What’s the matter with the west? Your answer will largely depend on what you mean by “the west”.
If you are Jeffrey Sachs, a distinguished but controversial Ivy League economist, the west has been a productivity machine that gave the world the industrial era and now the digital age. The west’s half a millennium of dominance is now closing. Sachs’ perspective, in other words, is technical and somewhat bloodless. If you are Pankaj Mishra, a London-based India-born writer, the response is very bloody indeed. Mishra’s west gave the world colonialism, destruction and slavery. It is now sinking under the weight of its greed and hypocrisy. He too sees western hegemony coming to an end. If you are Thomas Frank, a Washington-based journalist and historian, your horizons are essentially American. The heyday of America’s spirit came in the populist era of the 1890s and early 1900s, and during Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. America’s only hope is to recover the egalitarian temper of those times.
Whichever view you take, the fate of the west is also on the ballot in the coming US general election. One candidate, Joe Biden, promises to revive America’s western alliances. The other, Donald Trump, would continue to put “America first”. There are reasons to be sceptical of whether the voting public cares deeply either way.
Were you to poll the average American, Frank’s perspective would come closest to reflecting their worldview. The rest of the world barely rates a mention in his new book except where globalisation is treated as elite project. The People, No is nevertheless a rousing book — part history and partly a call to arms against the plutocratic elites of both America’s main parties.
Frank’s real strength lies in his energetic optimism, which is a rare commodity nowadays. He makes two cases, the first highly semantic, the second central to the challenge of our times. His first is that the word “populism” has been hijacked. The term, an American original, now stands for what used to be meant by “Jacksonian” — resentful of those above you (the bankers and intellectuals) and cruel towards those below (the slaves and native Americans). In fact, Frank reminds us, the origins of US populism were very different. The prairie populists of the 1890s were in favour of racial integration, women’s emancipation and opposed to the robber baron capitalists. They gave birth not only to the term “populist” but also to the People’s Party, which briefly threatened to realign US politics. Its legacy carried into the progressive era that helped tame American capitalism, enshrine fiat money, create income taxes and launch trust busting.
The big difference between the People’s Party and European social democrats is that the former emerged from the tradesmen and farmers’ alliances of small town and rural America, rather than the industrial working class. That may explain why it was so shortlived. But it was quintessentially American in its yen for social equality and economic fairness. “Equal rights to all, special privileges to none,” was its founding creed. Frank, who was author of the highly influential 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? (on how Republicans seduced America’s working classes with cultural conservatism) rightly complains that the meaning of “populism” has been made pejorative by America’s liberal elites.
American politician WiIlliam Jennings Bryan addresses a large crowd during a Democratic presidential campaign rally in 1896 in Colorado. Bryan was also nominated by the Populist Party © Getty Images
But words morph. The term “liberal” used to mean 19th-century bourgeois nationalists who believed in free trade. In America it evolved to mean people who believe both in social freedom and government intervention in the economy. Conservative originally derived from “conserve” — that things should be kept the same. Now, in America at least, it means whatever Donald Trump wants it to mean, which can take even his closest acolytes by surprise.
Where Frank really sings is in his polemic against the “anti-populist” drift of America’s Democratic elites, which has been going on for more than a generation. “The Democrats came to think of themselves not as the voice of working class people at all but as a sort of coming together of the learned and the virtuous,” he writes. Rather than blame themselves for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat to Trump, they targeted the electorate. Much as Bertolt Brecht joked that communist dictators should dissolve the people and get a new one, America’s liberal cognoscenti would happily trade the country’s white working class for another.
Britain did not just end the slave trade; for centuries it had been slavery’s largest profiteer
Frank is right to say that a party which, in his telling, dismisses the majority of the blue collar electorate as “driven by irrationality, bigotry, authoritarianism and hate”, is not seeking to expand its franchise.
He is also right to argue that the Democrats would be unbeatable if they built a cross-racial mass popular movement. As he says, social class “is the glaring, zillion-watt absence” from the liberal worldview. But he should give up on the word populist, not least because its relatively new meaning has entered western currency. Much of Europe is also struggling with populism. That wider lens is missing from Frank’s otherwise instructive book.
No such charge can be levelled at Mishra, whose book, Bland Fanatics, is a collection of sweeping polemics written over the past decade for various publications. Mishra’s targets are the western elites who read and write for the Economist, the New York Times, the Financial Times and other publications.
In his view most of us are captives to a class and race nostalgia that mourns for the days when Britannia ruled the waves, and America’s global writ ran uncontested. These are the “isolated and vain chattering class that, all shook up by a changing world, sought to reassure themselves and us by digging an unbridgeable Maginot Line around our minds and hearts”. That phantom moat was neoliberalism. Its class of “bland fanatics” has sought to reinvent the west as a benign global force. In so doing, they have purged its history of its “smelly past of ethnocide, slavery and racism — and the ongoing stink of corporate venality — from their perfumed notion of Anglo-American superiority.” And on he goes. Mishra’s writing can sometimes be compelling. But his spleen often seems larger than his otherwise impressive brain.
I confess to being exercised to find my name recurring in one of Mishra’s essays in which I am lumped in with Douglas Murray, a strongly pro-Trump British conservative. In turn, we are both then bracketed with Trump, which may amuse pro-Trump FT readers who comment on our website.
“It already seems clear that the racial supremacist in the White House and many of his opponents are engaged in the same endeavour: to extend closing time in their own gardens in the West,” says Mishra. He provides scant back-up for this except to point out that his targets come from privileged western backgrounds. Mishra should be more reflective about tarnishing a person’s ideas by their status. Since he is married to a leading publisher who is a cousin of Britain’s former prime minister, David Cameron, while his father-in-law was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, Mishra’s motives could be distorted in an equally arbitrary way. By Mishra’s yardstick he thus belongs to the “bien pensant” classes he reviles.
All of which is a shame because Mishra has plenty to say. A lot of it richly deserves being said. Britain has for too long given itself a free pass on its imperial history. The UK does still feed off the pickings of Dunkirk and other selectively chosen moments of glorious isolation. Britain did not just end the slave trade; for centuries it had been slavery’s largest profiteer. India did not just get railways, cricket and the English language. It also got racial hierarchy, the Bengal famine and massacres of innocents as happened at Jallianwala Bagh.
Now in its eighth year, the FT and The Bodley Head, one of Britain’s leading publishers of non-fiction, team up to find the best young essay-writing talent from around the world. The competition has been the springboard for many writers; entries can be submitted at ft.com/bodley2020. It is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years of age.
But that makes the story complicated rather than monochromatic. Alas, Mishra rarely deals in nuance. Whether liberal or conservative, for Trump or against, Mishra’s targets are all “apocalyptic Westernists [longing] . . . to make their shattered world whole again”. In one essay Mishra describes “the short distance from the centre-left to the reactionary right”. We await Gordon Brown’s impending defection to Ukip and Joe Biden’s small step to Trumpism.
Sachs’ role as an advocate of western “shock therapy” in Bolivia and the former Soviet Union also gets the Mishra treatment. Some criticisms are deserved. Sachs and numerous other apostles of the Washington consensus were too ready to presume the Anglo-American version of capitalism could (and should) take root in different soil. We know now that selling off lucrative state assets in a post-autocratic fire sale is the road to oligarchy. I suspect Sachs is wiser about the shortfalls of neoliberalism today. He no longer even prescribes the Washington consensus for America. He should be complimented for changing his mind.
His latest book, The Ages of Globalization, is a magisterial chronicle of globalisation in seven stages from the paleolithic age to the digital. The further back you look, the clearer the key trends of history become. Global integration is the human story, both good and bad. Medicine is one facet. Covid-19 is another. We cannot stop the shrinking of the world. We can only try to shape it. It goes without saying that humanity must avoid the bottomless pit of mutually recriminating nationalisms.
The Ages of Globalization concludes with an interesting, if quixotic, set of recommendations for global reform. Sachs’ premise is that our species is eminently capable of reason. He also approvingly quotes EO Wilson, the late American evolutionary biologist, who said that we have stumbled into the 21st century with “Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technology”. That seems like a more apt summary of where we are today.
The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, by Thomas Frank, Metropolitan Books RRP$26.99, 320 pages
The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology and Institutions, by Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia RRP$24.95/£22, 280 pages
Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire, by Pankaj Mishra, Verso RRP£14.99, 224 pages
Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café.
What’s the matter with the west? Your answer will largely depend on what you mean by “the west”.