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Mainstream, VOL LV No 32 New Delhi July 29, 2017

Why is Western Liberalism Crumbling?

Saturday 29 July 2017


by Zaboor Ahmad

The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce; publication: Little Brown UK; 2017; pages: 234.

The debate whether the West is on retreat and the East on ascension goes on unabated. It is in this context that Edward Luce’s insightful book is a new addition to the huge corpus of literature on the issue. Edward Luce in his book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, has issued a chilling and harrowing warning that ‘Western liberal democracy is not yet dead but it is far closer to collapse than we wish to believe’. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault not from without but from its own President. The overall situation is that we have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.

The success of Donald Trump is not the cause of the crisis we encounter today in Western liberalism but it is only the symptom. Instead, Luce sees it as a part of the larger trends on the world stage, the short-circuiting of over twenty-five democracies and growing downward pressure on the West’s middle classes that are producing nationalism and populist revolts. These caustic developments represent the repudiation of the false hope which came to dominate the thinking after the fall of the Berlin Wall that liberal democracy was on the inevitable march across the world. The belief got crystallised in the theory known as the end of history debate, as propounded by Francis Fukuyama. Belief in an authoritarian version of the national destiny is staging a powerful comeback putting Western liberalism under siege.

America and its allies are exporting democracy to other parts of the world but the truth is that over the last decade no fewer than twentyfive democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe: Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. The backlash of the West’s middle classes, who are the biggest losers in a global economy, has been rapidly converging, the lava has been brewing since the early 1990s. These classes are called ‘precariats’ marked by economic insecurity.

But what is the glue that is holding the liberal democracies intact? Luce argues that it is not the foundational values or principles as we are made to believe but the key is economic growth and when the growth story fails to pay-off, things take an ugly turn. The West’s median income has barely shifted in the last half-century, while conversely, it has ballooned in South Asia, China, South-East Asia. With growing competition for resources and jobs, the losers seek scapegoats for their woes, and consensus becomes harder to reach as politics devolve into more and more of a zero-sum game. When growth vanishes, our societies reveal a different picture. Without higher growth, the return of racial politics is set to continue.

The West is plagued not only by rising economic inequality; America, which had traditionally shown the highest class mobility of any Western country, now has the lowest. The meritocracy society has given rise to a hereditary meritocracy. Along with it are the problems of a growing opioid epidemic and decline in life expectancy, increasing intolerance, contempt for off-the-ground governing elites. Americans are losing faith in their system and Europe is turning inwards. China is slowly creating its own institutional wherewithal to take on the role of a hegemon. It has pumped billions of dollars in Africa, Latin America etc. Western societies are steadily getting older and an ageing society is a less entrepreneurial one, the rate of start-ups has been dropping for years. Most of the big companies are engaged in the buying of shares and they no longer invest in research and development. It seems a complacent class has developed creepy of risk aversion and a conformist mindset.

The crux of the West’s crisis: the societies are torn between the will of the people and the rule of the experts—the tyranny of the majority and the club of self-serving insiders. Support for democracy across the Western world since the fall of the Berlin Wall has plummeted. The Bush Administration’s approach to the 9/11 attack was geopolitically shortsighted, the author writes in retrospection. America’s Faustian post-9/11 pacts with autocratic regimes helped sow the seeds for the world‘s current democratic recession.

The stability of the planet and the pre-sumption of restraining will have to rest in the hands of Xi Jinping and other powerful leaders though he predicts that chaos, not China, is likelier to take America’s place. The West’s crisis is really structural and more likely to persist.

America’s loss is relative: its share of the world GDP has declined. It has devalued its global credentials by prosecuting reckless wars in the name of democracy. Europe’s geopolitical loss is total. It is barely able to project its power beyond its own borders; in fact, the very openness of the vast borders presents a threat to itself. The centre of gravity, meanwhile, is shifting inexorably towards the East. He raises an important debate that as the economic growth momentum is shifting to the South, the question is whether the Western way of life and the liberal democratic system can survive the global power-shift.

 The book is engrossing, cogently argued and pithy and a must read for all those interested in the constantly changing view of the world.

The reviewer, hailing from Anantnag (J&K), is a Lecturer in Political Science. He can be contacted at e-mail: ahmadzaboor[at]gmail.com

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