Have we really given up on progress?

| July 13, 2018

Although it joins a growing list of jeremiads about the possible end of Western civilisation as we know it, Edward Luce’s book usefully puts the debate in context. He argues that Trump is a symptom, not cause, of many of America’s and the world’s problems.

Edward Luce is the Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times. His columns are routinely incisive and insightful. The Retreat of Western Liberalism, published in New York by the Atlantic Monthly Press, is predictably well written and thought provoking. Although it joins a growing list of jeremiads about the possible end of Western civilisation as we know it, this volume usefully puts the debate in context. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump and the rise of China are important parts of the analysis.

One of Luce’s main claims is that Western liberalism is in retreat because many in the West have essentially given up on the idea of progress. It is striking that the very idea of progressive social development has become a contested idea, especially where it is associated with the equally controversial notion of ‘Western civilization’. It is not necessary to be part of the so-called history wars to recognise that there is something important about this loss of confidence in ideas that were associated with the Enlightenment and a particular way of thinking about the world.

In this context, Luce argues—rightly in my view—that Trump is a symptom not the cause of many of America’s and the world’s problems. “The most mortal threat to the Western idea of progress comes from within”, he argues. Crucially, much of the West’s crisis of confidence has come about as a consequence of ‘dashed expectations’, and not just material ones either. On the contrary, despite the widely noted shrinking middle class in the United States and unsustainable-looking economic inequalities, Trump rose on the back of a profound cynicism about the competence of traditional politics.

Despite Trump’s subsequent failure to ‘drain the swamp’, his followers are likely to remain loyal. As Luce points out, one third of Americans now describe themselves as ‘lower class’, with no expectation that this situation will in improve in a system that they believe is rigged by the rich and powerful—people like their president, in fact.

Significantly, much of the growing unhappiness with ‘the system’ extends beyond national borders and includes global elites and unaccountable international organizations that threaten the sovereignty of the US. The rise of far-right politics in Europe and Britain’s problematic decision to leave the European Union have similar roots, of course. National policy-makers struggle to strike the right balance between the undoubted benefits of international cooperation, and the need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ at the national level.

Luce claims we are witnessing a long-term shift from the liberalism of John Locke to the rather bleak realism of Thomas Hobbes. This may be even worse than it looks, because the masses have little faith in competence of the technocrats to fix the problems: “our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of experts—the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders”. Rather depressingly, many millennials think that democracy is not necessarily the best way of addressing such problems.

Perhaps this is the biggest challenge to ‘the West’ and its—relatively recent—domination of the international system and the norms and values that are embedded in some of its most powerful domestic and international institutions. This is what makes the ‘rise of China’ so consequential. China is not simply a big economy that no one can ignore, but it represents an alternative way of organising domestic and even international politics and economic development.

Luce has little confidence that the Trump administration’s ‘America first’ approach will be capable of responding effectively to the China challenge. But in many ways, China’s growing importance and influence is symptomatic of a wider threat to the established order. After all, the roll back of democratic rule and the rapid growth of populist and/or authoritarian leaders is a broadly based international phenomenon, and one that seems to be gathering pace, even in the heartlands of Western liberalism.

Luce is especially insightful and prescient about the role of Angela Merkel in this context. He argues that “if Germany fails to lead Europe, the European Union will fall apart”. This is precisely what we may be about to witness, as Merkel’s political survival is now in very real doubt.

The symbolism of the European Union’s downfall as an effective actor with a real power to make a difference would be enormous; for better or worse it is the only example of real, institutionalised and enduring cooperation between sovereign states that we have evert seen. Its emergence also epitomised many the things we associate with ‘the West’, of course.

The sobering message of Luce’s excellent and accessible book is one that Trump diehards in the US—not to mention our own government and commentariat—would do well to absorb: “At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade”. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.  

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Mark Beeson

Mark Beeson is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. He was appointed as the AIIA National Research Chair in 2017.