This enjoyable, readable, frantic, and remarkably superficial book is very like the cloud patterns over Syria during the great drought of the past decade: they often promised rain but never delivered.
John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, and Adrian Wooldridge, the magazine’s management editor, are idealistic liberals who have been mugged by reality. They used to share the comforting view that democracy and free markets were the inevitable wave of the future. They genuinely believed that “free choice in politics can only flourish alongside free choice in economics.” However, they soberly admit, “over the past decade [these assumptions] have been tested and found wanting.”
China’s economic and industrial power and the living standard of its people continue to rise, whereas those of the United States, and many smaller and less economically advanced democracies, have fallen seriously behind. Citing economist Dani Rodrik of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Micklethwait and Wooldridge acknowledge that modern nation states “cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national self-determination and economic globalization” and that Western democracies may be “increasingly sacrificing democracy and national determination in the name of globalization.” They even openly acknowledge “the problem of the inequality that capitalism creates.”
These are extraordinary admissions coming from two of the high priests of the global movement for unlimited free trade and open borders and immigration, a faith that The Economist devoutly represents. These confessions would be heresies, anathemas to the grand inquisitors of the Wall Street Journal. The fact that Micklethwait and Wooldridge utter them reflects that even they realize something is rotten in this globalized order.
Yet while the authors promise a portentous “revolution” to “renew” the prospects of democracy and free-market economics across the West, they do not deliver it. On the contrary, they react with predictable invective toward the very forces that are trying to redress the problems they have belatedly recognized.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge say that their “consistent theme throughout this book” has been that “government is best when it is close to the people to whom it is accountable.” Indeed, they conclude with the rousing call, “The key to reviving the democratic spirit lies in reviving the spirit of limited government. … The great problem of the West is that it has overloaded the state with obligations it cannot meet; it has overburdened democracy with expectations that cannot be fulfilled.”
No conservative could have said it better. Yet Micklethwait and Wooldridge fall victim to the same myopia that their neoconservative cousins repeatedly experience. Wherever there are popular movements to return power from a leviathan center to states, regions, counties, and cities, they reject such attempts with horror. This is their reaction to the Tea Party in the United States and to the national political movements across Europe—such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party—that seek to wrest powers back from the European Commission in Brussels.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge, in other words, are all in favor of increased democracy, reduced government, decentralization of powers, pared-down bureaucracy, and strengthened local control. But only when this produces results in accord with their own elitist liberal prejudices. When these processes genuinely express popular concerns about law and order, uncontrolled illegal immigration, and a collapse in border security in the United States and Europe, then suddenly they become “irresponsible” and “destructive.”
In their Economist style, the authors fill their book with examples and ideas ranging over a vast swathe of issues energetically culled from all over the world. But their prescriptions are not coherent or consistent. And they are certainly not original: their solutions for streamlining government amount to Bill Clinton’s skilful but always tiny administrative adjustments and the outsourcing antics of George W. Bush. Yet those things have already been done.
The authors’ complacency is certainly challenged by the rise of statist China, though they appear oblivious to the massive instability of the Chinese political and financial systems. But nowhere do Micklethwait and Wooldridge realize, let alone acknowledge, that their own elixir of unlimited immigration, unlimited free trade, and democracy applied universally and spread as fast as possible is the prime force weakening the West and destabilizing the globe. Nowhere do Micklethwait and Wooldridge realize that they the plague carriers, not the doctors.
The authors also fail to address the scale and seriousness of the radical Islamic movement now sweeping the Middle East. Their own ill-considered enthusiasm for the 2010 Arab Spring—which they shared with naïve romantics of the neocon pseudo-right and neoliberal pseudo-left—served only to demolish existing state structures in the region. As a result, the way has been cleared for the rise of a Caliphate proclaiming global jihad.
This book is well worth reading (provided you sip it, a few paragraphs at a time and do not try to imbibe it whole, as I did) but only as a symptom of the very destructive forces it aspires to defeat. The liberal program that Micklethwait and Wooldridge cherish, the one they want to renew and restore, has displayed a relentless tendency to strip security and prosperity from the many and generate fear, chaos, and uncertainty around the world.
The book’s weakness is especially striking in what ought to be its strongest section: its prescriptions for business, economics, and government reform. Virtually of all the authors’ examples of ideal companies are ones that only employ—and by their nature, only can employ—a handful of people. But of what use are managerial structures taken from Google, Skype, and Facebook when it comes to running major agricultural enterprises that grow the food to feed billions of people or the steel, oil, cement, nitrate, automobile, consumer durables, and pharmaceutical corporations that produce essential homes, infrastructure, and other basic necessities for the human race? It is fatuous to imagine that ExxonMobil, Toyota, or CNOOC could or should be run according to the same management philosophy as Google.
Meanwhile, the current global model of tilted trade—it is certainly not “free trade”—has allowed China and the smaller industrial nations of Northeast Asia to take advantage of the naiveté and ignorance of policymakers in the United States. (European governments have proved considerably more cautious, one could even say more “conservative,” in the original sense of the word, when it comes to industrial policy.) As to the business restructuring nostrums that Micklethwait and Wooldridge advocate, they are reheats of the frantic, mad, endless striving after petty excellences that Tom Peters enshrined in his manic In Search of Perfection.
The very title of The Fourth Revolution is misleading. It would be a real revolution if the state structures of the United States and Western Europe renewed themselves by re-establishing national control of their own demographic, security, and economic realms. But they have not. And Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not want them to. Genuine forces for democracy, decentralization, renewal, and reform are implacably opposed by the liberal imperialists of Washington and Brussels with whom Micklethwait and Wooldridge identify. The “Fourth Revolution” they proclaim is a damp squib. What’s worse, the liberal solutions they favor have driven millions the world over—from Beijing to Baghdad and from Moscow to Mumbai—to embrace anti-liberal postures ranging from the benign to the most violent and dangerous imaginable.
The real significance of this book is that even Micklethwait and Wooldridge recognize that the Western liberal state is in deep crisis. If they had been prepared to respect the real concerns of the democratic majorities to whom they pay lip service, they might have dared to question the fundamental assumptions of their own. And had they done that, their book might have been truly revolutionary.
Martin Sieff is the author of That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs.