c o n t r i b u t o r s
This month’s pulpit is written by Thomas Marks. He has a doctorate on Victorian poetry and architecture and is an editor of the online magazine The Junket. Alan Allport’s book Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War won the LongmanHistory Today Book of the Year Award in 2010. He is currently writing a social history of the British Army from 1939 to 1945. Diana Athill is the author of Somewhere Towards the End, which won the Costa Book Award for biography in 2008. Jonathan Barnes is the author of two novels, The Somnambulist and The Domino Men. Andrew Barrow’s Animal Magic: A Brother's Story was published last year. Jonathan Beckman is an editor at Literary Review. He is writing a book about eighteenth-century France. Piers Brendon’s next book, Eminent Elizabethans, will be published in September. Michael Burleigh has won the 2012 Nonino International Master of His Time Prize. He is finishing a book on the global Cold War from 1945 to 1965. David Collard is completing Auden on Film. John Cornwell is researching a book on the history of the Catholic confessional. Jonathan Derbyshire is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. In a previous life he taught philosophy in several English universities. Michael Evans is Pentagon Correspondent for The Times, covering defence, intelligence and terrorism. Felipe Fernández-Armesto teaches at Notre Dame. His books include 1492 and Pathfinders. George Gömöri’s next publication is a co-translation with Clive Wilmer of Passio by the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky (Worple Press). Edmund Gordon is writing a biography of Angela Carter. John Gribbin’s latest book, Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, is published by Bantam Press. Alexandra Harris teaches English at the University of Liverpool. She is the author of Romantic Moderns and Virginia Woolf.
Christopher Hart’s last historical novel, The Great Siege, was published under the pen name William Napier. Andrew Hussey is Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris. Kevin Jackson is completing a cultural history of the year 1922. Peter Jones writes the ‘Ancient and modern’ column in The Spectator and helped found the charity Classics for All. Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College. His latest book is Political Demography, published this month. Christopher Kelly is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Sam Kitchener is a freelance writer. Jessica Mann’s next book, The Fifties Mystique, a combination of memoir and polemic, will be published by Quartet. Rowland Manthorpe is working on his first novel, Confidence, which will be published by Bloomsbury. Roderick Matthews’s second book, Jinnah vs. Gandhi, will be published by Hachette India this summer. Frank McLynn’s latest book, The Road Not Taken: Revolutionary Moments in British History, will be published in June by The Bodley Head. Keith Miller works for the Daily Telegraph. His book on St Peter’s is published by Profile. Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specialising in Chinese affairs. Leslie Mitchell is working on aspects of the history of Brooks’s Club. Caroline Moorehead’s most recent book, A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival, is published by Chatto.
Harry Mount’s How England Made the English - from Hedgerows to Heathrow is published by Viking in May. Edward Norman is an Emeritus Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and one-time Chancellor of York Minster. Pamela Norris is a freelance writer. Her most recent book was Words of Love (HarperCollins). Lucy Popescu was Programme Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. Michael Prodger is the art critic of Standpoint magazine and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham. Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, out in paperback last month. Hannah Rosefield is a writer and reviewer. Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 is published this month by Allen Lane. David Satter is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale). Chandak Sengoopta is Professor of History at Birkbeck College and author of Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting Was Born in Colonial India. Miranda Seymour is currently writing a book about England and Germany. Brendan Simms is Professor of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia. Sarah A Smith is a full-time mother, parttime student and occasional book reviewer. Norman Stone’s Turkey: A Short History was published in paperback in February. John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists is published by Profile. George Walden’s book China: A Wolf in the World? (Gibson Square) has just appeared in an updated paperback. Irving Wardle was theatre critic of The Times from 1963 to 1989; and of the Independent on Sunday from 1989 to 1996. Philip Womack is the author of The Other Book and The Liberators.
Literary Review | a p r i l 2 0 1 2 4 f o r e i g n p a r t s d om i n i c s a n db r o ok
Twilight in the West Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline
By Edward Luce (Little, Brown 291pp £20)
Fifty years ago, California was the place to be. A laboratory for new ways of living, bathed in glorious sunshine, the state of Berkeley and the Beach Boys offered a glimpse of the future, all suntanned faces, gleaming cars and spanking new universities. But how times have changed. Half a century on, suffocated by smog and mired in debt, the Golden State has become a metaphor for everything that seems wrong with the United States of America. Almost incredibly, notes the Financial Times’s Washington bureau chief Edward Luce, California now spends less than $8,000 annually on each child in the state school system, yet spends $47,000 on every prisoner in its notoriously overcrowded penitentiaries. State politics has become a carnival of perennial plebiscites, while, as Luce sees it, ‘Sacramento’s role is to preside over a slow disintegration of the assets the state built up in the 1950s and 60s, the world-class infrastructure and public education that helped make California the place of the future.’
Sober, clever, measured and deeply depressing, Time to Start Thinking takes a long, hard look at a nation haunted by decline. Of course European visitors often love to announce the impending collapse of American civilisation, but Luce, by and large, lets his American interviewees do the talking. In one particularly telling passage, he sits in on a seminar at the National Defense University, where promising military officers are sent ‘to prepare their minds for leadership’. ‘The window on America’s hegemony is closing,’ says one officer. ‘We are at a point right now where we still have choices. A decade from now we won’t.’ As Luce watches, fascinated and amazed, the young officers agree that the US should cut military spending, roll back its presence abroad and concentrate on economic competitiveness. ‘Our number one goal’, one says, ‘should be to restore American prosperity.’ But as their visitor remarks, ‘the chances of anything like this happening were zero’.
What is so impressive about Luce’s diagnosis of American decline is the quiet, methodical compilation of damning facts – all the more damning because he eschews histrionics and clearly has great affection for his current beat. He is very good, for example, on the miserable fortunes of American manufacturing, which now accounts for less than one in ten private-sector jobs. Even during the Clinton boom, most new jobs were either in healthcare or in government, which tells its own story. The United States now spends twice as much per head on healthcare as France, and a staggering three times as much as Britain – yet ‘Americans continue to die earlier and spend more time disabled than their peers in Europe’. In the meantime, Luce notes, the lights have been going off in the former workshop of the western world. Half a century ago, the United States made half the shoes on the planet. Now there are only two shoe-producing firms left.
At the heart of Luce’s book is the story of a nation that, fattened by affluence, fell for its own propaganda. He meets a California-born Harvard graduate, Amar Goel, who, at a recent reunion, told his old classmates that he was moving to Mumbai. ‘There was a revolution happening in Asia, he said. It was like America in the late nineteenth century.’ Goel’s classmates thought he was mad. ‘America was still number one in everything,’ they said. ‘Everybody in the world wanted to be American.’ But do they? On the same page, Luce recounts a meeting with Oregon’s labour commissioner, Brad Avakian, who had recently been on an official visit to Taiwan. One evening Avakian’s hosts took him out for a drink, and the talk turned to America. ‘These guys were literally laughing at America,’ Avakian recalled. ‘They couldn’t understand the game we were playing. “Please keep sending us all the jobs, everything else will follow”.’
Looming in the background is the giant in the Far East. American economic hegemony has long been based on technological innovation, yet by 2020, Luce writes, the US share of citations in international scientific papers is likely to have been overtaken by China. According to the former IMF economist Arvind Subramanian, even if China undergoes a ‘debt-induced crisis of growth’ in the next ten years, its GDP will still be a quarter higher than the United States’s by 2030, its share of world trade will be twice as high, and the yuan will have become the world’s reserve currency. Yet what frustrates and bewilders Luce is Washington’s complete failure to react. The American school system, he notes, promotes shallow self-esteem over genuine achievement (encouraged by what he calls ‘Good job!’ parenting); and, despite the urging of businessmen and labour leaders, Washington seems allergic to any serious industrial policy. The United States, he thinks, has the worst of all worlds: a freemarket culture that forbids state intervention, yet also an overweening bureaucracy that discourages innovation; a culture of complacency that saps urgency, yet also a neurotic nationalism that has turned presidential politics into a rolling freak show.
The obvious criticism of Luce’s book might be that we have heard it all before. More than thirty years ago, another distinguished British observer of American politics, the peerless Godfrey Hodgson, published a book arguing that the presidency was a dysfunctional and failing institution; in the meantime, however, life has gone merrily on. In the late 1980s, there was a great panic about the supposed rise of Japan; ten years later, the United States was still Top Nation. But none of this means that Luce is wrong. Americans may recoil at the thought, but empires fall as well as rise. In the 1890s, Luce points out, Great Britain was clearly the world’s pre-eminent power, having reached a peak of wealth and influence. At the time, London’s papers were full of gloomy predictions of decline, which many observers dismissed as hysterical doom-mongering. But as we know now, they were right. Edward Luce may well be right, too. Just twenty years from now, he will probably be able to say: ‘I told you so.’ To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 9
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