The publication has a sublime—even smug—self-confidence in its elite liberal worldview. So how is it coping with our populist moment?by Adam Tooze / March 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
What is liberalism? It means and has meant many different things. We speak of market liberalism, social liberalism and cultural liberalism. Anti-clerical atheists have been liberals, as have reformist archbishops. In the US today, the “L-word” refers to anyone to the left of the Republican Party. John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, John Rawls and Margaret Thatcher are all reasonably identified as liberals. This polysemy has given liberalism great sway and it has also made it a convenient straw man. Conservatives, social democrats, Marxists and postcolonial thinkers have all defined themselves against liberalism. It has time and again been declared dead. But liberalism has an odd way of coming back. Before neo-liberalism there were “new liberals” like Leonard Hobhouse and John A Hobson. Indeed, as honest critics must acknowledge, so pervasive is liberalism’s influence that it is not obvious that we know how to think beyond its confines. How many of us today can imagine a legal system not based on individual rights? At a moment of crisis how many of us would opt for a revolutionary catastrophe over a Keynesian fix? How many of us would happily give up on the pleasures of the “freedom to choose”?
If you really want to pin liberalism down—and take it on—you need to find something or somebody that has a degree of coherence and continuity that also has some claim to encompass liberalism’s entire baggy history, but is also objectionable enough to be held safely at arm’s length. Take, for example, the Economist. Founded in 1843, it is one of the most enduring weekly political newspapers in the world—and one of the most influential. It is famously provocative, offering not so much investigative journalism as a resumé of important events laced with opinion. At times, its tone is facetious bordering on offensive: Top Wonk meets Top Gear. It is unashamedly elitist. It has a readership of 1.5m worldwide, recruited from among the most influential and affluent.
Take on the history of the Economist and you are tackling not armchair philosophical liberalism, but liberalism at work. This is the basic conceit of Alexander Zevin’s fascinating new history of the newspaper.
Zevin is a professor at the City University of New York. He is also one of the young guard of editors at New Left Review.…