The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

The Retreat of Western LiberalismThe Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pay no attention to the one and two star reviews…those are from rightwing trolls that probably didn’t actually read the book, or if they did, Luce’s text sailed way over their heads. Lucidly assembled, well-researched, well-composed, Luce writes as the journalist he is, though at times percolates a little too academic. Published in 2017, Luce while doing well to capture the contemporary conditions and lay out his thesis, unfortunately used a great many at-the-time current names that he could have no way of knowing just one year later have already been dismissed, fired, or left of their own accord from the debacle that the 2016 US elections results created.

Luce divides his book into four parts that he calls
– Fusion … about the integration of the global economy and the impact to Western economies
– Reaction … about the degeneration of Western politics
– Fallout … about the decline of US, and Western leadership/dominance
– Half Life … about what can be done

In Fusion, Luce rightly identifies, and explains his position, China’s ascendancy to the top player in the global economy. He rightly identifies Trump as an accelerant in that. And the US, income disparity is a huge factor in the decline, tied to the trap that those on the wrong side are enmeshed. He quotes Richard Florida: “In the US your ZIP code is increasingly your destiny.” A consequence of the global decline seems to be the “experts” missing the mark repeatedly. Luce says “Every January, the Davos [World Economic Forum] gathering sounds a little more bemused about what is happening in the world outside.” He says that Davos “specialises in projecting the future from a recent past that took it by surprise.” My notes on that were:

This is too common a condition in the western world. Short-sight extrapolated irresponsibly, and with implied authority and yet without rigor, only to be replaced by the next most recent crisis. At the mercy of the winds instead of exercising strategic initiative…{sigh}.

He further observes, “For every risk, Davos offers an identikit fix. Most of its Latinate prose sounds innocuous. But the lexicon betrays a worldview that is inherently wary of public opinion. Democracy is never a cure.” Calling out Davos: “One potential solution could be to make better use of technology in the process of government – not only to deliver services in a faster, more transparent, inclusive and consumer-oriented way, but also to establish a ‘digital public square’ with more direct communication between leaders and people.” My response to that is be mindful of the lessons told in Democracy Hacked. He closes out the Fusion section with

When you put on the Golden Straitjacket, ‘your economy grows and your politics shrinks’. [Thomas] Friedman possesses an uncanny knack for catching the spirit of the age with revealing insights. But he should have dropped the word golden. Straitjackets are for lunatics. We can hardly complain if our democracies have begun to lose their minds.

I thought that an interesting adulation with backhanded disparity. Friedman may once have been insightful and influential, but with soundbites only, and nothing of substance. Bad writing sells books because bestsellers rarely get read, and more rarely are understood, and even more rarely have critical thinking properly applied. Friedman’s bloviating tends to buffalo many, prompting an image in my head of the pseudo intellectuals pontificating on the merits of Bukowski or Foster Wallace, or Mark Rothko.

As Luce examines the Reaction leading to the decline, he looks at the impacts of the fall of the Soviet Union, the fallout (not his later section) of the Al Queda attacks.

It is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did to America’s global soft power – and to the credibility of the West’s democratic mission. Operation Enduring Freedom, which began after 9/11, was followed by Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both were rashly named. It is one thing to go to war in the name of liberty; quite another to be clueless about it. Even without the doublespeak of the ‘war on terror’, it is highly questionable whether democracy can be installed from the barrel of a gun.”

That last bit was rather well put.

From America’s post-9/11 blunders to Donald Trump’s election, the twenty-first century has been generous to autocrats everywhere. It is tempting to believe these were historic accidents that will iron themselves out in due course. The human, social and technological forces favouring democracy will ultimately prove far stronger than the ‘shit happens’ school of history. It is a train of thought we should avoid. Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright, famously said: ‘Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?’ In a strange way that is what Putin does by manipulating and remaking Russian public opinion to suit his purposes. Messing with people’s heads is also Trump’s specialty.

Spot on, that specialty. Here’s a sobering observation:

In America, the share of voters describing themselves as independent has been creeping up for years.15 This is no measure of Socratic equidistance. For the most part, independent is a fancy word for apathetic.

While there are plenty of end notes, I did flag a few that did not have cites, and to me, that changes the color of the relation of possible facts to pronouncement and opinion. In talking about Trump’s pagentry, Luce relates a story about Trump’s foray in to the world of professional “wrestling”, eventually leading to Linda McMahon getting a cushy appointment. He discusses Chris Hedges’s book Empire of Illusion, about WWE, but then

Hedges was writing in 2009. Since then, WWE’s popularity has been overtaken by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which attracts tens of millions of viewers and earns its biggest stars tens of millions of dollars. Unlike wrestling, the UFC is not scripted. The contestants fight it out in a large octagonal steel cage. They really do aim to hurt each other.

I have observed publicly that UFC is a descent into barbarism. It is a symptom of the retreat of civilization. Gladiatorial pugilistic violence as spectator sport was big 2,000 years ago in Rome. That it resurges today is pitiful. As noted above, Luce could not have dreamed up the chaotic mindnumbing daily trials of the 2017-current as of this writing US executive branch. He says in one passage “Putin, who is the only world leader Trump admires[…]”. Enter Kim Jong Un and some love letters. Now, as he tried to outline the historically normal powers would keep the executive in check, here is a shot far wide of the mark…it may have made sense when he was writing the book but…If I were a budding Mark Felt [Woodward and Bernstein’s “Deep Throat”], I would leak my material to John McCain, the ornery senator from Arizona, or his fellow Arizonian Jeff Flake, or Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina. There are few who revile Trump more than the Republican hawks.Right on McCain, obviously before his passing; wrong on the spineless Flake; and so wrong on the politically bi-polar Graham as to be embarrassingly wrong. Luce must be thinking “I can’t put out a new edition…everything has changed!” But the real crying shame is this:

Finally, there is the judiciary, America’s third branch of government. There is nothing to stop a US president from ignoring the courts.

Ahem…{whispers aside}…now he has Kavanaugh.

For Fallout, Luce opens with a “plausible” (his term) scenario about a near future war with China. He’s actually correct that it is plausible, and that T is the cause, but he names all the players from State to Defense to political advisors to even the Federal Reserve Chair. The only US players still there are T and Jeff Sessions! I submit that Luce would have thought it inconceivable that the nine other named aren’t in their positions anymore! And to pile on, Luce says in commenting on Xi Jinping’s term expiration in 2022,

It would be a disaster if Xi broke with Chinese precedent and prolonged his hold on power.

Well…if “for life” means anything to “prolong”… Luce has to be reeling everyday something new comes along to shatter his backup data! The thesis is still sound…just the reasoning that got him there is no longer valid. But the chaos is. He says himself “This book does not dare offer precise forecasts. But it is safe to say that if Germany fails to lead Europe, the European Union will fall apart.” Yeah. forecasts are so far off…but to be fair, how could anyone not assume that T wouldn’t have even a shred of respect for the office or the country?

I didn’t make any notes for the Half Life section. I don’t think he had much to offer in the way of what can be done. And in the pace of the technological world today, nothing would work anyway.

So…good, sobering recount of what’s happening, some good thoughts on how we got here and what the consequences are, but no tangible help to recover. Worth the read.

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One response to “The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

  1. As a student of classical martial arts (Aikido), I agree that the UFC is indeed a symptom of the ever-increasing adulation of the low-brow.

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