Histories of Violence: Dreaming of Imperial Violence

May 3, 2021   •   By Brad Evans

THIS IS THE 50th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Duncan Bell, a professor of Political Thought and International Relations in POLIS and a fellow of Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America (Princeton University Press, 2020).


BRAD EVANS: There are many ways questions of definition concerning violence can be raised. While such definitions are invariably open to contestation, what seems pretty self-evident is that all violence has a history. Violence doesn’t simply fall from the skies, metaphorically speaking. Its aerial bombardments reach across time and are most often bound up with historical process and projections. As a historian who has worked extensively on the question of empire and imperialism, how would you address the question of violence and what demands does it place upon you as a critical scholar?

DUNCAN BELL: Let me start by saying thanks for the invitation to reflect on the role of violence in my work.

As an historian of political thought, working on Britain (and to a lesser extent the United States) in the 19th and 20th centuries, my scholarship analyzes arguments that were employed by members of the political and intellectual elite to legitimate, and occasionally to critique, empire. Violence assumes two principal roles — explicit and implicit — in such discourses, and I have tried to remain attentive to both.

First, I have explored how imperialists of various kinds thought about the nature and purpose of political violence — how they conceptualized and justified it, how it was racialized, how new destructive technologies were incorporated into the imperial imaginary, and so on. Much of my work seeks to unpack ideologies of settler colonialism, a form of imperialism that in practice often involved systematic violence against indigenous peoples. Some colonial apologists were only too happy to call for the genocidal extermination of those they considered racially inferior. Others sought to justify dispossession through claiming that such peoples were already bound for “extinction” (a discourse examined by Patrick Brantlinger). Others still regarded violence as a necessary though tragic feature of human progress. In some recent work, I’ve also looked at how arguments about the character of war were reshaped in the late 19th century by new military, communications, and transport technologies, and how claims about the technoscientific superiority of Euro-American societies were utilized to justify global racial hierarchies.

But the silences and gaps in legitimatory arguments are equally revealing. Many of the figures I work on downplayed the violence of empire, or suggested that their own preferred models would help to eliminate or ameliorate violence throughout the world. They painted extraordinarily idealized pictures of imperial rule as a form of consensual and progressive political order, capable of, even necessary for, policing and limiting inter-state and inter-communal violence. This was the Pax Britannia or Pax Americana figured as benign agent of peace and justice. This image resonates today among those keen to defend the British Empire and its legacy. As I explore in my new book, Dreamworlds of Race, at the turn of the 20th century it was even suggested that if Britain and the United States unified politically, to form a massive omni-competent “Anglo” polity, they could establish perpetual peace, bringing about (in the words of Andrew Carnegie) the “end of the murder of men by men.” I am interested in both racial-utopian visions and arguments that explicitly endorse the use of violence to create or reproduce global hierarchies.

Insofar as scholarly work on this subject entails a form of ethico-political responsibility, I think it essential not only to map such arguments, but to show what they presupposed and entailed, how they acted as a form of ideological obfuscation, effacing or distracting attention from the sustained violence of imperial conquest and governance.

I know we both share an enduring admiration for the writings of J. G. Ballard. To me at least, that we are all inhabiting some surreal version of a digitalized Atrocity Exhibition appears to be the truism of our times. What is it about the vision and ideas of Ballard that continues to command your attention?

Yes, I’ve long admired Ballard’s writing. Partly, it is a matter of style. As someone who is drawn to surrealist visual art, I find his attempts to translate surrealist motifs and themes into words compelling. At its best, his prose is both disconcerting and arrestingly beautiful. But his insights about the psycho-social dynamics of technological modernity — the material that has drawn attention from scholars — are also remarkable, even if some are far more plausible than others. I think it is fair to say that violence shadowed Ballard’s imagination, imprinting his work and his sensibility from the outset. I’ve written a couple of pieces on him. The first explored his fascination with architecture and urban planning. I suggested that we can read Ballard’s fiction and his extensive commentary as tracing a shift that occurred during the late 20th century between two infrastructural regimes, the “modernist industrial” and the “postmodern digital,” and their attendant forms of aesthetics, agency, and political economy. More recently, I published an article trying to make sense of his political vision — an elusive topic, to say the least. Rather than reading him either as a political radical or a reactionary conservative, I argue that he can be classified as a “surrealist liberal,” as committed to a variant of what (following Judith Shklar) political theorists call the “liberalism of fear” — a form of politics that aims to avoid the worst human excesses, above all cruelty, rather than specifying ideal conditions for flourishing. As Shklar put it in a famous essay, this disenchanted form of liberalism does not “offer a summum bonum toward which all political agents should strive, but it certainly does begin with a summum malum, which all of us know and would avoid if only we could.” Ballard, though, proffered an idiosyncratic variant, informed by his immersion in the horrors of the 20th century, chiefly his experience of internment by the Japanese during World War II, and by the sense he tried to make of the suffering and violence he witnessed in the work of Freud and the surrealists. This issued in a dark vision of human potentiality, and a sense of both the pivotal importance of human freedom and the fragility of social order and moral norms. But I also suggest that Ballard ended up in a political dead-end, as the liberalism he had once embraced morphed into the neoliberalism that he came to regard as a threat to human freedom, and of which he was such an imaginative diagnostician.

I would like to now turn to your latest book Dreamworlds of Race, which provides such a compelling history on the imperial imagination. Can you tell me more about the idea of the dreamworld, and why do you think the imagination is so important to evaluate when it comes to the history of imperial tendencies?

The book explores fin-de-siècle fantasies of Anglo-American union, the idea that Britain and the United States should be integrated to consolidate the “Anglo-Saxon race” (or, as it was also called, the “English-speaking Peoples”). Such projects ranged from those seeking full political integration — usually with Britain, and sometimes also its settler colonies, absorbed into an expanded United States — through various kinds of alliance, to informal cooperative arrangements that would facilitate inter-imperialism. I am interested especially in the most ambitious projects, those that proclaimed an Anglo-union would transform the world. In the book, I focus in detail on four protagonists before discussing a set of key themes and concepts. The individuals are Andrew Carnegie, Cecil Rhodes, W. T. Stead, and H. G. Wells — respectively, one of the wealthiest men on earth, the most infamous imperialist of the age, the leading journalist in the British Empire, and one of the best-known fin-de-siècle writers. Though they might seem an unlikely quartet, they were bound to varying degrees by personal ties, professional connections, and a shared belief in Anglo-racial destiny. The first half of Dreamworlds examines their arguments, locating them in a variety of contexts, including debates over international law, theories of race, narratives of world history, and political theology.

The rest of the book explores some of the broader themes that permeated the unionist dreamworld. I show how fantasies of racial union were articulated in science fictional accounts of future war, ranging from near-future invasion stories used to make the case for American imperial expansion in the wake of the Spanish-American war, through to more expansive narratives, such as George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893), an extraordinary, hyper-violent fusion of socialist revolution and white supremacy, and Robert Cole’s The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236, one of the first “space operas,” a story that charts the settler colonization of the solar system and its dire consequences. I follow this with a discussion of how ideas about citizenship and patriotism were reimagined as forms of racial belonging and affiliation. The conceptual relationship between the territorial state, sovereignty, and political obligation, was reengineered by unionists, who promoted both common (“isopolitan”) citizenship linking members of the “race” and also the idea of “race patriotism,” which posited race as a privileged source and object of political devotion. The final main chapter turns to the utopian core of these projects — the idea that racial union could inaugurate an era of perpetual peace. I place such argument in the context of late 19th-century arguments about democracy, war, and empire.

I adopt the term dreamworld to capture the self-understandings of the people I am writing about. It can be understood in at least two senses. The first is spatial — dreams of racial union encoded the idea that the planet was a space for the realization of grandiose political projects, premised on claims about hierarchy, domination, and exploitation. The second sense relates to the self-conscious utopian form of such arguments. As literary historians have demonstrated, the idea of social dreaming was pervasive in Britain and the United States in the late 19th century. Bellamy’s Looking Backward was a global sensation, and utopian texts — and dystopian responses — poured from the printing presses. One of the analytical moves I make is to read strands of imperial and racial thought as contributions to this utopian discourse. Many of the people I discuss described their own projects as “dreams.” They did not think that their cherished projects were unrealistic or impossible to realize — indeed most considered Angloworld union feasible, even inevitable. Rather, they made a claim about the power and salience of imagination in political thinking, suggesting that in order to motivate and direct action, and to mobilize support for sociopolitical transformation, it was necessary to escape the constraints imposed by traditional styles of thinking. Dreaming was a modality of political action. The visionary character of the discourse was captured by the leading positivist thinker Frederic Harrison, who in 1906 observed that the “dream of welding into one the whole English-speaking people is a dangerous and retrograde Utopia, full of mischief and false pride of race.” I try to make sense of this phenomenon.

I finish the book by making two moves. First, I juxtapose the fin-de-siècle discourse with some late 20th-century speculative fiction. The racial utopians tended to look a century or so ahead when imagining union. They contended that Anglotopia would or could be established by the year 2000. When we look to the end of the 20th century, we find an intriguing literary trend. Those decades saw a burst of neo-Victorian writing that, among other things, sought to counterfactually reimagine the course of empire and Anglo-American relations, often drawing on the same sources, individuals, and events, as the earlier literature. I focus on steampunk writing (e.g., Michael Moorcock’s Warlords of the Air and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine), exploring how these narratives destabilize conceptions of time and historical progress invoked or presupposed in the fin-de-siècle literature, and in particular how the United States was derailed from its apparently inevitable ascent to global domination. Finally, I turn to some writing in the black radical tradition — especially Du Bois and the Jamaican pan-Africanist T. E. S. Scholes, but also some early examples of Afrofuturist fiction — to discuss the most powerful contemporaneous critiques leveled against the claims of global white supremacism. Here too I concentrate on their views about historical time, highlighting the counter-histories they outlined as challenges to the providential narratives of racial domination wielded by the Anglotopians.

The chapter in the book that I found most compelling concerned the triumph of technology as the “machine dreams.” Given that we still so often link technological advancement to civilized credentials, to what extent do you think narrative of empire need a better appreciation of machinic enslavement, dehumanization, and the capacity to annihilate for some imagined idea of the “greater good”? 

I agree that such things are central to the history of empire. Michael Adas, for example, has demonstrated the importance of technology in both justifying and enacting Euro-American imperialism. But the impact of technology — as artefact, socio-technical system, and fantasy — varied considerably across time and space, meaning that it is essential to historicize it, seeking to identify how particular forms of imperial governance, ideologies, and practices, were shaped by and helped to shape, assorted techno-political assemblages. I claim no general expertise in the subject.

In Dreamworlds, as in some of my previous work, I stress the importance of communications technologies in shaping the political imagination in the late 19th century (though I also discuss the impact of new weapons systems, real or imagined). I focus above all on how the electrical telegraph, and to a lesser extent steamships and fantasies of flight, reshaped accounts of political possibility. Shattering existing conceptions of time and space, new communications and transport technologies precipitated the cognitive transformation necessary to imagine Anglo-America as a unified community. The telegraph promised new forms of sociability underwritten by the ability to communicate near-simultaneously with peoples dispersed across the planet. Instantaneity allowed information to circulate as never before, reshaping the terms of human interaction and fabricating new transversal publics. Or so it was claimed. Indeed I argue that the Anglotopians imagined a form of racial cyborg, a trans-local fusion of humans and machines, that exhibited a form of agency. The English-speaking peoples were seen as a spatially extended body politic bound and guided by electricity, the brain located in the metropole, its responsive limbs distributed across the planet, all forming part of a cohesive information order. The period witnessed, in other words, the machinic reconstitution of conceptions of race.

To conclude, I’d like to push you in another direction. I appreciate as a historian you may not wish to speculate on the future. Indeed, I am often taken by Simon Critchley’s point when insisting that all questions about the future are necessarily stupid. Nevertheless, I do think we can cast our eyes forward somewhat and consider the possible trajectories of history or at least be more alert to the dangers ahead! To that end, I would like to ask your thoughts on the technologization of life today, which has sped up exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you think this could possibly mean for political life in the 21st century?

I certainly don’t think that all questions about the future are stupid, but I am very wary about making predictions. I am neither a futurologist nor a speculative writer. I’m interested in studying how people in the past, including the very recent past, have thought about the future, and what this tells us about them and their worlds. Indeed, I teach an undergraduate course, “The Politics of the Future, 1880–2080,” which traces some of the ways that philosophers, social scientists, and science fiction novelists have imagined the future since the late 19th century, and I’m planning to write a book on the subject.

Today many of us are enmeshed in complex technological arrays, without which we would be helpless and lost. And as you say, the pandemic has further accelerated many existing trends, with lots of people now living a significant part of their life plugged into digital communication networks, even as they retreat from social interaction. (A state of being that Ballard explored, of course.) But it is vital to remember William Gibson’s contention that while the future is already here, it is unevenly distributed. While I now spend much of my time on Zoom teaching students or talking to colleagues dotted around the world, many workers have had to continue laboring in much the same way they did before, or under worse conditions, and have consequently been exposed to much greater risk. Many others have lost their jobs. And while Silicon Valley techno-utopians pour vast resources into trying to realize (old) dreams of greatly extending human lifespans and colonizing other worlds, hundreds of millions of people globally lack access to adequate housing, health care, food, and clean water. Contemporary technology has the capacity to both improve life chances and establish ever-more sophisticated forms of surveillance, control, and exploitation, while radically uneven access to it reinforces, and amplifies, existing patterns of socio-economic and political inequality. It is a formidably difficult intellectual challenge to think through these various dynamics and their manifold interconnections (I certainly don’t have any easy answers). The fundamental political challenge is to harness technological innovation and distribute its benefits, while avoiding the damage — up to and including human extinction — that its misuse threatens. In the Anthropocene, the stakes are higher than ever before.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.