Civilisation as Empire? Reflections on British Studies of Civilisational Dynamics (Part 2)

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

In my previous essay, I explored some British studies of civilisation with a focus on Whig interpretations of history. In particular I provided a critique of the supercessionist logic that underpins these interpretations, notably the idea that modern progress ends up replacing older traditions with a new, separate modern phase of history which heralds the advent of secular liberalism.

Against this I contended that there are profound continuities and that civilisational dynamics occur within long-standing traditions of thought and practice. These traditions are variously more religious or more secular, but they are certainly do not separate the sacred from the profane – as does the proto-secular logic of Protestantism.

In this essay, I will turn to some recent liberal interpretations that either advocate Western imperialism or else oppose it in the name of post-colonial emancipation. Curiously, both draw on similar ideas and concepts to make their case. Indeed, they appeal to modern secular values of freedom and emancipation that are compatible with formalistic, procedural standards devoid of any substance or content.

In particular, what is missing from these two apparently opposed accounts is mutuality and reciprocity – the relationships and forms of association that bind people together. Only such relationality and associative ties can give meaning to perennial principles such as justice and practices like dialogue.

1. Liberal Empire

In one of its variants, the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history has given rise to a new discourse on ‘liberal empire’. After the onset of de-colonisation in the 1950s and 1960s and the progressive integration of national markets into the world economy starting in the early 1970s, liberal ideas and institutions began to spread worldwide.

And following the collapse of communism, the triumph of liberalism seemed at one point so complete that it raised once more Hegel’s spectre of the ‘end of history’, as Francis Fukuyama famously put it in his eponymous book.

Over the last three decades, various transition countries and emerging markets such as Russia, India or China have celebrated the ‘liberalisation’ of their economy and society compared with their totalitarian or authoritarian pasts. Yet at the same time, they have experienced a growing crisis in the legitimacy of their governing institutions. The same is true for the so-called advanced economies and democracies of the West, especially since the financial crash of 2008-09.

Arguably, it is an expansion in the field of private self-interested activity that has allowed corruption and other forms of dysfunction to grow. Yet the scope of projects by government and NGOs, which assume individuals only respond to financial incentives, has only expanded. Indeed, both the private and the public sector operate according to the idea that individuals are rational, utility-maximising beings who pursue their own self-interest.

This reductive anthropological account translates into policies like the spread of Conditional Cash Transfer payment and a whole host of regulatory reform. Such and similar measures all aim to fashion the negatively choosing, self-reflexive and risk-taking individual who is liberated from all relational constraints – whether of family, or of community, or of association or of even the natural world itself.

Behind this lies a deeply pessimistic view of humankind as selfish, greedy, fearful of others and prone to violent conflict. Paradoxically, liberal ideology and institutions bring about the very presupposition on which liberalism rests but which is no more than a wilful assertion – the ‘war of all against all’.

Little wonder that liberal societies oscillate between market anarchy and state coercion – however subtle and indirect. This takes the form of mass surveillance and a climate of fear in which people adopt forms of voluntary servitude, as Alexis de Tocqueville already observed in the 1830s on his travels through America.

The continued assertion of liberal governing practices, a crisis in governmental institutions and the endurance of complex, mediating forms of affiliation, which mediate between the state and the individual, make these transition countries and emerging markets an important instance of the contemporary crisis of liberalism, both in the liberal heartland of the West and across the global ‘liberal empire’.

2. The Strange Un-Death of Liberalism

Yet at the same time, we live in a world of neo-liberal ideas and institutions that tend to view human being as isolated individuals who seek to maximise their own autonomy and private utility – from Hobbes and Locke via Bentham to Karl Popper and John Rawls. This contrasts with a more mediated liberal tradition, which we can associate with classical thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, François Guizot or Alexis de Tocqueville in France or indeed W.H. Gladstone, J.A Hobson, L.T. Hobhouse, T.H. Green or J.S. Mill in England. Common to them is a critique of Whig interpretations of history, in particular the idea of an inexorable forward march of progress that sweeps away all traditions and human habits.

On the contrary, the neo-liberal worldview rests on a more atomistic liberalism that reduces ‘negative liberty’ to individual freedom of choice. Linked to this are neo-liberal policy mechanisms and measures that tend to reduce citizens to consumers or clients, including privatisation, deregulation, liberalisation, the rationalised welfare state and Conditional Cash Transfer programmes that turn solidarity with those in need into a new form of indentured labour and the demonisation of a new underclass.

So the crisis of contemporary liberalism can be defined as a form of political practice which attempts to remove of restraint and disembed individuals from the relationships and institutions which create value and meaning – whether of family, association or of nature.

At a global level, the ‘liberal empire’ enjoys not just the support of both states and markets, as has been the case since the discovery of the Americas and the extension of colonial rule. Even certain sections of ‘civil society’ are now key pillars in this power system. Like the ‘market-states’ that have emerged across the world, much of ‘global civil society’ is about individual choice and utility-maximisation. The liberal ideology that underpins it privileges subjective rights and private entitlements over a sense of mutual obligation and public, social benefit.

3. Liberal supremacism

Among British voices, there is one that stands in both tone and temperament, and that is the voice of Niall Ferguson. A prolific professor both at Harvard and Oxford, he has dedicated himself with single-minded determination to a defence of Western supremacy and the ‘liberal empire’.

Indeed, his critics are quite wrong in describing him as a conservative. He himself has rejected this label, declaring with his usual mix of brilliant bravado and shameless vanity “I’m just a doctrinaire liberal at heart. Quite why I keep getting called rightwing is only mysterious to me”.

The trouble is that Ferguson does not quite realise that by being a ‘doctrinaire liberal’, he is both right- and leftwing, but neither conservative nor progressive. How so? Well, he is a blind believer in the expansion of individual rights, free markets and universal liberal values such as ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘emancipation’.

As such, he embraces the ultra-liberalism of both the centre-left and the centre-right that has been dominant since cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s, which was followed by the economic and political revolution of the 1980s. Both have converged in the 1990s and 2000s to form a libertarian ideology that celebrates the breaking of taboos.

Whether through ‘free trade’ or imposed ‘regime change’, Ferguson champions the spread of this liberal empire from the West to the rest. Indeed, he views the forward march of modernity across the Western world in utopian ways, as a harbinger of a global convergence to liberal democracy and liberal capitalism.

The recent success of countries such as China or India is precisely the outcome of the rest copying the West and converging with it. Between now and the total triumph of liberalism in the near future stand merely a few religious fanatics and obsolete traditions, which will ultimately be swept away by the irresistible forces of historical progress and universal Enlightenment values.

That is why he is largely unapologetic about the history of liberal colonialism, seeing it as more beneficial than harmful in spreading ideas and institutions that can help the rest catch up with the West.

4. Post-colonial emancipation

In many ways, the post-colonial narrative seems diametrically opposed to the contemporary liberal variant of the Whig interpretation of history. This narrative rejects colonialism as oppressive, tyrannical and racist. Against political domination, economic exploitation and cultural vandalism, it seeks to rescue the authentic identity of the indigenous people who have been abused at the hand of their colonial masters – not just treated as inter-changeable and ultimately disposable commodities but also – and perhaps worst of all – ritually humiliated as persons and as nations.

Linked to this is a critique of Western (especially European) supremacism and orientalism. The former refers to the euro-centric views of colonial rulers in the past and their contemporary apologists, including the likes of Niall Ferguson who speak in terms of the West’s ‘six killer applications’ that apparently explain the West’s rise to global hegemony (Here Ferguson seems naïvely unaware of just how much the term ‘killer apps’ evokes the spectre of brutal colonial rule).

Orientalism is a notion coined by Edward Saïd to describe the pervasive Western- and Eurocentric view of the Orient, especially the Arab-Muslim Middle East – from a perspective of prejudice, stereotypes and a hidden sense of innate superiority masquerading as a romanticised view of the ‘exotic East’.

Connected with this mindset is the complicit collusion of local elites who have internalized this view and function as ‘imperial satraps’, continuing the dirty work of the former colonial masters.

All this ignores the West’s very own indebtedness to the East for all the scientific-technological and economic progress in the modern age, especially the huge achievements of the Chinese and the Indians prior to Western colonialism – as John Hobson has argued in his book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.

Faced with supremacism and Orientialism, the post-colonial discourse calls for ever-greater emancipation, freedom and equality as well as reparations and contrition on the part of the colonial rulers in the West.

But arguably, there is a choice between various forms of direct colonialism and indirect exploitation and more virtuous forms of protection and cooperation. In the first case we can see an illustration of the paradox of the ‘free’ labourer and ‘free’ citizen, as Justin Rosenberg pointed out in his book The Empire of Civil Society. Colonies are ‘liberated’ along with their citizens but in reality into a more absolute mode of contractual slavery at the hands of new internationally oligarchic masters (both states and corporations) who are more indifferent to their true well-being than even the more avowed masters of the colonial past – including new national elites that are complicit with this global oligarchy. This analysis is surely more rigorous than that of much ‘post-colonial’ writing.

5. Limits and shortcoming of Whig history and the post-colonial narrative

However, there are as many contradictions with this discourse as with the Whig defence of ‘liberal empire’. First of all, both believe in the abstract universal values of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘emancipation’. This has certainly favoured the spread of more individual rights and private opportunities, a process that has helped dislodge unjust hierarchies and impermeable local tyrannies.

Yet at the same time, this process has also led to the triumph of uniform, generalised standards over particular content and substance that can give real meaning to relationships and bonds of association. Thus, both liberalism and post-colonialism embrace a politics of mindless modernisation and sheer limitless liberalisation.

Second, neither the liberal nor the post-colonial perspective can balance identity and alterity – the self and the other. Liberalism tends to covert all difference to sameness by subordinating everything to the same formal, procedural standards: individual rights (without any regard to reciprocity), commercial contracts (without any measure of social benefit) and tailored, means-tested rationalised welfare (without a contributory principle and realistic generosity). Post-colonialism seeks to uphold the ‘other’ but ends up following the same methods and ends as liberalism because it holds to distinctly modern secular values such as freedom of choice and individual autonomy, which are the hallmark of the liberal West.

Third, post-colonialism seems to insist on otherness, but in so doing elevates difference to a new absolute that has a quasi-sacred status. Indeed, this leads to a situation where ‘other’ human beings and societies are now seen as absolutely different – whether in terms of gender or culture. But these differences are seen as either so absolute that no meaningful dialogue is possible or else so relative that they can be assimilated and absorbed into sameness.

6. Sacralising difference or converting the ‘other’ into the ‘same’

The liberal and post-colonial appeal to the diversity of difference is but an intensification of modern thinking, not a liberating departure from it. For postmodern thought elevates difference into the sole transcendental term, which overrides any notion of normative unity or substantive shared ends that embed practical reason. Difference so defined either sanctifies the power of reason or else it sacralises the ‘other’. Neither conception works on its own terms, and both are ultimately secular liberal in outlook – dismissing moral sentiment and human habit.

Crucially, both the liberal worldview and the post-colonial narrative appeal to an abstract, universalist reason, which is completely uprooted from particular cultural instantiation. But in reality, our exercise of reason always appeals to something beyond the individual mind that links us to symbols, signs and narratives, which we all inhabit and which embed the exercise of reason itself.

Linked to this is the purported neutrality of political reason that once again admits religion into the public square but still strictly regulates its content – outlawing all those practices, which it sees as contrary to the universal validity of secular reason itself. Quite apart from the fact that this is a purely modern invention, can such rational neutrality generate properly thick, shared ties and substantive values to sustain society and the polity? It seems not, as this kind of reason leads to the endless of extension of new laws and regulations, dictating what is permitted and what is not.

Such a limit means that “[e]verything is to be negatively tolerated, but nothing is to be positively allowed”, as John Milbank has put it aptly. This sort of account favours the empty formalism and proceduralism of secular reason over religious faith embodied in communal practice.

Moreover, the shift in emphasis away from modern unity towards post-modern difference merely reinforces the sacralisation of liberal categories.

By enshrining difference as the new ‘absolute’, post-modernism elevates alterity or otherness into the sole transcendental term that rules out any substantive, plural unity which might bind together the national polity or the international system.

Thus this late modern liberalism involves one of two positions. Either difference is absolutised, in which case incommensurable values and violent conflict become self-fulfilling prophesies that can only be settled through the use of power.

Or else the only mode of attaining unity or at least some form of peaceful coexistence is to convert the ‘other’ into the ‘same’ through ahistorical, supposedly universal but in reality modern, western categories. The most prominent examples are perhaps the values of ‘liberation’ or ‘emancipation’ linked to the political left or the values of ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘opportunity’ associated with the political right.

Both variants of liberal progressivism are part of the Whig interpretation of history that Herbert Butterfield rebutted in his eponymous book. In this sense the post-modern diversity of difference is akin to the modern promise of boundless, linear progress that liberalism purported to provide but failed to deliver.


If neither ‘liberal empire’ nor the post-colonial narrative can convince, then what is left? As I will argue in my next two essays, part of the answer is to explore particular traditions that embody universal principles – not some artificial global history that either makes everything the same or else imposes absolute difference onto cultures that also share certain ideas and practices in common.