Through a glass, darkly
In a Stark and Worrying Portrait of the World, a Journalist Explains Why Liberal Values are Under Threat
Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism starts with a reminiscence: the year is 1989; Luce, with other students, skips classes at Oxford University to drive down to Berlin and chip away at the falling Berlin Wall. Then they drive back, alcohol and hope sloshing in them, without a single speeding ticket.
This reminiscence says a lot about where Luce is writing from.
My recollection of the fall of Berlin wall is more conflicted. I was still in Gaya, finishing my MA from Magadh University. I could not have rushed off to Berlin on short notice, for various reasons, including my passport. I also did not feel any urge to do so, because the hope I felt was tinged with foreboding.
Any thinking person from the so-called non-aligned block could not feel just hope at the prospect of a unipolar world.
Coming from spaces still struggling to be allowed into ‘history,’ you needed to be Francis Fukuyama, a top don in a top Western university, to announce the ‘end of history’ because of something happening in a city in Europe.
Understanding the context
Despite where he is writing from, Luce makes a brave effort to understand the ‘retreat of western liberalism’ in a larger global context. He writes convincingly of the frustrations of the ‘deplorables’ who brought Trump to power—and their Brexit equivalents.
He argues—I totally agree with him there—that large sections of Western liberals are being dishonest to the present by dismissing this reaction as simply racist and sexist. He also accuses Western liberalism of being ignorant of history and unwilling or unable to take into account the resurgence of the non-West, particularly China.
He predictably but not inaccurately puts much of the blame on identity politics.
Luce is not writing a dismissal of liberal values; he is writing a critique from the inside. He is worried that the rich, across nations (including ‘mature democracies,’ like Britain and Sweden), have tended to dismiss democracy in recent years: “In 1995, just 5 percent of wealthy Americans believed army rule would be a good thing. By 2014 that had more than tripled.”
He raises pertinent objections to accelerating robotisation, which has cost the working classes in the West far more jobs than the immigrants they blame, and which is enabling a greater concentration of wealth. He portrays a stark and worrying portrait of the world, much of which he has observed at first hand as a celebrated correspondent of the Financial Times.
What’s left unsaid
There is nothing wrong with the details and accuracy of Luce’s critique, and yet I finished the book with the feeling that he has left something unsaid, or at least unexplored. I suspect it is the changed nature of capital. Contrary to Karl Marx’s prediction, it was not the proletariat that inevitably united across national borders—a point Luce hammers in twice. But this was not due to the failure of or changes in the proletariat, as is widely assumed. It was because even Marx, who was aware of the inherent abstraction of capital, could not see the extent to which such abstraction would change the very nature of capital. For Marx, as for Adam Smith, capital was tied to labour. Marx called it alienated labour, and his opponents disagreed.
But all agreed—into the post-war years—that capital had a deep and mutual relationship with labour. For capital to increase, it had to be ploughed back into production and trade—all of which involved labour.
True, machines were coming up. Luce has a revealing anecdote about Henry Ford, who was conscious enough of the link between labour and capital to raise his blue-collar workers’ wages to levels one cannot imagine in terms of today’s blue-collar salaries. Showing around his union leader, Walter Reuther, Ford pointed at the robots in his factory and quipped: “How will you get union dues from them?” Reuther replied: “How will you get them to buy your cars?”
It was a good question, as Luce notes, but like Marx, both Reuther and Ford failed to see what was to come. Capital largely liberated itself from production—and hence labour. Much of the capital in circulation today is not invested directly in trade; it is sheer play of numbers. Day traders—unknown before the 1970s and now the princes of share market profiteering—do not look at your factory; they look at numbers on a screen.
Hiding the present
In that sense, Donald Trump’s emotive claim that he will restore the American coal industry, which is neither possible nor profitable, is a conscious smokescreen: it uses an image from the capitalism of the past to hide the true nature of the ravages of capital today. It shifts attention from where it should be focussed—Wall Street, day trading, off shore banks, corporate and bank handouts, etc.
Governments are “losing their ability to anticipate events,” Luce notes. But that is not because liberals are backtracking or immigrants are clamouring to enter gated nations. They are doing so because they have neither the will nor the ability to control capital anymore. When capital can thrive without labour, it can also thrive without humanity—or much of it in any case. This automatically spells the end of liberal values, except as vague ideals.
Luce is aware of this, but his book chooses not to look into the nitty-gritty of it.
Credit: The Hindu