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Empire and Modern Political Thought.

Empire and Modern Political Thought, edited by Sankar Muthu. Cambridge University Press, 2012, ix, 407 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

The "New Imperial History" may no longer be new to historians, but political theorists are only just beginning to address empire as a distinctive topic. This volume is an attempt to guide the direction of this burgeoning field. Unlike many such edited collections, which suffer from lack of cohesion and uneven quality, this book consists of twelve carefully written and tightly argued essays that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Unfortunately, the editor has left to the reader to draw together the connecting threads. Although a brief review provides insufficient space for this endeavour, the book clearly divides into two broad sections, with Chapters Six and Seven serving as a transition between them. The chapters in the first half examine the ways in which early modern political theorists came to grips with the puzzling phenomenon of exploitative empire. By contrast, the chapters in the second half explore the ways in which modem, mostly nineteenth-century theorists sought to justify a new type of liberal imperialism. The strength of the book lies in the way the individual chapters illuminate these overarching themes.

In the first chapter Mikael Homqvist gives some indication of the challenges that "empire" posed for classical political theorists. He explores the difficulties faced by renaissance humanists in Florence, when they tried to reconcile the imperial expansion of their city with the normative categories of "justice" and "liberty." In Chapter Two Anthony Pagden identifies a similar phenomenon in his study of the Spanish school of Salamanca. These semi-official framers of Catholic imperialism encountered comparable (albeit more consequential) difficulties when they tried reconcile Spain's New World conquests with their own academic conceptions of "just war" and "natural law." In Chapter Three, Richard Tuck explores some of the ways in which European imperial expansion during the early modem period drove political rulers into alliances with non-European "infidels." Here too was an inherent contradiction between the demands of realpolitik in forging alliances with Islamic powers, and the thrust of domestic programs to enforce internal Catholic and/or Protestant orthodoxy. In Chapter Four, David Armitage provides a thorough analysis of the sources of John Locke's understanding of (and involvement in) British North America, and its relations with American indigenes. Because of these views (and these involvements), he saw no contradiction between the expropriation of Native American land, and the dictates of his larger "liberal" political theory. In Chapter Five, Michael Mosher traces a comparable ambivalence in Montesquieu's analysis of "empire," which was identified, on the one hand, with the "oriental despotisms" of Asia, and, on the other, with the economically dynamic commercial polities of Western Europe in his own time. In Chapter Six, Uday Mehta examines Edmund Burke's critique of British mistreatment of native subjects in India. While this did not lead him to an outright rejection of empire, he forged a different vision of it, recast in a more protective, paternalist vein. By contrast, Adam Smith set out as an explicit critic of empire, as Emma Rothschild demonstrates in Chapter Seven. Unfortunately his attractive vision of a world tied together by the invisible, pacific bonds of commercial interdependence failed to take account of the ways in which real-world commercial expansion was inextricably tied to the aggrandizement of great-power empires. In particular, Smith criticized the exploitation and extermination of indigenous peoples, while failing to recognize the ways in which this was often a product of economic expansion, and not just a dysfunctional outgrowth of the "bad old" mercantilist "zero sum" mentality.

In Chapter Eight Sankar Muthu builds on the analyses of Mehta and Rothschild to launch us into the volume's second overarching theme. Focusing on the late eighteenth century, he identifies this as the critical moment when the world was becoming globally interconnected. Under these circumstances, a novel defense of empire began to emerge. This new "liberal imperialism" not only distinguished itself from its early modern predecessors, but advanced a new kind of "empire" as the indispensible vehicle for resolving the problems that the earlier predatory imperialism had wrought. Raised to prominence by the campaign against slavery, this way of thinking increasingly envisioned western imperial incursions as necessary evils, bringing progress to backward regions, and imposing what the French began to call "la mission civilisatrice." In Chapter Nine, Pratrap Mehta shows how John Stuart Mill followed this line of reasoning to justify Britain's dominance over India and other tropical regions. Although Mill vehemently opposed then-fashionable notions of racial superiority, he regarded Indians and other non-European peoples as trapped by oppressive regimes or retrograde cultures. For this reason he looked on British imperial expansion with remarkable complacence, and saw no grounds for thinking that it contradicted his paeans to individual liberty. As Jennifer Pitts demonstrates in Chapter Ten, much the same pattern of thought and argument can be detected in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. The French conquest of Algeria was endorsed by liberals because they saw it as a way to promote both gloire for the homeland as well as modernization in North Africa. In Chapter Twelve, Karuna Mantena considers the writings of Henry Maine, who believed (contra Mill and Tocqueville) that backward peoples, such as Indian peasants, were not suited to modem, liberal institutions and practices. Hence, the duty of European imperialists was to keep them sheltered in their indigenous, primordial place. These condescending "alibis for empire," as Mantena, terms them, were arrestingly disputed by Karl Marx, as Gabriel Paquette shows in Chapter Eleven. Although Marx was not entirely free of "orientalist" blinders, his scattered and unsystematic indictments of European colonialism clearly exposed the naked self-interest and brutality that lay lightly buried beneath the paternalist conceits that liberal humanitarians espoused.

In a sweeping survey of the literature that stands in place of a conclusion, Jennifer Pitts interrogates the field of political theory to argue that contemporary theorists are only now beginning to come to terms with the liberal imperialism that is the focus of the second half of this book. Stimulated by twentieth- and twenty-first-century American articulations of this program, this newfound interest in the conceptual foundations of liberal imperialism will require some re-orientation of theoretical categories. Protean, dynamic, amorphous in its boundaries, and involving geopolitical forms of domination that appear in different guises--sometimes institutional, sometimes cultural, and sometimes economic--modem imperialism is difficult to pin down and clearly delineate. Inherently disruptive of the standard categories of political theory--natural law, nation-state, republican virtue, liberal individualism, or social justice--the study of modern imperialism will oblige political scientists (and historians) to move outside our comfort zones, and to embrace approaches that are expedient, eclectic and trans-disciplinary. This fine volume should work as a catalyst, stimulating and facilitating further work as the enterprise it surveys moves ahead.

Theodore Koditschek

University of Missouri
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Author:Koditschek, Theodore
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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