New Books | Liberalism at Large

Tucked under the arms of the most powerful people in the political world, the Economist is the monied liberal’s handbook.

This is an excerpt from Alexander Zevin’s Liberalism at Large: The World according to the Economist (Verso, 2019).

The Economist and the making of modern liberalism

The Economist is not like other magazines; it does not even call itself one. No “newspaper” – as it styles itself – has been anywhere near as successful in the internet age, nor able to defy digital gravity for so long. As print media shed audiences and advertisers, foreign bureaus and paid journalists, the Economist added them. How had “a magazine with a sleep-inducing title” and “sometimes esoteric content”, asked National Public Radio in 2006, posted readership gains of 13% the year before, comparable only to celebrity tabloids? Four years on, circulation in North America topped 820 000, a tenfold increase since it began an additional printing there in 1981. The global total surged, nearing 1.5 million, or fifteen times the figure in 1970. Editors and publishers at Time, Atlantic, Newsweek, Businessweek and US News all agreed on the need to emulate the Economist, while in Europe similar refrains echoed at Der Spiegel, L’Express and Panorama. But what was the secret, and why try to steal it from a paper a century older than any of them, edited from London continuously since 1843?

For some, it was the clever covers, wry humour, strong editorial line. For the New York Times, the answer was simpler: slick marketing. Red-on-white banners tugged at the insecurities of striving readers, making the Economist a status symbol for the would-be well-heeled. Its ads said everything. “‘I never read The Economist.’ Management Trainee. Aged 42,” ran one ad from 1988. Another quipped, “It’s lonely at the top; but at least there’s something to read.” This view owed much to James Fallows, whose 1991 broadside in the Washington Post argued that the Economist peddled conventional wisdom to US professionals too besotted by its snooty British accent and “Oxbridge-style swagger” to be able to tell. A few other journalists sounded sceptical notes over the next two decades, when the Economist seemed unstoppable. For Jon Meacham, ex-Newsweek editor, it failed “even to attempt to do original reporting”. At the New York Observer, one reporter struggled just to open his copy, then quickly shut it – finding leaden editorials, airy adjectives in place of evidence, layouts so dense they recalled the telephone book – and wondered if others who swore to read it might be pretending.

The Economist does not walk on water, and in 2014 paid sales dipped for the first time in at least 15 years. But in response, the Economist did what few other magazines could: it raised subscription prices 20% to $180 [about R2 587] for the electronic edition alone, making it the most expensive weekly in the US, with operating profits to match. At £54 million [about R1 billion] in 2017, these were still 60% higher than they had been a decade before, despite the general collapse of ad revenues in the intervening years. But even if Economist readers are richer and more status-driven than most, the draw of the paper is about more than symbolic prestige, as a glance at its Letters to the Editor section might suggest. Here articles are nitpicked by whatever corporate, academic or government authority they incensed the week before: a lesson in the law from Philip Morris; a territorial protest from the Azerbaijani Ambassador; a budget clarification from South Korea’s Ministry of Finance; the case for a US weapons system from the ex-general in charge; a professor’s pained explanation that Chinese is logographic, not ideographic. Too busy to write, Angela Merkel speaks to the editor when she is “cross”. Before her, George HW Bush could be seen with a copy pressed to his chest, striding up the White House lawn.

Not all readers are this powerful, but many have plans to be. In Anthony Powell’s novel A Dance to the Music of Time, Sunny Farebrother – stockbroker, entrepreneur, amateur geo-statesmen – serves to satirise the type, retiring from dinner at the manor house he is visiting to scan the Economist. He has so annoyed the other guests, expatiating on everything from how “to handle the difficulties of French reoccupation of the Ruhr, especially in relation to the general question of the shortage of pig-iron on the world market” to “professional boxing”, his host tells him to shut up: “Farebrother, you are talking through your hat.” Buyers usually do more than walk around with their copies, in other words: whether he or she is the leader of the free world, a business magnate, college freshman or, apparently, Sarah Palin and Steve Bannon – they also read it.

Investigative journalism is not a strength of the paper. What readers expect from the Economist are sharp didactic summaries and surprising numbers, which it provides on a grand scale. In a single issue, one may flit past e-commerce in China, mortgage fallout in Las Vegas, peace negotiations in the Middle East, the search for life on Mars, a new art museum in Qatar, and an obituary for an obscure South African explorer eaten by a crocodile. The first paper ever to compile and publish wholesale prices, it still devotes its back pages to data sets that change like shifting prisms onto the world economy: greenhouse gas emissions, growth forecasts, global remittances, the cost of a Big Mac. Treatment of any single issue is limited, outside of special reports, and articles can descend into parody – “as if the writer started out knowing that three steps must be taken immediately – then tried to think what those steps should be”. Range is accompanied by relentlessness: sucked under the foaming waves, the unfortunate explorer was served up as a fine specimen of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Yet this strong institutional character, which sees an act of creative destruction in death, is also what makes it unique, preserved as it is by an equally unusual ownership structure designed to “let the editor run the paper as though it belonged to him”. In place since 1928, this structure gives the editor power over policy, salaries and employment; and puts between him or her and the board of directors four trustees, who sign off on share transfers and the appointment of chairmen and editors. In 2016, when Pearson sold its half of the Economist Group for £469 million [about R8.8 billion] to existing shareholders, this charter came into play, with voting rights capped at 20% for the largest of them. Insulated from business pressure, editors have swelled the business. In 176 years, just 17 have filled the position: all but one a man, and for the last 100 years almost exclusively graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. At least one staffer has called the striking lack of diversity in this “common room” an asset, making it easier to maintain a stable, collective voice. The need for that will be obvious to any reader, as the most distinctive feature of the Economist by far is that articles in it are unsigned. With few exceptions, the hundred or so staff in London and abroad toil anonymously – common enough at 19th-century newspapers, but almost unheard of today. Individualism may be the editorial line, but as a result of this Victorian holdover, the editorial leaders are written in an unusually cooperative and collegial manner, as if guided by invisible hands.

Anonymity was always designed to amplify the voice of the Economist. Today, so do the covers, with Photoshop acting as a slingshot for pop-cultural lèse-majesté: Kim Jong Il blasts into space as “Rocket Man”; Angela Merkel appears as Kurtz, groaning in horror at Greeks in “Acropolis Now”; Hu Jintao and Barack Obama are the cowboy lovers from Brokeback Mountain. The more hated the figure, the more lurid the caricature: Vladimir Putin has been a prohibition-era mobster with a gas pump for a gun, a chess piece, a spider, an ice cube, a shirtless tank driver. Faced with this sort of barrage, Silvio Berlusconi sued. Hero worship is less common, if not unknown. “Freedom Fighter”, above a halo of hair, was its memorial to a monochrome Margaret Thatcher.

Both covers and articles are belligerent but conversant with politicians and governments; whole countries are blamed or praised with breezy self-assurance. But this is not mere posturing. When a new leader appears on the global stage, especially one unknown to capital markets, or from a developing country that needs to tap them, he or she will make a pilgrimage to the offices of the Economist. Even Hugo Chávez paid homage in 2001, trying to “chat up the receptionists, two young black women, as if they were Venezuelan voters”. Luiz Inácio da Silva got a warmer welcome in 2006 for his plans to promote market reforms in Brazil, as well as asides about his diet. Michelle Bachelet had her tête-à-tête in 2014 “over herb tea in the Moneda palace” in Santiago, assuring the Economist she would never put equality before growth. Latin American leftists are one thing. The paper is naturally still more solicited at home, where each year Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer briefs it on the budget over lunch at Downing Street. In the US, Barack Obama was the first president to write a signed editorial for it in 2016, before departing the White House.

“How do you write like the Economist?”, a nervous new recruit, trying to compose his first leader for it, once asked. Simple, a senior editor replied. “Pretend you are God.”

A power unto the powerful

This quality of omniscient narration was not dreamt up by sales managers, and even if they could account for the success of the paper in circulation terms, this would be a misleading measure of its importance. What truly sets the Economist apart is the way it has shaped the very world its readers inhabit, by virtue of three close relationships: to liberalism, to finance, and to state power. Launched at a watershed in the historical development of each, the Economist opened a new front in the mid-19th century battle against the Corn Laws in Britain, aimed less at partisans of the free trade in grain than at those wariest of it, above them: “the higher circles of the landed and monied interests”, in particular the commercial and financial hub of the City of London.

That perspective paid. The Economist not only made money – turning a regular profit after just two years – it also made a name for its founder, James Wilson, a Scottish hat manufacturer who used the paper to catapult himself into politics. Elected to parliament in 1847, Wilson became a powerful financial secretary to the Treasury, and the first “Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer”, tasked with putting the British Raj on a sound fiscal footing in 1859. As Wilson stepped onto the steamer that would take him to India, the Chartered Bank he had co-founded – in part from Economist profits – was opening branches in Calcutta, Bombay, Shanghai and Hong Kong, with an eye to the opium traffic into China; this would become today’s Standard Chartered Bank, with over $660 billion [about R9.4 trillion] of assets. By that time his paper had become indispensable as a conduit between a nascent Liberal Party in Whitehall and Westminster and the parts of the City of London most concerned with imperial and foreign affairs. This caught the attention of Karl Marx, who read the Economist not just for its indexes on global trade, but for its political worldview – the most striking depiction in Europe of the concerns of the “aristocracy of finance”, whose stake in “public credit” required it to keep close track of “state power”.

Over time, the Economist became even more deeply embedded in these circuits of money, power and ideas: editors advised chancellors on the currency, devised ground rules for running central banks and responding to financial panics, scanned the horizon for threats to British rule and British capital everywhere from Ireland to Egypt and Argentina – offering up the sort of political advice that markets themselves might, if only they could speak. Up to 1943, the paper had 10 000 subscribers, no more. But, as one editor pointed out at the time, in the past decade these had included Franklin D Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Manuel Azaña, Heinrich Brüning and Adolf Hitler’s finance minister. Its centenary celebration in wartime London was stuffed to bursting with bankers, politicians, economists, diplomats and foreign dignitaries, eating smoked salmon, puffing cigars. “Never has so much been read for so long by so few,” quipped another editor, riffing on Winston Churchill.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Economist reached across the Atlantic: the role it once played in the British Empire, it now undertook in the American. A literal bridge between them, star reporters now passed apprenticeships on Wall Street and in Washington, where they enjoyed special access from the start – collared by John F Kennedy or Lyndon B Johnson in the marble corridors of Congress, enjoying personal lines to Ronald Reagan’s White House via George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and other pillars of the foreign-policy establishment. The intimacy of its advocacy of US hegemony, all the more powerful for coming from a global rather than merely national point of view within the US, is one reason why a new history of the Economist is needed, and American readers have cause to be interested in it. If much of what follows is a history of liberalism in a British sense and a British setting, this matters in the US too – as parallel and preamble to a doctrine that came to explicitly dominate the political landscape there after 1945. Many now lament that this post-war liberal order is under threat; but very rarely do they define liberalism, still less disambiguate it for Americans, who may take it to mean several different and contradictory things at once.

What is liberalism? Barriers to a better definition

The Economist has long defined itself as a lodestar of liberalism. In the aftermath of Trump and Brexit in 2016, it took great pains to renew and recast that commitment in a series of online debates, podcasts, films and profiles of liberal philosophers, culminating in a bold manifesto for its 175th anniversary in September 2018. Made complacent by their very success in spreading “freedom and prosperity”, the paper declared, liberals had to rediscover their best traditions to “rekindle the spirit of radicalism” these contained. But what is liberalism? Who are liberals? If American readers are confused, they are not alone; so are scholars, who are partly responsible for the muddle. Before proceeding, it makes sense to consider some of the shortcomings in studies of this difficult-to-define “ism”, not only to explain how a work on the Economist may help to avoid them, but also to set us on the path to a more accurate conception. The barriers are roughly three: anachronism, decontextualisation, and lack of comparison.

Political theorists usually treat liberalism as a boundless body of thought, loosely and adaptively adhering around a few abstract principles of freedom, to be found in this or that canonical text or great thinker. In one recent indicative survey, liberalism is said to begin with John Locke, who supplied its first capacious axiom: men are “born in a state of perfect freedom, to order their actions and dispose of their possessions, and persons, as they see fit”. The writings of this 17th-century English philosopher, for whom liberalism as a developed doctrine was totally unknown, are then stretched into political formulae fit for today: “committed to democracy tempered by the rule of law, a private-enterprise economy supervised and controlled by government, and equal opportunity so far as it can be maintained without too much interference with the liberty of employers, schools, and families.” The dangers of this approach are clear, and do not arise through want of erudition.

Perhaps the best-known account of liberalism in this key, and for many an inspiration, is Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 Oxford lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”. There were two diverging branches of the political philosophy, argued Berlin: one based on negative and another on positive freedom. The first, greatly to be preferred, meant “non-interference” – by individuals, a ruler, the state, a “minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated”. John Locke and John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville lit up this path. The second was darker, and held that men could be made free, in conformity with their “true” or “rational” selves, even if they do not desire it. This was the legacy of Plato, Auguste Comte, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and in certain moods even Immanuel Kant and Mill. Here, the issue of decontextualisation – thinkers plucked from across time and space, to be arranged like flowers in a vase – met anachronism, as Berlin applied “profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life” to the two camps in the Cold War. The procedure may have been useful for normative purposes, but as one of Berlin’s students later acknowledged, it could not be justified on the basis of what liberals had actually thought.

Rejecting in principle (if not always in practice) arbitrary bricolages of this kind, the so-called Cambridge School of historians has sought to re-contextualise political thinkers in their national, linguistic and temporal space, so that who counts as a liberal at any given moment will depend on the available concepts, arguments and terms. This approach has produced remarkable histories of early modern republicanism, extending across epochs and frontiers, but has never been successfully applied to liberalism, of which its leading practitioners have markedly different, not to say incompatible, views. No comparative tracing of the transnational development of liberal ideas across borders has been offered by this tradition. Attempts to bridge this gap have come from other kinds of scholarship, but have been few and far between. For our purposes, a brief retrospect of early uses of the word liberalism in 19th-century Europe can suffice to set the historical stage for the birth of the Economist.

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