Last weekend in London, the Economist braved angry protesters to host Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, and white nationalist, at the magazine’s Open Future festival. The week before, outrage on social media and threatened cancellations from invited speakers had forced the New Yorker to cancel a similar public interview with Bannon.
The Economist has been a self-conscious flag-bearer of Anglo-American liberalism since it started publication 175 years ago. As its editor wrote in a note justifying her invitation to Bannon, it is important to subject “ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate.”
That’s an admirable sentiment in these feverishly polarized times. But it is also a bit naive. Ideologues like Bannon crave confrontations with institutions like the Economist, which they eagerly present to their followers as tools of global elites.
More disturbingly, white nationalists such as Bannon, with their invocation of race, ethnicity and country, appear to have a more realistic sense of modern history than their liberal interrogators.
On the same weekend that it sought to grill Bannon, the Economist published a manifesto for “reinventing liberalism” in the magazine’s 175th anniversary issue. In line with an honorable tradition of liberalism, the magazine acknowledges its errors and omissions, such as its support for “the misguided invasion of Iraq.” “Liberal economists,” it also confesses, “paid too little attention to the people and places harmed by trade and automation.”
Such serious intellectual and moral failures would seem to call for a drastic revision of an outlook fundamentally shaped by more than 175 years of Anglo-American power and ascendancy. But the Economist seems to be doubling down on some 19th century verities. “Liberalism,” the magazine claims, “made the modern world.” And “the core liberal causes of individual freedom, free trade and free markets have been the most powerful engine for creating prosperity in all history.”
In fact, a mass of contemporary scholarship supports a very different narrative. Liberalism had little to do with the rise of Anglo-America. The US was heavily protectionist for much of the 19th century, while building its manufacturing capacity. And American pioneers of protectionism such as Alexander Hamilton complained bitterly about imperialist Britain’s protected markets and manufactures.
It is hard to argue that any real lessons about free trade or free markets for the rest of the world can be drawn from the exceptional experience of the modern world’s two most powerful imperialist nations. It was slavery and colonialism, combined with technological innovations and superior firepower, which gave Western nations in the 19th century a temporary advantage over much more powerful and prosperous countries such as India and China.
The Economist’s contention that “British naval hegemony” helped the spread of liberalism in the 19th century euphemizes, to an absurd degree, the imposition at gunpoint of British-style free trade on Asian markets. Individual freedom -- the core liberal ideal -- was not much available in racist regimes ruled from London.
This traumatic experience of liberalism as hypocrisy made many Asians and Africans distrust it, in the words of Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, as an “ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs.” (Free trade and free markets, for that matter, weren’t the only factors at play in the rise of modern Asia, as a glance at the protected industries of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Communist-ruled China would reveal.)
Britain and the US were always likely to face economic decline once Asians and Africans threw off the shackles imposed on them by their Western overlords and combined their industrial revolution with an industrious revolution. Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi foresaw the present as early 1931: “Industrialism depends entirely on your capacity to exploit, on foreign markets being open to you, and on the absence of competitors.”
Anti-colonial activists such as Gandhi became the most trenchant critics of liberalism. This is because they saw how, while complicit with imperialism abroad, liberalism frequently collapsed in the West itself into demagogic, racist and authoritarian regimes. Yet no non-Western authority or source is cited in the Economist’s clarion call to “liberals everywhere,” which the magazine seeks to amplify by reverential references to Milton Friedman, who believed that colonialism enriched the colonized and slavery produced no wealth.
It is imperative, as the losers of history revolt, that we reexamine liberalism, an ideology preferred by the winners of history -- what Cruise O’Brien, reporting from Africa in the 1960s, called the “ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society.”
Liberals cannot hope to combat white supremacism and open up the future with self-flattering fables about liberalism’s past. Interrogating Bannon seems a distraction from the main task of those who rally under the banner of liberalism today: to subject, first, their own assumptions to “rigorous questioning and debate.”
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.