On September 15th The Economist celebrated their 175th anniversary with a manifesto speaking out against the weakening of liberal values. Though the meaning of the concept liberal is notoriously unclear, there certainly is more to it than free markets and cynical neoliberalism.
The Economist stresses that liberal values are essentially about respecting the individual and protecting freedom and the common good, as well as propagating «open markets and a limited state administration».
The manifesto laments the loss of these values over the past 25 years, as liberal practices have ceded to populism, pessimism, hierarchy and elitism.
These claims are supported by books like The Retreat of Western Liberalism and Has the West Lost it? as well as articles like «Is Democracy Dying» and «What’s Killing Liberalism?» (Foreign Affairs/The Atlantic). In the past six months The Economist has scrutinised liberal values including the cases in which liberals have failed. They remind us that the liberals of the 19th century were actually radical in the original meaning of the word – getting to the root of social problems to make fundamental necessary changes. By the grace of liberals, we now have a life expectancy well above the 30 years that were the norm when The Economist was founded, and liberal policies have led to a five-fold increase in educated adults since then.
In their editorial, The Economist discussed how a new liberal meritocracy has gradually ended up restricting freedom for the few. Many seemed to forget the foundation of liberal values: that we are all born the same and thus deserve the same opportunities. The liberal elites and the ruling class have for some time lived in a bubble: they go to the same schools, marry each other, live on the same streets and meet in the same fora. Consequently, they are criticised for not having hindered «wars, financial crisis, technification, refugee migrants and chronic precariousness». They also denounce the shameful conservative bent of many liberals, making them unwilling to confront the changing times and «afraid to defend deeper reforms». They have reaped too many benefits from the existing system, The Economist writes.
The Social Contract
This neoliberal and conservative elite has persuaded the major part of the 99 per cent outside of their hegemonic power sphere that life should for the most part consist of constant work and consumption. Politicians keep telling us that we have to shape up and get ready to work harder.
In a similar vein, David Graeber writes in Revolutions in Reverse how «neoliberal capitalism […] is obsessed with upholding the impression that ‘there is no alternative’, quoting Thatcher and Reagan in the 80s.» This is not an economic rhetoric, but rather a political one designed to pulverise our imagination and our human creativity, Graeber says. Interestingly he also criticises the major part of the working class for furthering a consumerist or «petit bourgeois productivism» ideology. Being a professor in anthropology – and an anarchist – he advocates a more «fundamental rejection of the very idea of work upheld by our society». Socialists are too concerned with work, bureaucracy and consumption. He sees a great irony in the fact that only anarchists fought for a shorter work day, while socialists tended to «demand higher wages» embracing «the consumer paradise offered by their bourgeois enemy». It is clearly better, he says, «to work four hours a day than doing four hours’ work in eight hours»
Were we born free, but are now everywhere in chains, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau described the early modern society? The man behind The Social Contract (1762) states that civilisation itself is incapable of upholding freedom and equality in the same way as those who lived in a state of harmony with nature were able to do. This is a myth, according to Graeber. In their series on liberal thinkers, The Economist criticises Rousseau for being an illiberal prophet: Being a pessimist, he assumed that society stimulates egoism so that freedom for all must be recreated through coercion. Marx, another illiberal pessimist, according to The Economist, states that freedom can only be won back through violent revolution. Nietzsche, too, is described as illiberal, because he described a process where society would gradually evolve towards cynicism and nihilism.
Since optimism, growth and productivity are more in the spirit of The Economist, they tend to give the three above mentioned philosophers a rather superficial reading. For the same reason, thinkers like Mill, de Tocqueville, Keynes, Berlin, Schumpeter, Popper, Hayek, Rawls and Nozick are lauded.
In his Revolutions in Reverse, David Graeber insists that in a free, imaginative world, the goal must be a life more lived, not a life where attention to consumption, growth and work is all-pervasive. If you take a look at more pragmatic contemporary anarchists, they also fight for individual freedom and a limited state, like the liberals, but focus even more on the rights of minorities. Freedom and solidarity in other words. What is The Economist’s take on solidarity? For neoliberals in general, the concept is rarely highlighted.
Let me present the weekly journal’s points for a new social contract in our time: that refugees must be welcomed and given rights to education and health services, even if they must manage other needs themselves; real-estate markets must be regulated so people can afford housing; prices must be reduced through more effective production; people’s right to choose must be upheld. They are critical of huge, dominating corporations. Automation is not regarded as a risk in itself, as new jobs will appear. A «liberal reassessment of the welfare state starts with education», they write. Preschools should have a higher priority, as people are shaped at an early age. The Economist also wants pensions to be allocated to those who need it the most. Surprisingly they also discuss universal citizen wages, as many liberals believe that personal autonomy is a source of happiness and prosperity. Here, The Economist suggests a «negative tax» where those who earn less than «minimum wage» should receive compensation. Like pensions, this should be calibrated to people’s actual needs, so that those who are already settled won’t receive even more. Finally, The Economist states that unschooled citizens should pay less taxes, that housing taxes should rather be collected from landowners and that the world now must establish severe carbon and environmental taxes. Would you believe all this to come from liberals?
The greater cause for disappointment was when The Economist – even after having endorsed individual freedom and criticised Rousseau and Marx for their readiness to employ violence – recommend an even stronger military force. In their manifesto they recommend rearmament in Europe and Asia, just like the US recommends, referring to the alliances that were absent in the interwar period.
All of a sudden we are presented with a demand that violence and an unproductive military industry should be employed – to further peace and freedom. While contemporary anarchists want to dismantle big capital, the state, and the military, the liberals in The Economist take leave before they reach that last point.