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Simon Gunn and James Vernon, eds. The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9845909-5-7. Price US$29.95/GB£20.95

  • Helen Small

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  • Helen Small
    University of Oxford

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This collection of essays reflects the strong revival of interest in nineteenth-century liberalism since the 1980s. It also reflects the extent to which the revival continues, in some quarters, to be driven by a post-Foucaultian concern with the disciplinary exclusions of power. Viewed from that theoretical perspective, the history of British liberalism provides a testing ground for critics now habitually skeptical about the degree of alignment between liberal ideals such as freedom and equality and the evidence of their theoretical and practical development. The current volume originated in a 2008 conference to mark the retirement of the social historian Patrick Joyce, who contributes a brief foreword commenting on recent changes in the historiography of liberalism. The most marked, he observes, is a shift from seeing Britain as “the exemplary case of liberal modernity…corroborating a particular kind of Anglo-American liberalism” to recognizing Britain’s “peculiarity” (xii).

Collectively these essays represent that peculiarity as the product of factors operating across the scales of governmentality whether imperial, national, regional, or local. Individually the essays touch on economic, intellectual, and party political history, but the most common preoccupation is with liberalism understood (after Michel Foucault) as a political “technology” (25) at work in contexts as various as colonial Australia, the West Indies, India, English history writing, information management, entertainment, bio-politics, sociological taxonomies, ecology, and finance.

Scattered though the subject matter is, the overwhelming emphasis is on demonstration of “the logic of exclusion” (53). Classical liberalism aims at removal of obstacles to political, economic, intellectual, and social freedom, and views liberalization as the key to progress; but British political theory and practice have always seen some liberal subjects as more eligible for freedom than others. So, Catherine Hall’s examination of the liberal historicist credentials of Thomas Babington Macaulay draws attention to the racial discriminations that “fractured” his notion of a “great human family” along a stadial model of historical development (34). The colonizing nations were deemed mature enough to qualify for liberal subjecthood (though with internal distinctions along lines of ethnicity, class, and gender); those over whom they ruled deemed not yet ready. The claims are prosecuted with verve, but at this stage in the debate they are truisms and the conclusion—that Macaulay’s liberalism “was strictly limited” (36) (he remains better described as a Whig)—is unsurprising. James Epstein and Tony Bennett are on similar ideological terrain, Epstein exploring the malleability of the idea of freedom as reflected in attempts to interpret the principle of free labor for the West Indies and Bennett scrutinizing successive developments in the socio-biological and anthropological theory of habit that supported the exclusion of Australian aboriginals from the project of European modernization.

Two essays focus on liberal governmentality’s failure (more sympathetically, its inevitable failure) to sustain any ideal of a “total” and transparent system (79). The less substantial is Tom Crook’s, which offers a quick summary of Stefanos Geroulanos on the unverifiability and excess of the panoptic gaze, and Giorgio Agamben on biopower and the “foundational violence” (76) of the law, before speeding through three spheres in which liberal governmentality is openly reliant upon secrecy: spying, masturbation, and voting. The joining of those three activities under the title of a common “logic” (89) suggests how excessively pliable key terms in recent theorizations of liberalism—including “logic,” “epistemology,” “rationality,” and “technology”—risk becoming. Total systematization was seldom an avowed aim of classical liberal theory. Many liberals (including John Stuart Mill) believed that the secret ballot was counter to liberalism. Spying certainly presents moral problems for liberalism, but it is disputable whether it is logically inimical to it (states have the right to defend themselves against the threat of violent disruption; and it is not clear that the ‘right to privacy’ is or could ever be an unlimited freedom). On the other hand (as it were), and disallowing the exceptional case of Diogenes, it is not easy to imagine a society of any political complexion wherein masturbation is openly practiced. There may be constraints here that are more deeply anthropological, without being quite natural and inevitable.

By contrast, David Vincent offers a specific critical account of how British governments, between 1844 and 2009, confronted the challenge of regulating and justifying public service secrecy. As might be expected from a historian who has written extensively on the social history of secrecy and of literacy, he is alert to the conditions that made Victorian management of information a relatively simple affair by comparison with today, when the sheer quantity of information available greatly enhances the possibilities for democratic transparency but seriously impedes coherent prioritization and transmission.

There are moments amid so many demonstrations of the faultlines of British liberalism, when liberalism becomes, provocatively, a near vanishing subject. Gavin Rand, examining the ways in which urban planning for colonial India employed the goal of “modernization” to justify and legitimize “manifest inequalities” in treatment of citizens (145), wonders whether modernization deserves its default identification as a liberal aim. Other essays press the reader to consider the hidden or implied comparator: if liberalization of trade and industry caused terrible damage to the environment, Chris Otter reminds us, the ecological record of alternative political regimes is scarcely to be admired. But much the most thought-provokingly revisionist of the essays here is by Jon Lawrence, who offers a raft of evidence to support a claim that the peculiarity of British modernity was not its liberalism but its conservatism. As late as the 1950s (if not later), “paternalist styles of political leadership” and “entrenched ideas about supposedly natural social hierarchies” distinguished the structures and operations of the democracy (163). There were profound challenges to those hierarchies and the educational and other social structures that underpinned them, but socially and constitutionally Britain was “strikingly slow to register the claims of the individual, liberal subject” (150).

Given how standard now is the story of liberalism’s incomplete liberality, the historical work likely to make the strongest impression is that which, like Lawrence’s, goes beyond “the logic of exclusion” or places the accent elsewhere. Peter Bailey’s account of the corporatization of Victorian music hall stands out in the latter way. As he shows, the huge expansion in scale of the industry brought a welcome democratization of fun, but also entailed a steady eradication of licenses formerly enjoyed by performers, audiences, managements. This is a familiar tale of the political Janus face of market liberalization, but it is enlivened by Bailey’s ample knowledge of the music hall scene, from the pub-halls through to the grandiose palaces, hippodromes and empires, and his alertness to the political self-awareness of participants. John Seed starts from the puzzle of why Karl Marx ignored the work of Henry Mayhew, and develops an account of Marx’s gradual shift from empirical case study to more abstract, non-sociological description. The “lumpenproletariat” of the late 1840s writings becomes a “reserve army of unemployed workers,” subdivided into “the floating, the latent, and the stagnant” (59). Marx was not, Seed stresses, concerned with “exclusion,” or “the illiberal exterior of ‘liberal modernity’”; rather, he was fathoming what it means to consider a society “politico-economically” and, in doing so, coming to discern “coercive effects radiat[ing] out from [liberal modernity’s] very core” (55). If the resulting account of Marx as an abstract thinker is not especially novel, in the context of this volume it is a welcome reminder that there can be some sleight of hand in the modern critic’s move from the abstract universalist liberal principle to the concrete instance of exclusion and back out again, to challenge the original abstraction. This is, indeed, a key observation of Thomas Osborne’s essay, which contests the idea of a Victorian liberal historicism. As exemplified in the work of William Stubbs, constitutional history was not a form of “political or ideological historicism” (100); rather, it described how particular developments in the law advanced or retarded the cause of freedom. More fundamentally, liberalism, like other “forms of discursive practice,” is

never simply embedded in history as if so-called modes of government were akin to modes of production. … We cannot really speak of eras of liberal government, neoliberal government, … At least not in a Foucauldian sense. To invoke liberalism in Foucault’s conceptual usage … is always to make an abstraction from particular classes, groups, institutions, or persons, an abstraction, indeed, from history …


Osborne is not declaring a parting of the ways with Foucault (though he comes close), so much as describing the predicament of the social historian who attempts to interpret British liberalism in the light of Foucault’s analysis of liberalism: he or she seems bound to end up describing a split in the understanding of liberalism as a subject for history—one that may be positively accounted for as a productive tension but risks dissolving into definitional incoherence.

In drawing our attention so sharply to the theoretical disagreements that now inhabit liberalism, Osborne’s essay, and Seed’s, may be juxtaposed with Mary Poovey’s examination of the contradictions that dog attempts to explain the current financial crises. There are, Poovey remarks, two accepted neoliberal narratives of economic-historical explanation: one that tells us how financial markets have evolved into highly complex, supposedly self-governing, supposedly rational systems; and one that continues to identify the subject of economic liberalization as the freely acting individual. Until we can find ways of connecting the abstract systems story with the non-abstract story of identifiable, potentially culpable agents, she argues, we seem doomed either to passivity before a basic “paradox” (200) in the idea of the agentless liberal market, or to the naiveté of so many best-selling accounts of the crises that, reinstating the autonomy of individual agents, also overstate it. This is a different kind of problem from the old problem of exclusion. Like Seed’s and Osborne’s essays, Poovey’s draws our attention to the difficulty of articulating just what we are doing when we move (as critics) between political abstractions and embedded agents or practices, yes, but also between different kinds of abstraction. Some years on from the high point of Foucault’s influence, it may be time to give the articulation of that difficulty, and the pursuit of possible answers to it, a higher prominence.