THE FATE OF THE WEST: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea
by Bill Emmott
Profile Books, London
Hardcover: 256 pages
Reviewed by Colin Teese
In the course of a defence against the opposition to prevailing Western orthodoxies, Bill Emmott attributes to Vladimir Putin the comment that “there is no such thing as a former KGB man”.
Perhaps that’s true. But, equally, the same could be said of Emmott: “There’s no such thing as a former neo-liberal economist.”
Bill Emmott was a longtime correspondent for The Economist magazine and, whatever else might be said about his book, he writes well.
The Economist, like Bill Emmott, was and remains a devotee of the Washington Consensus view of economics and politics. In due course, this evolved into neo-liberalism, a branch of political economy that – despite the beliefs of Emmott – has played a large part in undermining confidence in most of the good things about Western philosophy
Today, its followers are a dwindling band.
Sadly, Emmott’s The Fate of the West lacks balance. In the same way that an account of the West’s achievements emphasising all the things it did wrong and ignoring positive outcomes would rightly be judged unbalanced.
The global financial crisis (GFC) is barely mentioned – and then only in passing. The same is true of market failures. What Emmott calls open, liberal societies must remain above criticism. The fact that they can stand in contradiction to democracy (aren’t people rather than economics supposed to rule in a democracy?) does not seem to have occurred to him.
Emmott’s book will satisfy those readers still capable of being persuaded that the West as he understands it has evolved, gaining ever-widening support, since the end of World War II. But surely that can’t be his target audience? The form of liberty and openness that Emmott supports is now widely discredited, and it is the disbelievers who need to be persuaded. They won’t be persuaded by assertions to the effect that, following the collapse of communism, Western capitalism in its present form will last forever.
The most glaring shortcoming in Emmott’s book is to ignore the transformation of the West’s contribution to overall prosperity before and after the 1970s. Before 1970 it created a prosperity and wellbeing that ran wide and deep. What followed has run skinny and shallow.
Emmott asserts that the West has delivered widespread and uninterrupted prosperity since 1945. Perhaps even, since the Soviet implosion, it has soared to even greater heights. On this particular point, a contrary position might be that the end of the Cold War actually accelerated a decline in the West that had already begun.
Sometimes it seems that Emmott can’t quite make up his mind. He fails to discern where the economics ends and the politics begins, or even if there is a separation between them.
Fundamentally, he wants to insist that the West is built around the idea of liberal, open societies supported by commitments to the rule of law, equality before the law and free speech.
On all of these complex issues Emmott takes the view that any problems associated with them are resolved merely by stating them. Take, for example, the rule of law. It is no longer the simple matter it once may have been. Within the power structures of today’s world, at least one major power exists outside the Western orbit. Given this circumstance, the matter of “whose rule of law?” becomes a valid question.
And what about the West’s “equality” before the law? The cost is so high that only the lucky ones can afford the best legal representation.
Emmott skates easily over these contradictions. So far as equality is concerned, he does not stop to compare the West between 1945 and 1980 with the period thereafter. He briefly, and somewhat inaccurately, refers to Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital, and contests the author’s means of defining inequality. (For the record, Piketty’s theory is that when the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth, inequality results.)
Oh, and almost as a passing shot, his solution to the problem of the West’s ageing populations is for people to work until they are 70. (Some of our more naïve politicians have advanced the same idea.) Leaving aside the fact that this is not possible for workers engaged in hard physical work, Emmott seems to think that workers can control when they retire. In fact, that is mostly a decision taken by their employers who in most Western countries prefer people under 50. His own table shows that Asians are much more tolerant than Europe and the U.S. towards older workers.
Amazingly, there is little discussion of the financial crash of 2007–08. Emmott offers serious analysis of its causes and, in particular, the extent to which “liberal, open” Western economic and political philosophies might have contributed to it.
As to the future, Emmott’s main focus is on the United States and Europe, as one might expect. He has a stab at Japan – mainly to put forward the standard idea that it has too much debt. He makes no mention of the fact that, unlike the U.S. and Europe, it has low unemployment and good wages.
He has a strange attitude to the economic fundamentals of commodities. High oil prices, he says, put price pressures on consuming countries and adversely affect household spending capabilities and business costs. Apparently, in his economic world, it’s fine for commodity producers to take low prices in order to protect commodity users from the normal effect of market forces.
Under the unhappily chosen chapter heading, “Barbarians at the Gate”, Emmott quotes Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian songwriter who died in 2016: “You’re not going to like what comes after America”. Yet the author makes it very clear that that’s not what he thinks will happen. The West will stand firm and together will prevail over China. He seems to believe that the U.S. and China are in some kind of race for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.
Let’s hope that instead, they are heading towards the more constructive goal of coexistence.
The final chapter is the title of the book. Emmott certainly believes the West is in trouble: “demoralised, decadent, deflating, demographically challenged, dysfunctional, and declining”, are his words. If he’s right, then Western values are surely headed for the wastebasket.
However, he makes a serious mistake in the way he characterises the West. To Emmott, the West is the instrument by which neo-liberalism, as an economic and political philosophy, is locked in forever. Indeed, the fact that he supports Francis Fukuyama’s notion that the Soviet Union’s collapse brought with it the “end of history” makes that clear.
But Emmott is wrong. The West did not begin with the collapse of the Soviets. Some might say that was the moment at which it took the wrong fork in the road and which it is now deserting. In fact, as Emmott himself acknowledges, it began with the economic and political philosophy put in place under U.S. leadership after World War II. It has proceeded along an evolutionary path ever since, adjusting, as necessary, to changed circumstances.
The Washington Consensus and what followed was an attempt to make the West into something that it wasn’t; in the process U.S. leadership and influence have actually been undermined. Moreover, the rise of China in its present form may be more closely linked with the neo-liberal economic and political experiment than has hitherto been acknowledged.
However the future plays out, one thing is clear: the West will certainly be less Eurocentric than it has been.