This week’s covers
How we saw the world
WE HAD TWO covers this week, on the world’s increasingly dominant big-state ideology and Africans’ disillusionment with democracy.
The Economist was founded in 1843 to campaign for, among other things, free trade and a modest role for government. Today these classical liberal values are not only unpopular; they are almost entirely absent from political debate.
Governments feel the need to intervene on many fronts, including fragile supply chains, growing threats to national security, the energy transition and the cost-of-living crisis. Each of those areas of policy is familiar—indeed, at various times, we have put all of them on the cover. Only when you lump them together does it become clear just how systematically the presumption of open markets and limited government has been left in the dust.
The task for our cover was to capture that Gestalt, without succumbing to nostalgia or wishful thinking.
Central to the new regime is the idea that protection is the way to cope with the buffeting of open markets from war or pandemics—both in the sense of putting up barriers to trade and in the sense that handouts to households have raised expectations of the state acting as a bulwark against misfortune.
We began with an illustration of containers, a symbol of globalisation. But we stacked them on top of each other to create a barrier stretching to the horizon. That’s a nice idea, but this particular great wall has a strong Chinese echo—and national security is just one reason for the state to step in.
In another early attempt we depicted a descending portcullis, whose spikes are arrows pointing downward and piercing the words “homeland economics”. That’s the term we coined to describe the ideology of a protectionist, high-subsidy, intervention-heavy state. It’s a nod to the drawbridge-up/drawbridge-down classification of economies—but perhaps for that reason the combination of words and image is confusing.
So we went back to containers. But this time they are flotsam from the wreckage of globalisation. Dejected survivors are perched on top, waiting for a rescue that will never come. This is an image of despair—it is so without hope that campaigners for open markets should probably abandon ship, and head home to bury themselves in stamp-collecting or making jam.
The image of containers as Stonehenge strikes a better balance. It says that the age of globalisation has passed and its arcane rites and rituals have been forgotten—and that’s not so far from the truth. Less than eight years ago President Barack Obama was trying to sign America up to a giant Pacific trade pact. Today if you argue for free trade in Washington, you will be scoffed at as hopelessly naive. In the emerging world, you will be painted as a neocolonial relic from the era when the West knew best.
Our first sketch of Containerhenge was recognisably a neoliberal monument somewhere on Salisbury Plain, but the heavy contrast and perfect right angles were off-putting. One of our more Druidic colleagues also pointed out that pagans worshipped among the sarsen stones at dawn, whereas our cover line asked if the sun was setting on globalisation. We put all that right by brightening up the final image, setting some of the containers askew amid tufts of grass and clearly spelling out the rise of homeland economics. Our hope is that this dawn is brief.
Leader: Are free markets history?
Special report: Governments across the world are discovering “homeland economics”
Many Africans have lost faith in democracy. Afrobarometer, a pollster, found that the share preferring democracy to any other form of government has fallen from 75% in 2012 to 66%. That may sound like a solid majority, but it includes many waverers. An alarming 53% said a coup would be legitimate if civilian leaders abused their power, which they often do. In South Africa, which has one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, 72% say that if a non-elected leader could cut crime and boost housing and jobs, they would be willing to forgo elections.
One measure of democracy’s decline is the number of coups. Sticking only to countries where governments have been felled by violent takeovers within the past three years, you can now walk all the way across Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Our first attempt at the cover image captures that miserable truth. It depicts the silhouette of a man holding a gun, with his head in the shape of Africa. However, coups are only part of the story. By making it all about men with guns, we would be saying that the entire continent was in flames.
In another early sketch we had the headline written up in an “X” format, to show that many African countries are disenchanted with democracy. This gets at an important point: you can choose to elect an autocrat, but you may not be able to choose to vote him out. However, it misses something deeper. Many so-called democracies in Africa are phoney. Rulers let the opposition join elections but take a thousand precautions to ensure they cannot win, from tampering with the voters’ roll to throttling the media. In that sense, Africans are not really saying “No” to democracy at all.
We then tried illustrating a giant ballot-box-stomping boot, hoping that it would convey the mix of coups and corruption. But it felt too generic—as if we were surveying democracy the world over.
In the end, we opted for this cover. The bullet-holes neatly evoke both the violence of coups and the vandalism of the electoral process. The U-turn is a reminder that this is a reversal. Many African countries adopted the trappings of multiparty democracy after the end of the cold war. And in some countries, such as Kenya and Zambia, power changes hands more or less peacefully at voters’ behest.
The turn against democracy will bring poverty and suffering to many Africans. There is no guarantee a more democratic Africa would be prosperous and peaceful, but one ruled by autocrats and generals will surely not be.
From the October 7th 2023 edition
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