[Marxism] Liberalism at Large: The World According to the ‘Economist’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 30 06:05:57 MST 2020


LRB, Vol. 42 No. 3 · 6 February 2020
In real sound stupidity the English are unrivalled
by Stefan Collini

Liberalism at Large: The World According to the ‘Economist’
by Alexander Zevin.
Verso, 538 pp., £25, November 2019, 978 1 78168 624 9

‘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.’

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.




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