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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On Statues (III)

This is the third in a series of posts about statues. Because shit keeps happening. You can read the first and second posts in any order.

Thanks to Newsnight for the TL; DR version:

 

Here’s the discussion that followed:

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One striking aspect of this conversation is the degree of anxiety about the precedent value of statue removal: as Kirsty Wark asks, ‘where do you stop?’ Donald Trump wondered the same thing in a tweet that, I suspect, he hoped would be a conversation stopper:

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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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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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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.

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A Border In Every Street

This is a guest post by Sarah Keenan, who is a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London. Keenan is the author of Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging, as well as numerous articles in the fields of property law, critical race theory, gender and sexuality, migration, and the politics of Indigenous Australia.

KeenanTwo summers ago, the British government announced that it would pass laws requiring  landlords to evict tenants who do not hold valid visas. As part of her efforts to convince poor African migrants that ‘our streets are not paved with gold‘, then Home Secretary Theresa May planned to make it a criminal offence for landlords to rent to irregular migrants. This plan, which has since been implemented by the Immigration Act 2016,[1] was part of May’s professed intention of intensifying the ‘hostile environment‘ for irregular migrants that her government had begun creating with the Immigration Act 2014. As the Church of England put it, the so-called ‘right to rent’ requirement creates a border in every street.

How do we understand such borders, which are at once invisible and real, intermittent and permanent; borders that operate by attaching to individual subjects wherever they go rather than bounding off a defined physical area; borders that are internal to the nation that has already been entered. In particular, how do we understand internal borders in Britain, a political entity that as Kojo Koram has argued, ‘has never really existed as a nation, it has only really functioned as an empire‘; an empire which once sought to extend its borders to encompass as much of the world as possible? As the empire crumbled, patterns of migration shifted from white British subjects moving out to colonise the world, to brown and black British subjects moving from resource-depleted home countries to the island motherland, seeking work and a better life. The British state responded to this arrival of non-white subjects with increasingly restrictive immigration laws which have the maintenance of white supremacy at their core. Immigration law has then combined with other areas of law to increasingly and literally restrict the physical space in which non-white subjects are able to safely exist on this island. Examining the hostile environment produced by the internal borders of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts helps us to make sense of the means through which law produces racist landscapes in which material spatial boundaries exist for particular subjects and not others. Beginning with a brief discussion of how legal geography, critical race theory and critical disability studies assist in understanding the relationship between law, space and the human subject, I put forward the concept of ‘taking space with you’ as a way to understand the racist British landscape in which we live today.

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