Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce


The American dream slowly devolving into an existential nightmare

The Retreat of Western Liberalism is a well-written, insightful, disheartening and probably eerily accurate read (especially the scenario for war with China and a peace brokered by Putin) about why liberalism is being steam-rolled around the globe by fascism masquerading as populism. The author, Edward Luce, is the chief US columnist for the Financial Times; not surprisingly, he is a terrific writer with deep historical perspective, a well-rounded grasp of world affairs and, specifically, keen insights into the turmoil currently gripping America.

Luce writes knowledgeably and effectively on how the West ignores the deleterious effects of unchecked immigration at its own peril, the rising economic power of China and India, the continued aggressions of Russia and the truly terrifying gulf of wealth inequality that is destabilizing democracy.

“…liberal democracy’s strongest glue is economic growth. When groups fight over the fruits of growth, the rules of the political game are relatively easy to uphold. When those fruits disappear, or are monopolised by the fortunate few, things turn nasty.”

And they’re definitely turning nasty.

“The world’s wealthiest subset — the 1426 richest individuals on the planet — are worth $5.4 trillion, which is roughly twice the size of the entire British economy and more than the combined assets of the 250 million least wealth Americans.”

This obscene concentration of wealth, and efforts to rig the system in the favor of elites accumulating ever more, is generating an existential crisis for the American worker.

“… the West’s souring mood is about the psychology of dashed expectations rather than the decline in material comforts.”

As the wealth gap grows and the middle class is plundered by the elites, jobs are disappearing or being offshored, safety net and social services are being shredded and access to the traditional ladders for economic advancement (education, for example, and home ownership) is being turned to kindling by politicians and corporate interests.

This is one of my favorite lines: “When the economic tide went out in 2008, it suddenly became clear how many people had been swimming naked.”

And the increasing reach of robotics and AI is not helping.

“In the West, we spend half our time fretting about low-swilled immigrants. We should be worrying at least as much about high-skilled off-shoring.”

He faults both sides of the political divide in the U.S, which is refreshing. The right and the rise of populism is seen as a symptom of a failing system, and the left has not helped.

“… by giving a higher priority to the politics of ethnic identity than people’s common interests, the American left helped to create what it feared.”

So now what?

“We are on a menacing trajectory brought about by ignorance of our history, indifference toward society’s losers and complacency about the strength of our democracy.”

The solutions are not particularly complex — common sense immigration reform, an appreciation of the ideals that the west is founded on, closing the wealth gap, stronger regulations, more power to workers and a rejection of racism and authoritarianism and populism, which is a “cure worse than the disease” because it generally tacks toward fascism.

In this chaotic, slowly self-imploding world, principles matter.

“Even where it proved hypocritical, such as in the ‘war on terror’ and during much of the Cold War, the idea of America proved greater than its faults.”

That’s clearly no longer the case as we devolve into nationalism and dog eat dog saber and trade agreement rattling. The degradation of principles, lack of consistency and outright hypocrisy have global consequences that are worsening the economic conditions that engender populism in a vicious cycle that leaves those with the least influence fighting over the shrinking leftovers and electing the pseudo fascists who are making decisions that shrink the leftovers even more quickly.

Without action, without smart leaders who are able to embrace collaboration rather than conflict, who are able to move beyond pitting blocs of voters against one another to retain power, the success of capitalism in distilling wealth to the top may well prove it’s own undoing. Because, “When inequality is high, the rich fear the mob.”

They should.

This is a great, eye-opening book that goes right to the black, beating heart of this current global swamp of existential and economic despair threatening to suck us under.