Liberalism and Empire, at the Intersection of Theory and History

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.

What Duncan adds, both widely (in the analytical and thematic chapters populating Parts I and II) and narrowly (in Part III’s treatments of particular thinkers), is complexity, clarity, and depth.  This is, to my mind, the advance that Reordering the World makes: it carves out what David Scott describes as a new problem-space to which critical inquiry might respond today.  Where postcolonial critics have drawn out the modern world’s imperial constitution and where others have illuminated liberalism’s particular implications, their very successes enjoin us to refine our focus.  Duncan’s contribution, in this respect, is to sharpen our critical lens.  By examining their fissures and contestations, he shows us the more particular ways that distinctive liberalisms encouraged or resisted imperialism – or, sometimes, both.  This resists falling back on an overly broad liberal imperialism that fails to identify the relevant site of domination, obscuring the problems that ought to concern us.  Locke, Kant, Mill and Spencer, to name just a few of the liberal pantheon’s stars, all held reprehensible and problematic views non-Europeans; but they’re not at all the same problems, and they don’t entail the same moral and political consequences.  Submerging them under a singular, Eurocentric liberal imperialism conceals their distinctive harms and diminishes our capacity to recognize and respond to them.

Beyond complexifying our critical standpoint, Duncan’s careful contextualism also induces a perspectival shift.  Much of the literature, for very good reason, focuses on questions of race, Eurocentrism and domination; they’re the concerns of a postcolonial era.  But it’s worth remembering that they’re our questions, and that our critical focus can distort our view of the imperial imaginary.  This isn’t to suggest that such criticism is presentist, or that it necessarily succumbs to the myth of prolepsis against which Quentin Skinner cautions us.  It’s rather a reminder that the questions surrounding those imperial projects are not those we ask of them.  By refocusing our attention, Duncan shows that our concerns don’t always – or even often – capture the era’s tenor and assumptions. 


For all of these reasons, Reordering the World will shape future discussions on liberalism and empire – particularly, I will venture to hope, in its injunction to widen beyond the canonical thinkers whose long shadow has blinkered our view of the empire’s center of gravity: the settler colonies, and not India.  For all of the critical oxygen taken up by liberalism’s historicist Eurocentrism, Duncan pulls us toward the no less problematic schemes of union between Britain and the colonies – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and at a stretch, the United States – bound together, ultimately, by Anglo-Saxon commonality.  Race goes to the heart of the imperial project, but in perhaps more complex and troubling ways than are entirely captured in the subcontinent; the grander variant lay in the dream of a federative, globe-spanning Greater Britain whose surface linkages – political, moral, institutional, legal – were invariably underwritten by racial unity.  Beyond its historical value, Duncan’s recovery is not without its contemporary saliency, given Bush-era ambitions to export democracy and the pan-Saxonism, barely scrubbed of the veneer of race, sustaining Niall Ferguson’s impressively unreflexive defense of “Anglobalization”.  As Britain becomes unmoored from the continent and drifts ever closer to Trump’s shores, it’s not hard to see that the dream of an Anglosphere might have faded, but is far from dead and buried.

But this isn’t quite what I want to talk about.  While Reordering is engaging and illuminating across many registers, I’m going to avoid the more substantive of them, where Duncan’s scholarship leaves little to add.  I want to instead weigh in on a methodological question that the book raises somewhat more obliquely – that is, on the relationship between political theory and contextualist intellectual history in the study of liberalism and empire (this would be the place to mention that I’m a political theorist).  While certainly tilting toward the latter more than the former, Reordering sits at their juncture, and as such, captures their strengths and weaknesses; it leans on their points of tension, which are, I think, worth drawing out.

Because each has its own inflection; each shines its own light on its own set of concerns, for better and worse.  Much of the pioneering work in political theory addressing liberalism’s imperial entanglements – conceptual, historical, political, and, given its focus on a narrow set of canonical thinkers, biographical – aims, to some degree or another, to clarify the nature (or depth) of liberalism’s connection to empire through a close engagement with a few seminal figures.  And so, we have James Tully’s magisterial exposition of “500 years of relentless tyranny” [[i]], Kantian in tenor but running through “the traditions of Kant, Mill, and Spencer” [[ii]]; Jennifer Pitts’ and Uday Singh Mehta’s path-breaking critiques of 19th century imperialist liberals [[iii]]; Sankar Muthu’s recovery of anti-imperial Enlightenment luminaries in the liberal vein, such as Kant and Diderot [[iv]]; Karuna Mantena’s treatment of a post-1857 culturalist turn in liberal imperialism [[v]]; Bhikhu Parekh’s excoriation of “the narrowness of liberalism from Mill to Rawls”, projected forward (to Joseph Raz, Brian Barry, Ronald Dworkin and Michael Walzer) and backward (to Locke) [[vi]]; Thomas McCarthy’s contention that “the mainstream of liberal thought, running from Locke through Mill to contemporary neoliberalism has continually flowed into and out of European-American imperialism” [[vii]]; Jeanne Morefield’s scintillating analysis of the stubbornly deflective politics of 20th century liberal imperialists [[viii]]; and so on.  Each in its own way touches on the question of whether liberalism is contingently (historically, non-implicitly) or necessarily (conceptually, as a consequence of its internal logic) related to imperialism and political domination – what Duncan describes, respectively, as the “contingency” and “necessity” theses (21).  It’s an important question and it’s ultimately a forward-looking one, in the sense that Scott captures in suggesting that all such critical work marshals a particular past to answer present questions set by the exigencies of a desired future.  In this case, it’s the question of whether liberalism might be dis-imbricated from its historical failures and injustices, or whether we should aim, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, to transcend liberalism, however we might go about doing that.

Really, it’s a question of justice: we want to know whether or not liberalism can be made just.  So we turn back to the canonical thinkers that make up the “tradition” (itself a retrospectively-generated and ideologically-motivated artifact of the mid-20th century, Duncan argues), re-read them more carefully (and more contextually), and try to get to the heart of hearts of their liberalisms – and ultimately, of liberalism itself [[ix]].  From this standpoint, we glean liberal imperialism’s central features: hubristic, chauvinistic, and historicist, moved by an unbridled faith in European civilization and in the world’s eventual convergence with (or subjection to) it.  And this generates a particular view of liberalism and empire’s conceptual relationship: both Parekh and Mehta, for instance, see liberalism’s “immanent” impulses – its overconfidence, rationalism, individualism, developmentalism, and market-orientation – as implicitly imperialistic; the Mills couldn’t help but to be imperialists, the story goes, given their philosophical commitments as liberals (or in more charitable readings, as particular kinds of liberals).  While certainly among its starker iterations, Mehta’s and Parekh’s shared view is illustrative: much of the political theory surrounding empire is, unsurprisingly, concerned with (and driven by) the question of justice.  It’s the critical question: what, in liberalism, makes it compatible with – or, more strongly, complicit in – imperialism?  It’s the question we ask to get to the bottom of what in liberalism troubles us (in this respect, at least), and what we might do in response.

But this very impulsion – this framing of the question, and the presumptions on which it rests – also all too easily over-determines the relationship.  Contextualist intellectual histories such as Duncan undertakes here show us that liberalism isn’t one thing, and neither is imperialism; both are mutable, contradictory and protean all the way down.  Liberalism contains a much wider array of ideals, norms and values than the canonical route tends to recognize, driven as it is to burrow down to its “essential” conceptual features; there is, however, no more a center to liberalism than to any other comparably complex theoretical assemblage.  Far from being reducible to any core set of commitments, 19th century liberalisms incorporated facets of socialism, conservatism, positivism, romanticism and innumerable other influences; liberal principles and projects were frequently at odds with one another, and liberals themselves often opposed imperial power.  The neat equivalence between liberalism and empire is further troubled by the fact that many liberals, such as Herbert Spencer, were both vociferous critics of imperialism and staunch advocates of settler colonialism; liberals not only supported and resisted imperialism, but also supported and resisted particular aspects of it.  When we pivot from Locke, Kant and Mill to Seeley, Freeman, and Froude, we start to see liberalism’s pervasive slipperiness and near-limitless plasticity.


We also see its partners in crime, and the tenuousness of its ostensibly natural affinities with empire: liberalism, Duncan shows, was only one among many ideologies from which it drew sustenance.  Where Mehta treats the Mills’ pedagogical imperialism as a direct corollary of their liberalism, Duncan excavates, for instance, J. A. Froude’s distinctively republican arguments for empire.  Froude’s imperialism had no share in the developmentalist paternalism bridging the Mills’ liberalism and imperialism (in India), but was rather articulated in the vernacular of civic republicanism, responding to concerns with radical individualism, commercialism and declining public virtue, rather than civilizational progress.  He was not alone: as Duncan argues in Chapter 6, Queen Victoria served as the iconographic lynchpin of a civic humanist (or “civic imperial” (151)) strand of imperialism running through the mid- and late-19th century.  J. R. Seeley’s advocacy for empire was religiously inflected and shaped more by German and English romanticisms than by any strictly “liberal” commitments.  Liberalism, then, appears no more or less tilted toward empire than any other ideological persuasion.

Finally, Duncan’s contextualism reveals the extraordinary tensions and instabilities of an empire precariously perched on a razor’s edge, always just a hair’s breadth away from coming apart at the seams; running an empire, it seems, was an anxious business.  Mehta and Pitts very effectively elaborate liberalism’s hubristic overconfidence, exemplified in a given cast of seminal thinkers.  The turn to “minor” figures, conversely, draws out the empire’s insecurities, dissensions and opacities (such profound opacities that “[c]olonial despatches went unanswered, colonial governors reported crises, complained of their wrongs, and even died, without the minister seeming to be aware of the fact” [[x]]).  Duncan’s careful histories show the flip side of liberal imperialism’s monolithic civilizational vision – the patchwork of conflicting ideas and strained loyalties just barely stitched together by any number of often half-baked artifices.  From racial commonality, to imperial citizenship, to shared fealty to a “patriot Queen”, to common institutions, few social glues, however unlikely, were left untapped.  With every passing chapter, the sense of foreboding enveloping our imperialist protagonists deepens: far from self-assured hegemon, the empire was for the most part figured as “a space of permanent crisis” (171) stretched thin on justifiability and commitment, and constantly fraying at the edges.  Its very form – what it was at all – was itself unclear: federative union, isopolity, Teutonic brotherhood, or democratic union, imperialists conceptualized the political entity they were so busy crafting in entirely haphazard and conflicting ways.  They also expended a great deal of energy trying to square the evident contradictions entailed by so elliptical a conjunction as an “empire of liberty” and warding off the centripetal pull that history suggested almost certainly would sink it.  This is what we stand to miss: for all of its Eurocentric bravura, the empire was also deeply insecure, “fragile, beset on all sides” (137).  Ironically enough, Duncan reveals a certain truth in the old chestnut that Britain simply awoke to discover itself an empire; few of its proponents appear to have had much of an idea of what in the hell the empire was, let alone how to govern it, or even just hold it together.

That said, contextualism carries its own limitations.  Like all methodological choices, it comes at a cost; exactitude in one realm can’t help but to push other options out, and it’s worth reflecting on what we lose when that happens.  My concern is that for all of the historical and analytical transparency that we gain, what we get less of is critical purchase.  The trouble with such careful contextualism is that it leaves little space for critical evaluation, for responding to the questions of justice that we might well be concerned with.

Contextualism illuminates, clarifies, and constrains.  What it doesn’t do, in a certain sense, is argue.  It abandons the ambition to clarify for the sake of resisting domination, and without that, the reader can be left wondering what exactly we’re to draw out of the complex histories that Duncan lays bare.  He argues that “a comprehensive contextualist analysis of liberalism should provide a framework for grasping the diverse ways in which liberal languages emerge, evolve, and come into conflict with one another, rather than trying to distil an ahistorical set of liberal commitments from conceptual or canonical investigation” (69).  While I entirely agree with the caution, we can surely be concerned with those languages’ implications.  To my mind, the value in better grasping them lies not only in achieving clarity, but in considering their consequences as patterns of thought that extend these forms of domination into the present.  Our concern with liberal imperialism surely isn’t just analytical, in understanding those logics, but also serves to alert us to their continuities in contemporary contexts.  In its reluctance to overstep, contextualism can limit us to defining and boundary-drawing, rather than addressing the substantive injustices pervading certain liberal goals and ambitions.  This speaks to a tension that runs throughout the book: we learn a great deal about liberalism and empire, but are offered somewhat less direction in thinking about how that might steer us toward less of the domination exposed.

This is, to be sure, an unfair criticism; it isn’t exactly Duncan’s project.  But it’s not unrelated to it either.  The book pursues, in his words, “a conviction that studying their ideas can shed light on key moments and movements in the past, while also helping to inform contemporary political thinking” (364).  He undoubtedly excels at the first, but I’m less clear on how that shapes the second.  This isn’t, of course, to suggest that Duncan should develop any kind of normative account of, or firm stance on, liberalism as it relates to imperialism; the book’s strength lies precisely in upending the untenable characterization of liberalism’s singularity.  But in the end, I couldn’t shake the political theory question (disciplinary training dies hard), qualified by contextualist circumspection: can some liberalisms – plural – be made just?  Duncan elucidates what liberalism and imperialism are, undoubtedly a valuable exercise in a field beset by conceptual ambiguities; but he’s less clear on their relationship, and on that relationship’s consequences.  Are certain liberalisms entangled with imperialism, or do they entail it [[xi]]?  In “The Dream Machine” he carefully schematizes other theorists’ answers, but given his concerns and interests, I can’t help but to want more on his own.  I entirely agree that “sweeping claims about the imperial logic inherent in liberalism, or of the essential connection between liberal political thought and empire, need to be treated with caution” (262-263); but I nonetheless wonder about Duncan’s take on how some liberal logics lend themselves to greater or lesser forms of domination, both in the past and in the present.

[i] James Tully, On Global Citizenship: James Tully in Dialogue (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 32.

[ii] James Tully, “Lineages of Contemporary Imperialism.” In Lineages of Empire: The Historical Roots of British Imperial Thought, edited by Duncan Kelly (Oxford, 2009), 27.

[iii] Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005), Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[iv] Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton University Press, 2003).

[v] Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton, 2010).

[vi] Bhikhu Parekh, “Decolonizing Liberalism A Critique of Locke and Mill.” In The End Of “Isms”? Reflections on the Fate of Ideological Politics after Communism’s Collapse, edited by Alexander Shtromas, 85-103 (Blackwell, 1994); Parekh, “Superior People: The Narrowness of Liberalism from Mill to Rawls.” Times Literary Supplement, 25 February 1994.

[vii] McCarthy, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge, 2009), 169.

[viii] Jeanne Morefield, Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection (Oxford, 2014).

[ix] While this might sound rather critical, most of my own work falls under this description – the “we” here includes me.

[x] D.M. Young, The Colonial Office in the Early Nineteenth Century (Longman, Green and Co, 1961), 12. I’m indebted to Keally McBride for this reference.

[xi] My thanks to Burke Hendrix for this formulation of the question.


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