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

This the fifth and final guest post in the forum on Duncan Bell’s book: Liberalism and Empire. Richard 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.

Continue reading

Liberalism in and out of Time

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]

Continue reading

Reordering the World and the Canadian Question

This is the third guest 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)

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things. 

The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.

‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’

Continue reading