Liberalism and its malcontents

A book that will have a long-term bearing on contemporary political thought and the history of the “empire”.

Published : Sep 14, 2016 12:30 IST

THE submission of the nation state to the control of neo-colonialism, or the cosmopolitan, multidimensional set-up of power, can be aptly termed as “empire”. Empire, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is founded on “a global network of collaborating powers, including the dominant nation states, the major capitalist corporations, and the supranational institutions, along with various local and regional powers”. These institutions team up to protect the interests of the powerful. Underneath the facade of free trade, peace and democracy, there remains a permanent state of war, manipulation and authoritarianism.

Duncan Bell bases his study on considerable resources. Thanks to his style of reasoning, his collection of essays, written over a decade, have a long-term bearing on contemporary political thought and the history of “empire”. The concept of empire emerges first through language and self-representation, which constitute the discourse behind the science of imperialism and also its defence. If such is the case, the political historian must reject the ongoing propaganda of misrepresentation approved by the imperialist powers in their fabrication of stereotypes of liberalism and look into the future as visionaries of a world free from abuse and control. The solution to empire is the recognition of true egalitarianism, “the rule of everyone by everyone, a democracy without qualifiers”.

In what is a preeminent study of the social and political construction of the world, Bell goes way beyond the typical discussions by demonstrating the shifting definitions of empire and the political ramifications of conquest. In a detailed historical and political analysis of colonial interventions in human history, he meticulously “unpicks” the connections that lie at the heart of both imperialism and human freedom. It is indeed a brilliant amalgam of history and politics, thought-provoking and relevant at a juncture when the nation and its concept are subjects of passionate, wide-reaching debate and of profound interest to sociologists and postcolonial theorists. These issues are taken up within the discussions on nationalism and identity and on problems of recognition of the democratic constitutional state without the misapprehension that the old imperial order has passed and a “New World Order” awaits us as liberal democracy takes firm root.

EMPIRES: Rise & fall

Reordering the World is a reminder of the photograph of the British monarch on stamps from India, Rhodesia, and Jamaica, throwing light on the idea of the British Empire and Western hegemony. The empire disintegrated with the rise of national movements for independence. The Suez Canal crisis of 1956 led to the British and the French entering into a military conflict with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, only to be admonished by the United States, which made a push for a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the premeditated motive of displacing Britain as the world hegemon. It is here that we see the fall of one empire and the rise of another. A further blow to Europe came with the rise of American capitalism. International capitalism would no longer be controlled from Europe. From now on, international politics and economic dominance would be in the hands of the U.S. And then came the European Union, a collaborative effort to become yet another power with the trappings of the empire. Who can tell if the rise of another power, ready to redraw the structural design of the world, lies around the corner?

Bell argues that technological development in the long 19th century enabled European nations to make forays into Africa, the Americas and Asia. This was the era of the empire, and London was the hub of international trade. Bell draws attention to the ideological conflict “which was fought over the bitterly contested terrain of empire”.

His focus is on the British political thinkers from Bentham to Hobson, from Macaulay to Mill, and from Spencer to Sedgwick, all of whom emphasised the politics of liberalism and governance. It is for this reason that 19th century Britain became “a vital site for exploring the connection between political thought and empire in general, and liberal visions of empire in particular”. Understandably, Britain’s planetary reach “provided both a practical laboratory and a space of desire for liberal attempts to reorder the world”. However, it could rightly be surmised that though there was a surfeit of academic lecturing and debate on the subject of liberalism in Britain, the passion for overseas exploitation remained unquenchable until independence movements across the colonised world mounted an onslaught on the British Empire.

Bell thus demonstrates the dichotomy operating at the heart of the British Empire, with utmost academic support for the validity of conquest on the one hand and on the other, discourse of liberalism that underpinned the colonial enterprise. British scholars remained preoccupied with their continuous “probe of the intellectual justification of empire”. Through his detailed study of archival material consisting of letters, periodicals, books and speeches, Bell takes a close look at the Victorian and Edwardian periods, usually regarded as the “age of empire”, which Eric Hobsbawm emphasised.

Bell goes on to survey the sway of such political thought on the present, especially with the resurrection of a deep-seated interest in empire and nation in the context of the new wave of postcolonial studies in the 1980s. Political theory indeed had remained silent on the resurgence of decolonisation in the post-war period that “overturned many of the governing norms and institutions that had shaped the architecture of the world order for five centuries”.

Liberal-imperial collaboration

What became important for political thinkers was the “meaning and consequences” of empire, especially in the context of the discovery of the Americas. Interestingly, “mainstream approaches to the subject, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, continue to argue the nature of justice, democracy, and rights, while ignoring the ways in which many of the ideas and institutions of contemporary politics have been (de)formed or inflected by centuries of Western imperialism”. This focus on justice and liberty ignores the tyranny of dominance. It is commonly realised that the democratic institutions of politics have been negatively impacted by the “canon” of Western thought that works in connivance with political power and colonial politics.

This paradox of complicity with violence and oppression coexisting with the discourse of liberalism finds a vivid parallel in the contemporary world where the idea of humanitarian intervention turns ominously into a war against terrorism, the genocide of innocents, the West Asian crisis, and the mass displacement of millions—all results of neoliberalism which has through globalisation given rise to poverty, hunger and disease.

This contradiction, argues Bell, has led to worldwide skepticism towards the master narrative of liberalism, which needs to be questioned for its strategic collaboration with the doctrine of imperialism, a kind of “welcome antidote to imperial ambitions”.

Bell shows how various shades of liberalism found in the “liberal Whig ideology” of Macaulay or the “radical liberalism” of John Stuart Mill speak in favour of political ethics, commitment to individual liberty, the rule of law and belief in moral and political progress but also patronisingly assert that colonisation leads to civilisational advancement. Empire, therefore, in their hands became a subject simultaneously of “denunciation and celebration”, a concern that does not lose sight of progressive ideas of race, nationality, gender, but simultaneously makes a forceful case for the historical necessity of imperialism, an idea that Marx, too, favoured for the transition from feudalism to industrialisation.

Nineteenth-century thought, therefore, while underplaying the role of colonialism, emphasised the predominant discourse of empire intended to “bolster specific political projects”. Bell’s study underscores the hegemonic nature of the U.S. and Britain and their agenda of making the world validate them as the “empire” that sets the rules. The age of empire comes back full circle when powerful nations embark on another political adventure of reordering the world.

The time is ripe to counter the oppression of globalisation with a new language of resistance drawing on indigenous cultures and discourses of diversity, ecology and dignity.

In this great globalisation debate, we have to ask the pertinent question: “Who rules, and in whose interests and to what ends?” Drawing on philosophy’s long-standing concern with pluralism and relativism, Bell’s views signal the advent of a more inclusive society and abolition of racist presuppositions.

Though Bell puts forward a thesis that largely supports the notion of the end of borders and international free trade movements, the developing world still struggles against the fences manipulated by the rich. This view echoes Joseph Stieglitz’s rejoinder in his book Globalisation and its Discontents , where he attacks policies under neoliberalism that help in the imposition of economic severity on depressed economies, leading to substantial social violence.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment