Booker’s Bitter Legacy: British Guiana after Empire

A guest post from Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Ben researches trade and development with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is author of Sugar (Polity, 2015) and is currently completing an ERSC project Working Beyond the Border: European Union Trade Agreements and International Labour Standards on which this post is based.   


Awarded annually for the best novel in the English language, the Man Booker Prize has established itself as a major event in the British cultural calendar. Its fiftieth anniversary was commemorated accordingly: a documentary on the BBC; a festival at the Southbank Centre; a reception at Buckingham Palace for former winners. But the prize harbours a darker history, one which this Anglocentric story of literary triumph firmly seals within the distant past. The prize takes its name from its initial sponsor, Booker McConnell, one of the preeminent companies of the British empire. The commercial lifeblood of Booker had been sugar and its heartland was British Guiana, a colony on the northern tip of South America. Indeed, so dominant was the company in the country’s affairs that it became known simply as ‘Booker’s Guiana’.

Bringing a rare shaft of light onto this imperial relationship, the winner of the Booker Prize in 1977, John Berger, used his acceptance speech to publicly denounce the company’s exploitative practices in what by then had become the independent state of Guyana. Fusing race and class politics, he symbolically dedicated half his prize money to the Black Panthers and their ongoing resistance in the West Indies “both as black people and workers”. While Berger’s intervention retains critical force, it requires contemporary renewal. Booker’s has long since gone, divesting from the country and diversifying into other activities like wholesaling, slowly erasing public memory of their colonial past. For Guyana meanwhile, the preeminent issue in the sugar industry is no longer exploitation but expulsion, with mounting economic pressures linked to trade reforms in Europe erupting in plantation closures, mass redundancy and political discontent. The ongoing celebration of the Man Booker Prize thus provides a way to reconnect these developmental stories and consider again what the legacies of British imperialism mean for both modern-day Guyana and the UK.

Formerly owned by the father of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Wales sugar estate was closed in 2017. Source: author.

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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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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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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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The EU Referendum: Brexit’s Imperial Delusions

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


haastrupOur next guest contributor is Toni Haastrup. Toni is Lecturer in International Security and a Deputy Director of the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent. Her current research focuses on: the gendered dynamics of institutional transformation within regional security institutions especially in Europe and Africa; feminist approaches to IR; and the politics of knowledge production about the subaltern. She is author of Charting Transformation through Security: Contemporary EU-Africa Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and coeditor, with Yong-Soo Eun, of Regionalizing Global Crises (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


One key aspect of the EU referendum debate has been the rise of competing narratives about Britain’s role in the world inside and outside of the EU. On the Brexit side, campaigners argue that escaping the EU would revive Britain’s standing, allowing it to reconfigure relations with Europe, strengthen existing non-European partnerships, and forge new ones. These claims rest on a series of self-delusions about Britain’s capacity to unilaterally set the terms of its international partnerships. Brexiteers willfully ignore those prospective partners who say that a post-Brexit UK would be a less attractive partner. Their narrative seems to rest more on imperial delusions than solid ground – and it is hardly a narrative appropriate for a truly democratic, internationalist country.

A Part of Europe, Apart from the EU: What is Possible?

Pro-Brexit campaigners often suggest that if the UK were to leave the EU, it could fashion a new kind of relationship with Europe similar to the one Norway enjoys. Norway is viewed as a country that has maintained its sovereignty while remaining a close partner of the EU.

But of course, Norway is different. It is a thriving smaller country that is dependent on oil reserves that are much larger than the UK’s. Further, Norway negotiated a very specific entry into the European Economic Association (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). If the UK was to depart, a relationship with the rest of western Europe especially in the context of EFTA is possible, but it is not automatic. Further, a relationship between the UK and other countries that currently exists only in the context of a regional EU relationship will have to be renegotiated, with no guarantee that the UK will indeed be better off outside the EU.

Those in favour of staying within the EU, or Bremain, thus rightly question this narrative as one that is based on uncertainty and the UK’s self-imagining, rather than the realities of the international environment. The idea that Britain would regain its sovereignty way from the EU is a myth whose consequence even the Norwegians warn against.

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