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Crisis Management

Martin Wolf’s new book is a work of sombre brilliance, but it fails to grapple effectively with the postliberal analysis of what ails liberal democracies.

· 9 min read
Crisis Management
Titusville, Pennsylvania. Alamy

A review of The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Martin Wolf, 496 pages, Allen Lane (February 2023)

In his 2004 book, Why Globalization Works, the economic commentator Martin Wolf draws a distinction between his own political views and those of his father, whom he reveres and sees as a model for his own life. A writer who left Austria in 1937 and met and married Wolf’s Dutch-Jewish mother in London (both of whom had extended families who left leaving too late), the elder Wolf was a “cautious” social democrat. The son writes that he, by contrast, became more of a “classic liberal.” Why Globalization Works is indeed a liberal’s testament—classic in its preference for a small state and an emphasis on individual freedom, and liberal in the late 20th-century sense of believing that social and political problems could be solved by more globalisation. “Most critics of globalization,” he wrote, “are fervent opponents of a market economy that embraces the world as a whole” (the idiots).

Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, London. (2014)

Nearly two decades later, the son has drawn closer to the father’s beliefs. The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism is a work produced over several increasingly despairing years, and it is probably best described as a social-democratic book. Consider the five “goals for reform” Wolf sets out in its what-must-be-accomplished section:

  • A rising, widely shared, and sustainable standard of living.
  • Good jobs for those who can work and are prepared to do so.
  • Equality of opportunity.
  • Security for those who need it.
  • An end to special privileges for the few.
The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Martin Wolf: 9780735224216 | Books
From the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, a magnificent reckoning with how and why the marriage between democracy and capitalism is coming undone, and what can be done to reverse this…

More to the point, it is a book written in the awareness “of the fragility of civilization. Any well-informed Jew should know this.”

You don’t have to be Jewish to know this. Imperial ambition, demagogy, and repression (of differing severity) in some of the world’s most important states have brought us, if not to the brink of a nuclear conflagration, then to a feeling that such a development is now more possible than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. China, Iran, India, Russia, and Turkey—to which might be added North Korea—are “worlds of arbitrary despotism, unbridled corruption and self-dealing, intimidation and endless state-manufactured lies.” “This is a moment of great fear,” writes Wolf gloomily, “and faint hope.”

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