Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” comes across as a moral lecture about the perils of individual elitism. That’s my gut reaction The book is indeed a warning about how liberal democracy and the world order of the West can die. A lot of the time, the author is talking about whole countries and issues like state formation (the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), which Nicholas Wade also covers (causing some outrage) in “A Troublesome Inheritance” (June 24)– but this time, more from the Left He speculates about the dangerous future Donald Trump can bring, like a war with mainland China in 2018. (We scraped on this with Bill Clinton in 1996 and again with George W. Bush in early 2001.) I wondered, what about North Korea right now?
But Luce is at his most powerful when he warns that the kind of globalist liberal fundamentalism that has become fashionable since the 90s can produce a dangerous backlash against individual globalists (me), not just countries. The basic problem is clear enough. Destructive technology has hollowed out the middle class. Superbly gifted young adults do spectacularly well (whether Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook or Jack Andraka and his worldwide book tour based on his science fair medical invention, or perhaps Taylor Wilson if he gets his fusion reactor going). But for the rest of “us”, it is harder to keep up. You have the student loans, the uncontrollable health insurance premiums (and the current debate over “replacing” Obamacare). Eventually this leads to a world where too many people have nothing to lose and everything blows up in revolution. We’ve seen it before. I warn about the same things in my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (2014), especially in my “non-fiction Epilogue” chapter.
Luce casts his argument in four extended chapters, like movements of a symphony: “Fusion”, “Reaction” (the slow movement), “Fallout” (the Chinese-sounding scherzo), and “Half Life” (a rather inconclusive finale than ends quietly – I’m reminded of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony #5 in D “L’allegro ed il Pensieroso”). Of course, the title of the finale is rather telling: society will wind down to a whimper.
I have gotten used to thinking of myself as a “global” citizen, and I’ve seen Facebook friends (especially the childless) brag about the same. There is a dangerous insularity, to say the least, about this. It says, “I am better than (you)” because I am “smarter”, more “independent”, more “self-directed”, and I don’t make the bad choices that make “you” dependent on generosity. Oh, think how that plays out in the health care debate. But in recent year, social media has reversed this attitude somewhat, with the “GoFundMe” culture, where people expect personal interventions from strangers in what used to be a “mind your own business” individualist society (say, pre 9/11). And “disruptive technology” (exacerbated by the financial creativity of the Bush era, pre-2008 which he calls an “Atlantic” phenomenon) is leading the job market into the same place: a higher percentage of jobs today involve tending to (or selling to) individual consumers or customers than in the past. I lived my I.T. career until after 9/11 sheltered in the world of the “individual contributor”, only to find, after age 58, how pimpy (or pimpled) the job market had become.
Be wary, Luce warns the elitists (like me), you have everything to lose (when others have nothing).
Revolution comes from populism, whether the far left or the alt-right. Populism tends not to care about the truth; it wants things to be better for average Joe’s now. You attract the strong man. You wind up with communism from the Left (like Venezuela right now), or extra-judicial vigilantism on the right (like Duterte in the Philippines). Oh, yes, you get Brexit (Oops? England?) and now Donald Trump, who “talks that way” and constantly threatens to bully the elitist, know-it-all media.
Luce makes some interesting meta-arguments over LGBTQ rights. He notes that progressives today assume marriage equality is an unchallengable postulate, but it’s only been a few years that this has been so. Societies often have differing perspectives about the “moral” place of diversities in their culture because of evolving (or devolving) external influences. Then people forget the past very quickly, or don’t want to be reminded of the past because it could fuel ideology for potential enemies. My own perspective, when I wrote my first DADT book in the 1990s, was centered around libertarian ideas of consent and privacy (especially when there is tension with ideas about cohesion, as in the military). I wanted the freedom to live in my own world of fantasy and upward affiliation, if that worked for me. Yet, I can see how this can lead to a dangerous, “elitist” endgame (like in chess); hence today I have to resist social pressures to actually sell the idea that gender fluidity is good.
The book was available only from third-party resellers and on Kindle when I bought it. That is unusual for new books.
|Title, Subtitle:||“The Retreat of Western Liberalism“|
|Publication:||Atlantic Monthly Press, 226 pages, 4 chapters, indexed, endnotes|
(Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)