Domenico Losurdo is an Italian historian of political philosophy. History of political thought is probably the single most fascinating non-fiction subject for me personally, and Mr. Krul's review suggested that this would be relevant to the field I'll hopefully be entering next year. However, this book challenged my preconceived notions of liberalism in ways that I didn't expect it to. Losurdo, in this study of the dark side of the liberal legacy, refutes many of the myths liberals tell themselves about their history and their accomplishments. I already considered myself to be a critic of liberalism before going into this book, but Losurdo presents many objections to the liberal legacy that I hadn't even considered before.
In order to explain this book, it's important to understand what Losurdo is criticizing in this text. Liberalism, in political rhetoric and scholarly writings, presents itself as an unambiguously positive force in world history. It started with the French and American revolutions, and has spread universal values by way of a dialectical process where it overcame the irrational, violent prejudices that had previously plagued humanity. Liberal societies may have played host to slavery, white supremacy, class chauvinism, and mass disenfranchisement, but these evils were simply phases in the process of the unfolding of universal freedoms, and were contradictions that stemmed from the historically contingent circumstances of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. It's difficult to exaggerate how widespread this interpretation has become. It's a vision of liberalism that liberals and conservatives, critics on the left and the right share. The philosophers Richard Rorty and Cornel West, just to name a couple academic examples, frequently justify the liberal projects on these grounds, and it's an assumption that pervades Western culture.
The problem with the dialectical-progressive story of liberal history, as Losurdo argues, is that it simply isn't true. Losurdo begins his critique with the founding figures of liberalism on both sides of the Atlantic. Burke, Locke, Montesquieu, Franklin, Jefferson, and others feature prominently in these early sections. These are writers who in one sentence could praise the timeless values of liberty, and in the next discuss the need for the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon race, or the strict control of the working masses. Losurdo argues that there is an inherent connection between the early liberals' love for freedom and appetite for controlling others. He amasses mountains of evidence that for most of liberalism's history, liberalism was not an ideology meant to unite humanity in freedom. Rather, "universal" rights and freedoms were collectively understood by the rich Northern European elite to be applicable only to a minority of the human race. Worthiness of participation of what Losurdo dubs "The Community of the Free" was understood to be self-evident in one's social position and ethnic/cultural purity.
When the American Founding Fathers declared all men to be created equal, the fact that the U.S. went on to slaughter and dispossess the Native Americans, or that Euro-Americans generally advocated white supremacy, was not a contradiction in their worldview. Northern European and North American elites simply shared the understanding that only they alone were "men," and that the masses of humanity were unworthy of this distinction. Thus, liberals conceived of a world where the Community of the Free were nature's ordained practitioners of liberty, and that the poor and non-white masses were destined to toil in misery in order to support this freedom-loving class of people. Throughout liberalism's subsequent history, this dual-classed worldview continued to dominate the liberal intellectual world and the life of liberal governance itself. It took on secular-utilitarian guises with Bentham and Mill, social Darwinist tendencies with Spencer and the Eugenics movement, and cultural guises with de Toqueville and Disraeli.
Losurdo emphasizes that also contrary to liberal mythology, there were many oppositional figures who understood the brutal nature of liberalism's racial-class worldview. The Jacobins, often condemned in retrospect for the violence of the French Revolution, were the only European political force in their time to actually affirm true universality as we understand it today and condemn the structural violence committed against colonial peoples and the working class. Simon Bolivar of South America and Toussaint L'Ouverture of Haiti both initiated radically egalitarian revolutions, but were perceived as dangerous threats to the Community of the Free. Losurdo actually argues that liberals were correct to claim that Jacobins, socialists, abolitionists, Evangelical egalitarians, Bolivar, and L'Ouverture represented a political tendency that went far beyond liberalism, and was fundamentally different in its essence. He terms this tradition as "radicalism."
The examples I have cited here constitute only a paltry sample of the mass of evidence Losurdo complies to support his thesis. Overall, there are several main implications of this study that Losurdo frequently returns to throughout:
1. Liberalism does not expand the boundaries of freedom in an organic dialectical process. Liberalism has undergone profound changes in its history, but not because of any sort of internal tendency towards progress. The expanders of liberty have been rebellious slaves, socialists, organized workers, anti-colonial nationalists, and other forces outside of the Community of the Free. Generally, the Community of the Free only grants accessions when faced with powerful opposition from outside its walls.
2. Ideologies such as white supremacy, social Darwinism, and colonialism were created by liberals as a means of defending the liberty of the Community of the Free. When the American Founding Fathers rebelled against Britain, one of their most commonly stated reasons for doing so was that the British government didn't respect the freedom Americans had imbibed through their Northern European blood. The Framers saw themselves as the preservers of the freedoms of the Glorious Revolution, a revolution based on the right of freedom-worthy peoples to dominate the supposedly insipid masses. They were explicit in this respect, and the later history of liberalism continued to attest to this tendency.
3. Liberalism contains within itself the semi-hidden corollary that human behavior must be strictly regulated in order for freedom to be maintained. In liberalism, individuals have the freedom to compete with one another and rise to the top based on merit. Liberal elites have often interpreted this as proof that those at the top of the social ladder deserve their place. The other conclusion that stems from this is that criminals, the uneducated, the poor, and non-Western cultures fully deserve their servile status. If nature wanted them to be part of the Community of the Free, so goes the logic, then it would allow them to participate in liberty. Therefore, the dominated peoples of the world must hold their position due to their own internal defects. For Losurdo, this belief is what defines liberalism and separates it from radicalism.
4. In liberalism, liberty has historically been seen as a trait that people possess, one granted by nature. Thus, liberalism easily justifies its tendencies towards inequality by devising various ways of explaining why nature simply doesn't grant some people the liberty it grants others. Meanwhile, radicalism sees the establishment of liberty as an active process. Interestingly, this indicates that negative liberty possesses a magnetism towards authoritarianism. Losrudo points out that during the early days of Fascism, many liberals in the U.S. and Western Europe such as von Mises, Croce, and the Italian liberal establishment saw Mussolini's regime as a possible defender of classical liberalism and liberty as it was understood by the Anglo-Saxon theorists of liberalism.
This book is as disturbing as it is insightful. I personally see it as self-evident that many of the authoritarian tendencies that Losurdo identifies have made a comeback with a vengeance in the neo-liberal era, and have strengthened since the start of the Great Financial Crisis. Modern liberals, especially in American academia, often assure themselves that liberalism will not tolerate any serious regresses into authoritarianism, because of the myth of the dialectical process I described at the beginning of this review. I even believed in this to some extent, and if I remember correctly, I recall Slavoj Zizek of all people praising liberalism for this reason. Fortunately, Losurdo has seriously damaged my faith in this tendency in liberalism. Again, I don't even consider myself to be a liberal, I identify as a Leftist (one of the radicals Losurdo describes). Perhaps it speaks to the pervasiveness of the comforting nature of liberalism's self image that even its critics unknowingly take refuge in it. I think any left-leaning person will walk away from this book feeling a bit shaken. It's history at its best: Rigorous, objective, yet passionate.