Liberalism at Large: The World according to The Economist, by Alexander Zevin, Verso, 538 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1781686249
In a famous passage from The Economic Consequences of the Peace, JM Keynes recalled the serenity of upper middle class life before the outbreak of war in 1914. “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantities as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages …” The comfortable gentleman of pre-war London “regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.”
Keynes’s contented citizen was almost certainly a reader of The Economist; the world he lived in and his exalted expectations of it were the journal’s idea of an achieved utopia. The detailed knowledge it provided of how his good fortune was attributable to the commercial triumphs of the British empire made him a member of an elect. In 1914 The Economist was read by a few thousand people; today its print circulation is over 900,000 worldwide and when 750,000 online subscribers are taken into account its global readership is over 1.5 million (with almost 60 per cent of these readers in North America). Many more people are aware of being consumers in a globalised world but a still recurring theme of The Economist’s witty, self-referential advertising campaigns is that reading it confers, at the very least, vicarious membership of the circles in the know. “It’s lonely at the top; but at least there’s something to read,” is a slogan that is more than an idle boast. In Keynes’s day the Treasury relied on The Economist in making policy arguments; Mussolini claimed to be an avid reader and Hitler granted the editor an interview in 1933. JFK was given a lifetime subscription to the paper – as it likes to be called ‑ by his father. Henry Kissinger played a cameo in a television ad in 1996 in which a first class airline passenger regrets not having read The Economist when the former secretary of state takes the seat alongside him. Jeremy Corbyn’s top adviser, Seamus Milne, was on the staff in the 1980s; David Cameron named two Economist journalists as friends when he gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on phone hacking. The magazine’s success has rested on the creation of a vivid and distinct identity as defender of liberalism. Alexander Zevin’s argument in his deeply researched and entertaining account of its views and coverage is that The Economist possesses a unique clarity of vision compared with other newspapers and magazines considered broadly liberal: tracing the history of the magazine over the past 177 years is an opportunity to pin down the essential features of how liberalism as an idea has played out in the real world over the last two centuries.
The Economist was founded in 1843 by James Wilson ‑ a hat-maker and dedicated reader of Adam Smith, James Mill and David Ricardo ‑ to promote the cause of free trade during the defining British debate over the abolition of the Corn Laws. He became a Liberal MP, founded what is now the Standard Chartered bank and was sent to India to reorganise the economy after the rebellion of 1857, dying there in 1860. By then British investment in railway lines, plantations and mines in the empire and beyond had begun to create a vast source of invisible income which flowed back to the City of London. In the late nineteenth century, even though British manufacturing output was being stealthily outpaced by that of the United States and Germany, British financial power remained unrivalled. For the paper’s most famous editor, Walter Bagehot ‑ author of The English Constitution – the stream of young English capitalists heading to the four corners of the world to put their money to use represented one of “the great instruments of world-wide trade” and “binding forces of the future”. In 1850 British investors held £200 million in assets abroad; by 1900 these were worth £2 billion and in 1913, the last year when a shrewd London gentleman could survey the world and be certain of his unique place in it, this offshore estate had grown to £4 billion. The Economist portrayed this world as one big connected market, always ripe for further growth. It held that global integration had gone so far as to make war between the Great Powers suicidal and therefore unthinkable, a faith shattered in 1914.
The magazine was nestled in a tight circle of gentlemen who ran the City, the Treasury and the Bank of England. They shared a devotion to the gold standard and a minimal state but were a generous cut above the Dickensian Gradgrinds of the ordinary business world, admired not only for their superior knowledge of the arcane world of credit but also for their cultivated sensibility. Herbert Asquith, the urbane leader of the Liberal Party, was briefly political editor. To Karl Marx, another dedicated reader to make a name for himself, who discovered The Economist in the reading room of the British Museum, it spoke for “the aristocracy of finance”. Right into the twentieth century new blood was recruited on the basis of a recommendation from an Oxford don or a word from Keynes.
This close and elevated circle also enabled The Economist to develop a singular style in an era when discussion of political economy was as much about journalistic elegance and cogency as econometric precision. One of Bagehot’s biographers wrote that in addition to being clever he gave “a distinct impression that he is one of a band of like-minded conspirators, to which the reader is invited to attach himself”, a notion which is still the premise for the paper’s billboard advertising. The posture of the typical Economist writer radiates airy confidence and a jaded omniscience which regular readers expect but must sometimes find overworked. A column on Latin America from an issue last December began: “Another week and another Latin American country is out on the street.” A review in the same edition chiding bad academic research in management studies concluded: “Less Chomsky please, and more cost-benefit analysis.” But Economist writers are more than just pleased with themselves: they are certain of their convictions. “Many readers of The Economist look upon that paper as an oracle and so do its editorial writers,” Brendan Bracken, the Tipperary builder’s son who was the magazine’s managing director for seventeen years, wrote in 1952. “There is no subject upon which they are unwilling to lay down the law.”
Such certitude still has an appeal for millions of readers, but the magazine has never just been about trenchant argument and opinion. Early on, The Economist distinguished itself from other papers covering the City because it supplied hard information rather than hyping shares. Marx used it as a source of data and Lenin took its content seriously, describing it in 1915 as “a journal that speaks for British millionaires”, suggesting that he learned something from its pages to help him construct his theory of imperialism. The Soviet ambassador to London praised the objectivity of its coverage. Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher was hired to write about the USSR during the Second World War. Among people on the left there was a perception that its affinities with capital meant it offered a more reliable and expert guide to the material word than more unworldly liberal publications whose line they might have agreed with. The Polish Marxist Daniel Singer, who was Paris correspondent in 1958, saw The Economist as a revelation compared with the gentility of its competitors, a place where “the bourgeoisie [is] talking to itself frankly”. Compared with the American mid-twentieth century titans, Time and Newsweek, it generally offered a more sophisticated mission to explain, underpinned by authority, research and intellectual heft. Today, the breadth of its coverage outdoes global rivals.
A pillar of the magazine’s self confidence is a keen sense of its own history; rarely are important anniversaries allowed to pass without retrospectives on its role in shaping world events since 1843. It is never shy to rearticulate and repurpose its own affinity with liberalism. In an editorial in July on the upheaval caused by the death of George Floyd, The Economist enlisted Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King as classical liberals who had fought for equality of opportunity. Liberalism now had the answers sought by the Black Lives Matter movement. “Liberalism thrives on a marketplace of ideas, so diversity has a vital role … Liberalism is all about progress, including about putting right its mistakes – and there have been many, especially over race, including finding reasons to accommodate imperialism and slavery.” To Zevin, this offhand acknowledgment of mistakes, practically erased from consideration because they are now thankfully corrected, skates over a vast history that raises the possibility of a fatal flaw in the idea of liberalism itself: that imperial expansion was at its core from the beginning.
Validating a national talent for conquest as if it was Britain’s unique comparative advantage was part of the paper’s early mission. “We are pre-eminently a colonizing people,” Bagehot asserted in 1865. “We are, beyond all comparison, the most enterprising, the most successful, and in most respects, the best, colonists on the face of the earth.” The key ingredient of success was Britain’s interest in promoting trade, investment and civilised – liberal – values. But the civilising mission could not be so refined as to indulge squeamishness when violence was deemed necessary. “We may regret war,” an editorial intoned in 1857 “[but] we cannot deny that great advantages have followed in its wake.” Although the paper’s commitment to imperialism was “open-ended”, towards the end of the nineteenth century it judged that war had largely done its work: consolidation was in order rather than further annexations. “Our interests will be better promoted by international agreements as to freedom of trade, than to extend our dominion over new land,” the paper pronounced in 1883. The imperial history which followed was as much shaped by occupations and wars as by the drafting of treaties on lowering tariffs ‑ Sudan, Burma, Matebeleland, culminating in the South African war. At first worried that Cecil Rhodes’s “exaggerated imperialism” would hold Britain up to ridicule, The Economist lined up behind the Salisbury government when the Boers resisted, judging Britain’s white enemies to be no better than “Orientals” and refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the concentration camps. No matter how much the practice of colonial rule revealed Conradian horrors and made a mockery of the civilising mission, Zevin discovered that “criticism of imperialism was never to be found in The Economist”. It was simply inconceivable, he argues, because empire was the framework for the world economy.
On many “liberal” issues the calculations of commercial return underpinned what appeared to be The Economist’s stand on political principles. Bagehot attacked Governor Edward John Eyre for his notoriously cruel suppression of an uprising by former slaves in Jamaica in 1865. The slaves may have been “negro Fenians” but Eyre was guilty of “the worship of brute force”. His error was tactical not moral: excessive violence might turn out to be counter-productive since exploiting opportunities throughout the empire would require the willing co-operation of “very large bodies of dark laborers”. Although formally opposed to slavery, Bagehot sympathised with the Confederacy, “resolute and virulent Anglo-Saxons”, and believed the South had greater claims to be recognised a sovereign nation than many others. He tried to argue that a Southern victory would lead to faster abolition of slavery and freer trade, noting in passing that the Confederacy would charge ten per cent duty on British goods compared to 40 per cent in the North. Marx sarcastically applauded The Economist for at least being “honest enough to confess at last that with it and its followers sympathy is a mere question of tariff”.
The counterpart to keeping tariffs low across the world was keeping liberalism at home the preserve of the elite. The Economist saw the extension of the franchise to the labouring classes as a mortal threat to the safety of capital and property rights. According to Bagehot “a political combination of the lower classes . . . for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude”. He admired the populist dictatorship established by Louis-Napoleon in France in 1851 because it enabled economic progress. The Economist opposed Home Rule for Ireland ‑ “a gigantic and impossible constitutional revolution” ‑ because it might destroy the empire; the accompanying campaign by tenants to withhold rent was condemned for undermining the sanctity of contract law. It denounced Gladstone when he converted to Home Rule in 1885 and deserted the Liberal Party in favour of the Conservatives. Grudgingly accepting the piecemeal expansion of the electorate, the paper consoled itself that one benefit of votes for the working class was that they could be mobilised to oppose Home Rule and support the empire.
This gradual accommodation with emerging mass democracy was a portent of how adaptable The Economist could become during the twentieth century. It came to terms with the tax and welfare programmes introduced by the New Liberals in the People’s Budget of 1909, if only to stymie more radical reforms by a future Labour government. After the First World War the paper insisted on a rapid return to free trade, the gold standard, and a budget surplus to pay off the debt. But the Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal helped to show that Keynesian economics worked and created a new consensus congenial to state action. The Economist now favoured planning and a mixed economy and even chided Roosevelt for not being bold enough. During the Second World War the magazine’s staff acted as advisers and consultants to the government’s war effort. It endorsed Beveridge’s plans for a welfare state and backed the aim of full employment. The editor appointed in 1938, Geoffrey Crowther, who redesigned the magazine and presided over a circulation surge, coined the term “extreme centre” to describe these new positions. In a book marking the magazine’s centenary in 1943, Crowther asserted that liberalism had become universal common sense: it still aimed at the greatest freedom for the greatest number but it had to take into account that electorates insisted that addressing inequality was as important as abolishing poverty. That same year Ludwig von Mises, the doyen of the Austrian school of neoliberal economists, wrote to his student and intellectual collaborator Frederick Hayek wondering if he had lost faith in his favourite journal. “Do you still consider The Economist an excellent periodical? I think it is rather a twin brother of the New Statesman and Nation.” When in 1944 Hayek published his attack on social democracy The Road to Serfdom – the political bible of neo-liberal politicians for decades afterwards – an Economist review praised it while concluding that the central problem of the twentieth century was how to reconcile freedom and planning.
The shift to the extreme centre did not mean abandoning the City. The Economist still believed that foreign investment was Britain’s greatest industry. It sought to tutor the postwar Labour government in how loans for London would boost trade in the Commonwealth. The new foreign editor, Barbara Ward, initially even envisaged the Commonwealth pursuing an independent line between the US and the USSR. But as the Cold War took off and Marshall Aid flowed to Britain she shifted to a pro-American position, shaping coverage of decolonisation to fit the narrative of the Truman Doctrine: a communist anywhere, no matter how motivated by nationalism, was a proxy for Stalin. In the 1950s The Economist supported the US overthrow of the reformist president Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and endorsed concentration camps in Kenya and the imprisonment of nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta.
However, debates amongst the staff about whether the paper should follow the US lead were encouraged after Donald Tyerman took over as editor in 1956. It opposed the Suez adventure in that year, which attracted hundreds of letters from enraged readers who had expected the paper to be reliably patriotic. Tyerman wrote a leader pointing out that Britain could no longer afford to upset Washington but also stressing the reality of the new world: “A British Prime Minister must not be alienated from the uncommitted countries …” After French troops massacred peaceful protestors in Algeria, Tyerman was persuaded to run a cover proclaiming “Vive FLN!” Initial scepticism about whether the Russians had put nuclear missiles on Cuba and some mild criticism of right-wing supporters of the coup in Brazil in 1964 (their anti-communism was “a mask for unwillingness even to consider their country’s major problems”) provoked further backlash and Tyerman’s eventual removal.
From the mid-1960s onwards The Economist abandoned its scruples and journalistic integrity to pursue the Cold War mission. According to Zevin, coverage of major events in the Cold War was shaped by a triumvirate of like-minded hawks, Brian Beedham, the foreign editor from 1963 to 1989; Brian Crozier, recruited as East Asia correspondent in 1954 on the word of British intelligence contacts, and his protégé, Robert Moss, a buccaneering Cold War hack who later became an adviser to Mrs Thatcher. All three had close links to British and American intelligence; being on assignment for The Economist was an alibi for working for the CIA. According to the historian Hugh Brogan, who was on the staff for three years in the early 1960s, coverage of the Vietnam War was “pure CIA propaganda”. Reports hailing the success of South Vietnam were delivered with the obligatory puckish flourishes. “Rice can be exported once more. Farm taxes are down. Education, sanitation and health have been greatly improved [and] the great mass of the people, neither hungry nor profoundly interested in western concepts of philosophical liberalism and parliamentary democracy, are non-communist.” Under Beedham’s direction The Economist supported Suharto in Indonesia (and his invasion of East Timor), excused the US occupation of the Dominican Republic and was consistently anti-Allende in Chile. Here, its correspondent Robert Moss dovetailed negative despatches from Santiago with work for a CIA caucus group plotting Allende’s downfall from inside the US embassy and articles for a magazine appealing to the Chilean military where “An English Recipe for Chile – Military Control” was one of his cover stories shortly before Pinochet’s coup in September 1973. When news of Allende’s death broke, Moss danced down the corridor in The Economist shouting “My enemy is dead.” Before he went to work for Mrs Thatcher in 1980 he wrote many more scaremongering articles warning of communist subversion in Portugal, South Africa and Northern Ireland while continuing to moonlight on projects such as editing a magazine for the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Barbara Smith, an editor who often opposed the pro-American line, maintained that The Economist “accepted in a general way that European empires had had their day” but Zevin does not find the evidence to support this. “The notion that after 1945 The Economist accepted the end of empire in a general way is unsustainable.”
The new strain of imperial cheerleading was to back American wars overseas. By the 1970s this transatlantic love affair had been transformed into a business model. Although The Economist had been publishing an American Survey since 1941, it was the editorship of Alistair Burnett, the ITV news anchor appointed in 1964, that cemented its veneration of US leadership and culture and made Americans its most important target readership. Under Burnett’s successor, Andrew Knight, circulation rose from 27,500 to 125,000 between 1977 and 1986 with most of the growth in the United States. Ronald Reagan invited Knight to dinner to thank him for his support; Reagan’s secretary of state George Schultz and Henry Kissinger were intimate advisers and sounding boards for editorial policy.
In the centenary book in 1943 explaining how social concerns now had to become part of liberalism because of popular pressure, Crowther had offered an immediate qualification to the turn towards the extreme centre: “If events prove that restrictionism and monopoly are organically inseparable from Government intervention in the economic field, then it will be the duty of The Economist to that extent to swing back towards the purest individualism.” This shift began in the 1970s with full-throttle laments over British decline. The paper wanted what became known as Thatcherism but was slow to be convinced that Mrs Thatcher was the saviour who would lead the way. By the mid-1980s it was fully on board. In the 1990s, when Bill Emmott took over as editor, the term a “woolly-headed liberal” was an insult in The Economist office. Emmott endorsed Tony Blair with a cover featuring Thatcher’s head photo shopped onto Blair’s body and the headline “Vote Conservative”. To keep up its reputation for contrarian shocks The Economist suggested that the monarchy be abolished and endorsed gay marriage and the legalisation of drugs. But it rejoiced that the world had returned once again to a liberal regime. In 1999 Emmott visited James Wilson’s forgotten burial place in Kolkata, where the graveyard record noted that he had been “expressly sent from England to restore order to the finances of India”. When he left in 2006 he noted how the world had come to fulfil Wilson’s nineteenth century vision of a free trade paradise, making “his principles more relevant than ever … globalisation … would bring delight to Wilson’s eyes”.
A modern-day Keynes might well cast Emmott in 2006 in the same light as the author of The General Theory imagined the London gentleman with the world at his beck and call in 1913. The 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, Trump’s election and now the Covid pandemic have called into question the equilibrium of The Economist’s perfect world. After the 2008 meltdown the paper sheepishly conceded that it was “time to put dogma and politics to one side and concentrate on pragmatic answers”. By 2012 it was supporting austerity, suggesting the NHS should not be protected from cuts and running a cover proclaiming “Save the City!” But the combination of Brexit and Trump has, in the words of a former senior editor interviewed by Zevin, plunged The Economist into an identity crisis. “For thirty years it captured the zeitgeist but the zeitgeist seems to have moved on.” In the past, it may have toyed with the shock value of supporting Trump, but now it finds itself part of the mainstream. The current editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, is “a small government Keynesian” in search of a new version of the extreme centre.
The American journalist Irving Kristol defined a neoconservative as a liberal who had been mugged by reality. Although “liberal” is a synonym for “left-wing” in the United States, The Economist has acknowledged that a similar transformation has occurred when its principles have been put into practice. Its article on race published in July pointed out how European liberals – including its own editors ‑ opposed slavery but supported tyrannical colonial rule overseas. It even quoted the American political scientist Uday Sing Mehta, who has suggested that liberal theory and its actual history “are ships passing in the night”. Zevin argues that the ideas developed by The Economist in its analysis of the material world since the mid-nineteenth century provide a unique portrait of the most powerful strain of “actually existing liberalism” as opposed to the pieties of political conversation. Its enduring benchmarks have been the virtue of capitalism and the exigencies of empire. In a striking phrase, Zevin refers to “the unshakeable permanence of the imperial core of The Economist’s outlook” when describing the current editor’s instinct to trust the US to do the right thing in the end. What of liberals who are critical of imperialism? He acknowledges that occasionally, such as during Donald Tyerman’s editorship in the 1950s, The Economist began “asking probing questions and sometimes came up with surprising answers” ‑ before always performing a course correction. Perhaps these deviations could have been explored in a little more depth; their example and not the fusty rehash of James Wilson’s creed may be the way to preserve the magazine’s vitality.
Maurice Walsh is the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-1923 and teaches history at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is working on a book about Graham Greene and the twentieth century.