Vox Dei: James Wilson, founder of the Economist

What the Economist doesn’t tell you

The publication has a sublime—even smug—self-confidence in its elite liberal worldview. So how is it coping with our populist moment?
March 30, 2020

What is liberalism? It means and has meant many different things. We speak of market liberalism, social liberalism and cultural liberalism. Anti-clerical atheists have been liberals, as have reformist archbishops. In the US today, the “L-word” refers to anyone to the left of the Republican Party. John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, John Rawls and Margaret Thatcher are all reasonably identified as liberals. This polysemy has given liberalism great sway and it has also made it a convenient straw man. Conservatives, social democrats, Marxists and postcolonial thinkers have all defined themselves against liberalism. It has time and again been declared dead. But liberalism has an odd way of coming back. Before neo-liberalism there were “new liberals” like Leonard Hobhouse and John A Hobson. Indeed, as honest critics must acknowledge, so pervasive is liberalism’s influence that it is not obvious that we know how to think beyond its confines. How many of us today can imagine a legal system not based on individual rights? At a moment of crisis how many of us would opt for a revolutionary catastrophe over a Keynesian fix? How many of us would happily give up on the pleasures of the “freedom to choose”?

If you really want to pin liberalism down—and take it on—you need to find something or somebody that has a degree of coherence and continuity that also has some claim to encompass liberalism’s entire baggy history, but is also objectionable enough to be held safely at arm’s length. Take, for example, the Economist. Founded in 1843, it is one of the most enduring weekly political newspapers in the world—and one of the most influential. It is famously provocative, offering not so much investigative journalism as a resumé of important events laced with opinion. At times, its tone is facetious bordering on offensive: Top Wonk meets Top Gear. It is unashamedly elitist. It has a readership of 1.5m worldwide, recruited from among the most influential and affluent.

Take on the history of the Economist and you are tackling not armchair philosophical liberalism, but liberalism at work. This is the basic conceit of Alexander Zevin’s fascinating new history of the newspaper.

Zevin is a professor at the City University of New York. He is also one of the young guard of editors at New Left Review. NLR, the leading voice of what used to be called western Marxism, is still today one of the most vigilant critics of liberalism. Liberal luminaries like Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls, commentators like David Runciman and—full disclosure—the writer of this review, have all been subject to its critical attention. If Pravda was once read in the west as the mouthpiece of “actually existing socialism,” Zevin examines the Economist as the house organ of “actually existing liberalism.”

It is a formidable task. To read the complete run of the Economist would take a large part of a lifetime. To cut to the chase, Zevin sets aside the vast majority of the Economist’s actual reportage and focuses on the paper’s famous editorial pages. And, in particular, he singles out for attention three of liberalism’s neuralgic questions: democracy, finance and empire. In the course of the 20th century, we grew used to the synthesis of liberalism and democracy, of a liberal affirmation of national self-determination against empire, and an embrace of the radical freedom of money to circulate round the globe. But on all three counts, as Zevin shows, the track record of actually existing liberalism is mixed.

“The Economist has yet to see a war it does not like”

The Economist was founded by the liberal Scottish banker James Wilson as a mouthpiece of the movement for free trade. This was originally a broad church stretching from radicals like Richard Cobden and John Bright to the cotton interests of Manchester. But that coalition frayed as Wilson opposed assistance to Ireland during the famine and backed the authoritarian usurper Napoleon III following the 1848 revolution in France. By the 1850s, Wilson was doing battle with his erstwhile friends over his support for a war against Russia in the Crimea. This started a tradition. As one outspoken foreign editor remarked at his retirement from the newspaper, the Economist has yet to see a war it does not like. Again and again, spreading and defending the benefits of western liberalism has offered justification for imperial adventure.

All too often, democracy has come second to the rights of property and commerce. During the American Civil War, the Economist’s support for free trade meant sympathy for the slave-holding south. The cotton planters, unlike their Yankee industrialist opponents, were fundamentally dependent on export markets. Meanwhile, back home in Britain, the newspaper was far from enthusiastic about the expansion of the franchise. It was not until the early 20th century that it accommodated itself to democracy. And, even then, the question was what democracy meant in practice. Keeping economic policy out of the hands of the masses was all important. During the Cold War this dictated a hard line. In one of the most powerful chapters of the book, Zevin reconstructs the Economist’s unabashed role on the frontlines of anti-communism. After cheering on the murderous Suharto regime in Indonesia, the Economist also welcomed the bloody right-wing coup in Chile in 1973. When news of Marxist prime minister Salvador Allende’s suicide reached London, an editor cavorted through the Economist offices proclaiming “my enemy is dead.”

If there is one common point of attachment across the paper’s history, it is to the interests of global finance and the City of London, and the (often closely related) Bank of England. The third editor, Walter Bagehot, was the pre-eminent 19th-century theorist of central banking. As recently as 2008, Bagehot’s Lombard Street served as a manual for Ben Bernanke, the chair of the US Federal Reserve, during the financial crisis. So close was the connection that in the 1980s Rupert Pennant-Rea would serve first as editor of the newspaper and then as deputy governor of the Bank.

According to Zevin this is the algorithm of the Economist’s liberalism: a running commentary on world affairs that consistently invokes “sound economics” and the high-minded liberal values of individual rights and freedoms but in fact amounts to an apologia for the interests of finance, the propertied elite and their global power.

Superior: An Economist advert. Image: Economist advertising archives Superior: An Economist advert. Image: Economist advertising archives

Superior: An Economist advert. Image: Economist advertising archives

A critical history of this kind could easily be wearisome. In Zevin’s hands it is not. His history is both immensely informative about British politics and world affairs and immensely readable. One of the great successes of this book is its style. Zevin has found a way to write about the Economist in a manner that is authoritative without being hectoring, as well as being humorous without pandering to the Economist’s own glib witticisms.

In a sense, Zevin as political critic falls victim to his own success as a historian. One of the peculiarities of the Economist is that it cloaks its journalists in anonymity. Time and again, Zevin gets behind that veil. He names names and exposes the inner workings of the editorial offices. It makes for a colourful history. The gallery begins with the Dickensian figures of Wilson and Bagehot. It passes through a bohemian phase in the inter-war period under Walter Layton and Geoffrey Crowther, before reaching the threadbare mid century.

By the 1960s, Zevin’s cast begins to resemble the unattractive minor characters in a Le Carré novel. If you are looking for exponents of liberalism as the bromide of a down-at-heel ruling class, the 1960s Economist is a good place to start. It recruited in much the same way that the intelligence services used to. In recent decades, Magdalen College, Oxford has supplied a vastly disproportionate number of its journalists. Unsurprisingly, by the 1970s, if not before, its editorial line was frankly more conservative than liberal.

But at this point, Zevin’s own compelling portrait of the newspaper forces the question: whose liberalism is this? These men, and they are virtually all men in this history, are hardly representative of the much wider canvas of men and women, activists, journalists, politicians and teachers who have made claims in terms of liberalism. As Zevin’s history records, the vast majority of the Economist’s polemics have been against other liberals, starting with Cobden and Bright, by way of Keynes, all the way down to Milton Friedman, whose monetarism the Economist was late to espouse.

“But if Zevin is right that the Economist has consistently sided with empire, the elites and money, what does this tell us about liberalism?”

The divisions within liberalism extend to the newspaper itself. The job of the Economist’s senior editors has often been to put a solidly conservative spin on a range of opinions and reportage issuing from a newsroom that is far less doctrinaire. Serving as the quasi-official mouth-piece of the City of London, the Treasury and the Bank of England may have its perks. But it takes work to marshal the necessary facts and to hammer a collection of intelligent and independent minds into line.

Does the Economist ever learn? Zevin is far too fair-minded not to recognise the moments when its opinion shifted. In 1914, the newspaper took a bold and surprising stand against the war. By 1916 this had cost the editor, Francis Hirst, his job. In the interwar period, after arguing with Keynes over the gold standard and tariffs, the Economist came round to macro-economic management. By 1956 it was so jaundiced with empire and the Tory Party that it came out all guns blazing against the Suez debacle.

urrent editor Zanny Minton Beddoes, who identifies as a Keynesian urrent editor Zanny Minton Beddoes, who identifies as a Keynesian

Current editor Zanny Minton Beddoes, who identifies as a Keynesian. Photo:  GUY CORBISHLEY 

This was the moment in British history, between the 1930s and the 1960s, in which the engagement between liberalism and the left was at its most productive. It was the moment that gave us modern economic government and the welfare state. It was the moment also out of which the new left was born with its amalgam of Marxism, social democracy and cultural liberalism. For many, that moment continues and still constitutes the best hope of progressive politics. But, as far as the Economist was concerned, it did not last. Disillusionment with the British Empire was replaced by an enthusiastic embrace of American dominance, warts and all. The newspaper’s long attachment to Keynesianism finally gave way in the 1980s to a full-blown espousal of the market revolution, an idolatry that continued unbroken through the turmoil of the 1990s and even 2008.

It is this regression that gives Zevin’s history of the Economist its narrative arc. It is a stunted Bildungsroman. Having abandoned the more self-reflexive mode of the mid 20th century, the Economist in the 21st century faces once again the contradictions and tensions that first defined its position 150 years earlier. Once again it is dealing with the blowback from imperial wars, the challenge of mass democracy and the instability of finance. In its unabashed espousal of elitist globalisation under the umbrella of American power, Zevin argues, the Economist has become its own worst enemy. In the form of President Trump and Brexit, its utopian liberalism helped to provoke enemies. Naturally it deplores these developments but refuses to offer any cogent explanation for them. Unlike the leading commentators of the Financial Times, the Economist has offered no post-crash mea culpa.

Will the Economist adapt? Zevin offers some hope. The current editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the first woman to hold the job, identifies as a Keynesian. At the start of her leadership in 2015, the paper’s alignment with Barack Obama was total. Which made it all the more shocking when Hillary Clinton and the EU were repudiated by the general public in 2016. The question now is where the Economist goes next. What platform do either Trump’s America or Brexit Britain provide for transatlantic liberalism? Britain is leaving the richest free-trade zone in the world. Under Trump, America first comes before any more general understanding of globalisation. These questions are all the more pressing given the fundamental challenge posed by the interconnected problem of China’s rise and the climate crisis. And the coronavirus pandemic has further battered the reputations of competent government in both Britain and the US.

During the Cold War the Economist’s position was clear cut. But the escalating tensions with China are far more ambiguous in their implications. Thanks to the globalism of the 1990s and 2000s our economies are deeply entwined, and no government in Europe sought that connection with China more actively than the conservative administration of David Cameron, for which the Economist was a cheerleader. What happens when a serious superpower rivalry is superimposed on deep economic integration? The only comparable situation is that of the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. But as dangerous as that situation turned out to be, it would be belittling to equate the resurgence of China with the modest European rearrangement brought about by Bismarck. Given the hardening of the position not just in Washington but Beijing, how will a liberal paper like the Economist respond? So far it has limited itself to calling for restraint on all sides.

“Disillusionment with the Empire was replaced by an enthusiastic embrace of American dominance”

Similarly, the Economist has no time for climate change denial. But that does not answer the question of how a liberalism whose moment of birth was the optimistic mid 19th century will navigate the environmental limits to growth. The answers so far are markets and technology— proper pricing of fossil fuels and ever-cheaper renewables. That was the answer that the 19th century delivered to Malthus. But as far as the contemporary planetary challenge goes, will such eco-modernism be too little, too late?

Of course, these dilemmas are in no way the Economist’s alone. Thinking people all over the world are searching for answers. The Economist can be relied on to deliver a “line” and to do so with grating self-confidence. According to lore, when one young recruit was facing the challenge of composing their first leader, the advice they received from a senior editor was simple: “Pretend you are God.” In a confusing and uncertain world there is no doubt comfort in that. But Zevin’s unflinching history shows that certainty comes at a price. For those not inclined to follow the “word of God” there is no escape from the painful and uncertain exercise of judgment. One small step concerns the Economist itself. Do read it. But don’t start with the leaders. Start at the back where the world often appears in a less tidy and more truly thought-provoking form.