An anthropologist looks at Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics

Summary: Campaign 2016 has degenerated into a circus of sound bites, ignoring the great issues facing America. To have any chance of reforming America we need a wider perspective , like that of Maximilian Forte (a professor of anthropology). This is chapter 3 in his series about Americans as the New Victorians. It’s brilliant, and getting better with each installment. Here he links together many problems — such as our imperialism, political correctness, fearfulness and tribalism.

New Victorianism
Graphic created by the author.

Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics.

New Victorianism’s Domestic Moral Code and the Political Economy of Identity Politics.
Part 3 of 4 in a series.
By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Cites at the end. Red emphasis added.
Reposted with his generous permission.

“The nation-state in its imperialist guise was the inescapable context within which all political action necessarily took place: it determined the range of possibilities against which the left as much as the right were compelled to define their positions”. (Eley, 1976, p. 269.)

“Social imperialism,” applied to German historiography, involves some interesting coincidences with Victorianism and the New Imperialism. One of the key political figures was Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor, and the eldest grandchild of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Wilhelm also presided over the expansion of the German navy in the wake of the Scramble for Africa, with some of the key ideas of the German Navy League being inspired by the US’ New Imperialism and by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of the classic The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.

“Social imperialism” is a contested concept, with Eley (1976) showing the divisions around using it to refer to socialists’ accommodation with capitalism and adhesion to imperialist practice abroad (a contemporary phenomenon that also manifested in the early 1900s) plus making concessions to reformism, versus the work of policy-makers in distracting increasingly impoverished workers from exploitation at home by diverting their energies toward external enemies, in order to negate reform and preserve the status quo. (For those who are curious, Eley largely disproves the value of the second formulation.)

There is actually more to this debate than this short sketch allows, but what I want to introduce is a third view of social imperialism, mindful of what both of the preceding conceptualizations essentially share in common: “Both are concerned with the impact of the imperialist world economy on the domestic life of the metropolis” (Eley, 1976, p. 268). “The entry of the imperialist idea into domestic politics” (Eley, 1976, p. 268) — and it is from domestic social and political conflict where the imperialist idea first emerges — should probably be rephrased as the “re-entry” of the imperialist idea into domestic politics, because what was deployed abroad produced effects and practices that later (always) come back home in new and improved form.

This is a broader concept of “blowback” which I argued for in the Force Multipliers volume (also, see “The Dismal ‘Physics’ of Blowback and Overstretch”). The third variation I propose is not better, more valid than either of the earlier two approaches — it tries to supplement them without displacing them. The third approach focuses on how imperialist principles and practices shape and take form through domestic politics. Social imperialism in this third sense is about the politics within an imperialist society, that reflect its constitution as an imperialist society.

Essentially then, what we are talking about in the current phase is liberal imperialism at home. This is a marriage of the New Victorianism and the New Imperialism in domestic matters, where politics are increasingly moralized, attention is directed towards identity issues in order to preserve basic class inequalities, reformism is limited and inexpensive (small rewards for small groups), democracy is reduced to procedures and is led by oligarchic elites, and the society is administered by a technocratic managerial class with a noteworthy penchant for ignoring criticisms, deflecting questions, and operating in secrecy.

What results, at least in the North American context, is a call for asserting certain codes of behaviour, to impose standards of proper conduct as seen through the eyes of the liberal middle class, defended with an astringent sanctimony that turns every transgression into a catastrophe. What does this have to do with imperialism? Quite a lot.

Moral systems of the Victorians and us: security & safety above all

Security and safety were key Victorian principles. Safety was used to justify empire. Victorian British writers in prominent publications could justify Britain’s international posture as one compelled to be “defensive” against encroaching empires. Thus we could read comments such as these: “Britain must make herself safe. That is the first duty. There must be a navy sufficient to ride round and round her…” (David Masson quoted in Goodlad, 2009, p. 440).

Today, what we are witnessing is the domestic, social application of principles of securitization. The discourse of safety and security, imported from the “war on terror,” appears to have secured its greatest victory on university campuses, in parliaments and newspapers, and recently even around public toilets. What is different here about this form of securitization is that it is invited to protect actual or imagined victims. “Radical vulnerability” is practiced, and receives the concerted attention of professional sulkers and career pouters.

Second, the affectation of delicacy, the veneer of gentle civility, masks the reality of a life lived thanks to heaps of brutality unloaded on others. Another aspect of this is to enforce a permanent infancy for those shielded from uncomfortable encounters with the realities created by their own lifestyles–and thus they establish a permanent claim to innocence.

Third, a suitable moral system is entrenched, based on what elsewhere I call “moral dualism” (I am guilty of atrocity if I do not intervene to stop it elsewhere, and if my intervention creates atrocity then I am not to be held responsible), plus “moral narcissism” (“What you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe — not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be — defines you as a person and makes you ‘good’. It is how your life will be judged by others and by yourself …In 21st-century America, almost all of us seem to have concluded that ‘you are what you say you are’. You are what you proclaim your values to be, irrespective of their consequences”).

Adherents to this moral system thus privilege words over action, and feeling over knowledge. They are prone to issuing generous denunciations of others while offering lofty self-appraisals or perhaps half-hearted self-criticisms that only admit to a semblance of “unintentional poor judgment”. These are some of the more discursive and moralistic aspects of the New Victorianism, but there are also those that are closely related to capital accumulation.

In terms of capital, the liberal middle class and their dependent aspirants are deeply concerned with customization and upgrading, with status and profile. They are preoccupied with style, and engage in prolific self-fashioning: everything from nose- and toe-rings to the daily parade of photo selfies and the acerbic defence of brands (meaning, their personal names, their colour, or their ethnic or party affiliation). They are believers in self-determination and agency for themselves alone, they exclaim that their bodies are theirs to control, they proclaim monopoly rights over their treasured uteruses, and aided by neoliberal political entrepreneurs they create exclusive safe spaces for their kind — something similar to a no-fly zone — just as they passionately advocate for bombing in the defence of freedom, and for annulling referenda in the name of democracy.

Such orientations of course present new investment opportunities for capitalists, expanding the economic potential of capital accumulation in the form of niche marketing, or even the provision of mere pixels for a price, organized in a pattern that pleases the always more discriminating eye. Finally, the basic pattern of capital extraction can be found in the relationship where comfort and safety is to be afforded to designated groups in the imperial metropolis, while demonization, marginalization, and outright destruction is wrought on the heads of others. The destruction of Libya? So what, we have transgender bathrooms now (forget that bathrooms were never gendered, but sexed).

Thus there are key elements of neoliberal capitalism at work here — the extraction of value, the financialization of intangibles, the commodification of identities, the privatization of representation, and the spatial/societal differentiation of losses and gains. Accumulation by dispossession is not a problem for “activists” (practitioners), as much as who gets to dispossess whom and by how much.

Fortunately, quite a few observers have taken note and have critically commented on these developments in their society. Much of their focus so far has been on US college campuses, possibly because universities so freely violate their own long heralded proclamations of support for academic freedom and free speech. Now the campus has been subject to a no-fly zone of a sort, with safe spaces that resemble in principle the idea of “humanitarian corridors”. The “humanitarian crisis” at hand is due to the existence of an alleged “rape culture” — which brings to mind the hysterical denunciations by Westerners, all too willing to believe the myth of Libyan troops engaging in “systematic mass rape,” fuelled by Viagra.

Everybody is now some kind of refugee, fleeing a perceived “evil”. They hold themselves to be “survivors,” in need of constant care. The language of security, protection, and humanitarian aid has reached orthodox heights, globally and now domestically, even as its speakers rail against those who reject free trade and open borders. Why, because what they want to be at stake is the fragment, or the insignificant, the minute, the superficial, the merely symbolic, and the status claims of a few — not the security and protection of the many closest to home whose dispossession worries them not even slightly (if they so much as recognize it). From behind the walls of their gated communities, they mightily denounce The Wall. This is the kind of social imperialism that largely escapes the received formulations outlined at the outset of this section.

What this form of social imperialism, different in scope and focus from previous conceptualizations, entails is the isomorphic translation within of the practices and logics of imperialism practiced abroad. Thus we see equivalents of the no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor concept. Securitization, the responsibility to protect, and humanitarian aid are all at work — not just as limited reformism, but as an attempt to misplace reform altogether. We also see a fusion of two phenomena: the special interest lobby at home, and the neo-tribal creations of Western colonial rule which relied on such surrogates for indirect rule based on divide-and-conquer principles.

Neo-Tribal Lobby Groups

Divide-and-rule is now regularly practiced at home. Thus we have the neo-tribal lobbies that have formed around sex, gender, and colour in North America — each demanding recognition and rewards, and in their protests they reinforce the centrality of the elites, their state patrons, on whose kind attention they ultimately rely.

Members of the college-based neoliberal left will cry about their “precarity” and then turn to shedding abundant tears for the EU after Brexit, gasping at the very short-lived plunge in stock markets, and denouncing the working-class as “racist” for damaging one of the world’s primary engines of neoliberalism that helped to cause their own precarity in the first place. Next, they may cry over the potential dissolution of NATO, and hold it up as a high representative of love, goodness, and humanity.

One can safely conclude that one of the primary operations of this type of social imperialism is the basic act of mystification. Mystification, the primary goal of “soft power,” has two sides to it: abroad it unites (that is, it assimilates and joins to empire), and at home it divides (breaking up class by fomenting cleavages along identity lines).

The neo-tribal lobby groups deserve more attention. On occasion some may appear to have clearly instrumental practices: protests that serve to showcase the group, issuing demands, and brokering short-term gains to increase their visibility in order to solidify a basis for future action (for a recent example of this, see CBC, 2016).

The street protests of the neo-tribal lobbies double as quasi-religious rituals: attendants gathered in respectful attention around the celebrants of the mass, the high priests of the protest movement delivering speeches, ringed by their acolytes (see CJAD, 2016 for another recent example). This may be accompanied before or after by a colourful procession through the streets. Identity itself thus becomes gentrified, the work of specialist gatekeepers trained in colleges (their eyes trained on the law, the distribution of resources, and their own careers), mounting regular public exhibitions of their identity claims through parades and demonstrations.

Some universities even play an active role in training and then legitimizing the products of their training — just one nearby example is the University of Toronto’s “Centre for Women’s Studies in Education” and its support for “Black Lives Matter — Toronto” (the name of the movement suggesting an international franchise).

The hope of the gatekeepers is that through the vehicle of legal rights they might become a new addition to the rentier class: exercising monopoly rights over the appropriate and authentic representation of their social fragment. They will decide which words can be spoken, and by whom; which phrases are permissible; which patterns can be reproduced on clothing and commercial advertising; mascots will be subjected to harsh interrogation methods; and, they will decide who is entitled to do the act of representation to the media, the courts, the White House, and to gain any rewards that flow from that. However, as producers of spectacle consumed by others, the rents for now accrue entirely to capital, especially the capital behind Facebook, Twitter, and other social media — so they are “useful” to the rentier class that dominates the society (see Harvey, 2014, p. 278).

The new tribal lobbies of the New Victorianism expressly dislike class issues. They rightly fear that people’s attention might be drawn to the class divisions that operate within such groups themselves. The questions such leaders dread is that of their own exploitation of their followers, and how as leaders they went about appointing themselves to speak in their followers’ names.

Recent commentary on different aspects of this New Victorianism has been useful, even if it sometimes comes from surprising quarters. Surprising because neoliberals on the right ought to take heart at the formation of freedom-of-choice lobbies that play the game of capital accumulation on the basis of institutionalized identity rights — just like their own lodges, clubs, fraternities, churches, and political parties. Both sides wish everyone would go back to talking about the working class as if it were the middle class, so they can just forget class.

Unsurprising is the neoliberal right’s opposition: they possibly resent the entry of new competitors. Either way, whatever the motivation and regardless of the partisan desires they may harbour, the critical insights can be made valuable. At the very least, I have to give credit where it is due to those who have helped to popularize the “New Victorianism” idea.

New Victorians: Helicopter Parents, Urban Gentry, Trauma Survivors

Queen Hillary Clinton

The term “New Victorian” is used to mean different things by different writers. One depicts the New Victorians as a particularly precious segment of the urban and upper middle-class, or just upper class — essentially, avid social climbers, with lots of status pretense, busily nesting in the brownstones of upscale neighbourhoods: “a New Vic can be a feminist and even a committed world-changer, but she also has to have a great job, superior husband, kids, and try to save society all at once”. They can even constitute a new landed gentry of sorts, with their increased interest in practicing “urban agriculture” (Ratner, 2007). Here the focus is on New Victorians as a class type. The undisputed political representative of these New Victorians would have to be Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Focusing more on the New Victorianism, which looks at the phenomenon in terms of social relations and political positions, are those essays that deal with bourgeois feminism and the politics of sex and gender. Thus one writer opens with this:

“According to ourselves, modern Americans have cast off the ruffles, paternalism, and prudishness of the Victorians. We certainly wear less fabric on our bodies at any given time than they did. However, in at least one way our bosoms beat as one: our cultures are linked by the conviction that it is our job to make the world a better place by reforming the beliefs and behavior of the masses. One peculiar way in which this desire to improve the world manifests is in the treatment of select groups from within society”.

—  “Why Helicopter Parenting is the New Victorianism” by Anna Mussmann in The Federalist, 15 July 2015.

In other ways, the New Victorianism effectively reproduces the Old Victorianism’s portrayals of women — but it expands the humanitarian object needing rescue and protection beyond women, and encapsulates all young adults as helpless children, while using children to boost the status of parents:

“In fact, the popular, romantic vision of femininity, as seen in Victorian literature, is that of a beautiful, shrinking violet who exemplifies virtue through her own inability to cope with other peoples’ vice. Exposure to evil routinely leads to the Victorian heroine’s collapse. If evil does not seduce her, it is likely to kill her through a severe attack of nerves. Modern society also cherishes its shrinking violets. The contemporary flowers in question are those individuals whom we do not yet deem adults. Children and adolescents are no longer required or allowed to labor alongside their parents. The modern schedule of school, sports, extracurricular activities, and media consumption is busy, of course; but these activities are not essential to survival.

“They can even be a way to turn one’s children into status symbols. A child born at the appropriate moment in his parents’ careers, dressed in suitably adorable clothes for Facebook photos, driven to correct educational activities, and admitted to a proper Ivy League school, is a child who demonstrates the genteel rank to which his parents belong”. (Mussmann, 2015)

From within this fold springs the “humanitarian” desire to intervene around the world: “A life that is full of newly-invented, crazily abundant material goods leaves a mark on the psyche. It feeds the need to justify ourselves and our existence in our own eyes. It is linked to our need to make the world a better place. …what happens when a segment of the population is thrust into a protective bubble so that society can believe in its power to save and reform the world[?]” (Mussmann, 2015).

Others instead portray a New Victorianism in terms of the imposition of regulations on interactions between the sexes — with an emphasis on protection and security. Writing about the “Neo-Victorianism on campus,” MacDonald argues that a “neo-Victorian ethos” has, in an ironic twist for Western feminism, by turning the males who primarily make up campus administrations into the guardians of female safety:

“campus feminists are reimporting selective portions of a traditional sexual code that they have long scorned….They are once again making males the guardians of female safety and are portraying females as fainting, helpless victims of the untrammeled male libido. They are demanding that college administrators write highly technical rules for sex and aggressively enforce them, 50 years after the proponents of sexual liberation insisted that college adults stop policing student sexual behavior”.

— “Neo-Victorianism on Campus” by Heather MacDonald in The Weekly Standard, 20 October 2014.

Hewitt maintained that “fundamental aspects of the Victorian sexual regime persisted until the 1960s,” which would validate the idea that there is a New Victorianism today which has — intentionally or not — met up with and revived ideas that lingered from the Old Victorian period until 50 years ago (2006, p. 412).

Reframing the sites of normal female-male interaction in terms of “risk” seems like a domestication of globalized risk society. While it’s unknown if they have had a causal effect, the very least we can say is that regulations, surveillance, and perceptions of risk, correspond with a sharp decline in sexual activity among US teenagers, a dramatic reversal from recent decades. As Barone (2015) reported, “a Center for Disease Control survey showed that less than half of teenagers over 14 in 2013 have engaged in sexual intercourse, a sharp decline from 1988 — and a sharper decline among males than females”. He also finds a “Victorian aspect” to legalizing same-sex marriage, especially in arguments that marriage would help to “domesticate” homosexuals and render them less promiscuous and subject to greater “restriction and restraint” (Barone, 2015).

Indeed, in Quebec where the institution of marriage has been widely repudiated, such that you find even sexagenarians still talking in teen terms of their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” there is a puzzlement that one can easily encounter about why gays would want marriage, as if going back to a past that the Quebecois thought they had left behind. In Argentina, where marriage rates have plunged by 60% over the last 25 years, fake weddings are commercially produced as parties for people who enjoy the spectacle, food, drink, and dancing (see CBC Radio, 2016). It’s ambiguous how one can earnestly support marriage for gays in the name of equality, while rejecting the institution of marriage for oneself.

In dealing with the heightened perception of risk and harm, new speech codes are being instituted on campuses across the US, which added to the “disinvitation” of “controversial” speakers, the widening definition of “hate speech,” and calls for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” would suggest fear of an impending catastrophe. According to some estimates, 217 American colleges and universities — including some of the most prestigious — have speech codes that “unambiguously impinge upon free speech” (Burleigh, 2016).

A sense of anxiety, even panic, seems to have taken hold of some students on numerous campuses, with the liberal class yet again defending illiberal solutions, such as erecting barriers to free speech. “Bias Response Teams,” in language that evokes policing, are in operation on more than a hundred campuses and are ready to bring to swift justice those whose speech offends others (Snyder & Khalid, 2016).

Beyond university campuses, the New York City Commission on Human Rights has resorted to fining people for not using the gender pronoun that an individual may prefer (Volokh, 2016) — this goes beyond regulated speech, and becomes compelled speech. The pronouns are almost incomprehensible inventions that are alien to mainstream speech, seemingly designed to meet the artificial needs of those who entertain more than 50 gender options (Oremus, 2014). The only people who can have so much time for such intricate self-fashioning must be active members of the leisure class. Even if using different methods, the ornate elaboration of personal identity seems as extensive among New Victorians as Old.

The dogma of protection has come home to roost — as Laura Kipnis wrote in a widely read article, that got her into trouble with the administration of her university (Northwestern):

“The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected.”
—  “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” by Laura Kipnis in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 February 2015(a).

Kipnis argues that when students are encouraged to regard themselves as “such exquisitely sensitive creatures,” with affectations of so much “delicacy,” what is produced is a “climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability” that manufactures “helpless damsels”. She also argues that, “if you wanted to produce a pacified, cowering citizenry, this would be the method” (Kipnis, 2015a). Speaking on the issue of “trigger warnings” on course outlines and in classroom presentations, the American Association of University Professors issued a report that seems to concur with Kipnis’ pacification argument: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual” (quoted in Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015).

As if resolutely determined to prove Kipnis’ very points, students came forward claiming to be “terrified” by her essay and demanded “official condemnation” (Kipnis, 2015b). Scorched earth has become the new norm governing speech in North America and parts of Europe: if I don’t like what you say, then you shouldn’t be allowed to make a living that permits you to say it. People should be cast into internal exile, where maybe once they are reduced to itinerant street beggars will they be allowed the privilege to speak their minds — when nobody is likely to listen.

Ralph Nader has also come out against the new wave of what some call political correctness on campus:

“You see it on campuses — what is it called, trigger warnings? It’s gotten absurd. I mean, you repress people, you engage in anger, and what you do is turn people into skins that are blistered by moonbeams. Young men now are far too sensitive because they’ve never been in a draft. They’ve never had a sergeant say, ‘Hit the ground and do 50 push-ups and I don’t care if there’s mud there’”.

— “An Election Season Conversation With Ralph Nader, the Nation’s No. 1 Public-Interest Crusader” — interview by Lydia DePillis in Pacific Standard, 6 June 2016.

One might infer from Nader’s observation that investments in delicacy are implicitly a reaction against “working class culture” perceived as coarse, uncouth, impolite, and ignorant (see the image below as an illustration of that stereotype).

Finally, Jeannie Suk at Harvard University has pointed out the consequences of all of these impediments to teaching law on sexual violence, which an increasing number of students object to as triggering trauma. The amazing outcome is that a victim culture is disarming itself of one of its most used tools (Suk, 2014).

A still from the 2008 movie, “Pig Hunt”.

A still from the 2008 movie, “Pig Hunt”.
Available at Amazon.

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 Politic.
  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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2 thoughts on “An anthropologist looks at Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics”

  1. Wow. Encyclopedic. Terrific stuff.
    Try just this:
    “The new tribal lobbies of the New Victorianism expressly dislike class issues. They rightly fear that people’s attention might be drawn to the class divisions that operate within such groups themselves. The questions such leaders dread is that of their own exploitation of their followers, and how as leaders they went about appointing themselves to speak in their followers’ names.”

  2. Thanks so much for this, FM. You’ve no idea how much it warms the cockles of my (long ago immigrant from the U.K.) Canadian heart to see so much common sense emanating from the ranks of Canadian academe.

    This is a most welcome counter-balance to the (IMHO) unfathomable platitudes and inanities that seem to pour forth on a daily basis from our PM (an Obama-clone wannabe, if ever there was one), his “because it’s 2015” cabinet, and some alarmingly gung-ho provincial counterparts. Not to mention the agenda-driven word-salads that emanate from the keyboards of the likes of Naomi Klein.

    I’ve watched this alarming descent in academe (from Kindergarten to post-grad studies) for over 40 years now. So it gives me hope that the future for my nieces and great-nephews may well be somewhat brighter than it appeared to be as recently as seven years ago, when I first set foot on the “climate” battlefield.

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