You can view 2 more articles. Unlock unlimited articles with the TANK Digital Subscription. Subscribe here.




Portait of Joséphine de Beauharnais wearing Dhaka muslin by François Gérard, 1801

A few years ago I gave a friend a copy of Alexander Zevin’s Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist (2019) for her birthday. We were picnicking in a park, children and wasps out in force. My friend, an Oxford-educated international lawyer, perused the sleeve notes in between bites of food and convivial picnic-appropriate chat. Soon, however, she turned to me slightly flushed in an awkward English way and said “But I AM a liberal! Liberals… are nice! I thought we were all liberals?”

The conflation of liberalism as an economic policy platform – the subject of my unwelcome present – with the common use of the term to mean open-minded or progressive isn’t exactly rare, as I should have known. In Liberalism at Large, Zevin’s point is partly that this conflation is by design.

From its birth in 1843, the Economist was a radical campaigning publication established to make the case for a free market economic model known as laissez-faire and against market regulation. The Economist’s social and political outlook, especially on international affairs, has been anything but progressive. From the Vietnam war to apartheid in South Africa and much else, the Economist has been consistently on the wrong side of history while somehow remaining the magazine of record for the liberal elites across the globe.

Liberalism, in its broadest sense, transcends its economic interpretation. Though self-described liberals only emerged in the 19th century, their creed drew upon an earlier Enlightenment philosophical framework that prioritised individual rights and liberties. Responding to the widespread religious and civic authoritarianism of their age, philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau championed the inherent rights of man and the sovereignty of the individual. Economic liberalism emerged as one strand of this liberal efflorescence, gaining prominence during the Industrial Revolution as a pseudo-scientific doctrine of an emerging and virulent form of capitalism. The genius of the Economist is in its branding. It passes off a partisan, politically motivated point of view on economic policy as the very science of studying the economy.

Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published masterpiece, 2666 (2004) is an ambitious, sprawling novel that delves into the depths of human depravity in a quest for understanding a world overshadowed by inexplicable violence. In one scene two academics, Pelletier and Espinoza, beat up a cab driver. This happens because the cab driver mutters disapproving curses after witnessing the two of them being simultaneously amorous with the character Liz Norton, another academic with whom they are engaged in a ménage à trois.

The two academics’ violent reaction contrasts with the otherwise scholarly and restrained personas of Pelletier and Espinoza, revealing a darker, more intolerant side to their characters. This incident also reflects one of the central themes of the novel: pervasive and sudden eruptions of brutality.

Bolaño’s dissection of the experience of the contemporary is unmatched, not least because being Chilean positions him both of the West and a victim of it. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew the socialist democratic president Salvador Allende, during which Bolaño was briefly arrested accused of being a terrorist.

The ensuing “Chilean Experiment”, as it later became known, wasn’t only about brutal political suppression, torture and disappearances. Chile became the first laboratory for a set of extreme neoliberal economic policies. After the 1973 coup, the military government, led by General Augusto Pinochet, implemented a radical economic transformation guided by the principles of neoliberalism advised by a group of economists known as the “Chicago Boys.” These reforms included the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of industries and liberalisation of trade. This shift aimed to reduce inflation and stimulate economic growth through free-market policies. While these changes led to increased economic efficiency and the modernisation of the Chilean economy, they also resulted in significant social costs, including increased unemployment and income inequality, affecting the most vulnerable.

One of the features of the assault on the cab driver in 2666 is its racialised nature. The cab driver, you see, is an Arab and a Moslem. His beating is occasioned by his expressed intolerance of the libertine sexual mores of his white and affluent passengers – and as they see it, a result of his fanaticism and backwardness. The irony of the racists blaming their victims as responsible for their fate – because of their non-Western values – would be considered heavy-handed were it not for 30 years of war visited on Asia and Africa in the name of “exporting liberty”. Where liberal forefathers once demanded to be given liberty or death, today the option is to have both at once, whether you want it or not. As Madeleine Albright once famously confirmed, the salvation of societies could be worth the price of their annihilation.

Drone strike kills 40 at a wedding party in Afghanistan? Very unfortunate, but the thing is, it was meant to ensure that Afghan women could get an education, had they lived. Similarly, in order to ensure “Iraqi Freedom” (the actual name of the operation that launched the invasion of that country) it was necessary for a million or so Iraqis to be liberated from life’s burden. The Israeli army is currently busy freeing the people of Gaza from the shackles of their mortal coil. Liberalism is tenacious if nothing else in maintaining its self-righteous indignation, even as it acts in the most monstrous ways.

Two hundred years ago Dhaka muslin was a legendary fabric renowned for its extraordinary fineness and delicate texture; the threads were so fine that the Persians called it “woven air”. It used to cost up to 30 times the finest silk, and it’s estimated that in today’s money it could set you back a staggering £50,000 per metre. Unsurprisingly it was worn only by royalty and the super-rich. Napoleon’s wife Joséphine was famous for her taste for it; in Europe, people believed that it was woven by fairies or mermaids underwater. This luxury item was in fact made by humans primarily around Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal was probably the richest place on Earth at the height of the Mughal Empire. The production of this fabric involved extremely intricate craftsmanship using a special species of cotton that grew only in that region. Even now, despite many attempts, and the use of the latest technology, the secret of its creation remains elusive.

The disappearance of Dhaka muslin is attributed to British colonialism and the process of industrialisation. Policies were implemented that favoured British goods and undermined local industries. The introduction of machine-made textiles from Britain, which were cheaper and produced en masse, led to a severe reduction in demand for handwoven muslin. But Dhaka muslin with its quality and price was never threatened by cheap British imports, as it served a more exclusive market. The British colonial administration neglected the agricultural conditions necessary for the growth of the species of cotton used for the muslin. This, combined with the exploitation and economic policies that forced artisans into indebted-bonded labour, led to the eventual demise of this once-thriving industry and world cultural treasure. It is documented that in order to speed the demise of this indigenous industry the British would amputate the thumbs of artisans, destroying skills that had taken a lifetime to acquire. The proponents of the free market are not too averse to occasionally placing a finger – or a thumb – on the scales of free trade to tip the balance in its favour.

Mrs Thatcher, the Economist’s favourite political pin-up, was a great friend and admirer of the Chilean dictator Pinochet (another hero of the Economist) who persecuted Bolaño. Thatcher’s public support helped Pinochet escape the clutches of the Spanish judges who wanted to question him about historic human rights violations.

In 1980, in one of her most famous speeches, Mrs Thatcher told an audience of Women’s Institute members that “there is no alternative” to her economic plan. Abbreviated to TINA, the phrase has become a mantra endlessly repeated by politicians of every stripe around the world for the past 40 years. TINA is built into every dominant hierarchy – intellectual, aesthetic, racial and economical. Today, the neoliberals like to think of their ideas as not just better but inevitable, as the way nature intended.

Over the past seven months I have frequently asked myself how and why so many self-identifying nice liberals can ignore, or worse, support, the unfolding genocide in Gaza. The sad conclusion must be that the liberal facade of the dominant world view is only skin-deep and hides something darker below the surface. A measure of the fragility of this world order is how quickly it looses its cool and turns illiberal, and how readily resorts to violence when it is challenged by a cursing cab driver, a trans-rights activist or those pesky pro-Palestinian students.  Masoud Golsorkhi