Liberalism at Large
The World According to the Economist
London & New York: Verso, 2019
Hardcover. 544 pages. ISBN 978-1781686249. £25/$25
Reviewed by Osama Siddiqui
Providence College, Rhode Island
The history of Victorian liberalism has been one of the more prominent strands of British intellectual history in recent years. It has also been, in many ways, a notably self-reflexive one, as debates over method have been at the forefront of its literature. So much so, that the question of how one should study liberalism has become nearly inseparable from the question of what liberalism was. Was liberalism, for instance, a set of political arguments that are best studied in the texts and writings of its most illustrious theorists, such as John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and others?(1) Or, was it instead a conceptual formation that ought to be examined within the socio-historical structures of the societies in which it was articulated?(2) To think along another axis, should one study liberalism through its institutional career in parliamentary politics and popular movements?(3) Or, is the individual liberal subject the crucial site for understanding the rule of liberalism?(4) And, what of nineteenth-century liberalism’s colonial and extra-European incarnations? Were there indigenous liberalisms, or were British liberal ideas borrowed and adapted to indigenous contexts?(5) To be sure, these approaches are not always mutually exclusive, nor necessarily conflictual, and the differences in focus reflect, in part, different disciplinary priorities and interests. But, the lack of consensus on how to study liberalism also mirrors nineteenth century liberalism’s own heterogeneity – what Nils Jacobsen called its “bewildering array of guises” in the Spanish American context – as well as the fact that it remained contested in its time both in practice and in principle.(6)
It is within this lively set of debates that I read Alexander Zevin’s deeply rewarding and superbly argued book, Liberalism at Large : The World According to the Economist (2019). Zevin mostly takes an institutional-intellectual history approach to studying liberalism (while attending carefully to political and economic contexts), but rather than focusing on individual thinkers or political parties, the focus of his inquiry is the Economist magazine. The famous news and current affairs magazine – practically required reading in corporate boardrooms and airport business lounges the world over – has been, Zevin contends, a leading voice of Anglo-American liberalism over the last nearly-two centuries, while also being something of a training ground for multiple generations of liberal politicians and policy makers in Britain. As Zevin puts it, the Economist is the “lodestar of liberalism,” widely seen as an influential and authoritative source that week after week expounds the prevailing liberal orthodoxy on politics, finance, global business, and international relations .
Narrating a history of liberalism through the extraordinary life of the Economist is an effective strategy that works in multiple ways. First, it allows Zevin to avoid what he sees as one of the persistent methodological problems in histories of liberalism, which is assembling a “grab-bag” of thinkers ranging across different historical contexts and attributing to them an ostensibly unified ideological agenda . The Economist, on the other hand, with its consistent editorial voice (to this day there are no by-lines in the magazine) does seem to have a sense of ideological coherence and purpose. Indeed, as Zevin shows, the Economist has explicitly professed itself to be a defender of what it sees as the classical liberal values of freedom and free trade. And, so, by tracing how this magazine has interpreted the world allows us to see what Zevin calls a “continuous record” of “actually existing liberalism” [15, 16]. The result is an important, timely, and thrilling new history of liberalism, one which also doubles as a critical history of liberal political economy as well as a fascinating intellectual history of laissez faire thinking.
Zevin’s method also offers the advantage of an engaging narrative strategy: the book is organized chronologically, with each chapter covering the tenure of one or more Economist editors (remarkably, since 1843, there have only been seventeen people to hold the position, with sixteen of them being men and the overwhelming majority being Oxbridge graduates). As Zevin takes us through their tenures and how they reported the major events of the time, we are treated to a lively tour of some of the key political and economic developments in British, American, and World history from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Indeed, the book could be read fruitfully as an ambitious and incisive survey of nineteenth and twentieth century history, organized around the question of how liberals have encountered, responded to, and shaped the modern world.
The story begins in 1843 when James Wilson, a Scottish manufacturer, businessman, and political economist, founded the Economist. Wilson had gained prominence in liberal circles for his role in the Anti-Corn Law League, an advocacy group agitating against legislation restricting the importation of grain in Britain. The Corn Laws were eventually repealed in 1846, but the banner of free trade and laissez faire was enthusiastically carried forward by Wilson and became the ideological underpinning of his new magazine. As Zevin shows, there was virtually no social or political issue to which the Economist did not apply a laissez faire analysis. The early years of the magazine published articles opposing tariffs, public education, the creation of a board of health, labor regulations, railway legislation, and practically anything that could be seen as interfering in the ‘natural’ functioning of the market. As the Economist’s star gradually rose in the era of Britain’s ‘free trade empire,’ so did Wilson’s. By 1847, he had entered parliament as a member of the Liberal Party, before swiftly ascending through the ranks to become the Secretary of the East India Company’s Board of Control, followed by a stint as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and then eventually to an influential role as ‘Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer.’ Somewhere in between scaling the heights of Britain’s imperial establishment, he also founded the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China (which later merged with the Standard Bank to create today’s Standard Chartered Bank).
This nexus of banking, empire, and laissez faire opinion that defined Wilson’s career reflects the broader set of forces that, according to Zevin, shaped liberalism from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. In particular, the book’s critical intervention focuses on three major historical developments that he argues were central to liberal concerns: the rise of finance; the growth of democracy; and, the expansion of empire. How liberals responded to each of these historical developments is, for Zevin, the key to understanding the path taken by liberalism in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, indeed, even in our own times. In many ways, this is a story not just of how liberals came to embrace finance, empire, and state power, but also of how a liberalism borne of those forces triumphed over other competing ideological visions of liberalism.
Of these three developments, finance is the area that commands most of Zevin’s interest, and the book offers a compelling look at how the Economist became an important player in the emerging world of high finance. Starting with the editorships of Wilson’s successors, Walter Bagehot and then Edward Johnstone, the Economist not only pioneered new ways of reporting financial news and stock market data but also cultivated close ties to the finance sector. As the City of London became the center of the world’s capital markets, the Economist established itself as its premier interpreter. Such was the magazine’s influence, Zevin shows, that investors and bankers looked to it as a singular authority on market forecasts and investment analysis. At times, the magazine seemed to be acting almost as an intermediary between the government and the City, such as when Johnstone helped to craft the Bank of England’s bailout of Barings Brothers during the financial crisis of 1890, even while his magazine was reporting on the crisis itself . What emerges in Zevin’s narrative is that the Economist did not merely report on the world of finance capitalism; it also played a role in creating that world.
In recent scholarship on liberalism, it is almost taken as a given that nineteenth-century liberalism was complicit with empire. Zevin not only adds to this charge sheet, but also gives us a persuasive and historically specific account of the liberal turn to empire. The book identifies a crucial moment in this direction in the 1850s, when the Economist broke with other liberals like Richard Cobden to support the Crimean War along with a series of other military ventures in India and China. For Zevin, the decisive shift in rhetoric was represented by Wilson’s use of free trade as a justification for war, in sharp contrast to the older Smithian view of free trade as a preventive against war. From then on, there was scarcely an imperial war that the Economist did not support in the name of keeping markets open and trade flowing.
The Economist’s support for empire overseas went hand-in-hand with a deep skepticism for democracy at home. In a masterful reading of Walter Bagehot’s work and legacy, Zevin shows that Bagehot’s view of the English constitution, and his preference for strong executive power shielded from the whims of popular democracy, were developed in part during his association with the Economist. Writing in the pages of the magazine, Bagehot railed against the dangers of unchecked democracy. In 1867, when the Second Reform Bill passed, expanding the electorate by a million voters, Bagehot criticized it as a pernicious influence on politics. At the same time, he and the Economist looked across the English Channel with praise for the modernizing agenda of Napoleon III’s autocratic regime, seeing it as a necessary “firm hand to force down the bitter medicine of political economy” .
A notable exception to these views emerged in the figure of Francis Hirst, who became editor in 1907. This was a moment when ‘New Liberalism’ with its agenda of greater state intervention in welfare and social reform was ascendant, and the Liberal Party had just won a resounding majority in parliament. New Liberals like Hirst were also critical of imperialism and militarism, but, as Zevin shows, the governing reality proved to be much different. Zevin offers a tour-de-force reevaluation of New Liberalism, arguing that the policies often lauded as landmark achievements of liberal governance in the early twentieth century – social welfare, graduated taxation, and national insurance – went hand-in-hand with increased military spending and an escalating arms race with Germany, as well as historic and unprecedented bailouts of the City. New Liberal social progress, in other words, was inextricably intertwined with finance and empire. And, although the Liberal Party itself lost power after World War I, never to regain it again, these core elements of liberalism remained dominant, maintaining their “intellectual grip” on Britain’s ruling establishment well after the war .
The latter half of the book takes the narrative through the twentieth century, tracing the shift from ‘Pax Britannica’ to ‘Pax Americana’. Zevin covers a lot of ground quickly, showing how after World War II, the Economist’s primary concerns shifted towards championing the liberal international order in the Cold War battle against communism; enthusiastic support for globalization; and, importantly, a robust defense of American military and imperial power, much in the same way that it had defended British imperial power in an earlier era. The broad thrust of this story is essentially one of continuity. Zevin shows that through the upheavals of the twentieth century, liberalism’s ideological commitments to finance and empire, as well as skepticism towards democracy, remained in place, and even deepened in some ways. In a trenchant conclusion, Zevin looks to the present day and sees this “tripartite structure… intact.” The world we have inherited, he writes, is rife with “democratic dissatisfactions, imperial conflicts and debt-fuelled financialized capitalism as far as the eye can see.” This, he concludes, is the damning record of “actually existing liberalism, at its most powerful” .
The book as a whole is extraordinarily engaging, written with a great deal of verve and cogency, as well as being impressively well-researched. Zevin not only seems to have read virtually every issue of Economist since 1843, but has also supplemented this material with important context from private papers, speeches, parliamentary debates, and writings of the various editors. As a result, we are treated to wonderfully illuminating portraits of some of the more well-known editors, like Bagehot and Hirst, but also of the less familiar ones like Hartley Withers, Walter Layton, and others. Indeed, one of the many joys of the book are the fascinating biographical vignettes with which Zevin begins a number of chapters.
Some of the most stimulating parts of the book, and ones also which invite further reflection, are where Zevin explores the Economist’s relationship with other Victorian liberals. Zevin is careful to note that the Economist did not represent the only variety of Victorian liberalism, but he does see it as the most dominant one. Yet, I was struck by how often, and how starkly, the Economist seemed out-of-step with the values espoused by other liberals in the nineteenth century. From the beginning, it is clear that Wilson’s liberalism was very far removed from any kind of Smithian notion of laissez faire and its critique of colonies. But, empire was not the only issue on which the Economist took a seemingly illiberal line. On questions of social reform and political enfranchisement, too, the Economist was remarkably at odds with the views of other liberals. At times, the editors of the Economist appeared almost to be reluctant liberals, only belatedly coming around to positions that mainstream liberals had long held. And, neither did they seem particularly loyal to liberal party politics. As Zevin memorably points out, in the five general elections between 1886 and 1906, the Economist, a supposed beacon of liberalism, actually endorsed the Conservative and Unionist Party, having fallen out with the Liberals over the issue of Ireland and empire [132-133]. Given these frequent departures from liberalism, both in principle and in politics, one wonders how much of an exemplar of liberalism the Economist can really be.
To be fair, part of the argument as I read it is that, for this strand of nineteenth century liberalism, the stability of the financial markets and the preservation of empire became such absolute priorities that all other principles could be sacrificed in their service. And, yet, as Zevin also amply details, there were other nineteenth-century liberals – Richard Cobden and John Bright, for instance – who were not willing to sacrifice Smithian laissez faire at the altar of finance and empire. Cobden, Bright, and others not only remained deeply critical of war and empire, but were also anxious about the influence of capital on democracy. For Cobden, in particular, this was not simply a matter of disagreement with other liberals, but rather a fundamental question of who could or could not credibly claim the mantle of liberalism in the first place.
To return, then, to the question of
method and sources, I could not help but wonder what a history of Victorian
liberalism might look like if we told it from the perspective of these more ‘dissident’
liberals and, in doing so, treated liberal imperialism not as a built-in feature
of nineteenth century liberalism, but as one of its many contested points, one
which many liberals forcefully argued against. The work of Cobden and others
shows that the ideological battle over the meaning and scope of liberalism was
not settled matter. In prompting these reflections, the achievement of this
excellent and highly generative book is not only to open up a new set of
sources for us to think about the history of liberalism, but also to throw open
the question of method and sources anew. It deserves to be very widely read and
To return, then, to the question of method and sources, I could not help but wonder what a history of Victorian liberalism might look like if we told it from the perspective of these more ‘dissident’ liberals and, in doing so, treated liberal imperialism not as a built-in feature of nineteenth century liberalism, but as one of its many contested points, one which many liberals forcefully argued against. The work of Cobden and others shows that the ideological battle over the meaning and scope of liberalism was not settled matter. In prompting these reflections, the achievement of this excellent and highly generative book is not only to open up a new set of sources for us to think about the history of liberalism, but also to throw open the question of method and sources anew. It deserves to be very widely read and discussed.
(1) Uday Mehta, Liberalism and Empire : A Study in nineteenth-century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire : The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: University Press, 2005; Duncan Bell, Reordering the World : Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton: University Press, 2019).
(2) Andrew Sartori, Liberalism in Empire : An Alternative History (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014).
(3) Jonathan Parry, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Eugenio Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform : Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880 (Cambridge: University Press, 1992).
(4) Elaine Hadley, Living Liberalism : Practical Citizenship in mid-Victorian Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Sarah Collins, ed., Music and Victorian Liberalism : Composing the Liberal Subject (Cambridge: University Press, 2019).
(5) C.A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties : Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: University Press, 2011).
(6) Nils Jacobsen, “Liberalism and the Indian Communities in Peri, 1821-1920,” in Robert Jackson, ed., Liberals, the Church, and Indian Peasants : Corporate Lands and the Challenge of Reform in nineteenth-century Spanish America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).
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