Liberalism Is as Bad as the Economist Makes It Sound

Alexander Zevin

Liberalism is often presented as a loose set of principles like reason, freedom, and the rule of law. But over almost two centuries, the Economist has provided a window into the dominant strand of liberalism in action — with imperial conquest and undemocratic regimes defended in the name of upholding “free trade.”

By the late 1980s, the Economist was the champion of — indeed, it would define itself as the “rough guide” to — neoliberal globalization.

Interview by
Daniel Zamora
Anton Jäger

Meticulously read by Karl Marx, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Gates, the Economist is today one of the liberal world order’s most powerful magazines. Created in the midst of nineteenth-century laissez-faire in Britain, what Vladimir Lenin called the journal that “speaks for British millionaires”  in many ways embodies the dominant strand of liberalism.

That’s not the liberalism you read about in university textbooks, but the one championing ruthless free trade around the globe — through the barrel of the gun if necessary. In his recent book Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist, Alexander Zevin uses the iconic newspaper as a prism to understand the material and ideological forces that have shaped modern liberalism’s worldview.

Jacobin’s Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger spoke to Zevin about the historical roots of the Economist’s ideas, the newspaper’s peculiar links to British finance, and the concrete political actions that make up “real-existing liberalism,” beyond its supposed ideals.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

You use the history of the Economist as a prism to investigate what you called “real existing liberalism.” How do you distinguish this strand of liberalism from more conventional approaches?

Alexander Zevin

A lot has been written about liberalism, but little from a genuinely historical — still less global and comparative — perspective. The standard account tends to treat liberalism as a boundless body of thought, loosely cohering around a few abstract principles of freedom, to be found in this or that great thinker.

John Locke and Adam Smith are popular starting points. From here all sorts of ideas get ascribed to it — reason, toleration, individualism, secularism, pluralism, democracy, equality — in ways that fly in the face of what so many liberals actually thought and did.

My approach is different. This history does not start with seventeenth-century political theory or eighteenth-century economic thought, but in the Napoleonic era when political actors began to call themselves liberals in Spain and France.

The term then migrates to Britain, where it undergoes a unique double development: political ideas of the rule of law and civil liberties fuse with economic maxims of free trade and free markets in theories of “limited government.” Liberalism emerges as a more potent ideological-organizational force than anywhere else in Europe.

The Economist was founded at around this point in 1843. Unlike a particular thinker or theme, the publication offers a continuous record of liberalism in action, as it confronted three challenges: growing demands from workers for democracy, the rise of high finance within the global capitalist order, and the expansion of European empires. My history revolves around these questions.

It thus rejects the free-for-all approach to liberal ideas — while also being flexible, allowing for the ways these ideas changed, recombined, and reacted to other traditions and arguments. The Economist is not the only or purest expression of liberalism — but it is the dominant one, I argue, with the greatest global impact for 175 years.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

In a sense, you seem to explain the Economist’s unique representativeness in terms of the specific place England played in the history of liberalism.

Alexander Zevin

This is central.

From the start, the Economist hitches its sails to the earth’s leading capitalist state. This is not only reflected in coverage, with a relentless drive to bring the world economy into focus for its readers, through the collection, measurement, and tabulation (often for the first time) of various price, trade, and stock indexes, company reports, news bulletins, and so on.

It is also a function of its editors’ location within that burgeoning world system — shuttling between the economic hub of the City of London, the political-administrative corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, and the formal and informal empires.

James Wilson, the hat manufacturer turned political economist who started the Economist, used it as a springboard into high politics and finance: within four years, he was in parliament, and enjoyed a rapid advance — the India Board, the Treasury, and then the Board of Trade.

In 1859, he was sent to India as the first “Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer,” tasked with devising a new fiscal state to rule the British Raj in the wake of the Indian rebellion (including state guarantees on forms of inward investment); at the same time, the Chartered Bank he co-founded in London in 1852 was opening branches all throughout Asia to profit from Indian opium pouring into China.   

As I show in the book, the growing power of finance capital was not only important in all the ways economic historians have discussed — but as the basis of an entire liberal politics, a literal worldview. Walter Bagehot, the famous banker-editor, wrote of the “incalculable sums” that London was sending abroad in the 1870s. Bagehot made it the business of the Economist to analyze this new politico-economic reality, and to prescribe the policies best adapted to sustain and deepen it at home and abroad.

This orientation is clear in his theorizing of the role of central banks in liberal polities — as lenders of last resort, independent of “meddling,” with the duty to bring under control the giant crises this globalizing capitalism was already generating.

It is also present in his analyses of the best liberal constitutional systems for societies undergoing these changes — in Britain, America, France, and beyond. The need to inspire investor confidence led Bagehot to favor strong executives and narrow franchises, with local variations to suit what he called “national character.”

This way of looking at the world is so commonplace today, we take it for granted. Politics appears to take place within the limits set by the mobility of capital. When Argentina struggles to pay bondholders; when the US Federal Reserve raises interest rates; when a “populist” coalition takes office in Italy — certain questions follow, as if automatically.

What reforms will Buenos Aires undertake? How will the flow of capital out of emerging markets affect their growth and stability? Are Italian spending plans compatible with growing Italian bond spreads? The answers to these questions are political. They were first posed in this way in the Economist.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

Something fascinating, here, are the close ties the Economist itself had to modern laissez-faire.

Alexander Zevin

It is no exaggeration to say that the Economist embodied the most theoretically sophisticated — and unremitting — example of early laissez-faire thought. I try to reconstruct what this body of thought looked like, contextualizing it and the writers who espoused it in the pages of the Economist.

This matters, since many accounts downplay or ignore this element in liberalism’s history. It is not hard to see why. Here are the villains that lurk in the footnotes to Capital. I try to let them speak, without telling the reader to be horrified.

The Economist makes a case for free trade that is plainly millenarian. Wilson argued that absolute free trade would result in the end of the trade cycle itself: at home, it alone could cure “ignorance, depravity, immorality and irreligion” and “want, pauperism and hunger;” abroad, it would “do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization … yes, to extinguish slavery itself.”

In this providentialist register, the Economist opposed almost all “interference” in the operations of the market as divine trespass. While the paper certainly attacked the protectionists in Parliament committed to the Corn Laws or Navigation Acts, it was far more passionate in denouncing another group: politicians and writers who, acting out of benevolence, philanthropy, or charity — all three words became insults in the pages of the Economist — tried to mitigate the suffering of the lower orders.

Good deeds had unforeseen consequences, almost always in the form of evil. This was just as true for the state undertaking a task “rather fit for God than man” when it limited the working day, as it was for private individuals and groups.

On this basis, the Economist opposed nearly every piece of reform legislation — the Pacific Railway Act, the Factory Act, the Ten Hours Act, and the Board of Health (“there is a worse evil than typhus or cholera or impure water, and that is mental imbecility”).

It condemned not just calls for public education, but charity schools; not just official attempts to embargo slave-produced goods, but abolitionists (those “truly great philanthropists”); and it rejected what we would now consider basic company, banking, patent, and copyright laws. Wilson’s paper played a key role in shaping the official response to the Great Famine in Ireland, with foreseeably devastating consequences.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

Lenin famously used to argue that a newspaper was also a way to organize and unify the worldview of the working class. In a certain sense isn’t the Economist just the Pravda for the Anglo-American ruling class? The perfect embodiment of the dominant form of liberalism?

Alexander Zevin

It cannot be a coincidence that so many Marxists have read — and that several have even written for — the Economist. It can sometimes feel like reading Marx in a funhouse mirror. Indeed, what Bagehot praised as the genius of the English political system — that a Cabinet, akin to a “board of directors,” ran the nation, behind a screen of royal pomp — is not unlike Marx’s description of parliamentary government, as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. Of course, the judgments are inverted.

Marx himself carefully studied the Economist — as much for information about the peripeteia of global capital as to understand the worldview of its managers. Marx called it the tribune of “the aristocracy of finance” — so, a powerful fraction of the ruling class — and he used it in the Eighteenth Brumaire to show the illiberal ways that liberals were reacting to the threat of popular democracy, marking up the price of public funds at the first signs of a coup d’état to crush the French National Assembly. Lenin also read the Economist, calling it a paper that — quite simply — “speaks for British millionaires.”

There are certainly parallels with Pravda. There are also differences. The Economist has had to be (in a general way) rather more candid with its wealthy clique of readers. The Polish Marxist Daniel Singer — the Economist’s unusual Paris correspondent in 1968 — once argued that before circulation exploded in the 1980s, you could read the Economist to “hear the bourgeoisie speaking to itself, and it could talk quite frankly.”

In part, I think this must reflect the difference between the task of organizing the worldview of a ruling class that is for itself, with a class whose existence has yet to find coherent political expression; between a paper whose mission is to mobilize for the overthrow of capitalism, and one intent on running it smoothly. Could socialists ever produce a magazine like the Economist? Would it be a sign of strength if they could?

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

An important part of your argument is about the relation between liberalism and war. A quite widespread story is the one associating free trade to peace. The European Union has made it its credo. But you tell us another story. One where liberals promote free markets “by the barrel of the gun.”

Alexander Zevin

This is one of the main discoveries of the book. Not that liberal imperialism existed, which is well-known, at least to critically-minded scholars. What I excavate is when, where, and how imperialism became so central to the dominant strand of liberalism. A key moment — a turning point — was an epic row between James Wilson, the Economist’s founder, and two of his liberal comrades-in-arms, that began during the Crimean War.

Richard Cobden and John Bright are the two most famous names associated with the struggle for free trade in Britain — textile manufacturers and leading members of the Anti-Corn Law League.

Cobden’s motto (and that of the League) was “Free Trade, Peace and Good-Will Among Nations,” and his own writings placed as much stress on the prosperity unilateral free trade would bring as its tendency to eradicate war. (Inscribed on the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, this motto delighted Woodrow Wilson when he spoke there in 1919 on his way to Paris; today, it is a Radisson hotel). Cobden and Bright were instrumental in starting the Economist — agreeing in 1843 to order twenty thousand copies for distribution by the League.

Wilson worked closely with Cobden and Bright, and at first his paper was just as zealous in linking the cause of free trade to peace: one early article argued for replacing the entire diplomatic corps with cool, calculating merchants.

In 1854, however, the Economist broke decisively with this line of reasoning: the notion that laissez-faire meant noninterference at home as well as abroad went up in smoke. What lit the fuse? A run of imperial conflicts in the 1850s, which started in Crimea, and extended to the Second Opium War with China and the repression of the Indian rebellion.

Wilson had become a member of the government. He sat on the Treasury bench in parliament, and behind the scenes was organizing war loans and levies. The Economist not only justified the wars, but viciously attacked those like Cobden and Bright who publicly opposed them in parliament and the press as “tools of the Tsar” and “enemies of free institutions.” The paper turned against the idea that free trade on its own led to peace.

This was now a “hideous and shallow doctrine” — allowing Russia to run amok, “barbarous sovereigns oppressing their subjects” and “bullying and partitioning their weaker neighbors.” To bring about a world of free commercial intercourse and liberal political values, force could — and should — be used. “We may regret war,” it mused as British ships shelled Canton, “but we cannot deny that great advantages have followed in its wake.”

For Cobden, justifying these wars on the basis of free trade was hypocritical nonsense: “words without meaning, mere echoes of the past.” It was also a betrayal. Asked if he had seen an issue in 1855 pressing to expand the war against Russia, Cobden replied, “I never see the Economist though I have it on my conscience that I was mainly concerned in starting it.”

To read it now was “a task I would not condemn a dog to.” Cobden even came to reflect rather dimly on “the great capitalist class” he had helped to organize — wondering if their wealth and belligerence were compatible with a “democratic political movement.”

To be clear: a strand of radical liberalism continued to carry the torch of a Cobdenite pacifism. But from the 1850s on, this remained an inconsistent and minoritarian position — far less prominent and effectual than the line taken — with very few exceptions — by the Economist.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

There was however an exception under Francis Hirst, who saw imperialism as a threat to liberalism and didn’t hesitate to publish pacifist tribunes J. A. Hobson and Bertrand Russell in the magazine.

Alexander Zevin

Francis Hirst is the most intriguing exception to the rule. An eruption of Cobdenism at a publication that had done more than any other to expel these views from the liberal mainstream. In July and August 1914, Hirst argued that Britain should remain neutral, putting pressure on his friends inside the Cabinet, joining neutrality committees — albeit to little effect, given the enormous structural and ideological impetus for war.

Even more noteworthy: once the conflict was underway, Hirst pushed for a negotiated peace, and refused to fall into line behind the war, as did many of his Liberal friends. Not only did he see the war as the death knell of liberalism, “murdered” by a Liberal government sworn to uphold it — with tariffs and taxes, followed by censorship and conscription.

He also tried to bring home the dangers the war posed to the hegemony of the City and the “delicate architecture” of global finance. “Grass will be growing on Lombard Street before the end of the year,” Hirst told a junior editor in despair. The Economist board of trustees soon grew alarmed. Hirst was fired in 1916.

But if Hirst was exceptional in this respect, he did not escape the contradictions at the heart of the dominant liberalism. The First World War brought two of these sharply into focus. First, Hirst had become an advocate of New Liberalism — which argued that the state could play a more active role in the economy, in terms of education, social insurance, and so on.

But Hirst always insisted that “social reform” would require more than new taxes. Liberals must tamp down imperialism, reach an understanding with Germany, and cut arms spending. The reality of New Liberalism in power, however, was completely different: if Liberals achieved some progressive aims prior to 1914, it was by agreeing to escalate — not reduce — the arms race with Germany.

Second, Hirst argued that finance was a force for peace in the lead-up to 1914: the more financially interdependent the world, the more the threat of war receded. Foreign investments were “hostages for peace” — a view held not just by Hirst, but Hobson, Norman Angell, and other liberals.

The First World War put pain to this thesis. But there was ample evidence contradicting it in the Economist long before the outbreak of the war: from East Asia — where the City’s single best customer since the turn of the century was Japan, borrowing £84 million to carve out an empire — to the Moroccan crises closer to Europe. What if capital flows were fuses with long timers, rather than peace feelers?

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

The other important topic of your book is liberalism’s response to the rise of democracy. Why do you think that the Economist offers us valuable historical lessons on liberalism’s relationship to democracy? How did we come to think of “liberalism” and “democracy” as an ideal couple rather than an antagonism, and what role did the Economist play in this?

Alexander Zevin

I am not the first to point out that liberalism and democracy are two distinct concepts — and their conjunction is recent and fraught. As Duncan Bell has shown, the category of “liberal democracy,” and its elevation into the most authentic (or distinctive) ideology of the West, began in earnest in the 1930s — providing a powerful self-justification for Euro-Atlantic states in their geopolitical and ideological confrontation with “totalitarian threats” of left and right.

The Cold War supercharged this dynamic: excluding the communist states (which also claimed the democratic, but not liberal, label), the idea took root in the disciplines of political science, and in history in Western civilization courses (with helpful subventions, via the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom)

Liberalism in this sense may be an invented tradition. But the idea that it has some basic democratic core, or that it tends internally towards the realization of democracy, is enduring. For the liberals in my book, democracy is a problem — to be resisted in the nineteenth century, through restrictions on voting based on property, education, and region; to be managed and contained in the twentieth century, when working-class pressure and the exigencies of total war became too powerful to resist.

If new democratic countermovements arise as a result of the current crisis — this is by no means certain, given the weak structural position of labor in the context of sky-high unemployment and the lockdowns — liberals will confront similar dilemmas. Liberal historians have their own teleologies. Instead of gradual — still less inevitable — progress towards democracy, we should be talking about a history of tension, resistance, workarounds, and ruptures.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

The intellectual history of neoliberalism has been, in recent years, the object of increasing interest. But how does this shift — from liberalism to neoliberalism — look from the perspective of a journal like The Economist?

Alexander Zevin

There is much to be said in answer to this question.

First, a point on the historical field. One of the things that struck me in Quinn Slobodian’s history, Globalists, is that the preoccupations of his “Geneva” neoliberals — how to construct the global economy after empires, and to insulate it from political demands at the level of the nation — are so continuous with the concerns of earlier liberals.

We now have a much more sophisticated grasp of neoliberalism than the one that painted it as hostile to the state, welfare, the family, to human rights — Jessica Whyte, Ben Jackson, Keith Tribe, Melinda Cooper, and many others have done excellent work on these themes. I think there is still interesting work to be done, however, on the relationship between liberalism and neoliberalism.

Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Colloque Walter Lippmann participants — all rejected the “fallacies of laissez-faire,” but, in so doing, they constructed a certain intellectual picture of it that suited their ends. Their battles in the 1930s were not just with socialist planners, but other liberals — like Keynes — and therefore over control of liberalism as an intellectual tradition.

Second, by the late 1980s, the Economist was the champion of — indeed, it would define itself as the “rough guide” to — neoliberal globalization. In fact, the paper was late to embrace neoliberalism, at least in its monetarist form. I recount the editorial fights that broke out over this — in exchanges with Milton Friedman, who attacked the Economist for backing an incomes policy, and between section editors, over whether or not to endorse Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

It is a bit like peaking behind the curtain of Stuart Hall’s The Great Moving Right Show — to reveal the struggles within the struggles, and to then construct a new hegemony in response to the crises of the 1970s. The Economist complicates both ends of this story: both the advent of a so-called Keynesian consensus after 1945, and its collapse into Thatcherism at the turn of the 1980s.

Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger

In this regard, how exactly has the Economist responded to the “populist” decade? This development in many ways challenges the ideas the magazine has long promoted — globalization, inequality, financialization, and so on. So, how does it explain Trump or Brexit?

Alexander Zevin

Liberalism may have been quite helpless in foreseeing and explaining what it terms “populism.” The Economist’s flat-footed coverage of Brexit and Trump attests to that, as has the coverage coming from other outlets: think of the New York Times with its broken electoral speedometer predicting Clinton’s triumph, or the Guardian and its whimsical populist personality tests.

The media has taken up the term in part because it is so imprecise: it allows them, as Marco D’Eramo and Wolfgang Streeck have argued, to avoid distinctions, in defense of a narrow center ground, on which an emaciated form of politics is allowed to persist. Very different sorts of movements rejecting this status quo can be branded as similarly simplistic, deluded, or dangerous.

Yet, the liberal center has proved more adept at containing these threats — in part because of the power of the institutions liberals themselves have crafted, from central banks and media giants, to party organs and international organizations.

In the UK, Corbynism was disarmed and defeated with spurious charges of antisemitism, making way for a “forensic” (i. e. becalmed) opposition; in the United States, Bernie Sanders was dispatched in favor of a decrepit cipher of the credit card lobby and security state — someone who is perhaps, even so, capable of winning, provided he does not leave his basement; and in Italy, Matteo Salvini is out of the government. This does not mean liberals have found an answer, or that they have done anything but defer a much more severe crisis — albeit on terms less favorable to the Left, and perhaps also to themselves…

It’s not that liberal publications don’t recognize the need for change. As I write this, Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor, is in the Economist, sounding for all the world like Keynes on the economic future of our grandchildren: the need for new “public values” to supersede those signaled by prices and markets; more and better “social support and medical care”; bold tackling of climate change.

And yet. Liberal institutions have felt no need to concede to the social forces that advocate for these changes — savaging the movements, parties, and representatives that have tried to harness them into political programs. Winning the battle of ideas is not going to be enough.