Reading “Retreat of Western Liberalism” a half-year on

Last autumn a colleague recommended The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce. I finally got ’round to reading it about 6 months after its June 2017 release, over winter break.

It begins by recounting Luce’s impulse roadtrip in 1989, joining Oxford friends in tearing down the Berlin Wall. It proceeds to survey trends scholars have been discussing for at least a decade – and then, as one might say, the book adds Trump and mixes. The result is a series of aphorisms and anecdotes; an example:

“In Moscow’s view, history is back and nothing is inevitable, least of all liberal democracy.”

Yet just a half-year later, events point to things missing from this mid-2017 account.

One is consideration of how voters would react to the current U.S. administration; that is, whether the ballot box might stymie the very forces it unleashed with the presidential election of November 8, 2016. (This omission surprises, given that as early as April 2017, a Democratic candidate had made a strong showing in a highly publicized Georgia congressional race.) Since Retreat was published, Republicans have lost a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, along with other races, including 2 presumed GOP-safe statehouse seats in my own Georgia county. If results like these turn out to be bellwethers for the November 2018 midterms – and if newly elected leaders then work to recalibrate the policy agenda – at least some of the governance alarms raised in Retreat will seem less well-founded.

Another is discussion of sex and gender as pieces of the geopolitical puzzle. Nearly all the anecdotes related, and nearly all the sources cited, are male or pertain to men. Exceptions are critiques of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and of the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit PM, Teresa May, plus comments on Germany by reference to Angela Merkel. All 3 are women, of course, yet neither the subject’s sex nor the gendered nature of politics figures into these analyses. The January 21, 2017, global Women’s Marches suggested a need for more attention to sex-gender dynamics, and events in the second half of last year, signaled by #MeToo and #Time’sUp, confirm it.

Perhaps the pretermission is due to the book’s rather strict construction of “Western liberalism,” as  centered on the freedom of the individual. That framing of liberty may incur tension with views of equality that take into account an individual’s  membership in a group. The book evinces discomfort with attention to such membership by reference to “identity politics,” on the one hand, and color-lined “nationalism,” on the other. The excesses of both are indeed complications. But they exist. Better to explore reconciliation of liberty-equality tensions, as another commentator recently did, than only to decry manifestations of excess.

All this is not to say that the book’s structural observations are to be disregarded. To the contrary:

Its concern that elites have overstated the Western liberal solution is correct. The same may not be said of the book’s prescription of listening more to persons who voted for the current president, at least not if “listening” refers to myriad of 2017 articles presenting anecdotal interviews with such voters. Listening in a more statistically grounded manner well may be in order.

Also correct is the book’s concern that as political and economic power shifts east, to Asia, the West ought to recognize, to think, and to act more strategically in response to that shift. Its positing of a standoff between liberal India and illiberal China –

“… Divided by the Himalayas, the world’s two largest countries, China and India, sit side by side – one an autocracy, the other a democracy. …”

– is not immediately persuasive, yet merits further pondering.

In short, Luce’s observations offer a basis on which to continue to make sense of our present and future:

“We must think more radically than that.”

Luce pushes us, and for this, his book is a worthwhile read.

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