Zevin’s history of the Economist magazine opens up a rich angle from which to observe the nature and development of liberalism across 180 years, finds Dominic Alexander
What is liberalism? Common answers would generally begin with a certain set of principles, but there the unanimity would quickly break down according to the period, country and political perspective of the respondent. There can be few political concepts that are both as pervasive and yet shifting as that of liberals and liberalism. For some, liberalism is free trade, for some it is free speech, for some it is a set of centre-right governing assumptions, today frequently revised as neoliberalism. In some American discourses, it is a left-wing ideology that can even be conflated with socialism, while left-wing socialists in Europe would frequently enough see liberalism as the main enemy.
Self-described liberals are most likely to present themselves as having a rational, even ‘grown-up’, approach to politics and economics as distinct from the dangerous opposing poles on the left and right. Liberalism is the balanced, moderate centre, validating itself by its very self-definition. Recently, as a much needed corrective, Tariq Ali launched an incisive critique of the contemporary version of liberal politics, what has for many years since the 1980s been known as the neoliberal consensus, calling it the ‘extreme centre’ (The Extreme Centre, Verso 2015).
Yet it was not Tariq Ali who invented this phrase. It was in fact an editor of the Economist during the period of the Second World War who first used the term ‘extreme centre’ to defend what was then a suite of government-interventionist policies. Perhaps, however, in whatever form liberalism has appeared over the last two centuries, it actually does deserve to be described as the ‘extreme centre,’ if only as an antidote to its self-congratulatory tendency to see itself as the only reasonable position to hold.
As a means of gaining some purchase on the shifting meaning of liberalism, Alexander Zevin has turned to the Economist magazine, continuously published since 1843, in search of the threads which may, or may not, knit together the elements that could be said to define a tradition of liberalism. The project is at once a carefully bounded one, and one which nonetheless involves a kind of total economic and political history of the last hundred and fifty years or so, at least from a British, and then Anglo-American perspective. The result is a fascinating tour of the history of one journalistic institution. Even if the wealth of detail threatens to overwhelm any sense of an overriding analysis at times, Zevin seems to be nurturing the emergence of certain common themes out of the noise of events and personalities across the span of time.
One definite thread is that way in which the Economist has always ended up carefully positioned as an opinion former for the dominant interests of the City of London, however much there may have been a range of views, even clashing ones, among its staff. These interests have necessarily changed over time, so what may have seemed the right political principles to accompany economic interests in the 1840s, changed, even quite rapidly, in the course of the nineteenth century. The policies championed by the magazine coincided for most of its history with the interests of the British Empire, but even before a U.S. edition was pioneered in the 1980s, the Economist’s centre of gravity was shifting towards an alignment with the American imperium. The importance of free trade, certainly a persistent element of most liberalisms, has usually been central to the ethos of the Economist, however, the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s changed that for a time. Its return to the mantras of free trade accompanied the crisis of post-war Western capitalism in the 1970s.
Origins of liberalism
Zevinoutlines how liberalism ‘as a collective political term’ emerged in the wake of the defeat of Napoleon’s Empire in 1815 (pp.9-10). Liberals and liberalism were always therefore defined in tension with opposing forces to the right, representing the old regimes, and to the left, representing the popular forces, whose aid had previously been necessary to overthrow the former. The problem for liberals was thus the difficulty of containing popular pressures during their conflict with more conservative forces. A conclusion that could be drawn from Zevin’s discussion at this point is that liberalism crystallised at the very moment when it ceased to be viable as a mass movement.
This position has meant that liberalism always oscillates between its opposition to more reactionary politics, and its fear of and conflicts with the working class. The clarifying historical moment for this dilemma was the year of revolutions in 1848, during which middle-class liberals demonstrated, in Engels' words, that they were‘more frightened of the least popular movement than of all of the reactionary plots of all the German governments put together’ (the observation about German liberals seems apposite for western Europe generally). The failure to repeat the revolutionary alliance of 1789-1792 meant the triumph of reactionary political forces. These, liberals seem to have realised, they could live with, while working-class democracy was something they couldn’t. In Britain, 1848 may appear to have been less dramatic than in Europe, but the same dynamic was at play, and Marx spotted that the Economist was diagnostic of the problem:
‘Marx took more than raw economic data from the Economist. In it he identified a sector of liberal opinion … so fearful of further popular upheaval that by 1851 it was ready to welcome an illiberal but orderly dictatorship in the revolutionary capital of the nineteenth century, France’ (p.115).
This was the dictatorship of Napoleon III, the mediocre nephew of the great Napoleon, whose Second Empire overthrew the Second Republic, after the working class had been bloodily crushed during the June Days of 1848. The interests involved in this abandonment of political liberalism were entirely transparent, as Marx pointed out:
‘The Economist declares in its own name: “The President [Louis Napoleon, soon to be Emperor Napoleon III] is the guardian of order, and is now recognised as such on every Stock Exchange of Europe”.’
Liberalism and the working class
The tension between capitalist economic interests and the political colouration of liberals is born not of any issue internal to the ideology, but due to its historical situation, originating at the end of the Old Regimes, and at the rise of capitalism’s gravedigger, the working class. The way in which liberalism is conditioned by its opponents is clearer earlier in the book. Later, in the account of the twentieth century, this analysis seems less sharply drawn. The contrast perhaps represents an unspoken interpretation of the history. It may be partly also the frame, in which liberalism is being seen through its own lenses.
Zevinargues that British liberalism is ‘alone’ in having ‘a totalizing fusion of the political ideas of rule of law and civil liberties with the economic maxims of free trade and free markets, in theories of “limited government”’ (p.11). Certainly British liberalism was able to occupy a uniquely confident and purist space during the nineteenth century, but Zevin seems to underestimate the importance of the working class in this context, when he ascribes this position in part to ‘the absence of revolutionary plebeian traditions, with Chartist mobilizations quickly divided and deflated’ (p.12). However, working-class organisation during the 1830s and 40shad a significant impact, and scored several victories over liberal insistence on laissez-faire. Zevin himself quotes Marx on the free-market hysteria of the Economist at the 1847 Ten Hours Act, which was aghast that:
‘if a child under 18 years of age, instead of being kept the full 12 hours in the warm and pure moral atmosphere of the factory, are turned out an hour sooner into the heartless and frivolous outer world, they will be deprived, owing to idleness and vice, of all hope of salvation for their souls’ (p.40).
It seems a mistake to accept the usual dismissal of the importance of British working-class struggles in these decades. British liberalism, as documented in the pages of the Economist no less, was making the same turn as liberalism did elsewhere in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions. Prussian liberalism collapsed into the arms of the authoritarian state, and soon, of the militarist Otto von Bismarck, while the absurd dictator Louis Napoleon became the saviour of the French middle class from the revolutionary proletarians of Paris.
Regardless, liberalism had generally been opposed to democracy, but this was an increasingly difficult position to take after 1848. James Wilson and Walter Bagehot, the two formative early editors of the Economist, were ‘agreed on the need to limit democracy’, accepting only that the most prosperous artisans in the large cities should have access to the vote. All those below this level, or in smaller towns would be fairly excluded under ‘natural law’, in order to prevent the deterioration of ‘the general character of the legislature’ (p.88):‘Giving them votes would spell disaster, for that would mean “the rich and the wise are not to have, by explicit law, more votes than the poor and stupid’” (p.89). This tone of derision for the bulk of the population has not disappeared from middle-class liberal discourse in later times.
After the extension of the franchise to the uppermost section of the British working class in 1867, by a minority Tory government trying to outmanoeuvre the dominant Liberal Party, Bagehot opined that in ‘all cases it must be remembered that a political combination of the lower classes, as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude’ (p.90). The enemy of liberalism was, as it remains first and foremost, the working class, and much less so, the landed aristocracy. The peculiar coherence of British liberalism is surely much more to do with the fact that the landed class was already fully adapted to capitalism, unlike, say the Prussian Junker, or the French monarchist, than due to any weakness in the combativeness of the working class. In any case, the Liberal Party’s increasing pivot towards skilled workers in the latter part of the nineteenth century initiated the gradual defection of the once liberal middle class towards a re-invented Conservative Party.
Liberalism, free trade and war
The totemic importance of free trade for liberalism is revealed by James Wilson, the founder of the Economist, in his arguments for its benefits during the controversy over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. These laws imposed tariffs on the import of wheat, protecting the high rents that landowners could charge their tenants. Repeal of the laws was seen by radical liberals like Richard Cobden and John Bright as a matter of class struggle against the landowning class, but they agreed with Wilson that ‘free trade would usher in an organic harmony of all economic interests’ (p.26). That is to say, in the triumph of market liberalism, all other class interests, those of the landowner and the worker alike, would dissolve into the primary interest of the bourgeoisie. These discussions have considerable echoes with the triumphalist neoliberalism of the 1990s, where globalisation of trade was trumpeted as capable of ending all conflict, social and international, bringing about the liberal utopia.
Wilson and Bagehot represented the conservative turn of liberal ideas in Britain, registering disappointment that class struggle had failed to disappear after the achievement of free trade. Cobden and Bright (‘untypically,’ p.23), represented a more optimistic strand of liberalism, that was, guardedly, more sympathetic to democratic demands, and still hoped that an alliance of the middle class and the workers against the aristocracy would bring social balance. Their tendency is much less represented at the Economist than Wilson and Bagehot’s, which greeted the rise of finance capital and Empire with enthusiasm rather than criticism.
The Economist supported the imperial wars of the second half of the nineteenth century with vociferous approval. The break with its brief anti-imperialist phase of the 1840s occurred in the run up to the Crimean War during which the magazine was actually ‘clamouring for an armed solution’ to the threat that Russia posed to Britain’s ‘empire in the Near East’ (p.52).In what is a wearily familiar stratagem, it advised against:
‘the “hideous and shallow doctrine” of non-interference in foreign affairs, even in the face of “barbarous sovereigns oppressing their subjects, or powerful states bullying and partitioning their weaker neighbours”. Ethical and commercial justifications for war with Russia were one’ (p.53).
The parallels with the Economist’s justifications for recent ‘humanitarian’ interventions, and wars in the Middle East and Africa, as recounted by Zevin later in the book, will not be lost on any supporters of the anti-war movement in the twenty-first century. Zevin observes on editor James Wilson’s turn to a pro-war policy that: ‘Since then the Economist has rarely wavered from the view that laissez-faire may best furthered through the barrel of a gun’ (p.51).
Closely associated with support for imperial interventionism, was the clear privileging of economic liberalism over political liberalism. Thus Bagehot’s support for Napoleon III’s dictatorship, which would ‘restore “confidence” and “security of industry” to France’, was justified also on the grounds that ‘Frenchmen were too “excitable, volatile, superficial, over-logical, uncompromising” to enjoy the same freedoms as the English’ (p.92). Economic interests and racism combined in the Economist’s support for the suppression of the Indian mutiny, atrocities and all, confident that the rest of Europe would:
‘see how helpless are the Indian races to restrain their own superstitions and their own passions – that no reverence for law, and civil order, and social obligations, adequate for the rudest form of self-government is yet written on their minds … Commerce with India would be at an end were English power withdrawn’ (p.65).
Parallels, again, can easily be drawn to the way that imperial violence, whether American or British, would be justified in the decades afterWorld War Two. Zevin concludes emphatically that ‘what is abundantly clear is that in the second half of the nineteenth century [imperialism] was central to the mainstream of liberalism – to which the Economist gave authoritative expression’ (p.129). This judgement could surely be extended to include every era up to the present.
World War I and the long crisis of liberalism
There is one notable exception to the pro-war policy, which was the stance the editor, Francis Hirst, took in 1914 against the First World War. In general, this period represents the last gasp of the free-trade radicals in the tradition of Cobden and Bright as part of a mainstream liberal tradition. Just as the radicals in the Liberal government were largely cowed or marginalised by the enforcement of pro-war policy, when they didn’t adopt it wholesale, so Hirst was forced out of the editor’s chair by 1916.
Crucially, however, in assessing Hirst’s position, is that his opposition to the war was conditioned in the first place by worries about ‘the effects of a major war on the delicate architecture of world finance, and above all Britain’s hegemony over it’ (p.162). His replacement, Withers, revealed the fundamental alignment of the Economist when he proved able not only to support the war, but to compromise the very principle of free trade in favour of the protection of Imperial interests (p.168). Liberalism, it seems, was not about even such a core principle as this, but rather whatever appeared at the time to be necessary for the profits of the leading City institutions.
The pre-war period is another moment in the narrative where the shadow of working-class politics looms larger than Zevin allows his frame to recognise: it is surely more important that the labour movement largely capitulated to imperialist politics at this moment, than that the surviving remnant of left-wing liberalism did. If any force were to be able to resist this turn, it would be the former and not the latter. The contradictions within liberalism are not resolved by its inner nature as an ideology, but by the structural and class forces which pull it one way or another.
An understanding of liberalism in terms of these wider social forces would do much to contextualise the sometimes tortuous re-alignments of the Economist’s economic and political outlook in the years of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War into the 1970s. Nevertheless, Zevin does provide some clear threads through all of this complexity, which are the magazine’s continuing commitment to British, and increasingly US, imperialism, and to the interests of the City of London, served by both those powers.
If there was a cantankerous relationship between Keynes and the Economist at many points in the 1930s, they both had the same end in view, which was to restore Britain’s ‘financial hegemony of the world’ (p.197). If the magazine came to advocate substantial state intervention in and control over the economy, heresies from the usual free-market dogma, then it was for that purpose. Self-declared socialists may have been allowed to write in its pages, while it courted the Labour Party, but it ‘was the socialism of stockbrokers that was making headway at the Economist, whose radical recruits aimed to supply Labour with men who did know what they were talking about’ (p.207).
Continuities of the Economist
Economic policy therefore has undergone several marked changes of direction in the magazine. The interests served by it have remained the same, nonetheless, whether in the 1940s or in the 1980s, when the Economist adopted the neoliberal economic policy to which it has remained ever more fervently attached since. This is to the point that in 2012, reflecting upon the crash of 2008, it was saying that ‘finance had been unfairly attacked’ (p.362). Austerity and a continuity in neoliberal policy were the answers to the crisis, and rather than the City bearing any responsibility, the Tory government ought to be looking at extricating itself from promises about funding the ‘bloated’ NHS (p.363).
In the field of imperialism, the Economist has shown much less variability than in the field of economic policy. Once the sinking ship of the British Empire could no longer sustain the core cause, it was to the American one that editors turned. The Economist’s coverage of the Vietnam war was from the early 1960s, in one insider’s view, ‘pure CIA propaganda’ (p.282). A litany of outrages and horrors perpetuated by US imperialism, were all supported or excused by the magazine, but:
‘Perhaps the most significant breach of democratic practice and journalistic ethics in the line of imperial duty came with the coup in Chile in 1973 … Robert Moss … was not content merely to criticize the left-wing physician Salvador Allende … but worked actively to prepare opinion for his forcible removal’ (p.287).
Nothing in the subsequent history of the Economist appears to have restored much in the way of integrity to its conduct in terms of imperialist interventions and wars. The same ‘Atlanticist’ motivation was, of course, a key element in the programme of the ‘extreme centre’ as defined at the end of the Second World War (p.231). A corollary to the perspective is further that in various circumstances ‘democracy could easily become the enemy of liberal capitalism’ (p.298), so that even in a British context ‘authoritarianism’ would be preferable to any victory of the Left, or trade unions, that is to say, of ‘totalitarian rule’ (p.314).
Zevin concludes his long history with the observation that since 1843:
‘the “aristocracy of finance,” has indeed spoken through the Economist, first in Britain, and then also in America – not as the only, or purest, expression of liberalism, but as the dominant one, with the greatest global impact for 175 years’ (p.391).
From its very formation as an ideology, liberalism has always threatened to turn into its opposite. This is because its proclaimed universal individual rights are continually undermined by the functioning of the economic system to which liberalism is devoted at its core. The safety of that system, and of the capitalist property rights out of which liberalism grows, means that as a political project, liberalism has always succumbed to a tendency to shelter under the wings of conservatism or even reactionary authoritarianism. When no other saviour can protect it from the demands of the working class, that is the generally preferred alternative. As a result, liberalism has been a pervasive as a set of political and economic assumptions, but has much more rarely been successful as a party-political project in its own name.
In its present incarnation as the neoliberal extreme centre, the Economist’s liberalism looks increasingly caught in an untenable position where the economic policy of the last forty-odd years cannot be maintained alongside the old political dispensation. It remains to be seen whether it can remain as influential as it has been in the past while maintaining its present allegiances. It might be that it will need to find a new ideological configuration through which to defend the interests of the ‘aristocracy of finance.’
The crisis of 2008 required massive state interventions, in a resumption of ‘Keynesian’ style economic policy, but one entirely geared towards elite interests. Similarly, the present crisis has required an abandonment of neoliberal constraints on fiscal spending, but, again, this has been directed more towards corporate than human well-being. A new configuration seems very unlikely to involve any move leftwards towards working-class interests, as it did in the 1940s, unless major pressure is successfully applied through class struggle.
Liberalism at Large is a long and detailed book, but it is well-paced and engagingly written all the way through. The particular lens acts as a rather inspired way of looking at the history of Anglo-American capitalism. Zevin has had to sift through a tremendous mountain of material, but is able to tell a fascinating story of this institution and its relationship to the system it has championed for close to two hundred years now.
Before you go...we need your help
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
More articles from this author
- History as an uneven and combined process - Trotsky in the Bronze Age extract
- Does technological innovation necessitate inequality? - Trotsky in the Bronze Age excerpt
- How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic - book review
- Is technology the driver of history and what’s to come? - Trotsky in the Bronze Age excerpt
- Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe - book review
- Shakespeare in a Divided America - book review
- Can economic planning work? - explainer