Locke, Burke, Wakefield and the British Empire


A review of Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism: Locke, Burke, Wakefield and the British Empire, by Onur Ulas Ince.

Onur Ulas Ince’s dissertation is a tour de force reconstruction of three crucial moments in the historical construction of liberalism as a political discourse. Ince argues that British liberalism faced a series of ideological tests in the colonies. The self-image and self-justification of the British as a free and liberal people was rooted in the institutions of private property, market exchange, and free labor. But anyone who paid close attention to the expansion of the British realm into the Americas, India, and Australia and New Zealand had to confront the fact that these liberal institutions were deeply implicated in profoundly illiberal processes of conquest, plunder, rapine, and exploitation. Ince argues that three liberal intellectuals in particular – John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield – attempted to deal theoretically with this mutual implication of liberalism and empire.

The Introduction surveys the project as a whole and situates it as an effort to recast the question of empire in the wake of postcolonial studies. Ince argues, convincingly, that the postcolonial critique of imperialism’s illiberalism misses the point of liberalism’s contradictory investment in imperialism and colonialism. According to the postcolonial critique – and Ince is thinking primarily of Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Uday Mehta – British imperialism was, from its beginning, beset by a contradiction between the universal liberal values that the empire was supposed to represent and the cultural and historical differences, encountered in the colonies, that “universal” imperial values could not but fail to accommodate. Ince’s rejoinder is that, put simply, the liberal apology for imperialism and colonialism – as well as liberalism’s own criticism of the same – is rooted not in the universalism of liberal values as such, but in the political economic institutions of private property, exchange, and free labor. The spread of these institutions both justified colonialism and established the integuments of a liberal social order that could recoil in horror at the violence and plunder perpetrated in the colonies. As Ince puts the point, “the source of discomfort for liberal thinkers was not so much the cultural alterity of the colonized peoples but the coercive economic transformations that the British undertook in their imperial possessions” (p. 3). Ince thereby establishes a powerful argument for recuperating aspects of a Marxist framework for analyzing the mutual implication of imperialism and liberalism, and for focusing on questions of political economy as key sites where liberal intellectuals work through these implications.

Chapter 1 introduces and unpacks Ince’s conception of colonial capitalism. He argues, against “diffusionist” accounts, that capitalism emerged, historically and necessarily, within a political and legal context of colonial empire. Capitalism wasn’t born in Europe and didn’t spread around the world. It was born in the colonial empires and tied metropole and colony together in an expansive and intensifying web of relations. Taking account of this origin requires “abandoning the idea of capitalism as a socially homogenous system that remakes the world in its own image,” and replacing this with a conception that “grasps capitalism as a heterogeneous and contradictory global social formation composed of diverse relations of production and exchange” (p. 7). This reconceptualization entails a sharp criticism of historicist and stadial theories of development, whether Marxist or liberal. This chapter also includes a very rich and powerful discussion of the deep linkages between liberalism and the valorization of commerce, which in turn motivates the dissertation’s examination of three conjunctures where liberal theorists had to grapple with the ideological challenges that emerge when this valorization of commerce encounters the violent processes by which commercial ties are made to span the globe. What emerges from this chapter is an understanding of liberalism as “the necessary misrecognition of capitalism as an essentially market phenomenon through the disavowal of its political immanence and the extra-economic coercion in its colonial inceptions” (p. 68).

Chapter 2 examines the writings of John Locke, colonial administrator, investor in the slave trade, and, on many accounts, the first great theorist of liberalism. Ince reads Locke’s Two Treatises of Government against the background of his involvement in the system of plantation capitalism that defined the Atlantic world. Ince situates his intervention here as resolving “the dispute over the theological underpinnings and capitalist implications of Locke’s theory of property,” a series of interpretive debates which “revolve around morality and accumulation, or rather, morality of accumulation” (p. 107). According to Ince’s reconstruction of Locke, the enclosure and improvement of land – a decree of Providence – is only rational where it is possible to accumulate the value that is derived from the improvement, and this possibility is only secured by the existence of money. Thus, money becomes the link between a religious teleology of subduing the earth and commercial practices that aim at the accumulation of value. This also has the result that the land of the Americas, by a universal and tacit consent, was a commons that could be enclosed and improved only by those – Europeans – who recognized the institution of money. What might have seemed like the expropriation of the Amerindians was, in fact, the bestowal of the very possibility of private property, and even the very possibility of abstract thought, rationality, and, hence, full humanity.

Chapter 3 turns to Edmund Burke, the man of whom Adam Smith famously said that he “thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.” Ince argues that Burke’s famous ambivalence about both commercial society and the British empire can only be resolved when these are not examined separately but together within the rubric of colonial capitalism. Ince reads Burke as “intensely aware of how the liberal self-image of the market society in the metropole was endangered by its violent and ‘primitive’ buttresses in the colonies” (p. 160). He wanted to save the liberality of commerce by containing the ugliness of its colonial eruptions. He defended the drive to accumulate capitalist wealth, but was appalled when this drive was corrupted by political power and bent to expropriation and exploitation, both of which were offensively visible in India. Ince reads Burke’s denunciation of Company rule in India, therefore, as an effort to insist upon the increasingly blurred distinctions between civilized commerce and unabashed plunder, to rescue imperial commerce from the imperiousness that threatened it from within.

Chapter 4 looks to the colonization theory of E. G. Wakefield to explicate the constitution of free labour as one pole in a capitalist social relation that had to be established for the sake of civilization. Ince reads Wakefield as a truly prescient thinker and policy advocate. On the one hand, he sought to solve the labor problem in both the metropole – a glut of politically disruptive workers – and the colonies – a dearth of labor – by means of an activist government intervention to establish the “proper” institutional conditions of economic growth (in particular, the price of land), conditions understood in terms of their impact on individual incentives. In this regard, Wakefield prefigures much later practices of liberal government. On the other hand, he sought to address the civilizational problems of both, as well. The “social degradation and depravity” of the metropolitan working class and the “vulgar and repugnant livelihood” of the colonial farmer were seen by Wakefield as the twin dangers confronting “capitalist civilization” (p. 217). Only the proper management of colonization could save this civilization. Wakefield covered over the expropriation inherent in this management by means of a hypothetical social contract of dispossession, entered into by the workers for their own good.

Ince’s dissertation manages to distil an immensely rich, cross-disciplinary body of research into a theoretically pointed and carefully argued intervention in debates about the history of liberalism and the repercussions of imperialism. Although it makes innovative contributions to the existing literatures on Locke and Burke, and reveals Wakefield to be a figure worthy of study in his own right, the most important contribution is contained in the conceptualization of “colonial capitalism” itself, and in the way Ince utilizes this concept to unlock the inner dynamics of imperial political economy and liberal political thought. When it becomes a book – and I sincerely hope that it is soon – Ince’s study will be of great interest to scholars of liberalism, settler colonialism and British imperialism, political economy, the political thought of Locke and Burke, and the history of primitive accumulation.

William Clare Roberts
Department of Political Science
McGill University

Primary Sources
The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government
The Collected Works of Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Dissertation Information
Cornell University. 2013. 373 pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Buck-Morss.

Image: John. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840), Oil on Canvas

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