All Things to All People?: Thoughts on Liberalism and Imperialism

This is the second post in our book forum on Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. The first post by Duncan can be read here. Dan Gorman is Associate Professor in History and Political Science at the University of Waterloo and Director of the PhD programme in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He is currently working on a project which assesses the role of the UN as a venue for debates over decolonization from the end of WWII to the early 1960s.

Duncan Bell has packed a career’s worth of work on the intellectual history of Britain and its empire into the last dozen or so years.  His recent collection of essays, Reordering the World, considers the intellectual attempts by British liberal thinkers (mostly, though not entirely, Victorians) to reorder the international system through empire, and the means by which they justified and rationalized their ideas.  The essays republished in the volume have been updated to account for more recent scholarship and the evolution of Bell’s thought.  They are joined by new essays on the “dream machine” of liberal imperial thought and on the Victorian imperial publicist J.R. Seeley, whose book The Expansion of England (1883) is the exemplar of Victorian liberal imperial boosterism.  Reordering the World is not just a “scholarly greatest hits”; rather, its finely-grained and astute essays are united within a common field of interpretive focus on what Bell terms the “pathologies and potentialities of empire.” (2)

Despite imperialism’s central role in nineteenth century political discourse and world affairs, as well as its influence on the creation of the discipline of International Relations (IR), it has been conspicuously understudied by political scientists.  In a discipline that continues to position the nation-state as its theoretical alpha and omega, an examination of the constitutive role of imperial variables such as race and “civilizational” hierarchies has been left to exceptional studies by scholars such as Robert Vitalis, David Long, and Brian Schmidt whose work seeks to “desegregate” IR and reveal its imperial origins.  Yet, as Bell’s essays demonstrate, nineteenth century international relations was in many ways about imperialism, and empire remained (and, in the eyes of scholars such as Jeanne Morefield, remains) a salient category of international politics well into the twentieth century.  The “imperial turn” in historical scholarship,[1] meanwhile, has in a rich irony colonized much of the historical discipline over the past several decades.  Bell’s scholarship is so rewarding in part because he seeks to identify connections between imperialism and the disciplinary history of international relations.

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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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White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean

A guest post from Ida Danewid. Ida is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work focuses on decolonial theory, global ethics, and the politics of solidarity. She is the editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies vol. 45, and the forthcoming special issue “Racialized Realities in World Politics”. This post is based on her article White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History which won the 2017 Edward Said Award.


On the evening of the 3rd of October 2013, an overcrowded fishing boat carrying more than 500 migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa. Amongst the 368 found dead was an Eritrean woman who had given birth as she drowned. The divers found her a hundred and fifty feet down in the ocean together with her newborn baby, still attached by the umbilical cord. Her name was Yohanna, the Eritrean word for “congratulations”.

Over the last few years the Mediterranean migrant crisis has provoked numerous responses and activism; ranging from Ai Wei Wei’s life vest installation to Pope Francis’s “day of tears”, from radical activist campaigns such as “The Dead Are Coming” to Jason deCaire Taylor’s undersea sculpture museum, from the silent minute in the European parliament to #AlanKurdi. Seeking to counteract the rise of populist, far right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist political parties, a variety of scholars, activists, artists, and politicians have called for empathy and solidarity with the fate of shipwrecked migrants. By recognising and publicly mourning the lives that have been lost, they seek to “humanise” those who, like Yohanna and her baby, are swallowed by the turquoise-blue waters of “Our Sea”.

Graffiti welcoming refugees in Dublin

In international theory, these expressions of solidarity have been paralleled by a growing interest in the question of who and what counts as human. A longstanding area of concern for post- and decolonial thought, poststructuralist and feminist theorists have increasingly begun to interrogate the normative frames that cast some lives as waste, bogus, and non-human. Responding to an era shaped by the global war on terror and securitizing discourses that figure the nation-state as a body under threat, thinkers such as Judith Butler and Stephen White have argued for a new humanism, based not on the rationalist sovereign subject central to liberal political theory, but on notions of loss, grief, relationality, and bodily vulnerability. Calling for a “reconceptualization of the Left” based on precariousness as “a shared condition of human life”, Butler argues that mourning and vulnerability can serve as the new basis of political community, enabling a “we” to be formed across cultures of difference. Applied to the context of the European migrant crisis, this is an ethic of hospitality that seeks to disrupt nationalist protocols of kinship and that points towards new forms of solidarity beyond borders. As the contributors to a recent special issue on “Borders and the Politics of Mourning” make clear, grief for unknown others—for migrants—offers a radical challenge to the xenophobia and white nationalism that underwrite the necropolitical logic of the European border regime.

My research interrogates what such critical humanist interventions produce and make possible—and crucially, what they foreclose and hide from view. Building on what some activists, artists, and academics have begun to call “the Black Mediterranean”, I argue that these responses are indicative of a general problematique, endemic to both leftwing activism and academic debate, which reproduces rather than challenges the foundational assumptions of the far right. By privileging a focus on the ontological—as opposed to historical—links that bind together humankind, these ethical perspectives contribute to an ideological formation that disconnects histories that are intimately connected, and that removes from view the many afterlives of historical and ongoing colonialism. Continue reading

Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part II

Based on a paper I am co-authoring with Bryan Mabee. See Part I here.

Nation-statist militarism is the default (‘normal’) setting for militarism in international and global life.  Following Mann, this manifestation of militarism is characterized by some form of civilian control over the armed forces and a state-led economic and social mobilization of ‘destructive’ forces. (Alternative labels are ‘Westphalian militarism’ and even ‘Keynesian militarism’). In claiming the monopoly of legitimate violence, the nation-state prioritized territorial defence; planned, built and consumed from its own arsenals; and engaged in military recruitment practices that reflected and reinforced the prevailing social structures of the nation (whether professionalized or constricted).

This type subsumes what Mann refers to ‘authoritarian militarism’ and ‘liberal militarism’, his main examples coming from Europe–the absolutist polities and their twentieth century authoritarian descendants (e.g. Germany, Russia) versus the polities deriving from the constitutional regimes (e.g. Britain, France).  It even subsumes the militarisms of the post-1945 nuclear age, which include, in Mann’s terminology, sub-types like ‘deterrence-science militarism’ (‘techno-scientific militarism’) and ‘spectator sport militarism.’

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Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part I

Part I of a post based on a paper I am co-authoring with Bryan Mabee, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London. Bryan is the author of Understanding American Power (Palgrave, 2013), The Globalization of Security (Palgrave, 2009) and co-editor with Alejandro Colás, Mercenaries, Pirates, Bandits and Empires (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2010).  The paper is being prepared for “Militarism and Security,” a workshop organized later this month at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg by Anna Stravianakis (for her latest appearance on this blog see The Dissonance of Things No 3) & Maria Stern.

Update: Part II added on 18/03/17.

With Donald Trump as the president of the United States, militarism is once again becoming a hot topic. Trump’s appointment of right-wing generals to senior posts in both the White House and his cabinet legitimate militaristic policy discourses and positions, as do the president’s pronouncements about the need to “modernize” the country’s nuclear capability, put America’s enemies “on notice,” massively “rebuild” the military, hold “more military parades” in American cities, deploy the national guard to “restore order” (and possibly “hunt illegal immigrants”) and “streamline” U.S. defence exports.

And all of this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. For one thing, the Trump presidency merely empowers an already deeply militaristic and militarized American culture, one that is forever in love with guns and prisons and forever reticent to acknowledge the inherently racialized dimensions of both. For another thing, Trump’s top advisor is the “ethnonationalist” Steven Bannon, who is so influential in the White House that some describe him, tongue only halfway in cheek, as the actual president of the United States. Apparently, Bannon reasons that war between the U.S. and China is likely, given the thorny nature of international disputes in the South China Sea. One could in fact say that beneath the visible iceberg lie powerful and long-standing militarized realities—most of which have been ignored, temporized or marginalized in the earlier, ‘normal’ periods.

ABC News

Can Critical Security Studies (CSS) help us illuminate militarism in the age of Trump? On one level, yes. Militarism is central to the field’s go-to framework on securitization—meaning, the scrutiny of the ways in which constitutional or ‘normal’ politics are transformed, via speech acts, into ‘exceptions’. The above image, Trump signing the Executive Order banning immigrants, dual nationals and US residents with citizenships from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, suspend refugee admission and bar all Syrian refugees indefinitely, can be said to capture ‘exceptionalist militarism’ at work. Yet, beyond theorizing this one form of militarism, CSS has mostly been silent on the ‘classic’ concern of the literature on militarism—its sources, consequences, and the changing character.

In this two-part post we build on insights from historical sociology to develop a typology of militarism that CSS schools could consider as they try to make sense of political violence today.

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Trump’s new empire: Thoughts on American imperialism in the age of Trump. A sneak peek from Israel/Palestine

A guest post by Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir. Hagar Kotef is a Senior Lecturer of Political Theory and Comparative Political Thought at the Department of Politics and International Relations, SOAS, The University of London. She is the author of Movement and the Ordering of Freedom (Duke University Press, 2015). Dr Merav Amir is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) of Human Geography at the School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast. Her recent publication is titled “Revisiting Politicide: State Annihilation in Israel/Palestine”, and is due to be published in Territory, Politics, Governance.

In trying to understand the horror that unfolds post Trump election, two main threads seem to dominate left discourse and blogosphere. The first rightly focuses on the horror itself, on the unprecedented coup-d′état unfolding before our eyes, on the attacks on the constitution, on fascism or other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism, and on brute institutionalized racism of a regime that does not even seek to pretend it adheres to the rule of law and good governance.

Credit: GPO

Credit: GPO

All this is true, and yet this narration often fails to account for three main facts. (i) Such brutal constitutional changes and violent re-demarcations of the contours of the polity are hardly unheard-of, both historically, and at this very political moment in many places across the globe. Portraying this horror as unprecedented and unique, indeed as an unbelievable horror, is a form of American exceptionalism that plays into the normalization of violence in regions that are not considered part of the ‘West’. (ii) Many of these violent regime-changes across the globe have been occurring with at least the passive, if not the very active, involvement of consecutive US administrations. Finally, (iii) such modes of foreign “interventions” (we might want to call them wars or imperialism—“neo” or just that, “imperialism”) are often what allowed the Western metropoles of the American empire to remain largely peaceful and relatively prosperous. That is, it is by externalizing its violence that the US could be “exceptional” in the meaning suggested in (i). We should therefore be careful in reproducing a pattern in which “the real crime”, as Arendt put it in regard to a previous age of totalitarianism, was when totalitarian violence moved out of Africa (at first to Asia and then to Europe) “since here [unlike in the case of “African savages who had frightened Europeans literally out of their wit”] everyone ought to have known what they were doing.”[1]

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A Faustian Special Relationship

Donald Trump has a thing for rebuking America’s democratic allies and their leaders—his latest target being Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The UK appears to be an exception to this trend. In his first interview with the British press as president-elect, Trump explained that the UK has a “special place” in his half-Scottish heart and pledged to support a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. Reportedly a big fan of Winston Churchill—and of Boris Johnson’s Churchill Factor—he also asked the UK government to loan him a Churchill bust that his Republican predecessor George W. Bush kept in the Oval Office.

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