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  • What Was Liberalism, and Who Was Its Subject?; Or, Will the Real Liberal Subject Please Stand Up?
  • James Vernon (bio)

These days it seems many of us are writing about the history of liberalism in Victorian Britain and its empire. We cannot explain this by the relentless self-importance of Victorian liberals who truly did believe that they could and should reform, improve, and civilize the world. Neither can we put it down to those modernization theories, so fashionable in the decades following World War II, which reified Britain's combination of rapid industrialization, imperial expansion, and relative political stability as an exemplary liberal model of modernity. While Marxists highlighted the social costs of this liberal modernity, as well as its dependence on a coercive state, their focus remained chiefly on the drama of class struggle. It was the theory wars of what we might term "the long 1980s"—the promiscuous influences of Foucault, feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and queer theories—that returned our attentions to liberalism by articulating a new critique of its disciplinary and exclusionary nature, its imperialisms, and its rule of freedom. And, of course, liberalism has returned in different guises to the politics of our contemporary world. Liberal universalism has been rehabilitated as the basis for ethical and political action through the discourse of human rights (and the theorization of cosmopolitanism) as well as the economic and political forms of the neo-liberalism that has come to dominate so much of the world since at least 1989.

And yet, for all its prevalence, "liberalism" remains a remarkably imprecise term that is frequently alluded to but rarely specified. Those studying liberalism from different disciplines, subdisciplines, and theoretical traditions approach it differently and are rarely in conversation with each other, even if they work on a singular place and [End Page 303] time like Victorian Britain.1 One of the many virtues of Elaine Hadley's consistently engaging Living Liberalism is its determination to draw upon the insights of political theorists, historians, and literary critics to pin down what liberalism was in a historically specific way.2 Hadley focuses not on liberalism generally but on what she describes as political liberalism in mid-Victorian Britain between the 1850s and 1880s. Note that Hadley's political liberalism is lower case. It does not refer to the politics of the Liberal Party formed at this moment.3 Neither does it refer to the ideology or ideas long associated with liberalism: a laissezfaire political economy organized around free trade and the gold standard; the quest for cheap, rational, and meritocratic government through financial and administrative reforms; the politics of opinion moderated by constitutional mechanisms of representation; freedom of religion within moralized secular forms like rational recreation; and, of course, the injunction to civilize and improve the world through various forms of imperialism.

Instead Hadley is interested in how the formal domain of the political was conceived and what was expected of those who were to participate in it. Living with liberalism entailed living up to "how liberal politics in the mid-century imagined its liberalized subjects to operate" (3). This was not about adherence to a particular idea or party but to a way of being in the world. The subjects of liberal politics were expected to think for themselves and act as individuals, not as representatives or members of a wider collectivity or community. It is Hadley's contention that the liberal subject was individuated in this way by the production of a way of thinking that she terms "liberal cognition" (9). It was the specific forms, techniques, and conventions that promoted this frame of mind—characterized by, for example, its powers of disinterestedness, abstraction, logical reasoning, and sincerity—that made a liberal subject capable of forming his or her own individual opinion.4 As "political liberalism wished to mobilize the individual of abstract thought in the realm of the concrete and everyday" (20), these remarkably formalized ways of thinking were also grounded in bodily and material practices (captured in the demanding phrase "abstract embodiment" [16]). The book's best examples of these processes, and to my mind the best chapters, focus on the Fortnightly Review's staging of a plurality...


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