This is the third post in our book forum on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. Inder S. Marwah is Assistant Professor at McMaster University’s Department of Political Science. He is currently working on a project examining Darwin’s influence over anti-imperialist political thought, particularly in non-Western contexts, at the turn of the 20th century.
Let’s start where we can’t help but to start: with a just a little bit of light gushing. Reordering the World is a masterful collection of essays that substantively advances the study of liberalism and empire, and for those of us interested in the subject, it would be difficult to find a more fruitful, illuminating, and accomplished piece of work. Duncan’s expositions of conceptual formations (liberalism in particular, but not alone), of complex historical periods (the 19th century), and of the many figures he treats are, quite simply, models of scholarly rigor: philosophically-rich, historically meticulous, and best of all, persistently resistant to overextension.
Of the book’s many achievements, this one stands out: Duncan imparts a level of analytical, historical and philosophical clarity to the study of liberal imperialism, whose complexities are all too often not just papered over, but actually obscured by overgeneralization. For all of the important strides that political theorists have in recent decades made in exposing liberalism’s imperial underbelly, they’re not without their anachronisms, confusions and absences (to which I’ll return below). Duncan lucidly draws out the deep ambivalences within liberalism, whose contours are more often assumed than actually delineated, and gets us to see its internal rifts. He also shines a light on the scholarship’s blindspots – in particular, its neglect of important figures marginalized by our focus on the canon, and the dearth of scholarship on settler colonialism. His revision of Mill – a towering figure in the critical literature – is equally nuanced, complicating the often truncated characterization of his “imperial liberalism” that’s become something of a commonplace, and his exposition of lesser-known (but no less influential) figures such as Freeman, Seeley, Froude and others, are similarly illuminating.