‘The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist’, Luce argues. The Retreat of Western Liberalism aims to provide a clear-eyed account of what has gone wrong, in order to help Western establishments to ‘save liberalism from itself.’
Luce himself comes from the heart of one such establishment—the top drawer of the English political class. A grandfather was Governor of Aden and diplomatic midwife to the United Arab Emirates; a great uncle, First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. His father was a Tory mp from 1974 to 1992, a minister in Thatcher’s government, who went on to serve as Governor of Gibraltar and Lord Chamberlain, on the commission to select the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2012—by then, a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter. Born in 1968, Luce describes himself here as a pure product of the post-Cold War order. In 1989, cutting his ppe tutorials at Oxford, he fêted its arrival on a road trip to Berlin, where he chipped at the Wall as champagne popped and Wordsworth—and Fukuyama—rang in his head. After a traineeship at the eu Commission he plumped for a career in journalism, which promised more excitement, the ‘wind in my hair and an open road’. From the Guardian, reporting from Geneva, he moved onto the ft, first as its man in Manila, then at the capital-markets desk in London. In 1999 Luce took a break to work as a speechwriter for Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers—he marvels in retrospect at the ‘unshakeable self-confidence’ of this high noon of the Washington Consensus.
Rejoining the ft in 2001 after Bush’s victory, he was dispatched to India, to which he devoted his first book, In Spite of the Gods (2007)—its title a nod to Nehru’s more secular vision of development as against a Gandhian spiritual one. Here he departed in some respects from the norm of English admiration for the Congress Party, which India’s former rulers liked to see as a mark of their success. He was lucid about the corrupting effects of Nehru-Gandhian dynasticism on the party, as well as its corruption tout court. He also formed a more sceptical view than he had held in London or Washington of the effects of trade liberalization on a large, poor country. In 2006 he returned to dc as the ft’s bureau chief, in time to cover the Democratic primaries, the rise of the Tea Party and the unfolding financial crisis. The fruits of this were evident in his Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (2012), which marked Luce out as one of the more critical voices on the Washington press circuit. Writing from the trough of the recession, he was scathing about the us’s mediocre public-school system and second-world infrastructure, the social devastation of its rustbelt—‘How many Flints can America absorb?’ The sub-prime bubble was only a symptom of growing economic insecurity, the shrinking number of secure manufacturing jobs and the growth of casualized service-sector employment.
Luce expressed grave doubts about Obama’s ability to govern, as opposed to campaign: while bankers had been saved, the downward trend in median wages had accelerated under his Administration. The creed of equal opportunity scarcely had a basis in reality. Obama had made ‘profound tactical errors’ on healthcare, conceding half the battle before it had begun by outsourcing the legislation to Senator Max Baucus, who gutted it of a public option or the ability to negotiate lower drug prices. In 2011 he had abandoned his ‘mini-stimulus’, acquiescing to demands he cut the deficit instead. Here were shades of Paul Krugman’s complaint that Obama was insufficiently Keynesian; for Luce, however, that medicine was not strong enough either. ‘Old social-democratic orthodoxies’—still less appeals to ‘injured national superiority that exist in parts of the heartland’—were unlikely to invert the curve of America’s descent. The deep national tradition of pragmatism might still come to its aid, but this required clear thinking, not (in Tocqueville’s words) the perpetual utterance of self-applause. Against Michelle Obama’s bright vacuities Luce mobilized Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Such views might be unpopular with the electorate—Luce would joke that one reviewer thought his book so depressing that it ought to be called Time to Start Drinking—but denial of us malaise was not a strategy.
Surveying the wreckage five years later, The Retreat of Western Liberalism aims to extend the story beyond us borders and set the decline of ‘the west’ in a global context. The book has four parts, of unequal length. ‘Fusion’, the opening section, surveys the unintended consequences of globalization, ‘Reaction’, their political outcomes; ‘Fallout’, much shorter, covers international relations; ‘Half-Life’, barely twenty pages, addresses what is to be done. Luce foregrounds the rise of China and gleefully cites Hobson’s prescient prediction in Imperialism (1902) as background to Xi Jinping’s defence of globalization at Davos:
China, passing more quickly than other ‘lower races’ through the period of dependence on Western science and Western capital, and quickly assimilating what they have to give, may re-establish her own economic independence, finding out of her own resources the capital and organizing skill required for the machine industries, and . . . launch herself upon the world market as the biggest and most effective competitor.