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Imprinting Modern Liberalism: Empire, Financial Capitalism and the Economist, 1843-1938


My dissertation brings a new approach to studies of liberalism and empire by examining their treatment in a publication with a crucial yet overlooked stake in both, the Economist. Founded in London in 1843, its mission statement was tailored to the needs of the Anti-Corn Law League, then seeking to convert the City of London to Free Trade. Its own fortunes have been tied to this center of the British and world economies ever since. As such the Economist was soon required reading not only for bankers and merchants but also ministers and diplomats - with markets trying to price political sentiment, and everyone eager to understand market sentiment, especially in evaluating those parts of empire where the possible profits seemed great but reliable information was scarce. For this reason it provides unique and compelling answers to a set of questions about liberalism at home and abroad. What, I ask, are the continuities and tensions between the liberal policies the Economist has advocated in Britain and its meticulous reports on the risks and returns of investing in and managing Britain's formal and informal empires?

That question has structured my research project in two ways. On the one hand it has meant tracking down the major thinkers who have guided the Economist. Most of its leading journalists have toiled in obscurity, without bylines; others are among the best known liberal writers, statesmen and economists, such as Walter Bagehot, Herbert Spencer, H. H. Asquith, John Maynard Keynes, and so on. It has, on the other hand, entailed situating them and the paper within the main intellectual controversies in the history of liberalism, always keeping in view the imperial dimension foregrounded by the Economist itself: inter alia the disjunction at mid-century between the ideal of free trade, peace and goodwill among nations and the reality of wars in Crimea, China and elsewhere, New Liberalism and the critique of financial imperialism up to 1914, and the Great Depression, the gold standard and the search for collective security in the interwar years.

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