Beat the Retreat

The Retreat of Western Liberalism
Edward Luce

Reading shouldn’t be a performative act. Peruse the list of titles on my Books page and you’ll find scant evidence of a grind, totally focused on the great ‘work’ of reading.

Truth is, I read plenty of high carb, low protein junk. But just like someone on the cookie diet, in the deepest recesses of my mind, where the truth lives, I know I’m cutting corners and taking the easier path. So you might not be surprised that the serious-looking title pictured nearby is a well-disguised byway of that ramble.

Don’t take my word for it. Our author tells us as much:


‘The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist. Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix. Doing so means understanding exactly how we got here. It would also require a conscious effort to look at the world from unfamiliar viewpoints and admit the West has no monopoly on truth or virtue. … My guess is it will take you roughly three hours.” (p. 16)

That’s quite a promise. Hemispheric/structural/political crisis. Globally-informed solution. Three hours. It’s practically guaranteed to make a person who considers themselves a thoughtful citizen of planet earth find a quiet place and dig in. The rewards beckon.

I am here to remind you, in cliché-drenched terms, that there are no free lunches and that hard work is its own reward.

Mr. Luce is a former speechwriter in the Clinton Administration‘s Treasury Department who went on to write for The Financial Times. He has an easy, comprehensible style backed by an Oxford education. He avails himself of the trappings of scholarship such as a ‘Notes’ section that’s also the bibliography.

Nowadays, authoritarians come dressed in a well-tailored suit. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

I know, I’m carping on small details. But they aren’t. What I’m holding, bound between hard covers, is not a weighty tome. It’s a highly competent–if scantily documented–senior project delivered in the Honors section of an esteemed university. Maybe the alums of such schools are the intended audience.

Again, lest you think I am making too much of  a small point, contrast the above quote with this one from a source Luce credits, Francis Fukuyama‘s The End of History and the Last Man:

“This Hegelian understanding of the meaning of contemporary liberal democracy differs in a significant way from the Anglo-Saxon understanding that was the theoretical basis of liberalism in countries like Britain and the United States. In that tradition, the prideful quest for recognition was to be subordinated to enlightened self-interest….” (p. xviii)

See, professor and student. Sure, Luce did the reading. He even appears to have understood the reading. But why, I flail myself, did I waste the three-plus hours on Luce when I could have invested them in Fukuyama?

(Full disclosure, I avoided the Fukuyama book upon publication though I’ve read articles and papers since. I grabbed the quote off Amazon because I knew I could find an appropriate one quickly. I suspect that’s how many students not wearing hairshirts approach their work these days.)

The right isn’t always male and isn’t always authoritarian. But it is usually nationalist. Marie Le Pen (& Marianne).

Okay, I’m done complaining. What has Mr. Luce come to tell us? First, we are witnessing an assault on tradition. Here he makes an important distinction that is often lost in the current continuum of moderate → liberal → progressive. Liberal democracy is rooted in the concept of liberty, more specifically in how individual freedom is retained and maximized in spite of the necessary formation of a state.

Poli Sci students should recognize that idea, which goes back to John Locke, though it seems sadly missing today. It is also distinctly Western in the sense of “Western Civilization” being a real thing and not just a construct that serves as a whipping boy for more enlightened perspectives.

Both political extremes forget this. America’s most conservative Conservatives have reverted to a Hobbesian worldview of all-against-all requiring an absolute sovereign to overcome threats while the most liberal liberals are quite happy to employ the power of the state to control individual behaviors.

That internal tension–maybe division is a more appropriate word–is exacerbated by the economic rise of new players. I use ‘new’ merely in terms of the modern global economy. Both China and India, as Luce demonstrates, are ancient civilizations, far older than our Western liberal tradition and not built on the same ancient intellectual foundation. The great mistake Prof. Fukuyama made in the early 1990s was extrapolating too far into the future.

The Left can be no less absolute. Do we really need to mandate how we use pronouns?

As far as this analysis goes, I don’t disagree with Luce at all. I’m not even sure I disagree with how he ties this into the current state of the West. The Right, embracing the metaphor of battle, has identified the external threats and is ready to render democracy a quaint curiosity that can’t be preserved if the people are to be saved.

There ‘s plenty of evidence for that. Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Recep Erdoğan in Turkey. Marie Le Pen‘s National Front in France. Even, arguably, some supporters of the Trump Administration.  Luce quotes Didier Eribon on LePen’s supporters, “ I’m convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on.”
(P. 110)

The problem is not local. Nor is it only of the right. Luce is nothing if not even-handed. My Progressive friends will recoil at this statement: “But 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.”  (P. 97) As I read this book I thought about Mark Illa’s, and I couldn’t be sure that a return to New Deal or even JFK pre-Great Society politics was possible.

This isn’t a picture of what Locke had in mind. It is political assembly. And the nationalist trappings are, of course, present.

The solution, though, is not necessarily clear. The fear that drives the growth of more authoritarian government is economic insecurity. In this telling, corporations face an existential threat because they must be subordinated to the maintenance of the civilization if not the country. How do you unwind a quarter century’s worth of integrated, intricate supply lines?

You have a headache, right? It is a maddening situation. The authoritarians appall me, the kumbaya crowd strikes me as hopelessly naive, and we’re all at each other’s throats anyway.

I have no crystal ball, though I do like to think I take our civic and civilizational life seriously. If you feel similarly, but are intimidated by shelves full of books by professors, this might be the book for you.

If you’re looking for a blazingly new insight that had eluded you until now, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking.




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