The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

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My review of Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Little, Brown) appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

On page 58 of Edward Luce’s otherwise well-behaved new book, there is a highly subversive remark. “For most of history,” Luce writes, “growth” – by which he means economic growth – “was absent. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages there was basically none. England’s per-capita income doubled between 1300 and 1700, a rate so slow as to be imperceptible […] Only in the nineteenth century did that change. Fast growth, in other words, is a recent blip, not a constant.”

Luce is either unable or unwilling to tease out the implications of this startling fact. Over the last two centuries, we have come to think of ceaseless, rapid economic growth as both normal and desirable. But in nature, nothing grows without dying; and the dream of the West – its doomed attempt to, in David Harvey’s phrase, “bring all human action into the domain of the market” – has run aground on the rocks of hubris. The age of growth is an aberration: sooner or later, we will return to the mean of history, and we will find that benefits of capitalist democracy are neither universal nor immutable.


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