books Whose Liberalism? Critiquing The Economist
The Economist is such a ubiquitous fixture of the global media that it is hard to appreciate how unusual it is.
A weekly magazine—or, as it prefers to call itself, a “newspaper”—with a huge global reach, it combines analytical longform journalism with an explicit political line. Where other publications might require tricky discursive analysis to decode the implicit biases that give their texts a distinctive ideological hue, the Economist has long told its readers exactly where it is coming from. Each issue opens with a series of editorials that review the issues of the day through the prism of a strong commitment to market liberalism and an aversion to protectionism, socialism, and isolationism. This underlying philosophical outlook is not absent from the subsequent pages of (anonymously authored) reportage and commentary. In this respect the Economist is more like a journal of the socialist left than other conventional news outlets that faithfully project the verities and fears of the established order without acknowledging their theoretical commitments.
While its foundational political theory is one feature of the Economist that sets it apart from analogous weekly publications such as Newsweek or Time, a second is that it is edited from London. It is a British media brand of world significance, a living monument to Britain’s historical role as the pioneer of capitalism and the unique place of the City of London in the global economy (and of course to the privileged status of English language publication in the twentieth century).
By Alexander Zevin
Verso Books; 544 pages
Hardback: $34.95, with free ebook, $34.95 ($17.48, 50% off)
November 12, 2019;
Alexander Zevin has therefore selected a wonderful subject to write about in his new book Liberalism At Large: The World According to the Economist. Analyzing a publication that is for the most part authored anonymously poses certain technical challenges for the historian, but Zevin has undertaken a tremendous amount of research to reconstruct the internal editorial life of the newspaper and the authorship of individual articles. The result is, on one level, a brilliant narrative of the Economist as a publication, following the rise and fall of editors, journalists, and owners, and at another level, a compelling intellectual history of the liberal ideas that the newspaper has historically drawn on, reshaped, and amplified.
Zevin is a historian and also one of the editors of New Left Review. His book follows in that journal’s tradition of never knowingly letting centrist liberals off the hook for their complicity in the myriad crimes of imperialism and capitalism. Zevin’s charge sheet is certainly a lengthy and persuasive one as far as the contents of the Economist go. But, by the end of the book, there is room for disagreement about whether Zevin is able to make all of the charges stick when he extends his argument beyond the Economist as a historically specific publication to make a wider claim about the liberal tradition as a whole.
The Economist was founded by the Scottish businessman and banker James Wilson in 1843. Wilson established the Economist to campaign for free trade just as the question of whether to repeal the Corn Laws became central to British politics. The Corn Laws protected British agriculture from foreign competitors by levying tariffs on grain imports, but it became a totemic issue that ran far beyond the technicalities of that particular policy to encompass wider disputes about industrialisation, consumer interests, and internationalism.
The forces of free trade duly triumphed with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, but Wilson was able to parlay the newspaper’s initial positioning on this issue into a publication that offered its readers a bracing market liberalism characterised by unyielding resistance to labor market regulation, state provision of public goods, and franchise expansion. The magazine’s third editor (and James Wilson’s son-in-law), Walter Bagehot, was the figure most responsible for crafting the Economist’s worldview. Bagehot originally wanted to become a Liberal MP but lost four separate elections—on the third occasion by only seven votes. Instead he became a famous Victorian Liberal sage, still renowned today for his economic and constitutional commentaries.
Bagehot carefully shepherded the Economist to its almost preordained place as an eloquent advocate for the ascendant Liberal Party of the 1860s and 1870s. While Bagehot remained unconvinced of the merits of an overly permissive expansion of the franchise and wrote extensively instead about the merits of a British constitution that granted great power to the House of Commons and strong Cabinet government, he indulged in some more radical thinking in his writings on economics. Struck by the vulnerability of the British economy to financial crises in the 1860s, Bagehot used the pages of the Economist to agitate for a more interventionist model of central banking in which the Bank of England would act as a lender of last resort. Bagehot’s Economist (and preferred model of economic liberalism) was therefore well placed to ally with the growing British financial services sector based in London while also offering firm support to any exercise of British military force deemed necessary to expand investment markets in Asia and Africa.
All of this might suggest a rather predictable narrative arc for the rest of the book. But Zevin shows that the subsequent story of the Economist’s editorial line is in fact more complicated than this initial starting point suggests. Zevin finds the Economist’s “actually existing liberalism” notable precisely because it sought to advance beyond the parameters of classical liberal doctrine. As he tells it, the Economist engaged decisively with three crucial challenges to libertarian ideals in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the enfranchisement of the working class, the clash of rival imperialisms, and the new financialized capitalism that gradually assumed control of the global economy.
One surprising twist in Zevin’s story is that in the twentieth century, the Economist was not always a trenchant exponent of untrammelled market forces, nor even a particularly early advocate of neoliberalism during the 1970s. Indeed, although Zevin does not exactly say this, his close scrutiny of the newspaper’s editorial stance suggests a publication with a decided preference for shifting course with the prevailing wind.
In the 1900s, for example, British liberalism famously embraced the politics of social welfare as leading liberal theorists and politicians sought to give the Liberal Party a more redistributive policy profile in keeping with the new mass working class (though still entirely male) electorate. As Zevin points out, the Economist played its part in this ideological refurbishment under the editorship of Francis Hirst. In some ways Hirst was an unlikely tribune of social liberalism insofar as his early writings offered a classical exposition of the benefits of free trade and fiscal retrenchment. But he was also a fierce critic of expansionist British imperialism. Hirst’s opposition to the 1899–1902 Boer War drew him into an alliance with social liberal theorists such as Leonard Hobhouse and John Hobson.
Taking up the Economist’s editorship in 1907—shortly after the Liberal Party had returned to office in a landslide election victory in 1906—Hirst positioned the newspaper as a supporter of that government’s expansion of employment and health insurance as well as of its confrontational decision to increase direct taxation on the wealthy. According to Zevin, the Economist’s allotted role in these struggles was to persuade the City and financial opinion that social reform measures could be pursued within the confines of orthodox budgetary management.
Later, under the editorships of Walter Layton and Geoffrey Crowther, the Economist of the 1930s and 1940s expressed a qualified acceptance of Keynesian ideas. William Beveridge’s famous 1942 report on social services—the foundational document of a universal welfare state in Britain—was given a warm welcome by the newspaper as “one of the most remarkable state documents ever drafted.” In fact, the Economist’s Keynesian commitments made it initially resistant to monetarism and the broader market liberal arguments that laid down firm roots in the right-wing press in Britain and around the world from the early 1970s onwards. The Economist’s principal writer on economics in this period, Norman Macrae, shared with many neoliberals a robust critique of the postwar British state’s economic strategy. But unlike many of the journalists and intellectual outriders who would flock to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Macrae remained a believer in full employment as a policy goal. The Economist thus published increasingly baroque economic commentaries that tried to combine Keynesian and neoliberal remedies, culminating in a surprisingly equivocal endorsement of Thatcher’s (successful) Conservative Party in the 1979 general election.
In due time the Economist learned from its mistake. Over the course of the 1980s it emerged as one of the staunchest media allies of the new neoliberal policy agenda popularized by Thatcher and Reagan. The newspaper dutifully elected to go down with the ship in 1997 when it endorsed the Conservative Party, even as Tony Blair’s New Labour swept into power offering a fresh historic compromise between Thatcherism and social democracy. In short, the Economist has repeatedly reflected prevailing orthodoxies rather than challenging them, and it has not always been adept at spotting the right moment to jump from one piece of conventional wisdom to the next.
This does not seem to be the point that Zevin wants to make, but with respect to domestic economic and social policy, it is fair to say that the Economist has historically been an intellectually derivative publication. Historians looking to narrate the war of ideas in which new approaches to state intervention and then economic liberalization gained intellectual ascendancy would not, on this showing, necessarily turn to the Economist as a key operational theater.
It is in the field of international relations and, in particular, the question of empire that Zevin finds a more consistent ideological shape to the Economist’s journalism. During a speech at his 2012 retirement party, for example, the longstanding foreign editor, Johnny Grimond, noted that during his forty-year tenure the Economist “never saw a war it didn’t like.” Wilson and Bagehot created a newspaper that firmly supported Britain as an imperial power, envisaging the Economist as an explicit counterweight to those strands of British liberalism that saw free trade as an alternative to conquest and war with rival powers. Under Hirst the Economist briefly tacked toward this less militaristic stance. After the outbreak of World War One the newspaper managed two years of forensic criticism of the War’s destructive impact on liberal and humanitarian principles before its trustees could take no more and dismissed Hirst in order to clear the way for a more enthusiastically pro-war editor.
The crucial turning point in Zevin’s book is the Economist’s take on the fall of British imperialism and the rise of the new Western geopolitical order underpinned by American might after 1945. The mid-twentieth century saw an uneasy transition between an editorial line that clung to some illusions about Britain’s new status in world affairs and a more clear-eyed acceptance of U.S. leadership. The 1956 Suez crisis—when the United States unceremoniously halted the attempt by Britain and France to seize back the recently nationalized Suez Canal from Egypt—seems to have been one key moment in reorienting the Economist’s view of geopolitics and clarifying where power really lay in the postwar world (as it was for many figures in the British elite). The Economist took a strong line against the enterprise from the start, in part because it was an act of unwarranted military aggression, but crucially also because it jeopardized the Anglo-American alliance.
Zevin depicts Alastair Burnet, Economist editor from 1965 until 1974, as the pivotal figure in confirming the newspaper’s Atlanticist turn. While Zevin paints vivid portraits of the personalities behind the Economist’s anonymous prose throughout the book, his profiles of the staff after the 1960s are particularly illuminating. Burnet—who, remarkably, combined the editor’s day job with a role as anchor of a nightly news bulletin on ITV—presided over a generational change in the newspaper’s staff that aligned it more clearly with the Cold War and Conservative politics. In those years, a new type of Economist journalist came to the fore, usually drawn from elite British universities (as in previous years) but now socialized into a more American frame of reference.
This was often a result of Economist journalists studying or working in the United States at a formative moment in their lives, but it also reflected the more general cultural prestige of the United States in Britain after World War Two. This “Americanization” of the British elite encompassed media outlets and politicians across the ideological spectrum, but in the case of the Economist we confront the intriguing spectacle of U.S. Cold War liberalism being expertly repackaged by British writers and sold back to an admiring American audience. Under Burnet’s leadership, for example, the Economist was a great advocate of the Vietnam War, chiding the British government for failing to offer more active military support to the United States’s war effort. More generally, during the 1960s and 1970s the Economist’s pages came to purvey a grim Cold War realism that simply backed every play of the United States, regardless of whether this involved sponsorship of regimes that ignored the Economist’s liberal principles, such as Suharto’s Indonesia, or demanded external intervention into elected governments deemed too far to the left, such as Salvador Allende’s Chile.
Like the Beatles, who absorbed American musical traditions and then exported a revitalised version of them back to the United States, the Economist made it big across the Atlantic by writing original material that was nonetheless rooted in recognizable American idioms. In the Economist’s case it was the late 1970s and 1980s when sales really took off in the United States. Today, Zevin reports, about half of the newspaper’s circulation can be found in the United States and Canada—some 850,000 copies. Yet there is a twist to this story of an Economist staff increasingly attracted to the merits of the U.S. model in that it also seems clear that the staff itself has often been more politically diverse than the newspaper’s editorial line might lead one to believe. Zevin quotes an anonymous “senior editor” who intriguingly told him that in recent decades “the editor’s role has been to pull a center, or even center-left staff, to the right.” Zevin doesn’t make very much of this—he presumably sees such ideological distinctions in the center of politics as relatively unimportant—but it does underline that the Economist’s desire to project a corporate view has made it averse even to expressing the full range of opinion among its staff. The Financial Times, by contrast, has sponsored far more diverse analyses of contemporary capitalism in recent years.
The larger argument of Zevin’s book is that a close reading of the Economist tells us what liberalism is really like as an operational ideology as opposed to a set of abstract political principles. This is not necessarily because he sees the Economist as representative of the broad liberal tradition; Zevin meticulously acknowledges the complex varieties of liberal ideology over the last two centuries. Rather, it is because he thinks the Economist has simply been much more influential in propagating its preferred variant of liberalism than other liberal publications or thinkers.
The Economist, he argues, uniquely combines historical longevity, access to elite decision-makers and opinion-formers, and a much higher global circulation than any rival publication (with over 1.5 million print or digital copies sold per week). As Zevin concludes, “In considering that success, ideas have mattered most.” In other words, the Economist brand has succeeded because it has offered an authoritative practical guide to liberals seeking to navigate their way through the thorny policy dilemmas of a modernity that does not resemble an idealised classical individualism. But is this too idealist an account of the global ascent of the Economist? It is, perhaps, an impertinent question to ask of a book avowedly written in the Marxist tradition, but Zevin provides plenty of evidence to sustain a more materialist interpretation of the Economist’s history.
Here we encounter a final theme of the book: the long-running entanglement between the newspaper and the City of London. The Economist has been a consistent supporter of finance in general, but it rose to prominence as a commentator on, and doughty defender of, London’s burgeoning specialization in financial services such as banking, the stock market, and currency exchange. The apotheosis of this stance was reached after the 2008 financial crash when, as Zevin puts it, the Economist “acted as a kind of automatic stabilizer for a liberal ideological order suddenly racked with self-doubt.” While some advocates of capitalism were reflective about what the crisis revealed about the complex relationship between states and markets, the Economist (under the editorship of John Micklethwait, 2006–2014) instead leaned in to its traditional affinity with the City of London, emerging as a rather uncritical advocate of the producer interests of the international financial services sector. Indeed, the familiar critique that our economic system offers socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor was vividly illustrated by Economist editorials that demanded unqualified public subsidy for the banks followed by a regime of regressive public austerity to defray the costs.
The Economist has maintained this unyielding defense of financialized capitalism to the present. A recent issue summarized the doubts of some economists about how severely income and wealth inequalities have increased since the 1980s in order to cast doubt on the necessity of adopting radical new egalitarian policies such as Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. Better, the Economist insisted, to tackle such inequality as there may be through perennial market liberal panaceas such as stronger antitrust policies, the deregulation of entry to highly paid professions, and greater levels of high skilled immigration.
It is striking that the cultural weight of the Economist has grown exponentially since the 1980s—the very period in which global capitalism has made itself more dependent on growth from an expanding finance sector. Is the Economist therefore “liberalism at large,” or rather liberalism captured by the interests of the rich and powerful? Zevin draws the former conclusion, but some readers (this one included) will find the latter a more compelling reading of his findings. Either way, Zevin has written an important book that reaches far beyond the institutional history of one periodical to shine new light on the fraying ideological fabric of contemporary capitalism.
Book author Alexander Zevin is an assistant professor of History at City University of New York and an editor at New Left Review.
[Essayist Ben Jackson is associate professor of Modern History at Oxford University and co-editor of Political Quarterly.]
Donate to Boston Review. Help keep the review firewall-free. Boston Review aims to foster a flourishing democracy with an engaged public discussion of ideas. To advance our mission, we keep our content free and open on the Web. Please help to support that mission today with a tax-deductible donation. Go HERE to donate.