Liberalism In Retreat

Edward Luce (Retreat of Western Liberalism) can’t quite believe he’s saying what he’s saying. It feels like heresy, treason. How can a convinced liberal bring himself to talk about liberalism’s retreat or demise?

“To a person whose life has coincided with the rise of democracy, the spread of market economics and signs that the world had finally subscribed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . merely to pose the question is troubling enough. Wasn’t that debate settled a long time ago? Isn’t the march of human freedom unstoppable? Doesn’t the whole world crave to be Western?”

He now sees the “arrogance” if the Western liberal script, the naive belief that the world would inevitably follow the West’s lead. He recognizes that it’s more a religious faith than a political outlook:

“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. Our sanity may be tested in the process.”

It’s an old creed that’s crumbling, at least the myth of liberalism suggests it has deep roots: “since the seventeenth century, when the Magna Carta was dusted off by opponents of Stuart tyranny in England, then made its way to America’s thirteen colonies, it has morphed into the founding myth of Western liberalism.” That myth is coming apart.

Despite Western pretensions, it was never a universal creed: “non-Western visions of history, which were overshadowed by colonial rule but never forgotten, are staking their pressing claim to relevance. In very different ways, China and India have traditionally taken a circular view of history. They still do. Material conditions may improve. But humanity’s moral condition is constant. There is no spiritual or political finale towards which history is guiding us. To the rest of the world, which accounts for almost nine-tenths of humanity, most of whom are now finally starting to catch up with the West’s material advantages, humankind’s moral progress is a question that can never be settled.”

Liberal order has lost the confidence of its own subjects/citizens. The West’s middle classes “are the biggest losers in a global economy.” The “left-behinds,” the “couches moyennes,”  the “squeezed middle.” Luce suggests another title: They are “the ‘precariat’ – those whose lives are dominated by economic insecurity.”

The most recent economic busts hit the precariat more than the rest of the world: “we still reflexively call the meltdown that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers a global recession. But that is quite wrong. It was an Atlantic recession. In 2009, China’s economy grew by almost 10 per cent, and India’s by almost 8 per cent. The Western economies contracted. ”

Though the US economy has grown at 2% a year since 2009, it hasn’t helped the middle class much: “The median income in 2007 was below what it was in 2002, at the start of the business cycle that lasted for most of George W. Bush’s presidency. What is good for Apple may not be good for America. It shuttered its last US production facility in 2004. The Bush expansion was the first on record where middle-class incomes were lower at the end of it than at the start. Today, the US median income is still below where it was at the beginning of this century.”

Meanwhile, Americans are working harder: “Robert H. Frank monitors something called the Toil Index – the number of working hours it takes a median worker to pay the median rent in one of America’s big cities. In 1950 it took forty-five hours per month. A generation later it had edged up to fifty-six hours. Today it takes 101 hours.”

Of course, the liberal order has been very, very good to some people: “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 wealthy Americans. The asset value of the world’s leading billionaires has risen fivefold since 1988.”

We still enjoy many comforts. We’ve all got our smart phones and smart TVs and multiple vehicles. The mood isn’t a result of poverty, but the surliness that results from “dashed expectations.”

Old indexes of prosperity and economic stability no longer tell the story. Prices of many goods have fallen dramatically. Meanwhile, the cost of investments that enable people to survive and advance in the next generation has risen dramatically:

“If 1985 equals one hundred, then the price of most things, such as food, electronic goods, basic clothes or a car, has fallen to double digits, and in some cases astonishingly lower. These are the products you find on Walmart’s shelves. In contrast, the cost of obtaining a degree, or paying for a reasonable package of health insurance, has catapulted to above six hundred. The US rate of inflation has been hovering around 1 per cent for years. Yet the cost of services that will enable people to survive and their children to thrive is growing at double-digit annual rates. Inflation is another outdated number that no longer means much to the typical Westerner. It no longer captures what people most value.”

Luce, again, sees even the economic situation situation as a crisis of faith: “Writing in the 1950s, Daniel Bell, the great American sociologist, said, ‘economic growth has become the secular religion of advancing industrial societies.’ He was right. It follows that in its absence, many people lapse into the equivalent of atheism.”

When the gods of liberalism fail, what rough gods will slouch into their place?

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