An anthropologist looks at our New Victorianism: Imperialism, and Identity Politics

Summary: For a clear view of the rapid and bewildering changes sweeping over America, we turn to an anthropologist. In part two of this series about America’s New Victorianism, he looks at our imperialism and identify politics. And the social significance of beards. I’ll bet this is the most interesting article you read this week.

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The New Victorianism, Imperialism, and Identity Politics (part 2 of 4)

Victorian Parallels in the New Imperialism
By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Cites at the end.
Reposted with his generous permission.

“The New Imperialism” is not a very efficient conceptual phrase since it requires a lot of labour to clarify what one means each time one invokes it. For me, one of the noteworthy features of this particular phrase is that it came into currency at two notable points in history: first at the end of the 1800s in Britain, and again just over a century later in the US. In other words, the phrase is both Victorian in origin and possibly “New Victorian” in its revival.

While much has been written and spoken about “Manifest Destiny” and “American Exceptionalism” at the core of an ethos of US expansion, something similar could be said about Victorian Britain. Britain had its own exceptionalism and manifest destiny: many of its political and intellectual elites saw the UK as morally bound to spread liberty and enlightenment around the world. Victorian imperial self-opinion was exceptionalist: “the Victorian public ‘believe[d] that Britain held a unique position in the world’ and ‘liked to believe both in British benevolence and British power’” (Chamberlain quoted in Goodlad, 2009, p. 441).

The New Empire by Walter LaFeber
Available at Amazon.

As I outlined a few years ago in “The ‘New’ Imperialism of Militarization, Humanitarianism, and Occupation,” there are several contending and overlapping meanings of “the New Imperialism” (from The New Imperialism, Volume 1 (2010), or see the free e-book). Its meanings have ranged from:

  1. a renewed expansion of empire, but without founding colonies of settlement;
  2. indirect, neocolonial rule;
  3. imperial expansion in the midst of growing international competition from rival empires;
  4. the rise of “humanitarian” justifications for intervention abroad — and the “duty” to spread Western civilization; to,
  5. the emergence of the “new empire” which referred strictly to the US, especially after the Spanish-American War of 1898 (see Walter Lafeber’s The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898 (1963); also, US Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of the classic The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, presented arguments for US overseas expansion to develop new markets to absorb industrial overproduction in the US, surely beating Lenin to the theoretical punch).

The latter point, (5), can cause understandable confusion, because it would mean that either that there were two US “new” imperialisms, or that the US new imperialism never stopped being new, even after developing through two centuries.

Provisional Decline

What seems to be especially different about the contemporary period, compared with what came at the end of British empire, is the apparent lack of any power today that entertains ambitions of global dominance that rival those of the current hegemon. Even the much vaunted BRICs {Brazil, Russia, India, China} are arguably being reduced to RIC, and none of these has made any serious effort toward building a world empire — even their ascendancy owes a great deal to their relationship with US-based capital and US financial institutions.

As for empires ending, we should be aware that while empires may exist on average for about 250 years, each of the last imperial powers post-1650 continues to possess imperial tailings even after decolonization: Britain, France, and Holland each still possess actual or quasi-colonies, and they continue to be active in the affairs of financial dominance and military intervention, even if mostly through NATO. It even took Spain another century to be dispossessed of all of its colonies after the South American wars of liberation.

The end of empire may not be as total, absolute, and final as some of us might have thought; conversely, the presence of an imperialist action is not necessarily evidence of untroubled continuity. The end of US empire is therefore not likely to spell the end of either US military interventions abroad or end its ability or will to dominate over at least some other nations. Nonetheless, the end of US empire will significantly reshape the world as we know it.

Old and New Victorianism: Broad Parallels

Underneath the basic structuring fact of empire that operates in both the Old and New Victorianism, there is a whole series of repetitions, renewals, replications and reworkings. In broad terms, we find the following structural forces and cultural phenomena both in late 19th century Britain and the US of the early 21st century:

  • Ruling elites’ emphases on trade, charity/philanthropy, and “good governance”;
  • Embroiled in Afghanistan;
  • Rising competitors (see the caveats above);
  • Increased proletarianization;
  • A shift from industrialization to financialization (end of the 19th century in Britain, end of the 20th century in the US);
  • Speculative bubbles (railway booms and busts in the 19th century, dot com and mortgage booms and busts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries);
  • The development of “informal empire” (empire without colonies of settlement);
  • The emergence of suburbia, and the literary tendency to criticize provincial culture (Hewitt, 2006, p. 410);
  • Growing risk aversion at home; and,
  • Even the prevalence of long, styled beards.

Cosmopolitan Covers

Cosmopolitanism and Imperialism

As mentioned before, “cosmopolitanism” is present in both the Old Victorian period and the current period, having experienced a resurgence (at least in academia) in the 1990s. “Cosmopolitanism” seems to have meant many different things in the 19th century, perhaps more than now. Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill both called the globalization of capitalism “cosmopolitan”; the Kantian notion of the word was usually invoked in arguments that supported free trade; others reserved the term to describe highly contagious diseases; for others still, it meant bourgeois decadence and rootlessness (Agathocleous & Rudy, 2010, p. 389).

There was also an inclination in Victorian times to use the word pejoratively, as others have noted, with the word used to refer to shadowy arrivistes and wealthy transnational types. There was not so much of the tolerance, multiculturalism, and world citizenship that the term now evokes — in the Victorian period, it could even be used in an anti-Semitic fashion, as a label for the wandering Jew. That there was greater ambivalence in Victorian times around cosmopolitanism is possibly due to the concept being at the dividing line between capitalist and colonial expansion and a British sense of heritage and rootedness (Goodlad, 2009, p. 439).

What is similar between then and now are the stakes of the debates around cosmopolitanism — the stakes being whether cosmopolitanism is the “false song of globalism,” a new imperialism, or an ethos that attempts to embrace all of humanity (Agathocleous & Rudy, 2010, p. 390). But as some have concluded, it is never possible to disassociate Victorian cosmopolitanism from imperialism: “Empire, after all, was the condition of possibility for all forms of cosmopolitanism, whether conceived as lifestyle, ideology, or knowledge” (Agathocleous & Rudy, 2010, p. 392). Much the same could be said about cosmopolitanism today.

British soldier

Trivial Pursuits? Looking into Beards

The point above about beards goes back to the essay meant to precede this one, “The Ultimate Proletarian and the Neoliberal Condition,” where I wrote of the body adornment fixations of urbane cosmopolitans, both the upper class kind and those in the middle-class who follow their lead in fashion, that is, those aspirants/dependents whose lifestyles are artificially sustained by lines of credit and college degrees. For more on the beard issue in particular, I recommend Oldstone-Moore (2005). No longer reserved for the marginalized, which in North America would be the so-called “hillbillies” and “hippies,” beards were also refashioned to join the “respectable mainstream” in Victorian Britain, just as they have in the contemporary US. Noting the likely influence of the appearance of “hirsute soldiers” sent to fight in Crimea, Oldstone-Moore (2005, pp. 7-8) quotes the following from Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine:

“Already the martial moustache, the haughty imperial, and the daily expanding whiskers, like accredited heralds, proclaim the approaching advent of the monarch Beard; the centuries of his banishment are drawing to their destined close, and the hour and the man are at hand to re-establish his ancient reign”.

Martial, imperial, monarch — one can see not only the inflated self-glorification, but also how personal styles can ultimately derive their meaning and social place from imperialism. Marginalized classes and revolutionaries thus saw their beards symbolically expropriated by the dominant elites and those who style themselves after them. In addition to empire, the question of industrialism is relevant — if in the Victorian period industrialization “incited increasingly complicated and anxious efforts to claim new forms of status and to construct new hierarchies of authority” (James Eli Adams quoted in Oldstone-Moore, 2005, p. 9), then contemporary deindustrialization along with innovation of a supposed “knowledge” economy should be expected to reintroduce similar (dis)comforts. The display of the beard was understood as an assertion of masculinity, individuality, liberty, and chivalry.

In the present, explanations for the rise in popularity of beards in the US seem to be all over the place, but with some strong echoes of the earlier themes outlined above. Cyril Grueter, an evolutionary biologist, explains that beards and other forms of body ornamentation function as a way for primates to display masculine strength, the beard serving as a “badge of status” (see Grueter, Isler, & Dixson, 2015). In a way, the beard is a sign of trouble (my interpretation), signalling anxiety emerging from competition and increased social complexity — or as Grueter explained,

“When you live in a small group where everyone knows everyone because of repeated interactions, there is no need to signal quality and competitiveness via ornaments. In large groups where individuals are surrounded by strangers, we need a quick reliable tool to evaluate someone’s strength and quality, and that’s where these elaborate ornaments come in. In the case of humans, this may also include phenotypic extensions such as body decoration, jewellery and prestige items”.
— “Beards as Badges of Honour?” by David Stacey in University News (U of Western Australia), 25 March 2015.

A shortage of women may also be one of the causes for the popularity of beards in Victorian Britain, according to Grueter and his colleagues.

Ricki Hall
Ricki Hall at ‘The Pall Mall Gentleman’ event. By Robin Bharaj.

Robert Pellegrini, a US psychologist who studied beard trends, argued in a manner echoing Victorian concerns that, “the male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things”.

Alun Withey, a medical historian, sees the beard as an expression of “masculinity under threat” given “changing gender, sexual and emotional boundaries, and the pressures of modern life”. With reference to the Victorian period, Withey writes:

“In the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian men were faced by a range of new challenges. On the one hand was the need to adapt to working environments, as massive firms imposed new corporate hierarchies and structures. Perhaps more importantly, though, women were beginning to find a voice and to offer a raft of entirely logical arguments against their continued subjection. How did men respond? By cultivating massive beards!”

For Coline Covington, a psychoanalyst, “the trend does raise questions about what is happening to men in our culture ­ and why this sudden assertion of masculinity?” She answers her question:

“It seems no coincidence that beards are on the rise at a time when the West is struggling with a world recession and the position of powerful men is under threat. It is arguably much tougher these days to be an alpha male ­and what better way to stand out than with a beard?”

In addition to similar trends and explanations, linking the Old Victorian and New Victorian periods, a “data enthusiast” writing for GQ produced an interesting graph of beard trends that definitely shows two clear spikes around the Victorian period and the present, particularly in Europe and North America (the blue, red, and teal lines in the graph).

The New Victorians do not just resemble the old Victorians, in some respects. The assertion of masculinity, individuality, liberty, and chivalry, plays out as well with reference to the objects of humanitarian concern: the damsel in distress.

The range of body ornamentation we see today — piercings, jewellery, dyed hair, tattoos, etc. — might also bring back to mind the Victorian exhibitionary complex (Hewitt, 2006, p. 415), but with an important twist. Today, rather than putting members of “exotic” tribes on display, we in some cases take their symbolism and place it on our skin, and become walking exhibitions ourselves — appropriated savagism. Look at them has become look at me. Before people would pay a price to look at others; now they pay a price to look like others.

Victorian Humanitarianism, Identity Politics, and Free Trade: Then and Now

The figure of the damsel in distress, of the weak and helpless woman begging to be saved, has paradoxically been revitalized by bourgeois Western feminism and the politics of the US State Department, under George W. Bush and especially under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Gender identity politics have been exploited to persecute the persecuted, and have been a useful tool in anti-anti-imperialism. The critic of empire, fabricated as a “rapist” to then be duly demonized, knows how this works. Thus Julian Assange “pointed to a longstanding nexus between identity politics and imperialism, including the 19th century interventions by British imperialism into the Ottoman Empire that were justified on the pretext of protecting the rights of women”.

Rather than a sudden revival after a century or more, there is a strong continuity linking the missionary and “friendly societies” of 19th century Britain, with the various charities to placate the exploited working class at home, and a variety of “aboriginal protection” and “emancipationist” lobbies to manage the exploited and dispossessed in the colonies, and their contemporary counterparts in the form of numerous NGOs and philanthropic foundations, from Rockefeller to Bill Gates. The work of philanthropic NGOs in the service of the New Imperialism is discussed in “Imperial Abduction Lore and Humanitarian Seduction,” in the Good Intentions volume. There I spelled out how we are witnessing the revival, reworking and globalization of aboriginal management technologies, exemplified in the 19th century with the creation of assimilationist Indian Schools or Residential Schools, with the three key operating principles being abduction (understood according to a wide range of meanings), protection, and amelioration.

In the continuum from the old Victorianism to the new, humanitarianism in the form of what some call “philanthropic colonialism” is an especially distinctive feature. Humanitarian intervention and philanthropic management that sidelines the state brings into play a wide array of mutually reinforcing factors, from martial paternalism, to assumptions of pastoral care in tutoring wards. What has developed in recent decades, far beyond its origins in Victorian Britain, is a supplement to capitalism called “conscience laundering” by Peter Buffett, a philanthropist and son of the billionaire US tycoon Warren Buffett. Peter Buffett described conscience laundering as follows:

“Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left”.
— “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” by Peter Buffett in The New York Times, 26 July 2013.

Speaking of the alleged improvements brought about by philanthropic foundations, Buffett asks if “doesn’t this all just feed the beast”. In fact, what he calls the Charitable-Industrial Complex typically invests in projects that will boost future labour productivity, hence the concern with healthcare in areas of Africa that are producers of strategic and other valuable minerals and natural resources more broadly.

The Old Victorian attitude to empire reflected a mix of concerns, interests and apprehensions, familiar to us today. It has become a standard menu. As Deirde David put it, Victorians,

“occasionally worried about the European erosion of native customs, often uneasy about the domestic prices demanded for the maintenance of distant territories, frequently fearful of the consequences of British invasion and subjugation, some times infatuated with the exotic delights of alien cultures, and periodically attentive to what is construed as the moral responsibility of imperial rule”. (quoted in Ledbetter, 2004, p. 266)

In terms of empire as moral responsibility, we see one of the most direct, strongest links between the Old and New Victorianism. In an 1847 British magazine for Victorian ladies, we read about a massacre in Africa in these terms: “assuredly, in the year 1847 of the Christian era, a scene so horrible as that narrated above ought not to stain the page of modern record” (quoted in Ledbetter, 2004, p. 265). In 2011, we hear the president of the United States say this about an alleged massacre threatened in Africa, specifically Libya: “if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world” (Obama, 2011). In both cases, imperialism is sold as a stain remover for the world’s moral conscience. Both in Old and New Victorian discourse, there is a special focus on the current year of the speaker/writer, as if the high point of human evolution had been achieved by this date, a date that can be used as a progressivist benchmark for judging the state of the world and for deciding what is not acceptable.

The Victorian emphasis on free trade, philanthropy and the imposition of “good governance” abroad, are recognized themes of the period (see Halstead, 1983). While too large a topic, and too complicated to address in this relatively short space, humanitarian interventionism abroad, and its counterpart at home (reformism that exploits small minorities, so as to misdirect attention away from class issues and towards systemically less expensive identity politics), is something that unfolds within liberal imperialism. Multiculturalism is good business for the (neo)liberal order: it breaks attachments to place (singular loyalty to the nation), it promotes free-floating populations. Those who claim to despise “factionalism” (in the false name of liberal unity), are the very ones who parade the factions. This process helps to break overdue reform down into token, bite-sized packets. Reform increasingly becomes a symbolism emptied of anything concrete, where “insults” (actual or imagined) are treated as if they were the gravest of all social concerns.

We can thus find political elites today who seem to think that by winning the votes of African-Americans, this will attract the admiration, approval, and support from white voters (which real persons would ever vote that way?) — without having first resolved the roots of inter-racial divisions. It is a flawed and desperate strategy to prevent the decline of the elites.

The spread of the neoliberal mode of governance, with its emphases on international legal standardization (for private business, human rights, etc.) is part of this longstanding liberal imperialist project with champions from William Gladstone in Victorian Britain to Woodrow Wilson in the US shortly thereafter, and again in the US since the 1980s, and with particular intensity since 2008 with the election of Obama. The emphasis on rescuing, recognizing or rewarding particular social segments according to the politics of identity is an especially sharp expression of the neoliberal approach, whose primary emphasis (according to the doctrines of Hayek and von Mises) is on freedom of choice (free expression for all sorts of identity claims fits well), and stands against freedom from hardship (which would redirect attention toward class issues).

The shift from mercantilism to free trade in the 19th century also meant a shift in the state getting its revenue from income tax rather than from customs and excise duties (Hewitt, 2006, p. 401). This shift in the burden of taxation, necessarily shifted the political focus and the economic burden to the individual. This shift is now taken for granted, to the extent that few politicians or commentators in our press can explain how greater protectionism in international trade could correspond with lower personal taxes — they are mystified by this, as if it were the trick of a demagogue rather than a more mathematical logic. (Personally, I think they know better, but would rather keep public discourse suitably impoverished.)

Works cited in this post

The full series: The New Victorianism

  1. The New Victorianism.
  2. The New Victorianism, Imperialism, and Identity Politics.
  3. Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics.
  4. The Working Class, Identity Politics and New Victorian History.


Maximilian ForteAbout the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numberous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

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8 thoughts on “An anthropologist looks at our New Victorianism: Imperialism, and Identity Politics”

  1. Oh yeah, this is a good read. I think I need to go over again to properly process it, but I give 10 points, just for making the comparison of our ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ to the justifications made for the colonial wars of the past. I would say this — our world is shaped by colonialism and the colonial empires, and we know very little about this, relative to its importance. More please.

  2. How has no one used this punchline? Responsibility to Protect = Responsibility to Plunder

    “Humanitarian Intervention” has been used as window dressing to justify all manner of military interventions from “liberating” Greece in the 1820’s to Kosovo in the 1990’s. Samantha Power, George Canning, etc. The names change, the mindset stays the same.

    1. Hoyticus,

      “Protect = Responsibility to Plunder”

      Did the US plunder Libya? Serbia? If we have intervened in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, would we have plundered?

      The mystery of the US empire is that it so often divorced from any usual cost-benefit calculations — leaving both us and the host nation worse off.

  3. I meant that mainly as a joke for the kinds of leftists I expect to have read Prof. Forte. The USA is the rare example of a hegemon that barely profits materially if at all from being the strongest state on Earth. Maybe it’s because America got rich before it got powerful, maybe it’s because the Industrial Revolution made it so wealth could be created consistently instead of just seized or destroyed (T Greer has a great post on that), maybe our elites believe in the power of ideas too strongly (and the wrong ideas at that).

    R2P is stupid mainly because it’s Ivy League educated people trying to use force to make Third World savages live like us. If the elites in our Versailles-on-the-Potomac would look at Pew research surveys they’d know most people on Earth don’t want America’s secular way of life.

    1. Hoyticus,

      Why we have such a mad Empire is an important question.

      The Spanish, British, and American Empire were/are largely privatized. That is, much of the benefit goes to private interests — the East India Company, Lockheed, etc. Little of the loot was shared with its people (i.e., the folks at home). Orwell says this explains why the British Empire was a source of pride to the Brits, but in a low-key way — since they understood that they got little out of it.

      But the top-level finances of the American empire are, I suspect, unique. Most empires are vastly profitable, until they decay near the end of their existence. That’s not so for the US empire, which is grossly unprofitable — where private profits are more than offset by costs to the government. That shows the extremely “extractive” attitude of our leaders, as well as their power and greed.

      All Empires are unprofitable and inequitable in terms of blood, as the men who fight and die for it tend to get little of its benefits.

  4. This second “New Imperialism” is not an ‘American Empire’ per se, but the first truly global, and first effectively ‘disguised’ Empire, learning since it did “on Hitler’s dime” that a dual-party Vichy-political facade of faux-democracy could deceive not everyone, but more than enough to rule and rape the entire world before being “adequately diagnosed” [Zygmunt Bauman].

    As Zygmunt Bauman hauntingly puts it, “In the case of an ailing social order, the absence of an adequate diagnosis…is a crucial, perhaps decisive, part of the disease.”

    Berman, Morris 2011 “Dark Ages America, The Final Phase of Empire”

    “The U.S. state is a key point of condensation for pressures from dominant groups around the world to resolve problems of global capitalism and to secure the legitimacy of the system overall. In this regard, “U.S.” imperialism refers to the use by transnational elites of the U.S. state apparatus to continue to attempt to expand, defend, and stabilize the global capitalist system. We are witness less to a “U.S.” imperialism per se than to a global capitalist imperialism. We face an EMPIRE OF GLOBAL CAPITAL, headquartered, for evident historical reasons, in Washington.”

    Robinson, William. 2014 “Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity”. Cambridge University Press.

    1. Alan,

      Thank you for the observation and the cites!

      The US empire is unique in one respect: it’s unprofitable to America. Which shows what chumps we are. Private interests make vast fortunes from our empire, as with all empires. But at a cost to America’s taxpayers.

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