Wednesday, 12 July 2017

End of the road for the West

Brexit and Trump are symptoms of a civilisational collapse; the future belongs to India, says Luce in his new book - The Retreat of Western Liberalism: 

Playwright George Bernard Shaw famously bemoaned that up-close observers of history, including contemporaneous journalistic chroniclers of it, had lost the ability to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of a civilisation.

Making sense of the numerous bends in the arc of history in recent decades has proved particularly problematic. Even political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who made bold in 1989 to proclaim “the end of history” (following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the perceived end of the Cold War) and the “universalisation of Western liberal democracy”, was compelled to concede 25 years later that he was today perhaps a lot less idealistic than he had been during those “heady days”.

Retreat of democracy
There are today 25 fewer democracies than there were in 2000, which perhaps suggests that history does not end — or even flow in linear fashion — and that the assumptions that underlay notions of the supremacy of Western thought were probably flawed.

Similarly, the outbreak of the rash of demagogic, populist politics that gave rise to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump last year, and the assertion in recent times of a hardline version of national destiny in many parts of the world, including in India, have severely tested the analytical capacity of commentators looking to enhance our understanding of the undercurrents of history.

Of polemical, high-falutin rants that masquerade as high-minded philosophy but take us no closer to comprehension, there have been several. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, which traced the roots of the restless modern-day disaffection around the world to the West’s own experience of modernising in the 18th century, readily comes to mind.

But mercifully, there are more coherent — and less pretentious — contributions that help us sort through the rubble heaps of history, offer a more serviceable explanation for the post-modern angst all around us, alert us to the seismic shifts that are reconfiguring the ground beneath our feet, and point the way to a plausible future.

Journalist Edward Luce’s book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, is a masterly work in this space. Its foremost strength is that its clear-eyed author sees today’s developments for exactly what they are: symptoms of the collapse of the Western liberal order, not a bicycle accident.

Brexit and Trump’s election are only the most proximate props for Luce’s magisterial investigation of the causatory factors. Arguing counter-intuitively, and marshalling a wealth of data, he disabuses us of the left-liberal notion that these two events, and more generally the rise of populist nationalism in other parts of the world, are aberrational blips on the radar of history.

Not race, but economics
More than racism, Luce argues, it was middle-class angst in the West over declining job opportunities and deteriorating standards of living that gave birth to Brexit and President Trump. Over the past 50 years, median income in the West has barely increased. Over the same period, as Asian economies grew at a fast clip, their per-capita incomes increased fivefold.

Worse, that trend — of downward pressure on incomes in the West — is about to get worse, Luce posits. In that sense, the West’s crisis is “real, structural and likely to persist.”

After losing blue-collar factory jobs to China, and countless white-collar jobs to India, the Philippines and other IT capitals, the West now faces the prospect of yet more painful job losses to automation. And demography, too, is working against it: the median age in now 39 in the US, and 40 in the UK — compared with 27 in India. But the Brexit vote and Trump’s election suggest the West is fretting rather more about the entry of low-skilled immigrants.

“We are taught to think that our democracies are held together by values,” writes Luce. “But liberal democracy’s strongest glue is economic growth. When those fruits disappear, or are monopolised by a fortunate few, things turn nasty.” And the “most mortal threat to the Western idea of progress comes from within,” he warns.

Luce is searing in his criticism of the “intellectual poverty” of the left-liberal elite, who have airily dismissed Brexiteers and Trump voters as “racists” and, famously, “deplorables”. Failure to acknowledge the reasons for these votes will only accelerate the rise of Western pluto-populism, he reasons. Nearer home, the same can perhaps be said of the left-liberal sneering of the pop-nationalistic narrative of Narendra Modi, which has proven thus far to be the more electorally savvy one.

Luce’s prognosis makes for pretty grim reading for the West. Liberal democracy, he reckons, “is not yet dead, but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe.”

India, the star democracy
So must we abandon all hope? Amidst all this doom and gloom prognostications, Luce sees a ray of democratic sunshine in India, a country he reported on up-close as a correspondent for Financial Times. Although its growth has been less stellar than China’s, India has the more stable political system, even despite the “million mutinies” it faces. And however bad the level of income inequality may be, it comes across as suffused with optimism, and a place where “most people are getting better off.”

In fact, Luce goes so far as to say that democracy “is now safer in India than in the West.” That’s a pretty hyperbolic expectation to have, which — it’s fair to say — many in India don’t themselves have, perhaps because they’re attuned rather more to see the ‘downsides’ of our feisty democracy. For India’s sake, we have to hope that Luce is as astute at prophesying the rise of a civilisation as he is in identifying the collapse of another.

(Source: BL)

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