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How the Economist shaped the liberal mind

Since its founding in 1843 the Economist has radiated an aura of omniscience. But its days of playing God may be over.

Reflecting on almost 50 years as an editor at the Economist, Barbara Smith, in a valedictory column of 2003, offered a revealing anecdote. “How do you write like the Economist?”, a new recruit asked a senior editor when composing their first leader for the title. Simple, came the response. “Pretend you are God.”

Since its founding in 1843 the Economist has radiated an aura of omniscience. A weekly magazine that calls itself a paper, its most distinctive feature is that its articles are unsigned. Editors and writers work anonymously in London and in 21 bureaux across the world, despatching summaries and special reports on global affairs in tones that are as imperious as they are complacent. World leaders and business executives pay tribute at its offices and each year Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer invites the editors to Downing Street to discuss the Budget. In 2016, Barack Obama became the first US president to write a signed editorial for it.

Exalted in the international halls of power, pored over in the chancelleries of Europe, admired on US university campuses, wielded in the business class lounges of Asia and endorsed by Steve Bannon, the Economist is singular both in its commercial reach and ideological self-assurance. Former subscribers range across the political and intellectual gamut from Marx to Mussolini, and have also included Woodrow Wilson, Friedrich Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, Franklin D Roosevelt and Hitler’s finance minister. Boasting a print circulation of 859,000, no journal has remained so resolute in its status as the ur-mag of Anglophone liberalism.

Yet on 15 September 2018, as the title celebrated its 175th anniversary, God’s voice quivered. “We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism,” that week’s editorial read. “Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it… For the Economist this is profoundly worrying.”

Since the early 2000s, liberalism and liberal democracies have been destabilised by a run of political crises: the 9/11 attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2008 financial crash, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, the rise of Islamic State, the migration crisis in Europe, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Add to this a thriving dictatorship in China, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the suspect machinations of tech giants such as Facebook, as well as a climate emergency, and Yeats’s line in “The Second Coming” seems ominously prescient: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Responding to a creaking world order, far-right recidivism and popular rebellions against liberal elites in Europe and the US, the Economist launched Open Future in April 2018. A series of online debates, articles, profiles, podcasts and films, the initiative aimed to invigorate the liberal condition, culminating in a manifesto. Shaken but unrepentant, the manifesto declared that this was “the moment for a liberal reinvention. Liberals need to spend less time dismissing their critics as fools and bigots and more fixing what is wrong.”

This is not the first time the Economist has had to stiffen its upper lip. A recurrent theme in Alexander Zevin’s masterful book, Liberalism at Large, is that whenever the paper has experienced a cardiac event such as war or economic depression, or has been challenged by dogmas and movements that it didn’t like, it has stayed resolute in its convictions and reaffirmed its commitment to first principles: free markets, low taxes, rule of law, civil liberties, private property, freedom of the press, the lucrative merits of empire, and a suspicion of the state.

It was in opposition to the Corn Laws of 1815-1846 – tariffs on imports of grain into Britain – that James Wilson, a Scottish hat manufacturer, founded The Economist: or the Political, Commercial, Agricultural, and Free Trade Journal. From the start, Wilson’s newspaper was more crusading agitprop than cool business title. The intended audience was “the higher circles of the landed and monied interests”, while the poor and lower classes – as well as the reform movements that endeavoured to relieve them – were cruelly maligned and even blamed for their misery. “Looking to their habits,” ran an early article, “to their ignorance, to their deference to false friends, to their unshaken confidence in a long succession of charlatan leaders, we cannot exonerate them. Nature makes them responsible for their conduct – why should not we? We find them suffering, and we pronounce them at fault.”

Wilson gave the Economist its missionary purpose. The cardinal maxim was that only the cleansing winds of free trade could redeem fallen societies. “We seriously believe,” he wrote in the paper, “that [free trade] will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilisation and morality – yes, to extinguish slavery itself.”

This mission civilisatrice – a “utopian flavour” as Zevin, a historian at the City University of New York, calls it – is still discernible in the paper’s columns and editorials today, though in subtler registers.

Zevin’s central argument is that the Economist has not only reported on world affairs but, as the house organ of liberal opinion, has shaped “the very world its readers inhabit”. The paper’s influence was initially down to timing. It was established at the historical juncture when societies were transformed by the ascent of finance, imperial expansion and rivalry, and radical demands for democracy. By presenting itself as a vade mecum for navigating these changes, with banking and railway reports printed alongside price indices, shipping rates, insurance shares, and stats on foreign trade, the Economist exploited a growing demand for the data behind this new world.

It also helped that Britain was far more disposed to liberalism than its European neighbours. The Economist’s founding in 1843, Zevin writes, “was a milestone in political and economic thought, a bugle blast of the first age of global capitalism. Wilson and his newspaper… developed and disseminated the doctrine it embodied – laissez-faire liberalism – in its clearest and most consistent form.”

The Economist’s success has also been based on its proximity to power, with editors and writers breezing effortlessly between journalism and high office, and vice versa. Wilson became an MP for the Liberal Party in 1847, after which he served as financial secretary to the Treasury, established the Standard Chartered Bank in China, and was appointed India’s first finance minister – a post he held from 1859 until his death in Calcutta a year later.

Subsequent editors and contributors have reinforced the Economist’s deep relationship with the state, including a prime minister (HH Asquith), a spy (Kim Philby), an Italian president (Luigi Einaudi), a deputy governor of the Bank of England (Rupert Pennant-Rea), an adviser to Margaret Thatcher (Robert Moss), an adviser to John Major (Sarah Hogg), as well as those staffers who enjoyed money-spinning careers in the City. If the Economist were ever to change its name, it might consider the Establishment as a fitting alternative.

It wasn’t just liberal conservatives who wrote for the Economist, however. In the 1930s, under the editorship of Walter Layton, a new generation of writers such as Harold Laski, Arnold Toynbee, Nicholas Davenport (formerly a columnist at the New Statesman and Nation), Douglas Jay, Geoffrey Crowther and JM Keynes wrote articles with more radical hues. Layton even hired the Polish Marxist revolutionary Isaac Deutscher in 1942, who produced more than 650 pieces on eastern Europe and Soviet Russia – his first-hand knowledge of the region, Zevin argues, “has never been equalled at the Economist”. (The most recent name in this radical tradition is Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, who worked at the Economist in the 1980s, later describing it as “the Pravda of the neoliberal ascendancy”.)

But it is at the level of ideas that the Economist has acquired its reputation as the lodestar of liberalism and as a guide to the doctrine of the age. This began in the mid to late 19th century under the editorship of Walter Bagehot, who Zevin rightly calls a “totemic figure” and “the name most associated with the paper”. Born in 1826, Bagehot became editor of the Economist in 1861 after marrying James Wilson’s daughter a few years before. 

The 1860s was the acme of Victorian liberalism and under Bagehot the paper adopted strident positions on the major questions of the time with respect to capitalism, empire and democracy.

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On capitalism, Walter Bagehot was less fanatical than his father-in-law, favouring a graduated income tax, state ownership of the railways and legislation to make factory work safer. But he was a firm believer in the nation’s imperial destiny – not only because colonisation is what the British did but also because it opened up new vistas for capital. “We are pre-eminently a colonising people,” he wrote, imploring enterprising traders to seek out commercial breaks in “Japan, Indochina, Persia, Asiatic Turkey” and Africa. Force could be used when needed, while “very large bodies of dark labourers will work willingly under a very few European supervisors”.

From its inception, the Economist has consistently justified liberal imperialism. After 1945, when Britain lost its empire, the paper turned its attention to the United States, which was driven by a mission to spread free markets under the mantle of its unrivalled firepower. If, from the Cold War onwards, London could no longer act in the world with any kind of independence from Washington, it could at least, as Zevin writes, “awaken the latter to its responsibilities as the new policeman of the world”. At every turn, the Economist emphasised the importance of Britain’s role as this geopolitical fluffer, firming the resolve of the US in its fight against Soviet communism.

The paper celebrated the Truman Doctrine in 1947, supported the crushing of the Malaya revolt in 1948, suggested gun-boat diplomacy in Iran in 1951 (“Persians like all Moslem peoples respect power and strength”), cheered CIA-backed invasions and coups in Central America in the 1960s, lent its unconditional support to the war in Vietnam, whitewashed Suharto’s genocide of communists in Indonesia in 1965, welcomed the right-wing coup in Chile in 1973, called for a war against Saddam Hussein before George Bush did in 1991 and made the case for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq in 2002. At his retirement speech in 2012, the long-serving Economist foreign affairs writer Johnny Grimond said that the paper “never saw a war it didn’t like”.

Zevin links the Economist’s rightward turn to a generational shift that occurred under the editorship of Alastair Burnet from 1965. From Bagehot to Geoffrey Crowther (editor from 1938 to 1956), the paper looked to the Liberal Party as the prime agent of liberalism; from the 1940s until the mid-late 1960s the editorial line was informed by the experiences of the Second World War, advocating an “extreme centre” that encompassed economic planning and admiration of the New Deal. Since Burnet, however, the Economist “has been produced for the most part by pure products of the Cold War, without any adult experience of what preceded it”.

But the transatlantic love-in with the US was not just about ideology; it was also good for business. From 1977, under the editorship of Andrew Knight, a thoroughbred of the establishment – Ampleforth school, Balliol College, Oxford, and the City – the paper launched an extensive marketing campaign in the US and Canada. Knight grew subscriptions from 27,500 when he started in 1974 to 125,000 when he left in 1986. Today, more than half of the Economist’s circulation comes from North America. 

In addition to its economic liberalism – Marx called it the “European organ of the aristocracy of finance” – and its steady views on empire and intervention, the Economist has also held a mostly consistent line on democracy. Throughout the 19th century, the paper reflected bourgeois fears of mass politics and their wish to restrict the enfranchisement of women and the industrial working class. Bagehot railed against the “superstitious reverence for the equality of all Englishmen as electors” and wrote at length about “what securities against democracy we can create”, offering homeopathic reforms to keep the lower orders economically active but politically disbarred. 

Since the 20th century, the question for the Economist has become not about who gets to vote but who has economic control. The overriding concern is “sound finance” and the role that economic tools, such as central banking and a complex financial sector, play in depoliticising the economy. As Zevin shows, for the paper’s staff, liberalism’s “great achievement and grounds for congratulation was to force democracy to accept capitalism”.

The great strength of Alexander Zevin’s book is in the originality of its conceit. By recounting the intellectual biography of a single publication, one that has done so much to shape the Weltanschauung of modern politics, he has provided a history of “real existing liberalism”. Drawing on a mass of archival research and interviews with former and current Economist staffers, the book is intellectually rich without being conceptually baggy. Through its editorial pronouncements and reportage, Zevin is able to show how the Economist has offered a near-unbroken record of what has been the “dominant stream” of liberal thought. How dominant it will remain – as one Economist editor used to write if a leader was too emphatic – “time alone will show”. 

Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist
Alexander Zevin
Verso, 544pp, £25

Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question