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  • Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire by Duncan Bell
  • Vikram Visana
Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. By duncan bell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 456 pp. $39.50 (hardcover).

Duncan Bell's new book, comprising of twelve collected essays, investigates the relationship between liberalism and empire in the Nineteenth Century. Bell's most recent offering comes after two decades of very fruitful research by scholars investigating the complex, often counter-intuitive, and contradictory relationship of the ostensibly universal values of individual freedom, rationality, and personal [End Page 260] responsibility, with imperialism. Yet, Bell augments his previous work on British political thought in the international sphere, The Idea of Greater Britain, and continues to make important interventions in this evolving historiography.1 Indeed, this volume largely collates the author's previous contributions to the debate. As such, there are instances of overlap with Bell's earlier work and between the essays of the volume itself; these instances of repetition notwithstanding, the book's focus on settler colonialism as an issue which held the attention of Victorian and Edwardian liberal thinkers does give the book a novel and coherent intellectual framework.

The book is divided into three complementary sections. The first, "Frames," discusses the historiographical background to the topic, the definition of "liberalism," and various justifications and challenges to empire. The second section, "Themes," addresses some of the broader changes that occurred in the political imaginary of thinkers at the time. It is really this section that gives the book a claim to world history—discussing the revisionist imperial historicism of the Victorian era; the relationship between a patriotic monarchy and colonial order; the reconfiguration of imperial space; and an Anglo-American vision for international governance. The final section, "Thinkers," addresses the views of J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, Herbert Spencer, J. R. Seeley, J. A. Froude, E. A. Freeman, J. A. Hobson, and L. T. Hobhouse on global liberal order.

The initial chapter of the first section was written specifically for the book; in it, Bell very usefully subdivides and compares earlier scholarship on the relationship between liberalism and empire into "rejectionist," "necessary," and "contingent" paradigms (p. 21). "Rejectionism" insists that liberalism is essentially emancipatory. Imperial apologists ostensibly turned their backs on liberalism in order to promote overseas expansion. The "necessary" thesis, by contrast, suggests that the historicising telos of liberalism was inherently exclusionary whenever it encountered the strangeness of non-Western cultures. This thesis is most closely associated with Uday Singh Mehta.2 As the name suggests, the "contingency" perspective focuses very much on the context in which liberal ideas are formulated—or received and reformulated. Therefore, liberal arguments can tend [End Page 261] toward colonial expropriation or emancipation depending on the who, when, where, and why of their articulation.3

Adopting the "contingency" approach, Bell chooses to focus on the historical specificity of nineteenth-century settler colonialism in the Victorian liberal imagination and its production of a particular variety of sociological preoccupations within the imperial and international order. This, as theorists like Seeley claimed, set them apart from old dependencies like India. The focus on the settler empire and Bell's disaggregation of often competing and contradictory liberal theories seem to offer a strong and welcome counter-argument to Mehta's brand of historical abstraction, which traces liberalism's original sin well into the Seventeenth Century. In "What is Liberalism?," the third chapter of Bell's book, he defiantly places John Locke's seventeenth-century providentialism outside of liberalism's founding story (as, indeed, did most nineteenth-century liberals like Mill); instead, linking liberalism's modern rise to the radically emancipatory impulses of the late eighteenth-century. In this, Bell avers that liberalism cannot be defined according to "stipulative" or "canonical" (p. 66) referents but only according to the events, processes, and structures that rendered liberal concepts relevant at any given moment in history (p. 73). This illuminating chapter also demonstrates the "political instrumentalitization of intellectual history" by American scholars at the beginning of the twentieth century and how, as their certainty in liberalism's ascendency was unmoored by the rise of totalitarianism, they assimilated Locke's radical individualism and constitutionalism...


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