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For over two centuries, liberal apologists for empire in Britain and America have been plagued by the contradictions between political liberalism and the exclusive, anti-democratic, and violent practices of imperialism—contradictions that become particularly obvious during periods of perceived imperial crisis. This book interrogates the complicated rhetoric of several pro-imperial, public intellectuals from both the late British Empire and contemporary America, two eras marked by intense anxiety about decline. It argues that these thinkers square the circle between liberalism and empire through narrative strategies that deflect attention away from state violence and toward the supposedly eternal qualities of “who we are”: the professedly liberal peoples of Britain and America. Explicitly nostalgic—and historically forgetful—these elaborate stories challenge many political theorists’ basic assumptions about liberal progress, imperial time, and the uses of history. From Jan Smuts and Alfred Zimmern to Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff, the thinkers examined here describe Britain and America as empires without imperialism. In the process, these public intellectuals engender a cynical political worldview that transforms the imperial state into a victim of its own success, while positing more and better empire as the only solution to the problems of imperialism. The book counters this strategy of deflection by calling for a radical politics of reflection, a politics that responds to empire not by insisting, “This is who we are!” but rather by asking, “Is this who we want to be?”


Institute for Social Justice

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