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Rage Against the Elites

With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable.

BERLIN – How can we make sense of a world that, over the past decade, has defied the widespread assumption among policymakers and intellectuals that an immutable global order, however imperfect, had emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War? The four books under review represent four approaches to answering that question. But all of them begin from the premise that answering it persuasively requires understanding the West’s loss of unity and coherence. And each, despite bringing to bear distinct perspectives, wrestles with three common issues at the center of the West’s current political malaise.

The first is a growing intellectual and popular awareness that something is amiss in Western societies. In his introduction to The Great Regression, Heinrich Geiselberger, an editor with the German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, quotes the late Ulrich Beck: “When a world order breaks down, that is when people begin to think about it.” Beck was referring to liberal market capitalism, the order that was ascendant during the “Golden 1990s” and well into the 2000s – a supposedly post-historical period that had begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our unconditional certainty about that order came to a sudden end with the 2008 global financial crisis.

The second issue is the collective failure of economic and political elites across countries and regions. Regardless of whether elites’ power reflects prowess or privilege, meritocracy or heredity, they are the de facto stewards of society. When they become too self-serving, or are seen as lacking moral authority, citizens begin to seek avenues of redress, some more productive than others.