Category Archives: America

About American politics, our spirit, and our soul

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.

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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.

Queen Clinton billboard

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).

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.

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An anthropologist asks if we’ve become the New Victorians

Summary: Anthropologist Maximilian Forte begins a series find a new perspective on our situation by comparing our time with the Victorian era. We need new views now, as campaign 2016 has brought new and disturbing changes to both parties (e.g., the Democrats becoming the darling of Wall Street, favoring the Deep State and foreign wars).

Queen Clinton's bus

Graphic created by the author.


The New Victorianism (part 1 of 4)

By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Cites at the end.
Reposted with his generous permission.

“A man…lives not only in the spot which he personally occupies, but in every spot to which he may extend his action, or to which he may conceive it possible that his action should be extended. And so, wherever over the world British influence penetrates, or can conceive itself penetrating, there, and not in the mere islands where we have our footing, Great Britain lives”.

— David Masson quoted in “Trollopian ‘Foreign Policy’: Rootedness and Cosmopolitanism in the Mid-Victorian Global Imaginary” by Lauren M.E. Goodlad in PMLA, March 2009.

This is 2001. As on any other weeknight, there was the familiar ringing of the dinner bell. Standing in the Senior Common Room, under a four-foot tall portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and a flag of Australia so large that the “Union Jack” portion stood out immensely, I had sherry with the Master before dinner. We would enter the dining hall, in a procession led by the Master, and would seat ourselves at the High Table (on a stage, above all others). We were all dressed in black robes. A Latin invocation was always recited by one of the leading students at a lower table. The hall was ringed by portraits of elderly men with mutton chops and ladies with fine spectacles and white gloves. After dinner, we had a glass of port, again with the Master and the Dean of this residential college in Adelaide. On one night, a student sang “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” from the Victorian opera of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance. However, if a student had been late to dinner, then the after dinner entertainment was the student getting a “ponding”: a bell would be rung, increasingly rapidly, and then the student would be flung by his peers — robe and all — into the pond, usually with much laughter.

The students were from wealthy families, some connected to the political elite of the country. The main building was named after the family of the then Foreign Minister. With that as my experience, and not even distant but recent, an essay such as this was inevitably going to come some day.

Old Victorian Precedents and Foundations

Not Great Britain, but really a Greater Britain is what was envisioned in the opening quote. The existence of a Greater Britain makes sense when we see how often the British and their offspring settler states, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US, work in concert and share many of the same ideological principles. That is not just an accidental correspondence. Instead, it is the basic historical link that makes it possible and logical to draw comparisons.

Victoria Square, Montreal

Victoria Square, Montreal. By Fishhead64 from Wikimedia Commons.

The symbol of Queen Victoria, more than that of any other British monarch, still casts a long shadow over the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations and, as I will argue, even the US. Leaving aside Britain itself, in Canada Victoria Day is still celebrated as a national holiday (the only holiday in honour of a monarch), every city seems to have a Victoria Square, a street named after Victoria, and perhaps a statue of Victoria. There is a long list of Queen Victoria statues around the world, which includes Montreal where I work. In Australia, an entire state is named after her, and in Canada the capital of British Columbia is also named Victoria — people resident in such locations are thus at least nominal “Victorians”. In Trinidad & Tobago, I once passed through Victoria County. Universities are named after her, whether Victoria University (Australia), Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), the University of Victoria (Canada), or in other cases where her name is implied as in Queen’s University.

In the English-speaking world, most of us will have read or heard something about “the Victorian Era,” whose duration was, at a minimum, the same as her reign (1837-1901), though in actuality historians disagree on the real time span of “Victorianism” and how to define it, or whether there ever was a Victorian period (Hewitt, 2006, p. 434). There is always difficulty in defining chronological limits: as Hewitt (2006, p. 395) argues, “all historical periods have only partial validity” — but while “historical boundaries are permeable” they are also methodologically necessary. At the very least, “Victorianism” can be a useful heuristic device for thinking about the culture of empire in the Anglo-American worlds in the North Atlantic and the South Pacific.

A minimalist argument for the existence of Victorianism is rooted in observing the extent to which the political geography of the British colonial world was renamed after Queen Victoria, making it appear that her reign serves as a major if not canonical reference point in the Anglophone world.

A more maximal argument sees the concentration of key social, economic, and political changes “around the margins of Victoria’s reign” and that it would thus seem “counterintuitive not to think of the Victorian as a period, whether conceived of as lodged between the profound transformations of the Romantic era and the emergence of Modernism, or situated between a long eighteenth century and the twentieth-century world” (Hewitt, 2006, p. 396). What thinking in terms of a “Victorian period” does not have to assume is that there was a special significance about the reign of Victoria herself; that the period’s beginning and end must have abrupt and clear demarcations; or, that any changes that took place during the period should be ignored.

Perhaps above all, the value lies in seeing the timeframe as possessing a series of unique and widely applicable characteristics “usually defined in terms of ‘zeitgeist,’ ‘temper,’ or ‘spirit of the age’” (Hewitt, 2006, p. 396). In this vein, Hewitt argues that there was a “Victorian pattern”: “a set of configurations that include institutional forms, legal frameworks, conceptual understandings and rhetorics, regimes of knowledge, technological capacities, and characteristic cultural forms and processes” (2006, p. 397). In terms of the industrial revolution, and its social revolution (class society, rise of the bourgeoisie), plus the bureaucratization of the state and myriad other developments, Hewitt argues that the idea of a “Victorian period” still makes sense, and I agree.

We should also remember how it was during the Victorian period — for the most part not thanks to Queen Victoria herself, to be clear — that many of the foundations were laid for our current thinking and our current debates. For example, some of the period’s key intellectual developments include:

  • Racial theories, “scientific racism”;
  • Photographic realism (Hewitt, 2006, p. 412);
  • A “Victorian New World Order” (Young, 2009), compressing representations of the imperial-dominated globe in events such as the Great Exhibition of 1851;
  • Globalism, as we now call it, ushered in then by the telegraph and railways, “annihilating time and space” (in the language of the time);
  • Cosmopolitanism, in literature, philosophy, and styles of living (including the advent of tourism);
  • Imperialism, as a political term and as focus of theories of political economy;
  • The “working class” (Hewitt, 2006, p. 399) appeared as a concept, along with socialist philosophies;
  • Evolutionism and its discourse of “progress” and the ideologies of progressivism it spawned;
  • The prestige of scientific elites and the development of a technocratic class;
  • The “avalanche of numbers” as Thomas Kuhn called it, appearing from around 1840, with all the censuses, statistics, classification, coding, documentation, registration, creation of police forces and philanthropic inspection (Hewitt, 2006, p. 417);
  • The “problem of order” and the elites’ fear of the masses;
  • The social sciences (anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, history) were first instituted in this period; and,
  • Even scientific detective stories (where forensic analysis was crucial), plus science-fiction stories, and horror, were each established as popular genre in Britain’s 19th century.

Did Victorianism end with Victoria’s passing? Is there a New Victorianism, and if so, what does it encompass? If there is a New Victorianism, what are there basic structural and cultural similarities between the old and New Victorianism, and what do the commonalities tell us? What does this mean for how we understand history? As the reader will see, beyond the interests of antiquarians and Anglophiles the answers to these questions can be of much wider importance to understanding the present, and where we might be headed next.

First, (old) “Victorianism” needs to be summarized to get some definitional grasp of it. As a precursor of what we now call “globalization,” Victorianism is seen by some as marking the triumph over distance: “Victorianism remains associated with industrialism, urbanization, transport, technologies, travel, and communication”. Salient features of Victorian society are poverty, drunkenness, pornography, prostitution, increased confrontation with the reality of homosexuality, and growing religious pluralism. Occurring during the industrial revolution, Victorianism is inevitably associated with technological innovation; with the advent of electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, photography and the beginnings of film, the foundations were laid in the Victorian era for the key information and communication technologies of today.

There was a Victorian “globalism” given how “the Victorians celebrated the telegraph for its capacity to make their world smaller and more immediately manageable” — the telegraph serving as the “Victorian Internet” (from Tom Standage’s 1998 book). Victorians were fascinated with the new technology and how it transformed their conceptions of time and space. Routinely it was asserted that the telegraph had “annihilated time and space” with similar remarks made about railways. These technologies were heralded as an instrument for the “spread of Victorian values” that would revolutionize the “‘moral and intellectual nature and action of mankind’” (Morus, 2000, p. 456). Instituting the Greenwich time signal (GMT), transmitted via telegraph, was something designed to achieve the global standardization of time (Morus, 2000, p. 457).

Victorianism also marked the maximum expansion of British imperialism, and the rise of financialization. Liberal humanitarian intervention was first developed in Victorian Britain and exported to its colonies. At home, in terms of social mores, Victorianism is also typically identified as the classic case of a moralizing, prudish, and repressed society (again, some scholars reject this usage of “Victorianism”). What does this have to do with us?

The New Victorian Era and Neoliberalism in North America

“Is America entering a new Victorian Era?” asked Michael Barone in an essay in The Washington Examiner in 2015. Barone wrote in response: “Today several widely unanticipated trends — certainly unanticipated by me — suggest that America is in some significant respects entering a new Victorian Era”. While it may be important to note that there is a tinge of partisanship in the fact that it is mostly conservative US publications which are the ones to highlight the emergence of the “New Victorianism,” it may not be the most significant observation, nor is the focus of their critique necessarily partisan. However, unlike Canada, the US is home to a long-standing conservative, republican tradition of criticism of liberal imperialism, and it is therefore not surprising that with a liberal imperialist order currently possessing power, that critiques should once again emerge from this quarter.

For me, their ideas are useful and productive, because they point to certain historical parallels between two closely related empires — closely related in cultural and demographic terms, and closely related in terms of temporal overlap and shared interests between dominant elites. How two distinct empires, separated in time and space, can share common elements in their individual declines may be important, but it could also be coincidence.

Not all empires decline the same way, though some see certain broad trends that recur, as in the award-winning documentary The Four Horsemen (see below), where it is argued, following Sir John Glubb’s The Fate of Empires (1976), that there are similarities in the “life-cycles of empires,” with empires on average lasting approximately 250 years. There are similarities also in the decadent, terminal phase of an empire, with key recurring features including,

  • “an undisciplined, overextended military”;
  • “the conspicuous display of wealth”;
  • “massive disparity between rich and poor”;
  • “a desire to live off a bloated state”;
  • “an obsession with sex”; and,
  • “the debasement of the currency”.

There may be broad similarities. However, when you look more closely, differences stand out: “obsession with sex” in one instance may mean moral laxity and growing promiscuity (by the challenged standards of a time), but in another the sexual obsession is the reverse, involving excessive regulation.

One argument I think we can make is that when two culturally similar and temporally proximate empires decline, they decline in a roughly similar cultural fashion. I would suggest seeing both the British and US empires as two basically Anglo-Saxon entities, with shared moral codes, shared ideologies, shared language and a shared literature, mutual training of elites, shared population, and so forth. More than that, both experienced similar cultural and ideological trends, in a period of growing global competition and increased overextension, with social strife at home. Just as the Victorian period preceded the withdrawal of the UK from its colonial empire, I am suggesting that the New Victorianism in the US may be one of the signs of the impending withdrawal of the US from its neocolonial empire — in other words, we may be nearing the end of the “New Imperialism”.


“Four Horsemen” – A documentary by Renegade Inc. (2013)

How the world works: 23 leading thinkers, including eminent economists, speak out against our current system and the thinking that underpins it. From their website.

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.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the British Empire, about the American Empire, and especially these…

  1. Lewsi Lapham warns about Democracy at Bay in America.
  2. Words from Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire.
  3. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire at the CNAS conference.
  4. A warning from the past. Might the American Empire drag down America?
  5. The American Empire, as seen by a Major General of the PLA.

Hard data from Harvard about police violence & race

Summary: At last in the long debate about police violence we have an actual analysis (rather than the amateur tallies). Professor Fryer Jr. (economics, Harvard) looks at a sample of the data and discovers some surprising news. He gives some innovative suggests for practical police reforms (i.e., possible to implement). His conclusions are essential reading for anyone concerned about this vital issue.

Protect and Serve

An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force
By Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2016

“This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50% more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities.

“On the most extreme use of force – officer-involved shootings – we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.”

Fryer evaluates seven levels of force short of shooting by police: hands, pushing to wall, handcuffs, drawing a weapon, pushing to ground, pointing a weapon, using a spray/baton. The following graph shows the data by race and hour of day, from a sample of New York Police Department stop and frisks from 2003-2013.

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Watch other nations build infrastructure for 21st C prosperity. We can, too.

Yesterday the BBC wrote about the “Swiss Gotthard rail tunnel – an engineering triumph“, the world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel — part of a massive project to build world-class rail network for Switzerland.  It included a typical graphic for these kind of articles. Note what major nation does not appear on the list, and seldom appears on these lists.

Worlds longest tunnels

There have been many such articles lately, as nations upgrade their infrastructure for success in the 21st century. They build tunnels, fiber optic networks, high speed trains (fast, reducing pollution), etc. America appears in few of these stories.

News about America’s infrastructure has a different tone. “Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability“.  CNN reports that damaged pipelines are a ‘ticking time bomb’, “the busiest rails shut down by failing power cables”, and “Bridges supported by crumbling 90-year-old beams.” You can use this interactive tool to see the Sorry State of America’s BridgesUS Airports are Awful; Here’s the problem.

And so forth, and each year brings forth new stories about the results of our underinvestment in critical public infrastructure. Visitors to America often remark about our decrepit third-world-like infrastructure for transportation and communication, while Americans exult over our shiny new weapons.

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