Book review: Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism – revenge of the workers?

Are the people taking revenge? A new book charts the demise of a liberal ruling class because of abuses suffered by disaffected voters.

A Trump supporter during a rally in front of the White House in Washington, D C, earlier this month. Zach Gibson / Bloomberg
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Western liberalism is in peril. Europe is disintegrating. America is in retreat. Liberal democracy is shrinking. Russia is on a rampage. China is positioning itself as the de facto leader of the world. How did we get here?

In The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce advances answers as potent as hand grenades – and he hurls them without a sliver of sympathy at the nabobs who make the annual hegira to Davos. They have seceded from reality, he argues, and their insights are anachronistic piffle. These are not the judgements of a polemicist. They are the opinions of an enviably erudite observer who is intimately familiar with the world he is assailing. Luce is an exceedingly distinguished journalist who has spent more than two decades writing for the Financial Times. When he took a sabbatical from his day job in the mid 1990s, it was to serve as a speechwriter in the US Treasury Department. The following decade, he published In Spite of the Gods, one of the most entertainingly edifying books to date on the peculiar rise of India. He has spent the last decade writing from the United States and Time to Start Thinking, his superb work of reportage and analysis published in the first year of Barack Obama's second term, warned presciently that the "window on America's hegemony is closing". Luce was still hopeful in 2012. This distressing new essay is nothing short of a deeply felt threnody for a rapidly perishing world order.

Luce views the presidency of Donald Trump as the terminal phase of an incurable sickness: elite apathy. Every page of The Retreat of Western Liberalism bristles with quiet rage at the technocrats, plutocrats and politicians who enabled, through their indifference to the concerns and anxieties of ordinary voters, the ascent of Trump. Luce was among the first to challenge the bombproof self-assurance of Hillary Clinton. She took victory for granted, believing, as Luce wrote in 2014, that all she needed to do to triumph was "tick the right boxes and let demography fix the rest". Perhaps unsurprisingly, her campaign proved to be soulless and suffocating  – the worst exercise in "groupthink" Luce ever encountered in his career. Clinton was driven by "data gurus." "Everyday Americans," as she called them, were "props" in the enterprise.

Luce catalogues the humiliations and hardships that “everyday Americans” must endure. American liberalism hasn’t just failed them. In many cases, it has led the assault against them. In the great cities of the West, the poor are routinely priced out and uprooted from their homes by people who pay lip service to lofty ideals. Liberal politicians have colluded to turn cities into exclusive catchments for the globe’s superrich. There is racial and cultural pluralism, but not income diversity: “The West’s global cities are like tropical islands surrounded by oceans of resentment.” Rural towns are replete with people who have long felt neglected and scorned by a Third Way political consensus that turned elections, in the words of Jan Werner-Müller, into a “choice between Coke and Pepsi”.

Luce illuminates his point about the neglected  –  or “left-behinds” – with the powerful story of the French intellectual Didier Eribon. Eribon grew up in a family that was miserably poor, occasionally violent, staunchly secular and unwaveringly communist. He left home as a young man, ashamed of his “class origins”. When he returned home decades later, he discovered that the left wing students of his youth were the new bourgeoisie, “defenders of a world perfectly suited to the people they had become”. His mother, abandoned by the left and still cleaning houses, had morphed into a strident supporter of Marine Le Pen. It is the counterparts of Eribon’s mother in Britain  – having recoiled from the modernising elites in the Labour Party, who put “more energy into promoting multiculturalism than to addressing their concerns” –  who migrated to Ukip and voted for Brexit. And it is the American counterparts of the British Brexiteers, haughtily dismissed by Hillary Clinton as “deplorables”, who elected Trump. The “undemocratic liberalism” of western elites, typified by the European project, has provoked an “illiberal democratic response” from neglected voters.

"It is one thing to persuade ourselves that we know the future," writes Luce. "It is another to miss what is happening in front of our eyes." Strangely, the name Jeremy Corbyn doesn't appear even once in this book. This is because Luce, like some of his colleagues at the FT, refuses to see what is happening in front of his eyes. He does not consider Corbyn worthy of analysis. He is, at best, an aberration. But it is Corbyn who brought recent converts to Ukip back into the Labour fold in the recently concluded general election  – and he did this without saying an unkind word about minorities or pandering to the prejudices of the "left-behinds". Corbyn campaign was an echo of the conservative American critic Leon Wieseltier's refrain: "There is no economic analysis that can extenuate bigotry." Corbyn's unexpected success renders significant chunks of The Retreat of Western Liberalism instantly obsolete. Luce might have averted this fate for his book if he had kept his own eyes open.

In a book about the crisis of western liberalism, the invasion of Iraq  – a war cheered on with fanatical zeal by self-proclaimed western liberals – gets only a handful of mentions. And even then, it is the “PR fallout” from the war for America, and not the calvary of the Iraqis, that is Luce’s chief concern. Luce is more mindful of offending China. He fears that Trump is sleepwalking into what Graham Allison called the Thucydides Trap: an established power inaugurating war in an effort to squash a formidable competitor. “Sparta opted for war with Athens and lost,” writes Luce. In fact, Sparta won. Luce’s case, however, is not weakened by this slip-up: “Under Trump, the two great countries seem almost destined to stray into some kind of crisis.”

Luce falters when he attempts to explain the world from China’s perspective. It is true that China did not establish a colonial empire as the western powers did. But the contention that China hasn’t “sought to export its model by force or colonise other lands” is not history: it is a falsification of history perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party. To swallow it, we must first airbrush from the past and present the experiences of Tibetans, and overlook the terror of imminent annexation that constantly stalks Taiwan. To describe Mao’s invasion of India as a war waged to “rectify China’s century of humiliation” is to sanctify a deranged despot’s aggression and omit altogether the perspective of the world’s second most populous country. In one chilling sentence, Luce identifies Taiwan as “China’s largest item of unfinished business”. The unstated counsel here seems to be that the West could make peace with China by letting Taiwan fall into its clasp. But it is a delusion to believe that concessions to Beijing will result in the recession of Chinese revanchism.

There is much to disagree with in The Retreat of Western Liberalism, but much more that is wise and good. Conor Cruise O'Brien denounced liberalism as "the ideology of the rich" – "the ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs." Luce has no use for masks. He spares no one, not even himself. That is his, and his book's, great strength.

Kapil Komireddi is a regular contributor to The Review.