This is a big book about a big topic. “Empire of Democracy” tracks the triumph of democracy over communism, but at what cost?

This is a big book about a big topic. “Empire of Democracy” tracks the triumph of democracy over communism, but at what cost?…………… And to what extent does that victory account for where western democracies are now?

If you want to know more, Empire Of Democracy is the book for you!

The Last 50 Years

Academic Simon Reid Henry writes:

“For all its achievements, the modern democratic state has been hollowed out. The markets upon which the delivery of political outcomes has come to rely are volatile and encourage short-term thinking. Today’s citizens are garlanded with an expanded panoply of political rights, yet they routinely lack the social protections once taken for granted by their elders. The people grow resentful of the political elite’s detachment, while the public domain through which democratic voice is exercised has been parcelled out to the highest bidder. A thinly scraped notion of liberty has gained the upper hand over equality. Something has changed, in short, and in the turmoil of the present it may well be changing again.”

The author posits that the post-war era effectively came to an end between 1968 and 1974, and the present age began. If you are a Gen Xer like me, reading this book provides a fascinating perspective into the last 50 years. 

The Vietnam War, the Nixon administration, the OPEC oil shock and rampant inflation, unemployment and industrial strikes all had an impact, but the author identifies the sudden decline in productivity growth as the factor which most impacted the daily lives of workers during the early 1970s.

Why? Reid –Henry says:

“For market-based economies, productivity growth is the elixir that gives the whole capitalist system its cherished effect. Economists often measure it as the amount of output produced by one hour of labour: a measure that can be increased by adding technological, managerial or knowledge-based improvements into the mix, thereby making production more efficient. For most of the post-war era, the value of what one average worker could produce in an hour had grown steadily. That meant firms’ profits grew, wages could be improved, consumption expanded, and governments could rake in more by way of tax receipts.”

Just to pick up on one of many themes in Empire Of Democracy, the Americans and Europeans responded differently to the low economic growth of the 70s and 80s. The European approach was to target key sectors of their economies – aerospace, oil, heavy industry. Through investment in research and development, the Americans by contrast laid the foundations for the future giants of Silicon Valley.

By 2000, we saw the rise of pro-market politicians like Reagan and Thatcher. German reunification and the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev and perestroika. HIV and AIDS. Operation Desert Storm. Genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The Asian financial crisis. The Irish Good Friday agreement. Monetary union in Europe. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of that doyen of modern historians, Billy Joel:

Restoring democracy

As the Cold War faded from memory, Bill Clinton was able to announce in his second inaugural address that: “For the first time in all history, more people on this planet live under democracy than dictatorship.”

Financial deregulation across western economies led to boom times, but everything came crashing down in 2008. Reid-Henry diagnoses the potential catastrophe of it:

“….it was a near evisceration of capitalism as known and practised. To describe it therefore as the work of a few rogue traders or greedy banks alone is that much more misleading. The credit crisis was not the work just of reckless investors: it was the result of the very structures by which capitalist democracy had come to organise itself since the 1970s. The basic underlying cause was the budget deficits from the late 1970s, the financial deregulation that had followed in their wake, and the outsized growth of transnational finance ever since. What began as a response to the large problems in the real economy posed in the early 1970s, above all inflation and unemployment, led on in its turn to an almost entirely fictitious economy: the basis of the Clinton boom. The financial sector was allowed to grow beyond almost all limits, while the state progressively unburdened itself of the regulatory tools that would be needed if such a casino economy was ever to run into trouble. Now the return flow was about to be felt on Main Street once again.”

Listen to a snippet of Empire Of Democracy

The US government led the western world into debt. Big time! After 9/11, the war on terror was big business. Reid-Henry writes: “By the summer of 2003, there were already as many as 20,000 private security personnel in Iraq. In Afghanistan, there would eventually be three times more private contractors than there were US servicemen and women.” Military law did not apply to private security contractors and “outsourcing” looked better for the government politically. Despite the increase in government spending, President Bush was determined to proceed with the biggest tax cuts in a generation. The US had never cut taxes going into a war before. Reid-Henry says: “Now America was putting itself in the position where it would be borrowing from its real economic rivals (China in particular) to sustain a war of its choosing against a political enemy that was, in truth, scarcely to be seen.”

The author’s analysis of Brexit, Trump and the rise of other nationalist politicians across western democracies in recent times is particularly compelling. He refers back to his earlier thesis:  

“Since the 1970s (and again in the 1990s), the chase for lost productivity growth fuelled a slew of policies that allowed inequality to rise again in an effort to restore the prior rate of profit. These decades have seen stagnant wages for the lower middle classes, the social detachment of the rich, and a fraying of the basic distributive commitment to share out a portion of the national pie……………it is not just the social mobility to which earlier generations had become accustomed that has come to a halt (if it has not actually been stolen by the wealthiest of all).  Many people are now experiencing a rapid fall backwards. The costs of the financial crisis in Europe and especially in America have been disproportionately borne by the least well off.”

And concludes:

“Restoring democracy today requires that we know what tools we have at our disposal. Arguably the most important tool is the willingness and capacity to work towards different goals within the bounds of common civic norms. Democracy is no more, and no less, than a reflection of the will of a people agreeing to bind themselves to such norms. If the people are angry, resentful and confused then so too will be the democratic system they constitute.”

But most importantly I think, Reid – Henry stresses the innate flexibility of democracy. Can it change in response to the challenges lining up against it? Yes it can! As Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” 

What can we do?

Reid-Henry again: “But democratic society also requires of its citizens a certain level of contribution if it is successfully to manage what will always be an unevenness of social attributes and a scarcity of economic resources.”

I think we do each have a role to play in shaping the democracy in which we live. Of course we should all vote, but political philosophers claim that people have so little say with their single vote that they feel that maybe there is no point participating in the first place. I think we have to take more positive action. Twenty-five years ago this month, I embarked on my own little journey in democracy when I headed to London for postgraduate study. It was one of the best years of my life! So many people from all over the world. So many experiences and perspectives. So much history. So much to learn. Living or travelling abroad must truly be the best way to broaden horizons and to appreciate something of the democratic principles we take for granted here in Australia. 

And if you could indulge me a bit longer, the author of this book is an Associate Professor at Queen Mary College, University of London…..the very same university I went to all those years ago. 

I lived with Empire Of Democracy for about 6 months. As I said at the outset, it is a big book – 800 pages – and I am a slow reader. It made me think. It made me reminisce. For me, one test of a good non-fiction book is whether I will miss it. I think I will miss this one.  

Empire Of Democracy book review. A big book with big content. The remaking of the west since the Cold War 1971-2017
Empire Of Democracy published by Simon & Schuster RRP $50.00

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