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Renewing liberalism: Why 'The Economist' smacks of intellectual dishonesty.

Author: Minhaz Merchant
Publication: Dailyo.in
Date: October 15, 2018
URL:      https://www.dailyo.in/variety/why-the-economists-a-manifesto-for-renewing-liberalism-smacks-of-intellectual-dishonesty/story/1/27199.html

The Economist marked its 175th anniversary recently with an eight-page essay spelling out a "manifesto for renewing liberalism for the 21st century".

The core values of liberalism hardly need to be restated: plurality, openness, dissent, individual liberties and the firm but fair rule of law. How do these stack up in today’s world?

Key democracies are moving to the right: the United States, Britain, India, Japan and several countries in Western Europe have centre-right governments. Donald Trump, Theresa May, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe have little in common except their right-leaning ideology. Their differences over trade, economic reforms, immigration and social inclusion are stark.

Prime Minister Modi’s statist policy on privatising PSUs has more in common with the left than with the liberal right.

Liberal right? The term is rarely used. The notion is that liberalism is the preserve of the left. It isn’t.

The liberal right would welcome foreign direct investment (FDI). It would back LGBT rights. It would call for an inclusive Bharat Rashtra.

In contrast, the left has dog-eared ideas on economic reforms. It opposes FDI. So does the RSS. On economic policy, communists and the RSS occupy the same low ground.

How then to construct a liberal right manifesto which is open, meritocratic, inclusive and tolerant?

The Economist tries to do that and fails. The magazine began publishing in 1843. In an approximately 10,000-word essay setting out its manifesto for renewing liberalism in the 21st century, the magazine declares: “We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism — not the leftish ‘progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish ‘ultraliberalism’ conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”

The Economist claims it was against colonialism (a distinctly non-liberal idea). It writes today: “The Economist was sceptical of imperialism, arguing in 1862 that colonies ‘would be just as valuable to us…if they were independent’.”

In the same breath, the magazine contradicts itself by republishing in 2018 an excerpt of what its editors actually wrote in 1862: “But ‘uncivilised races’ were owed ‘guidance, guardianship and teaching’.”

Hypocrisy has survived in The Economist’s editorial room between 1862, when its editors wrote that passage, and 2018, when its editors exhumed it.

But weren’t the standards of 1862 different from the standards of 2018? Wasn’t racism the “old normal”, coexisting with the soaring ideals of 19th century Western liberalism?

Consider the era. The United States was in the throes of a civil war over, essentially, the continuation of slavery. The global capital of the African slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1700s and 1800s was Liverpool. It commandeered 55 per cent of the slave traffic from Africa to America.

During the same era, Britain perpetrated several extra-territorial crimes: the 200-year-long African slave trade was the most brutal. It was accompanied by colonial invasions in Asia and Africa and the near-extermination of Aborigines in Australia and of indigenous Indians in North America. Apartheid in South Africa was a latter-day British-Dutch joint venture.

None of these “liberal” episodes finds a mention in The Economist’s manifesto to “renew” liberalism — as if liberalism thrived in the 1800s, subsided in the 1900s, and merely needs renewal.

The magazine does though make one domestic mea culpa: “Liberals were white men who considered themselves superior to the run of humanity in both those particulars; though Bagehot, like Mill, supported votes for women, for most of its early years The Economist did not. And both Mill and Bagehot feared that extending the franchise to all men regardless of property would lead to ‘the tyranny of the majority’.”

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, liberal Western societies continued to engage in anti-liberal practices. Slavery was gone. Colonialism was over. Aborigines and ‘Red’ Indians had been marginalised. Apartheid was on its last legs.

And yet, the West found new ways to continue its liberal double standards. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) kept a tight leash on global finance. Its presidents were always, respectively, American and European by mandate.

What the gunships could no longer achieve, money would.

The Economist writes in its liberal manifesto without a trace of embarrassment: “21st-century liberals must remember two lessons from the 20th. The failure of the League of Nations between the (two) world wars showed that liberal ideals are worthless unless backed by the military power of determined nation states.”

The period between the two world wars — the 1920s and 1930s — were in fact among the most illiberal in recent history: the rise of Hitler, the brutality of the British occupation of India, and harsh racial segregation of African-Americans in the US.

The Economist ends its liberal manifesto with a waffle rather than a clear-cut doctrine:

"This essay has argued that liberalism needs an equally ambitious reinvention today. The social contract and geopolitical norms that underpin liberal democracies and the world order that sustains them were not built for this century.

Geography and technology have produced new concentrations of economic power to tackle. The developed and the developing world alike need fresh ideas for the design of better welfare states and tax systems. The right of people to move from one country to another need to be redefined.

American apathy and China’s rise require a rethinking of the world order — not least because the huge gains that free trade has provided must be preserved."

So what is true liberalism in today’s new world order? Freedom, equality, choice, dissent, tolerance, diversity and openness. Respect merit but provide equal opportunities to all. Enforce the rule of law firmly and fairly without which no liberal society can flourish.

India is a starkly unequal society, divided by caste, religion, language, religion and class. But it is in this diversity that lie the molecular building blocks of liberalism.

As India lurches, in its own chaotic civilisational way, towards a more equitable future, those building blocks can create a society based on fairness and tolerance — the markers of true liberalism.

- MINHAZ MERCHANT @minhazmerchant

- Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations
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