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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Canada and the Anglo World—the Brexit Edition

Mother, stepmother, perfidious Albion—whatever metaphor one prefers to employ, Britain has always been important to Canada. But what is Canada to Britain? It depends on whom you ask.

This post originally appeared on Open Canada.

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More Groundings

The final piece, and rejoinder, in The Disorder Of Things forum on The Black Pacific.


I have to say, I really didn’t know what to expect from my interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because I have little idea what kind of response to expect from the book and who its readership might be. In any case, these varied and passionate responses are a joy to engage with.

Heloise, you not only provide a lucid introduction to some of the key themes and provocations of my book; you also usefully connect its arguments to broader intellectual and political currents in the world of development, especially regarding indigenous struggles in and over the Americas. Olivia, you provide a striking engagement with the politics of intellectual investment, one that in many ways exceeds the strictures of my book to become a general mediation upon ethics and method. Ajay, you poetically and critically reflect on solidarity building across/besides territory and culture, and in so doing you begin to ask pertinent questions about “groundings” with reference to Turtle Island. Krishna, yours unfolds as a forceful defence of the urgency to focus intellectually upon the materiality of dispossession.

I’m going to engage with your response, Krishna, at some length. But firstly, I want to call attention to and amplify some of the questions that Olivia and Ajay ask.

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The Black Pacific: Thinking Besides the Subaltern

The first in a forum on Robbie’s recently released The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (Bloomsbury, 2015). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming week.


May 1979. A Black theatre troupe from London called Keskidee, along with a RasTafari band called Ras Messengers, land at Auckland airport, Aotearoa New Zealand. They have been invited by activists to undertake a consciousness-raising arts tour of predominantly Māori and Pasifika communities. They are driven almost immediately to the very tip of the North Island. There, at a small hamlet called Te Hāpua, Keskidee and Ras Messengers are greeted by Ngati Kuri, the local people of the land. blk1An elder introduces his guests to the significance of the place where they now stand. Cape Reinga is nearby, where departing souls leap into the waters to find their way back to Hawaiki, the sublime homeland. The elder wants to explain to the visitors that, although they hold an auspicious provenance – the Queen of England lives amongst them in London – Ngāti Kuri live at ‘the spiritual departure place throughout the world’. The elder concludes with the traditional greeting of tātou tātou – ‘everyone being one people’. Rufus Collins, director of Keskidee, then responds on behalf of the visitors:

You talked of your ancestors, how they had taken part in our meeting, and I do agree with you because if it was not for them you would not be here. You talked of our ancestors, taking part and making a meeting some place and somewhere; the ancestors are meeting because we have met. I do agree with you.

But Collins also recalls the association made betweenblk2 the visitors and English royalty, and there he begs to differ: ‘we are here despite the Queen’. Then the Ras Messengers begin the chant that reroutes their provenance from the halls of Buckingham Palace to the highlands of Ethiopia: “Rastafari come from Mount Zion.”

This meeting is emblematic of the story that I tell of The Black Pacific wherein Maori and Pasifika struggles against land dispossession, settler colonialism and racism enfold within them the struggles of African peoples against slavery, (settler) colonialism and racism. Sociologically, historically and geographically speaking, these connections between colonized and postcolonized peoples appear to be extremely thin, almost ephemeral. But those who cultivate these connections know otherwise. How do they know?

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Pacific Redemption Songs

Te Hau

“Te Hau” by Abby Wendy

A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.

Chauncey Huntley from Ras Messengers showing the Rakau (traditional sticks) that he was gifted thirty years previously

Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsdenhau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.

A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.

Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.

Keskidee 13

Keskidee perform in New Zealand

This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.

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