Symposium: Reordering the World

This is a guest post from Duncan Bell who is a Reader in Political Thought and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire to which this symposium is dedicated. Stay tuned for more contributions on Reordering The World in the coming days.

I’d like to start by thanking The Disorder of Things for hosting this symposium, Nivi Manchanda for co-ordinating it, and the participants for generously agreeing to write commentaries.

Reordering the World is an unusual book. It was not designed as a single volume, though I hope that it works as one. It collects together a series of essays that I have written about ideologies of modern British  imperialism over the last decade or so. I added a long Introduction and Coda, as well as a substantial new framing chapter – “The Dream Machine: On Liberalism and Empire.” I faced a choice about how to deal with the bulk of the other chapters – should I rewrite them significantly or leave them largely untouched? I opted for the latter course, with one exception: I rewrote a chapter on J. R. Seeley, the historian and influential late Victorian imperial ideologue. The resulting volume presents an analysis, though far from an exhaustive one, of some key themes and trends in the history and theory of modern imperial order.

My work in the history of imperial thought has been motivated by curiosity about the ways in which historical actors made sense of their world, and a conviction that studying their ideas can shed light on significant moments and movements in the past, while also helping to inform contemporary political thinking. Reordering the World is primarily a study in (international/imperial) political thought, an intervention in a set of wide-ranging debates among political theorists, intellectual historians, and IR scholars, about how empire has been conceptualised and legitimated, though I hope that it will be of interest to at least some IR scholars who work in different areas. The volume continues, while extending, the work on imperial ideology that I started with The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (2007), and that I am currently working on for a volume entitled provisionally Dreamworlds of Race.

§The opening chapters are thematic, covering such topics as the varieties of imperial ideology, the nature of liberalism, how conceptions of time and history shaped political argument, and the role of the monarchy in stabilising visions of empire. It also includes a chapter, “The Project for a New Anglo Century,” that traces the afterlives of late Victorian debates across the twentieth century and into the present, suggesting that we can see a strong thread of white supremacist conceptions of global governance in some versions of arguments for the world state, leagues of democracy, and Anglo-American union. The remaining chapters work in a different analytical register, offering detailed interpretations of individual thinkers, some (semi) canonical – including John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, T. H. Green, J. A. Hobson – others who were once famous but are now relegated to obscurity – Seeley, Edward Freeman, J. A. Froude. Indeed one of the methodological claims of Reordering the World is that if we want to understand justificatory arguments for imperial order, it is essential to move beyond the canon of the history of political thought. Only by recovering the political concerns, languages, anxieties, and fantasies of the motley cast of characters who shaped debate at the time can we begin to apprehend the content and complexity of imperial political thought at the apogee of the largest empire in history.

I hope that each of the chapters stands on its own, and says something of interest. But there are some general arguments running through the volume, drawing together its discrete parts. The first concerns the significance of settler colonialism. The extensive literature on nineteenth century British imperial political thought – and also the wider body of work on liberalism and empire – has consistently underplayed the significance of settler colonialism, tending to focus on ideologies of imperial rule in Asia and Africa (and often conflating these with empire/imperialism as a whole). This has led to a skewed account of liberal accounts of empire. In his seminal Liberalism and Empire (1999), Uday Singh Mehta argued that in India liberals found the “concrete place of their dreams.” I suggest, in contrast, that the settler colonies – above all Australia, Canada and New Zealand – served as the dreamscape of liberalism. While many liberals were invested in civilizing visions of imperial rule, fantasizing about remaking the world in their own image, this was always a fragile ideological commitment, and one repeatedly challenged by other liberals. Even amongst the most ardent liberal imperialists – John Stuart Mill springs to mind – it was a self-dissolving vision, one that reached a terminal point in the eventual political independence of the imperial subjects, even if this was constantly deferred to some distant point in the future. The civilizing mission was haunted by anxiety about the corrupting dangers of empire, of overstretch, vice and violence. The shadow of Roman declension, and the evocative writings of Gibbon, hung heavily over many imperialist intellectuals (in Chapter 5, “Escape Velocity,” I show how some of them tried to neutralise these anxieties by stressing the unprecedented character of the British empire). Settler colonialism, on the other hand, was almost universally endorsed by liberals. Even self-consciously anti-imperial liberal thinkers – from Bentham to Spencer to Hobson – were happy to advocate it.


The settler colonial discourse was (of course) thoroughly racialized. The colonies were imagined as white, as populated by civilised peoples capable of governing themselves (preferably within an overarching imperial framework) and of instituting sovereign control over territory that could be appropriated legitimately from its original inhabitants. Indigenous populations were ignored, relegated to footnotes, or imagined as bound for subservience or eventual annihilation. Figuring colonies as semi-autonomous, collectively self-governing communities, free of the feudal vestiges of British society and populated overwhelmingly by energetic “civilised” white people, aligned them with liberal notions of political progress. Indeed it was this act of political transformation that many liberals boasted was the major liberal contribution to the British empire during the nineteenth century. This was their empire, something in which they invest their exuberant hopes for reordering the world. Recognizing the pivotal importance of nineteenth-century settler colonialism challenges how scholars have understood the nature of “imperial” and “anti-imperial” arguments since the late eighteenth century.

A second argument running through the volume concerns the significance of historical consciousness in legitimating and imagining empire. Historians were among the most prominent imperial thinkers, writing and rewriting the history of empire to suit specific political projects. Their messages resonated in a culture obsessed with the past and the lessons it purportedly encoded. Historical-mindedness, as it was often called, structured political argument, rendering some lines of reasoning more intelligible, more perspicacious, and more plausible, than others. Precedent, tradition, organic development: all were invoked repeatedly. But the imaginative significance of history was not confined to the writings of professional historians. Rather, a sense of the importance of historical time – of the legitimating functions of precedent and tradition, of appeals to ancient authorities, of the temporal logic of decline and fall, of the uses and abuses of historical analogies, of the rhetoric of longevity, of the political possibilities inherent in the technological “annihilation” of time and space – helped animate and structure imperial discourse.

A third argument concerns the meaning(s) of liberalism. One of the chapters seeks to answer the perplexing question “What is Liberalism?” Both the question, and the response I offer, were inspired by puzzling over the variability of liberal visions of empire, though the argument is (I hope) one with applicability beyond either the historical periods I focus on or the particular set of issues I address. I develop an account of liberalism that is part methodological, part substantive. The methodological element explores the various ways in which scholars conceptualise liberalism across different (sub)fields, and the different – and often contradictory – answers that are generated by their methodological choices. I contend that that the liberal tradition should not be delineated through reference to the ideas of purportedly canonical thinkers, nor through deriving a theoretical structure or set of principles from conceptual analysis – the two most common approaches – because, while they have their uses, both distort historical understanding of the development and scope of liberal ideology. Instead, I outline an historicist alternative, a “summative conception,” arguing that the liberal tradition should be seen as the “sum of the arguments that have been classified as liberal, and recognized as such by other self-proclaimed liberals, across time and space.” It is an evolving, shape-shifting, internally conflicted, body of practices and ideas. It follows that making felicitous generalisations about liberalism is difficult, though not impossible, even within a fairly narrowly defined geographical and historical context. The substantive argument that I make is that liberalism as it is typically understood today in Euro-American scholarly circles – as a tradition stretching back to early modern Europe, with John Locke its key early innovator – is a late invention, a product of the ideological wars against “Totalitarianism” in the mid-twentieth century and the development of the academic human sciences. One of the main purposes of Reordering the World is to canvass and emphasize the ideological complexity of liberal political thinking – including liberal ideologies of empire. The chapters thus analyse variations on the theme, identifying overlaps, contradictions, tensions and shared assumptions across a plethora of liberal visions. I close the volume with a call (following Charles Mills among others) to decolonize liberalism – and in particular to confront the settler legacies infusing political theory and practice.

Although the book is long, it makes no claims to exhaustiveness. I see it as an invitation to further reflection on a contested set of questions, rather than anything definitive. In the Coda, I discuss the topics and themes that would need to be fleshed out to provide anything like a comprehensive account of Victorian settler colonial visions. The list is a long one. But I hope that Reordering the World offers food for thought and opens up new lines of inquiry. I look forward to reading what the participants in the symposium make of it.


3 thoughts on “Symposium: Reordering the World

  1. Pingback: All Things to All People?: Thoughts on Liberalism and Imperialism | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism | The Disorder Of Things

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