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books The Economist: Cosmo for Capitalists

A deep read into the history of the classically liberal Economist, the book under review shows a magazine fronting for empire building, militarism and the triumph of finance capital.

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Verso Books,

‘How​ do you write like the Economist?’ a new member of staff asked as he began to compose his first leading article for the paper some years ago. ‘Pretend you are God,’ a senior colleague replied. Given that the deity tends not to comment directly on current affairs these days, the anxious recruit may have struggled to put this advice into practice. Browsing leaders from the previous couple of decades might have yielded a more concrete sense of what was wanted. It would appear that omniscience is one attribute of the God-like perspective; absence of self-doubt is another. Then there is a lapidary style leavened by the obiter dicta of powerful individuals, plus a tendency to reiterate a few stern commandments, which one might imagine as: ‘Thou shalt not inhibit economic growth.’ ‘Thou shalt not be parochial.’ ‘Thou shalt not worship false gods – and don’t pretend thou knowest not the ones we mean.’


Liberalism at Large: The World According to the ‘Economist’ 
by Alexander Zevin
Verso Books, 544 pages
Hardback, $27.96 with free e-book
November 12, 2019
ISBN: 9781781686249


In recent decades the divine model has served the paper exceptionally well. On remarkable sales of just under 1.5 million copies, in 2017 the Economist generated operating profits of £54 million alongside its subsidiary enterprises, despite being part of an industry where increasingly large losses are already the norm (though print sales have since fallen back somewhat and advertising revenue has declined sharply). And its readers seem to include many, perhaps most, of those who, given their wealth or power, have decisive influence on the world’s future. Certainly, it appears to continue to enjoy special access to such people. The globe’s political and business leaders pay the paper their ultimate compliment: they take an Economist journalist’s call. In Britain, the editor has traditionally been among those given a private briefing by the chancellor of the Exchequer the day after a new budget is presented. At some points in its history, it may have seemed like a cross between the Spectator and the Banker, at others an amalgam of Time and Investors’ Chronicle, but it now has a unique position in the global media landscape that can be expressed as follows: if you want to know what’s happening in the world, read the New York Times. If you want to know what’s wrong with what’s happening in the world, read the Guardian. If you want to know what’s going to happen next in the world (unless tinpot leftists wreck everything), read the Economist. After all, omniscience extends to the future, too, the one period of time that investors are really interested in.

Nothing about the Economist’s beginnings could have suggested that it would ever ascend to such dizzy heights. In the course of the agitation against the Corn Laws in the early 1840s, the movement’s leaders, Richard Cobden and John Bright, gave encouragement to a proposal by a young Scotsman, James Wilson, to set up a weekly newspaper that would argue for the cause of free trade. But Wilson had no intention of being a mouthpiece for the Anti-Corn Law League, insisting that his paper should be an independent voice. Launched in August 1843, it was initially entitled the Economist: or The Political, Commercial, Agricultural and Free Trade Journal. In its first year it attained a circulation of 1750 and was already proving its usefulness to men of business for its compilations of statistics about trade and investment. Within two years Wilson altered the subtitle to the Weekly Commercial Times, Bankers’ Gazette and Railway Monitor, a Political, Literary and General Newspaper, signalling its growing ambition. Wilson’s own fanatical attachment to laissez-faire didn’t prevent him from becoming an MP and accepting government office, rising to be financial secretary to the Treasury and paymaster general by the end of the 1850s. He also managed to combine laissez-faire at home with bellicose intervention abroad, vigorously supporting the Crimean War in 1854. This led to a final break with Cobden and Bright, who opposed all such military adventurism and so came in for fierce criticism from the paper. ‘I never see the Economist,’ Cobden answered when asked what he thought of its latest editorial broadside, ‘though I have it on my conscience that I was mainly concerned in starting it. It was always a dull stupid paper even when it was honest. But to read sophistical arguments in no better style than Wilson’s is a task I would not condemn a dog to.’ This less than ringing endorsement by one of the Economist’s godparents seems not to have been representative of opinion among the commercial and financial class, who – while they may not have agreed with all of Wilson’s political crotchets – found his publication a fount of useful information: a discriminating response perhaps repeated among subsequent generations of readers.

The history of the Economist has been partially obscured or distorted by the personal standing of its most famous editor, Walter Bagehot, in charge from 1861 to 1877. ‘Bagehot and the Economist are inextricably fused,’ Ruth Dudley Edwards declared in the paper’s official history, published in 1993, and the Economist has never been slow to celebrate the connection. Bagehot got a foot in the door by marrying one of Wilson’s daughters; the fact that he was a banker by profession also gave him standing with men of business, and his tenure saw closer links forged with the City of London. But the truth is that the high posthumous reputation of Bagehot’s writings owed rather little to his role as editor and, conversely, the best-known of those writings were not representative of the paper’s contents. Indeed, when Bagehot himself wanted to write at length about the large questions that exercised the Victorian intellectual elite he did so in the pages of major cultural journals such as the Fortnightly Review or the National Review rather than in his own paper. Still, his growing literary standing can have done the Economist no harm: the paper’s circulation averaged 3500 copies in the later years of his editorship.

In the closing decades of the 19th century the paper was much exercised about the security of British investments abroad and Gladstone’s increasing radicalism at home, both issues encouraging it to support the Conservatives in the last four general elections of the century. But in 1907 its links with the Liberal tradition were renewed by the appointment of F.W. Hirst as editor. In the era of ‘the New Liberalism’, Hirst was an unrepentant old Liberal, a stern advocate of the Cobdenite creed of free trade, peace, retrenchment and reform. While upholding the principles of ‘sound finance’ in a way that pleased City bankers, Hirst denounced profiteering and the corrupting influence of speculators such as Cecil Rhodes. This quirky mix of principles was to set Hirst apart from the great majority of his Liberal associates in 1914, since he vehemently opposed Britain’s entry into the war and thereafter criticised its conduct and called for a negotiated peace. In the jingoist atmosphere of the early years of the war this stance did not win the paper friends in high places: Hirst was forced to resign in 1916, unrepentant to the last. (Ultimate responsibility for such decisions lay with the board of trustees, a body initially dominated by Wilson’s descendants and latterly by City grandees.) Hirst’s editorship is one indication that the paper has not always kowtowed to official policy; his removal from his post may suggest that there were limits beyond which such dissent could not be allowed to go.

Too-easy assumptions about the Economist’s consistently conservative political profile are also challenged in fruitful ways by considering the paper’s development under Walter Layton, one of its most influential editors. Layton had already seen considerable public service before he was appointed editor in 1922. In the interwar years (he remained editor until 1938), he moved easily in the country’s higher political and administrative circles – he was especially prominent in official initiatives to promote international co-operation – and during his time as editor of the Economist he also served as chairman of the leading Liberal daily, the News Chronicle. One of the many talents of this capable yet oddly bloodless man was an ability to spot talent in others, and he made a series of appointments which gave the Economist the wide-ranging intellectual heft it had hitherto lacked. His star signing was the historian Arnold Toynbee, who wrote a leading article and two or three notes practically every week between 1922 and 1939. But Layton also appointed younger figures, several of whom, such as Douglas Jay, a future Labour minister, and Graham Hutton, who had been a student of Harold Laski’s at the LSE, embraced progressive ideas and agitated for the paper to take a sympathetic view of alternatives to the insular conservatism of the Baldwin years.

The Economist’s enhanced, if also more radical, profile under Layton did not please all its powerful backers, but the terms in which one member of staff responded to such grumblings are revealing of the changes in the paper’s standing. Far from its editor’s public activities damaging the paper, Aylmer Vallance argued, ‘in the past few years the Economist has become no longer, as it once was, a staid and colourless City weekly, made up largely of “routine” articles, but a very definite “organ of opinion” associated throughout the world with the name of an editor who is not so much a journalist as an international public man.’ The emphasis here on the international dimension was justified: circulation doubled to 10,000 during Layton’s reign, half of it overseas. At the same time, large sections of the paper still seemed to consist of the higher trainspotting for financial nerds, the front page carrying a detailed listing of contents under such gripping headings as ‘A Pending Cement Merger’ or ‘Another Tin Buffer Pool?’ It was far removed from the large glossy magazine that is today not just a staple of executive reading the world over, but also something of a style guide for high net worth individuals – Cosmopolitan for the capital-owning classes.

The modern​ history of the Economist begins with the appointment of Alastair Burnet as editor in 1965. Under his predecessor, Donald Tyerman, the paper had opposed the Suez adventure in 1956 and endorsed Harold Wilson’s Labour Party at the general election of 1964, but Burnet, an ITV news anchor, didn’t encourage such heresies, positioning the paper as strongly pro-Tory. More important, it became an enthusiastic champion of the US, fully committed to the Cold War and whatever measures Washington decided were necessary to prosecute it, as well as a frank admirer of American capitalism (having made more cautious moves in this direction under the long editorship of Geoffrey Crowther between 1938 and 1956). In 1965, an article proclaimed the US ‘the most internationally responsible country in the world’, at a time when, as Alexander Zevin points out in Liberalism at Large, it was demonstrating this responsibility by stepping up its bombing of North Vietnam while also sending 42,000 marines into the Dominican Republic. Burnet, with a TV man’s feel for the visual, produced more eyecatching covers and began the transition from a sober if dull journal of economic and financial record to the must-have status accessory of today. In the nine years of his editorship the circulation increased by 60 per cent to 123,000.

In 1974, Burnet was succeeded by Andrew Knight, a print journalist who had enjoyed a meteoric career on the paper, becoming editor at 34. Knight set his sights on conquering the US market, blitzing the country with catchy adverts. He also nurtured the glamour and revelled in the access his position gave him to the leaders of the free world: ‘I could go to the White House anytime I wanted,’ he boasted. By the time his successor, Rupert Pennant-Rea, left the editor’s chair in 1993 to be deputy governor of the Bank of England (yet another affirmation of the paper’s intimate links with the City), circulation had shot up to 530,000, around 80 per cent of it now outside the UK. The Economist was surfing the giant wave of capital unleashed by deregulation and the ‘Big Bang’ of the 1980s. By 2006, when the next editor, Bill Emmott, stood down, circulation had doubled again. In 2014 print sales topped 1.5 million, and though they fell back somewhat in subsequent years, the highly priced electronic edition has helped to compensate. The paper’s own research suggests that, outside the UK and the US (where the median household income of its readers is higher even than that of the Wall Street Journal), one in three of its readers is a millionaire.

Given this success, it would be easy to write the paper off as the too-pliant handmaiden of capital, but part of its strength has lain in the way it has retained an independent and not always predictable voice. Vigorous debate at editorial meetings has been encouraged, and powerful section editors have at times exercised considerable independence: it has not been unknown for articles in different sections of the paper to express significantly divergent views. Moreover, though the tradition of anonymity may seem to encourage a certain homogeneity of tone, in practice it has allowed for both argument and co-operation among staff in ways not common at more byline-conscious publications. As one of the paper’s former political editors wryly noted, under this system ‘co-operation replaces competition and – rather contrary to Economist editorial philosophy – it turns out that co-operation can produce a better product than competition.’ In the past the atmosphere in the Economist offices has been compared to that of a university common room (when there used to be such things), a comparison encouraged by the fact that so many of the staff, including six of the last seven editors, went to Oxford. Change of a kind is signalled by the fact that the most recent of these, Zanny Minton Beddoes, is the first woman to occupy the role.

Writing​ the history of any periodical is inevitably a messy business. Changes in style, policy, editors, ownership and so on mean that it isn’t always clear whether there is an enduring entity beyond the mere title. The range of contributors makes it hard to extract a consistent line or position, and all attempts to characterise the readership or estimate the influence of such publications are notoriously fraught. In recent decades there has been a lot of scholarly work on the history of periodicals, work that has struggled with these difficulties without altogether overcoming them.

Perhaps the most common, though also the dullest, model is the company history. This sticks close to the organisation’s own archives, concentrates on the idiosyncrasies of editors and contributors, and doesn’t ask uncomfortable questions. It’s the kind of history which, ominously, the chairman of the board can heartily recommend at a reception to mark some significant anniversary (Ruth Dudley Edwards’s thousand-page tombstone, produced for the 150th anniversary and cringingly titled The Pursuit of Reason, cleaves to this model with depressing fidelity). Then there is the attempt to use the periodical to illuminate a phase of intellectual history. This can work well for relatively short-lived journals with strong editors and a clear identity, though even in those cases features that don’t yield the right kind of evidence tend to be ignored. More recently, there have been sophisticated attempts to place a periodical in a network or economy of parallel and competing publications, exploring the dynamics of a field and the cultural logic governing the production of various kinds of media.

Zevin’s book corresponds to none of these models. In fact, it is not, strictly speaking, a history of the Economist. It contains relatively little about the inner workings of the paper or about questions of ownership, production, marketing, readership and so on. It would be more accurate to say that Liberalism at Large charts aspects of some of the major policy debates of the past century and half, mainly in the UK but latterly in the US as well, as refracted through the prism of articles in the paper, editorials especially. It offers a series of well-documented contributions to the intellectual history of political argument, the most detailed focusing on Britain in the late 19th century and early 20th. And it does so from a critical perspective, determinedly viewing the Economist as ‘a continuous and unified project’, emphasising its sustained and culpable resistance to the spread of democracy, engagement with the ever growing power of finance and endorsement of empire – formal and informal.

Zevin has a sharp eye for some of the paper’s more questionable recommendations and endorsements, and has read assiduously in both primary and secondary published sources, though it is difficult to understand why he has put nearly all his quotations from such sources, many of them lengthy, into baggy endnotes rather than in the main text. As a political indictment – Zevin is on the editorial committee of New Left Review – his book is a stirring read (‘The result of following the Economist’s prescriptions,’ he writes of the Irish Famine of the 1840s, ‘was a utopian social experiment on par [sic] with the better-known holocausts of the 20th century’). But as a work of history it has two problematic features. The first is that he tends to arraign figures in the past for failing to live up to the most progressive standards of the present. His treatment of Bagehot provides a troubling instance. Bagehot, a teasing, playful writer, was no zealot for any cause: in 1851, long before he became editor of the Economist, he welcomed the coup by Louis Napoléon on the grounds that the French were a people so volatile, so given to abstraction and overheating, that they were not fit to manage any form of representative democracy and needed the smack of firm government to maintain a modicum of stability. It was in the course of these early articles that Bagehot threw out the idea that ‘the essential mental quality for a free people, whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent and on a large scale ... is much stupidity,’ which the French lack, adding in his best provocative manner: ‘I need not say that, in real sound stupidity, the English are unrivalled.’ Bagehot’s two-edged ironies can instructively be set alongside other, more ponderous Victorian appeals to the idea of national character, but it is less clear that they can be used to illustrate some abiding affinity with authoritarian governments on the part of the Economist. Or, again, Bagehot was certainly not an enthusiast for some of what were generally regarded as the wilder political fantasies of the day, such as universal adult suffrage. Expressing the Whig notion of representing interests rather than numbers, he and others looked for ways to prevent thoughtful opinion being outweighed by ignorant emotion. This confident Whiggism may not be all the rage today, but Bagehot was not unusual in the 1850s and 1860s in taking for granted that some form of limited franchise was preferable, and it seems a stretch to put him forward as a prize piece of evidence for the paper’s persistently anti-democratic stance.

The book’s main, and perhaps related, limitation derives from its central ambition to deploy the history of the paper to illuminate the trajectory of something Zevin calls ‘liberalism’. This is a swamp that has already claimed any number of scholarly lives. The term has been thrown around in such various and contested ways that it has become more or less unusable unless one specifies temporal and geographical boundaries quite closely. Confusion is bound to follow if one deploys it as a transtemporal category signifying, roughly, ‘not socialism’; American readers, in particular, may squint quizzically at this usage given that ‘liberal’ is the label often applied in the US to progressive and redistributive policies. Zevin is too intelligent a writer not to be aware of the slipperiness of the term, but his attempt to escape the coils of definitional purity by concentrating on what he calls ‘actually existing liberalism’ is doomed to fail. There simply isn’t enough substantive continuity between the politics of 1840s Britain and the world in the early 21st century for one to be able to extract a consistent line followed by the paper. Yes, the Economist has, broadly speaking, displayed a tendency to support capital, encourage markets, accept empire, and deploy a rhetoric of realism, but it has hardly been alone in that, nor has it ever been univocal in its more specific interventions. More tellingly, nothing is gained by labelling this loose congeries of attitudes ‘liberalism’ and arguing that a commitment to that ideology has been the animating force in the paper’s history. Its characteristic pragmatism may not have been limitless, but its contours have been more shifting and uneven than such pigeonholing allows for.

The difficulties generated by Zevin’s strategy are illuminated from another angle by considering some of the figures who have been among the Economist’s major targets over the years – Cobden and Bright in the 1840s and 1850s, Gladstone in the 1880s and 1890s, Keynes in the 1920s and 1930s. In each case, the reasons for the paper’s criticisms are understandable, and it is also true that each of these figures attracted more than their share of controversy, including attacks from some who might, on other grounds, have been considered natural allies. Even so, there is something badly wrong with an overarching category of ‘liberalism’, presented as the constitutive ideology of the paper, which ends up being deployed against those who would have been seen by contemporaries as among the most prominent representatives of what they would have understood by ‘liberalism’. As an organising category, it risks encompassing either too much or too little.

Zevin’s account also makes it hard to understand why so many discriminating readers around the world have taken, and continue to take, the Economist so seriously. It isn’t just because it has been a champion of markets or a megaphone for US foreign policy (its record has in any case been more varied than that): a number of other publications have followed those lines without being anywhere near as successful. It surely has something to do with the fact that the paper provides more intelligent, more independent and better-informed analysis of global developments, couched in a punchy yet authoritative tone, than can be so easily or regularly accessed anywhere else. Auditing the paper’s history in terms of the views it has expressed on the headline political issues of the day makes for a readable indictment, but it undersells what has been most distinctive as well as what has, quite possibly, been of most value to the majority of its readers over the years. Many of them, one suspects, have not read it in order to be told why, say, Thatcher was preferable to Kinnock or why Saddam Hussein had to be dispossessed of his (alleged) weapons of mass destruction. More likely, they have turned to its in-depth articles about the prospects for various sectors of the global economy, or about trends that will remake the markets of the future, or about the shifting demographics that will doom a product, an industry or a government in one country and not another – that’s to say, the bread-and-butter pieces of detailed reporting and analysis that don’t lend themselves to an easy retrospective indictment of ‘right-wing’ positions.

It may be satisfying, though it isn’t terribly surprising, to find that the Economist has mostly come down on the side of capital in the major political conflicts of the past. More interesting would be to try to understand why its everyday content has come to be seen as reliable and indispensable where that of dozens of lesser publications which broadly share its politics has not. God may be criticised for having somewhat authoritarian views, and His position on issues such as gender, science and punishment may not pass muster in the most enlightened circles. But even if one does not believe all the propaganda, He has surely been unusually influential, and He is, undeniably, a one-off. Writing like Him is a neat trick and it would be good to show how it’s done.


Book author Alexander Zevin is an Assistant Professor of History at City University of New York and an Editor at New Left Review. 

[Essayist Stefan Collini is Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University and Fellow of the British Academy. He is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, and the Nation, and he has been described by a reviewer as “one of Britain’s finest essayists and writers.” Other works include Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate, What Are Universities For?, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, and English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture. His The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism has just appeared in paperback.]