The Footmen of Liberalism

By Travis DiehlMay 27, 2020

The Footmen of Liberalism

Liberalism at Large by Alexander Zevin

PICTURE YOURSELF, if you can, settling into business class on a transatlantic flight. Your champagne arrives; you adjust your French cuffs and accept the glass. Then, your traveling companion maneuvers to the aisle seat. It’s Henry Kissinger. And a voice-over, delivered from on high in an English accent, asks if you are ready for the most important small talk of your life. So goes a television ad for The Economist magazine. And so goes the voice of The Economist: news and analysis delivered once a week by an authoritative, even godlike editorial voice.

The manufacture of common cause between business-class travelers and statesmen creates the appearance of unified liberal capitalism, argues Alexander Zevin in his new history of the magazine, Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist. But these shared interests are actually an illusion, more useful to elites than to those applying to their club. Zevin calls the magazine’s history the story of “actually existing liberalism, at its most powerful.” His analysis is not the first to pry “liberalism” apart by its contradictions; more damning is how, in the process, he demonstrates the extent to which liberalism is defined less by the value of its underlying ideas than by the passionate conviction with which these ideas are delivered.

The Kissinger ad ran in 1996 as the British publication, the foremost organ of liberalism since 1843, continued to push circulation in the United States. Its foreign readers now eclipse those at home. Since it was founded, the self-styled weekly “newspaper” with its unattributed editorials has promoted itself as the voice of power. Studied by bankers, mocked by Karl Marx, its circulation list in its early days was a register of the few thousand propertied men at the rudder of British Empire. Today, with one and a quarter million print subscribers (more than The New York Times and The Guardian combined), The Economist appeals to aspiring throngs on both ends of the political spectrum who would join, or simply understand, a technocratic world where hobnobbing with war criminals is an occupational hazard.

The sheer scope of this subject led Zevin to organize his book around a motley crew of personalities: the succession of editors-in-chief — 16 men and, at last, one woman. The anonymous staff behind The Economist is unapologetic in its commitment to realpolitik. As Zevin’s thorough reading of the evidence makes plain, the omniscient editorial voice affected by The Economist has been laced with hypocrisies for 176 years. The lines change — sometimes gradually, like the paper’s support for the denouement of Britain’s colonies, and sometimes abruptly, as when the publishers replaced a dovish editor with a hawk midway through World War I — but the voice remains the same. This is what makes it so compelling: the paper waves the banner of liberalism without ever conceding to inconvenient reality, or to the internal debates that in fact define liberal philosophy.

A valuable part of Zevin’s research has been to connect The Economist’s famously unsigned leaders and news items to their authors. A jostling group of ambitious characters emerges. They acted like, and sometimes were, economists and Cold Warriors; and, beyond their Economist contributions, would publish not just history but everything from pop anthropology to spy novels to an improbably sexy “economics thriller” (Rupert Pennant-Rea, the author of the latter, was forced from a job at the Bank of England for having an affair with a journalist). Not only do the rich and powerful, from Benito Mussolini to John F. Kennedy to Steve Bannon, read the magazine, its editors move in their circles, writing speeches for MPs and PMs, and running for office themselves. “I could go to the White House anytime I wanted,” bragged Andrew Knight, editor from 1974 to 1986. James Wilson, the founding editor, died in Calcutta, India, as the first Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer.

No wonder, as Zevin writes, that The Economist’s editorial line bring “the sort of political advice that markets themselves might, if only they could speak.” The paper has always been characterized by its arch rhetoric and its sometimes dispassionate accounting of human lives (one editor’s advice to a new writer: “Pretend you are God.”) The Economist came out swinging against Brexit and Trump. Yet it favored the United States’s bloody worldbuilding in Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Economist speaks power’s language, rarely backpedals its own statements, and sometimes apologizes on power’s behalf.

Zevin is most brutal on this count, characterizing its jingoistic advocacy for the invasion of Afghanistan as if “the Economist were a charity solemnly asking donors to save the children by blowing them up.” Even its more socially progressive stances are born of the pragmatism of the free market: when The Economist argued in support of gay marriage in 1996, “its reasons had little to do with romantic love: ‘single people were more likely to fall into the arms of the welfare state,’ and marriage was a ‘great social stabiliser of men.’” So too their stance against the institution of slavery in the Americas, which would end gradually and “naturally,” in the course of, among other things, “the inevitable exhaustion of the soil which it always produces.” Today’s Economist, known for punny captions and witty covers, is a far cry from the Gothic lists and charts of its first decades. Yet this apparent levity doesn’t change the deadly outcomes of the paper’s advice, born of a conviction that its opinions are also facts.

As well as reading their books, Zevin interviewed several current and former Economist editors, thanking them in the acknowledgments for their “courtesy and candour” in sharing “their views — often at variance to mine.” When the magazine reviewed Zevin’s book in November, however, while it thanked him for the honor of a serious treatment, it did not extend him the same courtesy. The piece, signed by former Economist Executive Editor Anthony Gottlieb (the paper attributes reviews “of books connected to The Economist or its staff”) is dismissive. Gottlieb describes Zevin’s book as a critical supplement to a much friendlier, official history by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Zevin, he concedes, may have some legitimate criticisms — having cherry-picked from two centuries of material. Yet he confines these to the “5%” of content that is editorial. The rest, Gottlieb insists, is news. It is a characteristic self-assessment, delivered with the inimitable Economist vim that must be the real reason so many thousands read the paper — more, in its estimation, on the left than on the right. “Brevity abounds,” he writes. “So do charts.”

To give Zevin due diligence, The Economist would have had to have taken as serious a look at its history as its critic has. But of course: writing for The Economist — being The Economist — means never having to say you’re sorry. “Five months went by before a retraction,” says Zevin of the paper’s gross understatement of the 2008 financial crisis. When it came, “as the title suggests, this was no standard mea culpa: ‘I Wasn’t Right. But That’s OK.’” The editor in question, according to Zevin, claimed “a sense of civic duty had led him to ‘overly optimistic economic predictions’, he explained, in an attempt ‘to argue that we risked talking ourselves into recession.’”

The Economist should know. Their authoritative tone follows similar market logic — that airing any sense of ambivalence could only spook investors and create the dreaded crash. “You opened it, he observed,” Zevin quotes an Economist contributor, “to ‘hear the bourgeoisie talking to itself, and it could talk quite frankly.’” It turns out that much of the paper’s ring of bourgeois honesty, its fearsome self-confidence, is part of a self-inflicted spell — the market reassuring the market that the market is strong.

The leitmotif in Zevin’s thesis is that the personalities behind The Economist’s almost biblical house style share a belief in the rhetoric of certainty. “[W]e must not let daylight in upon magic,” wrote editor Walter Bagehot in 1867, defending the monarchy. He might have meant his Economist. The paper hopes to make its opinions true by stating them as facts, asserting conservative bromides that persist to this day, such as a series on “the condition of society” that laid blame on the lower classes for their own sorry state, while absolving the landowners and capitalists. The former selfishly mismanaged their destinies; although the latter were selfish too, they should be: their selfishness drove growth.

Its response to the WTO protests in Seattle was likewise icy. Zevin writes that “one cover showed a nameless Indian girl clutching a blanket, her glistening eyes raised in accusation, under the title ‘The Real Losers from Seattle.’ Five billion poor people in the developing world would suffer if greens, trade unions and anarchists got their way.” The Economist understands that rhetoric produces reality. When that rhetoric matches an already worrying, preexisting reality too closely, it can lead to scares and downturns — even destabilize bedrock institutions like banks and governments that liberals think are essential to free society. Too much honesty about structural inequality could result, and has resulted, in the masses demanding a larger say in government.

Zanny Minton Beddoes, the first woman to be named editor-in-chief, took the reins in 2015. “Sharp and eloquent,” Zevin writes, she is “refreshingly willing to listen and debate with her interlocutors.” He wonders, given the roughshod mansplaining The Economist is known for, if the paper’s rarefied influence can survive its newfound popularity. “Beddoes’ first year or so was less about controversy than tone,” he writes. Humanist concerns filled its back pages, from “drones,” “millennials,” and “assisted suicide” to “driverless cars, gene editing and quantum mechanics.” In the front matter, meanwhile, the paper still found its way to justify the bloody US nonintervention in Syria and its support for the bombing of Libya, resulting in the worst humanitarian crises of the decade.

Zevin stops short of stating that the tenure of the paper’s first woman editor-in-chief marks the end of its boys’ club tone; nor does he claim that Beddoes, like Margaret Thatcher, has trained her voice to reach a more masculine register. Rather, it seems that The Economist under Beddoes is trying to eat their cake and have it. Ever the pragmatic businessperson, the paper now appeals to the masses, delivering the “life-cycle issues” and news they crave with the gravitas they have come to expect.

Zevin’s history ends roughly with Brexit and Trump, both of which the paper firmly denounces. The internal monologue of the bourgeoisie would naturally rail against populism. Bagehot once wrote that anyone tempted to enfranchise the uneducated should have a chat with their footman. A century later, encouraged to aspire to the likes of The Economist, the editors’ old footmen have become subscribers (indeed, the illustration to Gottlieb’s review of Zevin’s book is an ad on an Economist-red double-decker bus in Hong Kong: “Always have right of way”). Zevin underscores that no other print publication has near The Economist’s circulation — and that, in an era of shrinking newsrooms, The Economist has grown. This, he implies, is the ultimate test of liberalism’s attempt to unify itself through rhetoric: whether The Economist’s anonymous voice of the markets can make a convincing show of speaking the language of power now that so many people are listening.


Travis Diehl is a writer, editor, and critic. He subscribes to The Economist.

LARB Contributor

Travis Diehl is a freelance critic and writer and online editor at X-TRA. His work appears in The Baffler, Art in America, frieze, Artforum, art-agenda / e-flux journal, East of Borneo, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital’s Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.


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