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Liberalism in Empire

Liberalism in Empire: An Alternative History

Andrew Sartori
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 282
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  • Book Info
    Liberalism in Empire
    Book Description:

    While the need for a history of liberalism that goes beyond its conventional European limits is well recognized, the agrarian backwaters of the British Empire might seem an unlikely place to start. Yet specifically liberal preoccupations with property and freedom evolved as central to agrarian policy and politics in colonial Bengal.Liberalism in Empireexplores the generative crisis in understanding property's role in the constitution of a liberal polity, which intersected in Bengal with a new politics of peasant independence based on practices of commodity exchange. Thus the conditions for a new kind of vernacular liberalism were created.Andrew Sartori's examination shows the workings of a section of liberal policy makers and agrarian leaders who insisted that norms governing agrarian social relations be premised on the property-constituting powers of labor, which opened a new conceptual space for appeals to both political economy and the normative significance of property. It is conventional to see liberalism as traveling through the space of empire with the extension of colonial institutions and intellectual networks. Sartori's focus on the Lockeanism of agrarian discourses of property, however, allows readers to grasp how liberalism could serve as a normative framework for both a triumphant colonial capitalism and a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of peasant property.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95757-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 How to Write a History of Liberalism?
    (pp. 1-32)

    One of the more recent developments of the neoliberal era is a new international “land grab.” In 2009, the International Food Policy Research Institute was estimating that in the period from 2006 through the middle of 2009 foreign investors had sought or secured between 37 and 49 million acres of farmland in Africa, South-east Asia and Latin America, concentrated in areas that combined poor integration into international markets with weak land tenure security, easy accessibility, and relatively dense populations. By early 2011, estimates suggested that 115 million acres of farmland and forestland—85 million acres in Africa alone—had been...

  5. 2 The Great Rent Case
    (pp. 33-60)

    The early-modern British discourse of custom turned on “prescriptive” or “presumptive” claims. As a form of law that emerged in response to the particularities of a place and a people, custom did not depend on abstract reason as the basis for its authority. It instead rested on antiquity, the sheer fact of its preservation over time.¹ Custom was a foundation of English liberties to which Parliament could appeal in its battle against absolutism in the seventeenth century; and appeals to its authority survived the upheavals of that century and would even undergo something of a revival in the eighteenth century.²...

  6. 3 Custom and the Crisis of Victorian Liberalism
    (pp. 61-95)

    Custom had long been defensible on identifiably liberal grounds. As attested by the ubiquitous invocations of his name among advocates of raiyat interests in India (including the lawyers arguing the raiyat case inHills v. Ghose), John Stuart Mill had elaborated a widely recognized way of connecting customary rights to desirable political and political-economic outcomes. Mill defended custom as a moderator of despotic power, and as a limit to competition under circumstances where the market tended to produce systematically inequitable outcomes.

    Nevertheless, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, some of the very liberals who were invoking Mill’s authority...

  7. 4 An Agrarian Civil Society?
    (pp. 96-129)

    The liberal discourse of custom carried with it no guarantees as to the accuracy of its claims about the political-economic and normative principles prevailing in agrarian society. Obviously, there are no grounds to assume that the account of the “common law” of the country that the liberal discourse of custom offered bore any discernable relationship to an actually existent set of customs practiced on the ground in agrarian Bengal. As Peter Robb has observed, the actual “tendency of custom” in relation to land in Bengal, even in the second half of the nineteenth century, remained geared “towards specific rather than...

  8. Intermezzo: The Forgetting of Liberal Custom
    (pp. 130-135)

    How did the liberal discourse of custom subsequently become so obscured that it has been essentially invisible to the rich historiography of both modern Bengal and British colonial policy? The authority of custom would certainly remain a fundamental reference point for colonial administrations throughout the British Empire, most famously in Africa. In the wake of the 1885 Tenancy Act, however, British administrators and public intellectuals in Bengal tended to be more muted about custom’s capacity to serve as a model of how liberal norms might function in an agrarian civil society. There were, I would suggest, at least four reasons...

  9. 5 Peasant Property and Muslim Freedom
    (pp. 136-198)

    If we consider the founding of Pakistan in 1947 as the single most consequential political expression of a self-identifiedly “Muslim” aspiration to collective self-determination in South Asia (whatever the ambiguities, contradictions and exclusions of that aspiration, and whatever the disappointments that the reality of Pakistan soon presented to those who had advocated for it), we will quickly arrive at a realization of the enormous historical significance of the apparently obscure Bengali agrarian politics of property. When Muhammad Ali Jinnah pressed his claims to be the “sole spokesman” for India’s Muslims in the final negotiations of the terms of British withdrawal,...

  10. Conclusion: Political Economy, Liberalism, and the History of Capital
    (pp. 199-208)

    Why focus on the history of arguments about labor’s capacity to create property in a place like colonial rural Bengal? There is little reason to think that this was in any sense the most pressing preoccupation of those we generally identify as liberal thinkers in the later nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Indeed, stated in that bald form, it is a proposition that many of the best-known liberal thinkers of that period would have repudiated. Approaching the history of liberalism primarily in terms of this one theme may seem capricious given the remarkable diversity of arguments that have traveled under...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 209-246)
    (pp. 247-262)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 263-273)