Academics Against the Arms Fair: An Open Letter

Last week, about 1500 weapons manufacturers and representatives of more than 100 states descended on London for Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) – the world’s largest arms fair. The companies have exhibited products ranging from crowd control equipment and ammunition to fighter jets and military vehicles, which they displayed to militaries, police forces and border agencies from around the world. DSEI is a major event for the international arms trade, and the deals done there play a major role in reinforcing Western militarism, fuelling conflict, repressing dissent and strengthening authoritarian regimes.

Two weeks ago, the Stop the Arms Fair coalition held a week of action in an attempt to prevent the arms fair from taking place. Anti-militarist groups, working in solidarity with activists from countries which have suffered the brutal consequences of the arms trade, held a series of events to disrupt the setup of DSEI. One event during this week was ‘Conference at the Gates’, an academic conference held in front of the arms fair, where participants debated ideas about militarism while taking action to resist it.
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On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism

For the final post in our symposium on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World, a reply from Duncan himself. Here he responds to the commentaries from Dan Gorman, Inder S. Marwah, Lucian Ashworth, Kathy Smits and Richard Devetak. You can also read Duncan’s original summary post here. 

Before turning to the substance of the comments, I’d like to reiterate my thanks to The Disorder of Things for hosting this symposium, to Nivi Manchanda for co-ordinating it, and especially to the respondents for writing such sharp and incisive responses. It has been a pleasure to read them, and I have learnt much from each one. I am delighted that Daniel, Inder, Luke, Kathy, and Richard found value in Reordering the World. But rather than dwelling on points of agreement – and I agree with almost all of what they say! – I’ll use this brief reply to sketch out some thoughts on a few of the questions they raise.

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Trump, Russia, and the Global Right: IR’s Difficulty with the Political Present

Christopher McIntosh is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Political Studies at Bard College whose published research examines the concept of war, “terrorism,” and the intersection of time and temporality in international politics. He most recently co-edited a volume called Time, Temporality, and Global Politics, and he is currently completing a book project entitled, Theorizing the Interim: IR as Study of the Present.

Given recent events in the United States and Europe, it appears IR scholars have fallen victim, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy (among others), to an ancient “Chinese curse”: “may [you] live in interesting times.” From my position as an American citizen writing in the United States, American politics—both foreign and domestic—appears completely consumed by Trump’s actions, the moves of his “administration,” and the role of Russia in the 2016 election and potentially beyond. Nationally televised Congressional hearings during the day and seemingly daily “bombshell” news stories breaking at night have made it appear as if the US polity is in a unique, ongoing crisis. As overwhelming as it sometimes appears, as IR scholars we cannot afford to look away, as much as we might like to do so. By all accounts, these are, indeed, “interesting times.” Trump’s rise and the rise of the global right potentially upends much of what we think we know and could create a series of natural experiments that confirm or disconfirm our theories.

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Historicizing Liberalism and Empire: On Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World

This the sixth post in the forum on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and EmpireRichard Devetak is Associate Professor and Head of School of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has published on the history of international thought, contemporary theoretical debates in international relations, humanitarian intervention, the ‘war on terror’, and globalisation’s implications for justice and the state. His major contribution has been in the area of international relations theory, more specifically in the exposition and analysis of Frankfurt School Critical Theory and post-structuralism. His current research interests include: the history of international thought and the history of the states-system.

Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire is a superb study of liberalism and liberal visions of empire. For its historicization and contextualization of both liberalism and liberal empire, Bell’s Reordering the World challenges many of the theory-driven assumptions that colour contemporary political and international relations theory. Extensive knowledge of Victorian Britain and the intellectual terrain of its political thought enable Bell to cast new light not just on the past, but on our present ways of thinking – especially the ways we try to grapple with the past, deal with colonial legacies, and understand liberalism and liberal world orders.

One of the features I appreciated most about Reordering the World was its will to resist easy (or lazy) theorizing that is intended to advertise the theorist’s enlightened and postcolonial moral superiority over past thinkers. The purpose of the book is not to engage in moral or theoretical self-fashioning; rather, it is to write history – to engage with the past as a historical object of enquiry, not a philosophical or moral one. That is not to say that moral or philosophical registers are entirely absent from the book, they aren’t. But it is to say that Bell does not allow them to overwhelm or pre-empt the historical material or argument. Bell maintains a firmly and unapologetically historical approach throughout. And it is this stance, I suggest, that enables Bell to produce the insights that permit better understandings of liberalism and its colonial legacies.

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Liberalism in and out of Time

This is the fifth post on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. Dr Kathy Smits is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of several articles on liberalism and identity politics, and of Reconstructing Post-Nationalist Liberal Pluralism: From Interest to Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Applying Political Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She is currently working on projects exploring multiculturalism, biculturalism and national identity in New Zealand, and comparative multiculturalism policies in New Zealand, Australia and Britain.  

As Duncan Bell points out in the Coda to this broad-ranging, richly textured and masterly exploration of the relationship between liberalism, Empire and imperialism in nineteenth century British thought, it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld’ (371).  And yet the ways in which it has been shaped by history and political practice, at both domestic and global levels, have been very unevenly excavated and revealed.  We’re familiar with the relationship between seventeenth and eighteenth century liberalism, from Locke (although Bell tells a surprising account of Locke’s recent ascendancy in the liberal canon), and early capitalism, and with liberalism’s origins in Protestant thinking (or as Larry Siedentop has recently argued, with Christian thinking pre-Reformation.)  But its more modern development — as the dominant ideology in Anglo politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, during the period in which British colonial expansion left an ineradicable stamp of race and empire on British political and social thought — has not been fully explored until now.

Bell’s Reordering the World traces meticulously the relationship between liberal ideas, public discourse, and the legitimizations and experience of British imperialism in the mid to late 19th century.  In this period, as he shows here and in his earlier The Idea of Greater Britain[i], the development of Britain’s settler colonies shaped liberal arguments for the Empire, liberalism’s assumptions about race, and its prescriptions for world order.   This is an impressive and invaluable collection of essays, which range in subject from how we conceptualize political philosophy, to the ideas about time and space that underlie arguments for empire, to the work of academic apologists for, and critics of empire who are now almost forgotten, but who shaped debates in their day.  Bell draws on recent scholarship about the imperial and raced heritage of liberalism, but goes far beyond previous accounts.  As other contributors to this symposium have pointed out, Bell points out the ambiguities and contradictions deep within liberalism that emerge in its relationship to imperialism, looking further afield from the canon of liberal thinkers like J.S. Mill, whose complicity in the legitimization of empire has been well documented.  He examines the work of ‘public moralists’, academics, and others in the public sphere of Victorian Britain, both those who unabashedly defended the empire, and those who expressed skepticism and ambivalence.  It’s worth pointing out here that this is a study of public discourse, rather than popular social views and attitudes, and does not dislodge Bernard Porter’s argument that imperialism had a surprisingly small impact on ordinary British society.[ii]

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Reordering the World and the Canadian Question

This is the fourth post in our forum on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. Lucian Ashworth is Professor at the Department of Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of numerous books including ‘A History of International Thought. From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations’ (London: Routledge, 2014).

On 1st July 2017 the Canadian government celebrated the 150th anniversary of the coming into force of the British North America Act. This Act, the first of a series of successful attempts to federate the colonies and territories of British North America into one jurisdiction, was interpreted as Canada’s 150th birthday, and across the country both public and private entities found ways to mark the occasion. Although the government orchestration of Canada Day only dates from 1958 (when it was known as Dominion Day, and had a distinctly ‘we are British and not American’ feel to it), the choice of the day has given Canada the same kind of clear benchmark date for its beginning as the US has with the 4th of July. Yet the celebrations have not occurred without significant pushback, especially from Indigenous people. Not only do they dispute the origin date (their own histories are far older than 1867), but the intervening 150 years are seen as a cavalcade of colonization and broken promises.

Reading Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World while the year-long build up to the Canada 150 celebrations gathered steam, I could not but continue to make connections between the book’s discussion of the links between liberalism and settler colonialism, and the ongoing realities of those links in the society that I am living in. The discussions in Bell’s book are the everyday realities of living in Canada. In this sense, I live in the embodiment of what Bell calls ‘a comforting fallacy about the occupation of new lands’ that his built upon ‘a legacy of expropriation and horrific violence.’ (2016: 48) What is even more unsettling is the way that Bell is also able to demonstrate that, rather than settler colonialism being an unfortunate deviation from liberalism, the rise of liberalism (and global liberal orders) is reinterpreted as bound up with the ‘second settler empire’ that emerged after the secession of the American 13 colonies. (2016: 371-2) The settler colonies, along with the United States, were seen by liberals as expressions of the virtues and potential of the Anglo world. Even anti-imperialist British liberals would endorse settler colonialism within the Empire, (2016: 369) as the colonies were ‘reimagined as spaces of virtue and desire.’ (2016: 365)

The development of the settler societies into fully functioning settler states, according to Bell, changed the way that Indigenous resistance to colonization was treated. Before the settler state this resistance was handled from the point of view of diplomatic resolution (and war). The recognition of Indigenous societies as separate ‘nations’ has been explored well in Maya Jasanoff’s discussion of British relations with the loyalist Mohawks under Joseph Brant (2011), although the threat always existed that this relation between de jure equals would turn in to an absorption of the Mohawks into the British Empire. The new settler states did just that, turning a diplomatic relationship into a question of criminal law. Resistance was now a crime against the settler state. (2016: 365)

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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.

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