[Paleopsych] CHE: Liberalism: the Fuel of Empires?
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Liberalism: the Fuel of Empires?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.2
2 political scientists at Princeton help revive debate on how European
liberals of centuries past viewed colonialism and imperialism
By DAVID GLENN
It is one of the most troubling puzzles in the history of political
thought: Why were some of Europe's early liberal theorists -- the
people who imagined and promoted tolerance, universal suffrage, the
rule of law, and minimal government -- also enthusiastic supporters of
European colonization, conquest, and empire in Asia and Africa?
John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty and The Subjection of Women,
spent 25 years working for the British East India Company in the
mid-19th century. He believed that India and other "barbarous" nations
"have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be to
their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by
foreigners." Alexis de Tocqueville, among the century's most
sophisticated proponents of democracy, argued during the 1840s that it
was urgently necessary for France to subjugate and colonize Algeria.
Through much of the 20th century, political theorists and intellectual
historians largely ignored that element of classical liberals'
thought, focusing instead on their abstract arguments for liberty or
their campaigns for domestic reform. (Tocqueville's voluminous writing
on Algeria was virtually forgotten in the English-speaking world.) And
when these liberals' pro-imperialist arguments were acknowledged, they
were sometimes dismissed as simple hypocrisy.
More recently, some left-wing scholars have argued that -- far from
hypocrisy -- the liberals' imperialist adventures reveal something
essential about liberalism itself. The Enlightenment's calls for
universal human liberty, according to this argument, have always
contained a Eurocentric and potentially racist understanding of what
human societies should look like.
Such discussions are no longer confined to the margins of postcolonial
studies. With the end of the cold war's international order -- not to
mention the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- the question of empire has moved
close to the heart of legal and political theorists' preoccupations.
The past 15 years have seen a flourishing of sophisticated
explorations of liberalism, conquest, and international justice.
No Simple Formulas
Two of the most visible exponents of this new wave in empire studies
are Jennifer Pitts and Sankar Muthu, who met as graduate students at
Harvard University a decade ago and who are now assistant professors
of politics at Princeton University. Along the way, they got married.
In Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton University Press, 2003),
Mr. Muthu examined the brief period in the late 18th century when
several prominent liberal theorists -- notably Denis Diderot and
Johann Gottfried von Herder -- were skeptical toward, and in some
cases actively campaigned against, European colonialism.
Ms. Pitts's new book, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial
Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005), explores the very
different mood of the mid-19th century, when most leading liberals,
Mill and Tocqueville among them, sat comfortably on the imperialist
As those divergent projects suggest, Ms. Pitts and Mr. Muthu are not
offering simple formulas for decoding intellectual history. Liberal
theory, they argue, contains the seeds of both pro-imperialist and
anti-imperialist arguments. "There's no necessary connection between
liberalism and empire," Mr. Muthu says. "Whether a liberal thinker had
a positive or a negative conception of empire depends on a whole range
of other factors."
The two young scholars propose that a close reading of liberalism's
encounter with empire can help us make sense of certain sticky
problems that have always confronted liberal political philosophy.
"There isn't a strong theoretical source within liberalism for making
claims about who should be included and who should be excluded from a
given political community," says Ms. Pitts. "And that creates all
kinds of problems for liberal theory in the context of debates about
migration and other foreign-policy questions."
Political philosophers are now joining forces with intellectual
historians, legal scholars, and other social scientists in new
attempts to wrestle with those questions. The work of Ms. Pitts and
Mr. Muthu is near the center of those discussions, says Iris Marion
Young, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago,
who organized a 2004 conference on empire at which the two Princeton
"In history and literary studies, work on colonialism and
postcolonialism has been going on for 20 years," Ms. Young says. "But
in philosophy and political theory, this kind of investigation, asking
the questions that Pitts and Muthu ask, has only begun to happen
recently. There's a general feeling that it's about time that we
started to look at these things."
Are moral arrogance and contempt for cultural "backwardness" built
into liberalism's DNA? In a celebrated 1994 essay in the Times
Literary Supplement, in London, the political theorist Bhikhu Parekh
argued that the tendency toward imperialism runs very deep in the
liberal tradition. Parekh argued that not only Mill, but also
contemporary liberals like Joseph Raz, John Rawls, and Ronald Dworkin,
have promoted a political vision that is "missionary, ethnocentric,
and narrow, dismissing nonliberal ways of life and thought as
primitive and in need of the liberal civilizing mission."
The following year, Uday Singh Mehta, a professor of political science
at Amherst College, published Liberalism and Empire: A Study in
Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (University of Chicago
Press). He argued that liberal thinkers have habitually (but not
universally) fallen into the trap of treating unfamiliar cultures as
if they were simply several steps behind the West in an inevitable
march of economic and cultural progress.
Mill, for example, was fond of using metaphors of childhood when
discussing India. In one essay, he wrote of "the successive states of
our society through which the advanced guard of our species has
passed, and the filiation of these states on one another -- how each
grew out of the preceding and was the parent of the following state."
Mill's universalism, Ms. Pitts says, "takes a particular idea of what
full human flourishing is, which is very much based on European
culture, and projects it as the endpoint for all societies." Mill's
18th-century liberal predecessors, by contrast, offered a subtler and
more nuanced account of societies' cultural and economic differences.
"[Adam] Smith and his contemporaries would look at unusual or
apparently disturbing practices and ask, Why might that exist in a
particular society?" Ms. Pitts says. "There was much more interpretive
generosity when dealing with alien cultures."
The shift from the relative generosity of Smith's era to the more
arrogant posture of Mill's generation is a question that animates Ms.
Pitts's book. One answer is that the liberals of the earlier period
generally felt more beleaguered and were less emotionally invested in
their societies' institutions.
In the French case, especially, Mr. Muthu points out that
pre-revolutionary liberals "were deeply critical of their own
societies, and of what might be described as European civilization.
The last thing that they would have envisioned as just would be a
wholesale effort to spread those institutions abroad. A thinker like
Diderot thought of his own society as being deeply morally corrupt,
monarchical, ruled by a hereditary nobility and a hypocritical church.
Why would you want to spread that around the world?"
Matters of National Pride
By the middle of the 19th century, however, liberal reforms and
popular upheavals had made both France and especially Britain more
democratic and less corrupt. Those shifts lifted what Ms. Pitts calls
"the civilizational self-confidence" of that era's liberals -- which
in turn made it easier for them to endorse efforts to impose European
governance on the rest of the world.
Tocqueville's case was more complicated than that of Mill, who
maintained a sunny optimism about imperialism's progress. Even when he
harshly criticized particular British practices in colonial India, he
argued that they were essentially innocent mistakes. Tocqueville, on
the other hand, was highly attentive to the violent repression and
corruption that accompanied French settlement in Algeria. He continued
to support it until nearly the end of his life, however, partly
because he believed that, if not France, some other European country
would colonize northern Africa.
"Tocqueville had deep doubts that empires were civilizing projects,
and he acknowledged their inevitable brutality," Ms. Pitts says, "and
yet he still forcefully advocated for Algerian colonization. That's
Neither Mill nor Tocqueville endorsed the theories of biological
racism that were commonplace in the 19th century. In that sense, their
thought remained distinctly liberal. In 1850, Ms. Pitts recounts in
her book, Mill condemned Thomas Carlyle's "damnable" arguments for
black inferiority, especially the notion "that one kind of human
beings are born servants to another kind."
She adds, however, that the racist ideas of the 19th century probably
did affect the air that Mill and Tocqueville breathed. Adam Smith had
written during a period of widespread "religious ideas about human
unity," Ms. Pitts says, but "the prevalence of the biological ideas in
this later period meant that differences among human groups were much
more emphasized than human uniformity.
"Difference was so heavily emphasized that even if one opposed the
biological arguments, thinkers like Mill would talk about the
differences among human groups as very deep-seated -- not
biologically, but culturally."
Ms. Pitts and Mr. Muthu are expanding their studies of liberalism's
ambiguous dance with empire. She is at work on a book on early debates
about the foundations of international law, and he is studying
18th-century anxieties about global commerce.
"Around 1800," Mr. Muthu says, "antislavery activists began to point
out that global commerce ties consumers and producers together, and
that consumers could be complicit in exploitation. That's the sort of
argument that interests me." He is especially curious to assess how
and why a few intellectuals extended that consumer-based argument into
a general dread of global commerce, while other reformers saw
globalization as potentially positive.
Neither Ms. Pitts nor Mr. Muthu expected to work this territory when
they entered graduate school at Harvard in the early 1990s. In an
early course, Ms. Pitts was intrigued by the fact that Edmund Burke, a
relatively conservative thinker who was skeptical of democracy, was a
vocal and passionate critic of Britain's imperial designs on India.
She was later heavily influenced by Richard Tuck, a British scholar
who joined Harvard's faculty in 1997. (Mr. Tuck was trained at the
University of Cambridge, which is a hotbed of historians of political
Mr. Muthu, for his part, arrived at Harvard knowing that he wanted to
study Enlightenment thinkers' implicit beliefs about anthropology and
human differences. "But the more I worked on 18th-century political
thinkers' writings on those questions," he says, "the more obvious it
became that many of the arguments were crafted for explicitly
political ends -- that is, either to support or to oppose imperial and
commercial projects abroad." He realized that he needed to look at the
question of empire.
The two scholars' work has also been shaped, of course, by their
friendship. They became a couple less than two months after meeting
each other. "We've been students of the history of political thought
together for essentially the entire time that we've been doing work in
the field," Mr. Muthu says. "People often ask, What's it like to be a
couple, and both doing work in this kind of area? And, in a way, it's
difficult for me to answer that question. This is the way that it's
"I'm sure we influence each other's views on political theory and
political thought in all sorts of ways that I would not be able to
reconstruct, that I'm not consciously aware of," he adds.
"But we also just naturally tend toward the same sorts of questions,"
Ms. Pitts says.
"I often wonder whether that's the case," Mr. Muthu says, glancing at
Ms. Pitts across their living-room couch, "or whether that's the
result of the fact that we end up influencing each other. It's very
difficult to know what's cause and what's effect."
The two have never done any collaborative writing together, but Ms.
Pitts says that they would like to do so someday. "It's extremely
helpful, and I very much take it for granted," Mr. Muthu says, "that
when I'm working on some set of issues, that I can turn to Jennifer
and ask her opinion of something."
"Or just when I feel like I've run into a brick wall, and I need some
fresh infusion of ideas, to hand the draft over," Ms. Pitts says.
Both of them feel lucky to have wound up in the same department.
(Alongside their book projects, they are shifting into a slightly
slower gear. Their first child was born in June, and they will each
take a semester of leave this year.)
They hope that their historical work can -- without losing sight of
nuance -- shed light on contemporary battles.
"When I've taught these texts to undergraduates," says Mr. Muthu,
"they're sometimes shocked at what they see as the deep affinities
between contemporary arguments over Iraq, for instance, and the kinds
of arguments made about conquest and intervention 200 years ago. One
of the things that I try to do in these courses is to show that
there's been a long and intriguing history to these kinds of dilemmas
that face citizens and policy makers. These kinds of struggles and
deep philosophical differences can be found in past centuries as well.
"These are not recent developments."
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