Dear Sir: On the Liberal Fragility of The Economist

Dear Sir: On the Liberal Fragility of The Economist

I want to see The Economist do well. With a few gap years, I’ve subscribed to The Economist for well over a decade—ever since I could enjoy the still-expensive student price in grad school. I place a high value on having an old, venerable institution with deep journalistic expertise, credibility, and genuinely global scope. So when I criticize The Economist for its cover story on the dangers of the “illiberal left” and “illiberal antiracism” it is the constructive criticism of a subscriber.

The most recent issue, with leader “The Threat from the Illiberal Left,” set off a flurry of online criticism. The Economist propagates a number of elementary errors about antiracism and the social justice left. But perhaps more importantly, The Economist derogates its responsibilities as a liberal newspaper, both by gullibly endorsing duplicitous rightwing portrayals of social justice activism and by failing to explore the contiguities between social justice activism and the liberal tradition.

First, it must be said that a single to-be-sure paragraph acknowledging that “the most dangerous threat in liberalism’s spiritual home comes from the Trumpian right” nevertheless leaves the tonal conclusion intact: the social justice left is a dangerous enemy of liberals everywhere. And it’s part of a pattern. Similar warnings about the illiberal excesses of antiracism were trotted out after the murder of George Floyd by police.

Mistakes or bad faith?

The Economist does a disservice to its readers when it gets basic ideas in social justice discourse wrong or portrays them in a malicious light. The Economist asserts that “illiberal progressives” use a “caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice.” This description will read as completely alien to any social justice activist with a significant following. It sounds like, perhaps, The Economist is trying to describe intersectionality, which is commonly described by right wing commentators as “Oppression Olympics” but simply means that oppression takes multiple forms and the experiences of someone with multiple disadvantaged identities (say, a Black woman, or a trans Muslim) cannot be adequately described by referencing only one of those identities (e.g., Black patriarchy is different from white patriarchy; misogynoir differs from the misogyny white women of different classes experience).

Or perhaps The Economist is referring to standpoint epistemology, the notion that people experiencing oppression are best placed to describe that oppression. This idea may rankle classical liberals who insist that ideas must be universally intelligible and not the exclusive domain of a privileged class. But really it’s common sense, and a variation on the idea well-established in economics of asymmetric information. Of course those who chafe under prevailing institutions have privileged access to the particulars of that chafing. This does, however, put liberals in a bind to the extent they are seen as defending the status quo.

With its emphasis on corporate diversity trainings, college campus dynamics, and “cancel culture,” The Economist creates the impression that the antiracist or “woke” left has abandoned hard-nosed material concerns in favor of policing thought and speech. “Material conditions that the old left cared about, such as persistent segregation in poor districts and schools, get little attention.” But this is not a reading of the social justice movements that I recognize, nor one many activists would recognize. Whatever you think about defunding the police, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a hard-nosed materialist approach: cutting the purse strings to a specific institution with the goal of reducing violence against Blacks in a measurable way. The movement for reparations for African American descendants of slaves, defended in The Economist’s own pages (to its significant credit) by Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen, is based on an historical accounting of economic and other damages done to Blacks in America. Its north star is closing the racial wealth gap, a metric that has grown in importance relative to income gaps because it more accurately gauges intergenerational inequality and actual economic security and capability. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote one of the landmark essays of the present racial justice discourse, a case for reparations, based on the concrete and recent issue of segregation by red-lining.

The shift from racism as animus to “systemic” or “structural racism” is a shift away from personal feelings and toward material realities. The Economist badly misunderstands systemic racism and misleads its readers in a grossly negligent way. “Progressives” believe “that white people can be guilty of racism even if they don’t consciously discriminate against others on the basis of race, because they are beneficiaries of a system of exploitation.” This, again, is simply unrecognizable to actual antiracist activists in the basic conceptual terms used. No one talks about white guilt. It exists in the—one reaches for the word “fragile”—egos of white liberals and conservatives who seem to interpret all racial justice activism as an attack on them personally. We talk about systemic racism because personal guilt is both conceptually inadequate and beside the point. Whites, who tend to enjoy certain privileges in society—however unevenly, as everyone acknowledges—over Blacks and other racialized groups, do have a special responsibility for speaking and acting against systemic white supremacy, but this has nothing to do with guilt, sin, or accusation. It is not dissimilar to the common notion that the rich have a special responsibility to society not just for charitable reasons, but because they have enjoyed at least some advantages they didn’t earn.

Liberal fragility

The Economist sets up a contrast between classical liberals like itself (despite sometimes referring to itself merely as “liberal”) and the “illiberal left.” But in drawing this contrast the Economist loses coherence.

Superficially, the illiberal left and classical liberals like The Economist want many of the same things. Both believe that people should be able to flourish whatever their sexuality or race. They share a suspicion of authority and entrenched interests. They believe in the desirability of change.

However, classical liberals and illiberal progressives could hardly disagree more over how to bring these things about. For classical liberals, the precise direction of progress is unknowable. It must be spontaneous and from the bottom up—and it depends on the separation of powers, so that nobody nor any group is able to exert lasting control. By contrast the illiberal left put their own power at the centre of things, because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.

Classical liberals believe people of all kinds should be able to flourish, but “the precise direction of progress is unknowable.” Classical liberals believe no person or group should be “able to exert lasting control,” but the left is illiberal because they believe progress requires that social hierarchies be dismantled. It goes without saying that social justice movements can apparently never be “spontaneous” or “bottom-up.” 

Can people flourish despite social inequalities, or not? Should liberals dismantle social hierarchies, or not? Do such hierarchies and inequalities even exist? Indeed, The Economist takes the rising affirmation of “once fringe” views—that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days” and that black disadvantage in America has unique contours that make it inadvisable to lump it together with other minority groups—as evidence of rising illiberalism on the left. 

The only way to make sense of this is to suppose that worrying too much about social inequalities is either a cynical play for power (“the illiberal left [puts] their own power at the centre of things”) or simply inherently illiberal. The title of one of these articles gives the game away: “Left-wing activists are using old tactics in a new assault on liberalism.”

The liberal potential of antiracism

I urge The Economist to reconsider this defensive posture and explore instead the liberal potential of social justice activism. This will require The Economist to broaden its outlook beyond classical liberalism, as it has already done along issues related to the welfare state. Social liberalism has a long and venerable history, stretching back to Adam Smith himself, who vocally opposed slavery and imperialism, and paid acute attention to the imbalance of power between workers and masters. John Stuart Mill was not only something of a liberal socialist, with the help of his wife Harriet Mill he excoriated patriarchal privilege, bringing feminism within the liberal domain. Eminent scholars like Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and Elizabeth Anderson carry on the social liberal tradition today.

Of course, not all antiracist and social justice advocates think of themselves as particularly liberal. Consider the work of Deva Woodly, a student of social movements who has drawn on the liberal ideas of Sen. She describes the political theory of the Movement for Black Lives as a “politics of care” combined with “radical Black feminist pragmatism.” This is a bit of word soup but it means a politics that focuses on meeting the needs of everyone (politics of care), expanding the political imagination (radical), leveraging the perspectives of the oppressed (Black feminism), and focusing on goals achievable within democracy (pragmatism). These are not illiberal ideas that liberals should guard against, but nonliberal ideas that can quite possibly be adopted and translated into more familiar liberal language.

The title of Heather McGhee’s brilliant book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” dispels at the outset the common charge from liberals like The Economist that antiracism factionalizes and polarizes us. McGhee convincingly describes how even policies that advance the material interests of everyone and initially enjoy wide support are often racialized to the point of political untenability. McGhee, again, doesn’t appear too interested in the liberal moniker, but her book is an earnest, detailed map to achieving a liberal harmony of interests in our racially and ethnically diverse society.

Charles W. Mills, on the other hand, makes a bold point of embracing liberalism. In contrast to The Economist ’s preferred method of assuming a mostly just society and hushing complaints of racial inequality, Mills asks what liberalism would require if our society truly has been stratified by 400 years of racist oppression, beginning with slavery but proceeding through the racist terrorism of Jim Crow and beyond red-lining to racialized mass incarceration and other inequalities persisting today. Mills’s “Black radical liberal” project contends that mainstream liberal theory is fundamentally disoriented. Liberals, ostensibly concerned with freedom and equality of all persons, should not assume society is mostly just with some racist aberrations and build theories on that edifice. Instead we should look hard at the most oppressive examples of unfreedom and inequality that we see around us, and build theories (and activism) around these. 

By engaging with these antiracist thinkers with an open mind instead of juxtaposing them with cynical critics like James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, The Economist would not forego the ability to criticize antiracists and woke excesses. Indeed, The Economist could more credibly argue against the scourge of campus disinvitations and dubious proposals like police abolition if they considered racial injustice a more serious obstacle to liberal ends than antiracist activism. By all means, skewer Ibram X. Kendi for his genuinely illiberal “Department of Anti-racism,” (though not before giving the idea its due). And offer a better alternative to the insistence that racial capitalism is the only possible capitalism by definition. The Economist could do worse than to start with the feminist case for capitalism of Ann Cudd, another liberal philosopher who takes oppression seriously

I hope I am not written off as an illiberal leftist. I consider myself a liberal, and I write and edit for a liberal publication that takes a broad umbrella view of the liberal tradition that would certainly include writers from The Economist . I meant it when I said I want The Economist to do well, so I close with a challenge and request from this loyal reader. Assemble a special report on the liberal potential of antiracism. Engage with the likes of Woodly, McGhee, and Mills, as well as organizations like the Movement for Black Lives, with an eye toward seeing not what liberalism can teach social justice movements—this has been thoroughly covered—but what liberals can learn from social justice.