There was much Western hubris when the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama made his name heralding the ‘End of History’. The Cold War gave way to unipolar Pax Americana. The peaceful rise of China was to be accommodated within the architecture of neoliberal globalization. The onward march of social and economic liberalism seemed assured.
In 2022, however, revanchist Russia seeks to turn back the clock while China flexes its military muscles. Universal liberal democracy looks increasingly utopian while even some of its supposed exemplars in the West have flirted with an authoritarian turn. So, has Liberalism failed? Two new books address different aspects of this question.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 19 March 2022 ***
January 6th, 2021, will go down in history as a day of infamy. Although Trump supporters’ storming of the US Capitol doesn’t make its first appearance until a few dozen pages into How to Stop Fascism, author Paul Mason flags it as a “potentially historic turning point”. It is proof positive that leading liberal democracies are set for a fascist turn.
Correctly, Mason draws a sharp distinction between the populist far right and overt fascists. Trump is presented not as a fascist himself, but rather as an enabler, a “useful idiot”. Indeed, explicitly fascist parties are thin on the ground. Greece’s now-outlawed Golden Dawn is a notable exception, although fascist revivalism has been making its mark in both Italy and Spain of late.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 29 August 2021 ***
Milton Friedman once noted that ´when [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around´. Indeed, it was many of his own ideas that became bedrocks of neoliberalism and using monetary policy to manage the business cycle following the stagflation of the 1970s.
As the initial shock and awe of Covid-19 ebbs to reveal economic wreckage that could ultimately dwarf that of the global financial crisis of a decade ago, Finance Ministers and fiscal pundits are flagging a future retreat to the orthodoxy of fiscal hawkishness. Austerity by any other name would smell so foul.
But, what if one idea lying around was that the budget deficit didn´t matter – that fixation on debt sustainability was unhelpful myth-making? What if you could pay for the Covid-19 crisis, permanently improve the health system and end the housing crisis just by printing money?
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 18 June 2020 ***
“The rich world is enjoying an unprecedented jobs boom”, proffered a recent headline in The Economist. Unemployment rates in the US, UK, Germany and Japan are plumbing depths unseen in decades. Robust job growth in the early months of 2019 sent the Irish unemployment rate below 5% for the first time since 2007, leading some economists to suggest we are nearing ‘full employment’.
David G. Blanchflower’s new tome, Not Working, may then appear to cut against the grain of the data. On the contrary, record low unemployment rates are the jumping off point for this encyclopedic survey of what ails our labour markets. His central argument is that the unemployment rate is no longer the best indicator of how much slack there is in an economy because it ignores the extent to which people have given up the job search altogether (labour force participation) and part-timers want more hours (underemployment). This, he argues, is why wages are not growing as fast as would have been the case when unemployment rates were last so low.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 29 June 2019 ***
For all the often-justified criticism it attracts, globalization has undeniably lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty over the last four decades. International trade and investment have been central to the rise of China and many more emerging economies. Immigration, meanwhile, has allowed tens of millions more to escape oppression or abject poverty. Among advanced economies, Ireland has been unarguably one of the big winners.
At the same time, globalization has been blamed for premature de-industrialization, rising inequality, stagnant wages, financial crises and, at least in part, the emergence of populist politics at both ends of the political spectrum. A cottage industry of worthy tomes has emerged to explain this phenomenon, epitomized by Brexit and the election of President Donald J. Trump. Such a political backlash has yet to land on Irish shores, but as one of the most open economies in the world, we stand in the cross-hairs for the actions of others.
Aimed squarely at self-declared ‘progressives’ in the U.S., Kimberly Clausing’s new book is an apparent attempt to influence debate within that country’s Democratic Party as it selects its standard bearer to take on President Trump in the 2020 Presidential election. While acknowledging the need to improve trade, investment and immigration policies, and to introduce a range of other policies to mitigate any negative impact of globalization, she warns against the temptations of rejecting economic openness.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 20 April 2019 ***
Regarded as prescient in heralding the collapse of communism in 1989 as the ‘end of history’, Francis Fukuyama has since become something of an intellectual piñata.
His thesis then was that the triumph of liberal democracy, buttressed by a market economy, represented the ‘end of history’ in the Hegelian sense that other modes of organizing society had been tried, and failed, leaving the strongest standing. Eventually, he expected that it would become ubiquitous. The European Union was hailed as an aspirational model, having put an end to the continent’s centuries of internecine conflict.
So convinced was Fukuyama of the superiority of liberal democracy that, though a Democrat, he aligned himself with the neoconservative movement that provided the intellectual underpinning for George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 24 October 2018 ***
His two most recent books, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, were an attempt to clarify and rebut criticism of his ‘end of history’ thesis. Most notably, he dropped the pretense of the finality and inevitability, if not the desirability, of universal liberal democracy. He adapted his thesis to fit the facts on the ground.
Identity, his latest offering, was written for the age of Trump. Addressing the zeitgeist at both ends of the political spectrum for ‘identity politics’, particularly in the U.S. but also across Europe, he does a deep dive into what he sees as one possible mortal threat to liberal democratic institutions – ‘political decay’.
Insightful if controversial book sets out a hierarchy of blame, with joyriding politicians at the top…
Click here to read my Irish Times review of The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland & the Euro by Donal Donovan and Antoin E. Murphy.
This is my review of Gene Kerrigan’s latest book, “The Big Lie: Who Profits From Ireland’s Austerity?”, published in today’s Irish Times.
Book Review – Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt
Tony Judt is perhaps best known for ‘Postwar’, the encyclopaedic survey of European history since 1945 which cemented his status among the world’s most eminent historians.
Today, wracked by the same motor-neurone affliction as Stephen Hawking, Judt is confined to dictating his thoughts to an assistant at NYU where he is Professor of European Studies. While his body may be weakened, however, his mind remains piercing, engaging and energetic.
In ‘Postwar’, Judt explored what he called the ‘Social Democratic Moment’, the grand societal bargain which allowed Europe to rebuild from the wreckage of a devastating world war and the Great Depression which preceded it. Continue reading