Introduction by Mary Nolan, New York University, Emerita
Simon Reid-Henry’s Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West since the Cold War, 1971-2017 offers a sweeping narrative of the transformation of democracy and of political economy that has unfolded in Europe and North America over the past fifty years. The title is taken from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but while Reid-Henry shares Tocqueville’s admiration for democracy, or some forms thereof, he does not share his optimism about democracy’s progressive unfolding. Indeed, according to T.G. Otte, Reid-Henry has written “a sort of negative Whig history of our times.” In rich detail, Reid-Henry traces the multiple reinventions of democracy and imperial political economy. He explores how we arrived at a situation where most western democracies now suffer from a crisis of institutional capacity and moral legitimacy, where executive power has grown enormously, experts and technocrats rule, and populations are skeptical and increasingly populist, where neoliberal capitalism has replaced social democracy and faith in social progress has dwindled.
Unlike some who date the origins of current crisis to the Great Recession of 2007-2008 or to the unintended outcomes of the collapse of Communism in 1989, Reid-Henry joins a growing body of scholars who see the 1970s as the key decade of regime change and neoliberal ascendency. He begins his analysis in that troubled decade, then shifts to 1989 and its dramatic economic and political impacts and concludes with the dual crises of the early twenty-first century, 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2007-2008. To each of these he devotes nearly 200 pages. In each he reconstructs “a history of the political life of the western democracies,” (11) but also and often more so a history of political economy, of the changing forms and functioning of Euro American capitalism—or capitalisms. He attends equally to the ideas and ideologies that promoted neoliberalism and globalization and to the social changes and movements that both pushed changes in politics and the economy and responded to them.
Part 1, “Democracy Unbound” explores the multiple crises that began in the troubled years between 1968 and 1971 and led to the undermining of postwar prosperity and social policies and the destruction of the financial architecture of the Bretton Woods system. New criticisms of democracy emerged from the left and later from a new more radical right. Keynesianism and the social democratic compromise were replaced by neoliberal ideas and institutions that valued the market over the state, freedom over equality, and the individual over class. Financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization, which were supported enthusiastically by the right and tolerated by social democrats, reconfigured national economies and their global interconnections. This story of unravelling and reconfiguring is told with attention to transnational similarities and national particularities. It focuses on new economic ideologies, institutions and practices, on the shifting balance of power within democratic states that benefitted the executive and judiciary. Social Democracy was on the defensive, the working class was losing ground steadily, and new forms of right-wing activism took center stage. Europe and America had been remade, even before 1989.
Part 2, “Novus Ordo Seclorum?” for which 1989 serves as starting point, examines the less crisis- ridden but deeply transformative 1990s. It was not the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama had predicted. Globalization and financialization continued to dominate capitalism in the West, as Democratic, Social Democratic and Labour parties all came to embrace a neoliberal Third Way, even as that was costing them popular support. Former Communist central and eastern Europe transitioned to neoliberal capitalism via disruptive shock therapy; creating viable democracies proved more difficult, and nations in the West were evolving in less democratic ways. Power was increasingly in the hands of markets and corporations, rather than voters or labor. Good governance and efficiency became the new watchwords of politicians as they attacked welfare states and promoted this model of democracy abroad. Left-wing parties saw their base shrink and new forms of right-wing mobilization from Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of France’s National Front and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to U. S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America emerged prominently. Reid-Henry argues that the “reigning liberal democratic order had been transposed from a system of public demand management, orchestrated through the institutions of mass democracy, to one of private consumption management, orchestrated through the market” (449).
Part 3, rather puzzlingly entitled “Victory without Peace” centers on the complex crises set in motion by 9/11 and the 2007-8 economic crisis. It narrates the war on terror, the securitization of everyday life, primarily but not exclusively in the U.S., and the accelerated growth in executive power. Within nation states, “democracy lite”(565), in which the consumer was the key agent, not the citizen, and voluntarism and public-private partnerships supplanted political obligation came to the fore, while in the European Union the single market was not accompanied by supranational democratization. The Great Recession, for which working classes across the West paid, precipitated a crisis of democracy and of liberal values as much as a crisis of capitalism. It fueled the growth of a populist radical right and a mobilized radical left, neither of which trusted the democracies in which they lived. Democratic politics reinforced differences rather than reconciling them. This marked the culmination of processes that began in the 1970s. Whether this crisis of democracy will continue or we are entering a third postwar era is an open question, but Reid-Henry argues that only a change in ideas, rather than institutions and policies, will move his West in that direction.
As Marc-William Palen points out in his review, Empire of Democracy offers a wide-ranging synthesis of a growing body of work on neoliberalism, globalization, the end of the Cold War, and the geopolitical and economic crises of the first decades of the twenty-first century. John A. Thompson admires its “lucid, live style” and calls “this huge book… a huge achievement.” Otte expresses some concern that no archival sources were used and only English language secondary sources consulted, but nonetheless concludes that “this book offers much that is commendable and certainly this reviewer has found in it much food for thought.”
Empire of Democracy is both ambitious in chronology and narrower in geographic scope. Palen admires the book’s “innovative reconceptualization of longstanding chronological frameworks.” Michelle Paranzino commends Reid-Henry’s willingness to carry his interpretive narrative down to the present, something many historians shy away from. For some, the “West” of the title proved more problematic. The West, a term of conservative connotations, seems at odds with Reid-Henry’s admiration for more participatory and socially egalitarian forms of democracy. The West includes only the U.S., Britain, continental Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The book is a transnational history rather than a global one. Otte argues that not putting developments in the North Atlantic and Antipodes in global context was “a missed opportunity.” Paranzino wonders whether “the ‘West’ holds much value as a conceptual category anymore.” She suggests that if Reid-Henry had focused instead on the First World as defined by the U.S., the history of democracy would be more complex. While that broader category included many countries that were not initially democracies, many have subsequently become so, even as some European states have transitioned in an illiberal direction
Some of the reviewers raise concerns about the book’s definition of democracy. Reid-Henry does insist that democracy is “something that is constantly made and remade” (8) and he traces the transnational contours of this remaking well. Yet, Paranzino regrets that “virtually all liberal democracies are treated as interchangeable;” as a result the often significant policy differences among them are neither described nor explained. Thompson finds that there was “a somewhat disconcerting unsteadiness” about the meaning of the term democracy, a slippage between viewing it as political process and a social ideal.
Several reviewers raise concerns about empire. Palen finds empire to be “the least developed concept.” He urges attention to earlier theories of imperialism. J. A. Hobson, for example, saw capitalist interdependence as a means of bolstering democracy whereas the neoliberalism Reid-Henry analyzes has impeded democracy. It was “a repudiation of the very capitalistic theories that had underpinned the more liberal post-1945 economic order.” Hobson also argues that the rather rosy picture of liberal democracies prior to the 1970s, which Reid-Henry paints look considerably more blemished if their responses to movements of national liberation and decolonization are considered. Paranzino notes that empire is discussed with no attention to imperial subjects, and this despite the vast body of literature on the interdependence of metropole and periphery and the lasting legacy of colonialism and decolonization.
Otte and Paranzino fear that admirable teasing out of broad transnational trends leads to the neglect of how these developments differed in important ways in different countries. Otte notes that the causes of current discontent in virtually all western democracies have more varied and nationally specific causes than Reid-Henry suggests. Paranzino argues broad national similarities blur distinctive national chronologies. The culture wars in America, for example, date back to the 1960s, and the imperial presidency did not begin with George W. Bush.
Two reviewers raise questions of causality. Otte flags the “inevitabilist assumptions” that seem to underlie the book’s narrative of declension since 1970s. He urges attention to contingencies, especially to the character and actions of particular political leaders. Thompson identifies a lack of clarity about whether the rise of neoliberalism and the decline of social democracy were “driven by objective economic conditions.” Reid-Henry argues in places that prosperity was the underlying and necessary basis for the more social democratic forms of capitalism and democracy in the 1950 and 1960s; its disappearance made their decline inevitable or at least very likely. At other times, he suggests that changing social attitudes which stressed the individual over larger collectivities, the market over the state were of foremost importance.
Despite its rather daunting length (800+ pages) and the “many factual slips” that Otte finds “jarring,” all reviews find much to admire in Empire of Democracy and deem it to be of value especially to the general reader. Its publication seems especially timely, as recent economic, political, and medical crises have raised in acute form the question of how democracy and capitalism will evolve, in Reid-Henry’s ‘West’ and beyond.
Reid-Henry offers a lengthy and spirited response to the commentaries that elaborates on several of his arguments and conceptual choices. He defends his focus on the West, insisting that far from being a settled geography, it has been constantly reinvented. Many other works, he notes, look outward from Europe and America, while his concern was to look inward at the ongoing ways in which democracy and capitalism interacted and have been contested and reconfigured from within since the 1970s. He defends the book’s focus on liberalism and capitalism rather than the legacy of empire, arguing that they are central to understanding contemporary history. “There are,” he notes, “many sides to the struggle to decolonize knowledge and its institutional repositories.” He likewise rejects the suggestion that he should have attended more to national particularities, for he wanted to “break out of the sovereign territorial mold.” The question remains, however, how best to move the analysis among the scales of the national, transnational, and global and how much weight to give to each. He offers a cogent defense of 1971 as his starting point.
Addressing more methodological issues, Reid-Henry vigorously insists on the importance of ideas, but refuses to prioritize ideas over political-economic factors and says he seeks a middle ground that avoids “schematic formulations. He defends his refusal to define democracy as clearly as some critics wish, arguing that his aim is to unpack the tensions within democratic values and the contestation between democracy as a political process and a social ideal. In response to Otte’s critique that the narrative of declension seemed inevitabilist, Reid-Henry argues that political struggles, which feature so prominently in his narrative, are always contingent. Finally, Reid-Henry is disappointed that none of the commentators reflected on the fact that the book was “written by a geographer with a geographical set of intentions.” Fair enough. One wishes, however, that he had laid out in the book or in his response what the particular intentions and contributions of geographers were so as to promote a more fruitful dialogue between the two disciplines.
Simon Reid-Henry is Professor of Historical and Political Geography at Queen Mary University of London, Director of QMUL’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, and an Associate of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. His previous books include of The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World is better for us All (University of Chicago Press, 2015), The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Mary Nolan is Professor of History emerita at NYU. She is the author of Visions of Modernity: American Business and the Modernization of Germany (Oxford University Press (1994) and The Transatlantic Century: Europe and America, 1890-2010 (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and co-editor of Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties (Routledge, 2018). She is currently working on the gender politics of right radical populism in Europe and the United States.
T.G. Otte is Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia. His latest book is Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Grey (Allen Lane, 2020).
Marc-William Palen is Senior Lecturer in the History Department at the University of Exeter. He is editor of the Imperial & Global Forum and co-director of History & Policy’s Global Economics and History Forum. His works include The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His current book project, under contract with Princeton University Press, explores the global intersections of capitalism, anti-imperialism, and peace activism from the mid-nineteenth century to today.
Michelle Paranzino (formerly Getchell) is an assistant professor in the Department of Strategy & Policy at the US Naval War College. She is the author of The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War: A Short History with Documents (Cambridge/Indianapolis: Hackett, 2018) and is currently working on a book about the Reagan administration and the War on Drugs.
John A. Thompson gained his BA and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge where he is now Emeritus Reader in American History and an Emeritus Fellow of St Catharine’s College. His principal research interests have been American liberalism and U.S. debate about foreign policy. His publications include Reformers and War: American Progressive Publicists and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 1987), Woodrow Wilson (Longman, 2002), and numerous articles and book chapters. His most recent book, A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role (Cornell University Press, 2015), was the subject of an H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable in 2016, https://issforum.org/roundtables/8-15-sense-of-power