4 August 2011
Domenico Losurdo's "Liberalism: A Counter-History" is a brilliant and engaging exposé of the real history of liberalism as an ideology, in contradistinction to the hagiographical and justificatory self-descriptions that liberals usually give to it. Almost all systematic histories of liberalism and liberal thought have been written by liberals or its sympathizers, and therefore Losurdo's critical narrative is a welcome antidote to this in every sense Whiggish approach. Losurdo proceeds largely chronologically, but there is a clear thematic structure to the book. Using the writings of impeccably liberal sources and many of the most famous founders of liberal thought, from Burke and Locke to Jefferson and De Tocqueville, he shows how liberalism's self-perception and self-presentation as the politics of freedom was undermined time and again by its reliance on the suppression of 'inferiors'. In order to realize the freedom of the liberals, black slaves, women, the working class, and so forth all had to give way; the freedom of the liberal classes was always founded on the exploitation of others. Only when the gentry and the merchant classes were freed of the need to do manual labor and were guaranteed their position as rulers of society could they defend the liberty liberalism promised against the absolute and arbitrary power of monarchs, clergy, and other traditional opponents. In fact, as Losurdo shows by analyzing the writings of US Vice President and ideologue of the Confederacy John C. Calhoun, the stronger the oppression by the liberal class of their 'inferiors', the more they saw themselves as the ultimate defenders of human liberty and the more jealously they guarded their privileges against the dangers of oppressive government. In this sense, liberalism appears more than anything as the ideology of the middle layer, precisely as it was in historical reality: its purpose is to shield from the powers above it, and to keep down the people below it.
Of course, Losurdo is well aware that liberalism took on various forms, and he carefully if not always very explicitly shows the different strands of liberal ideology throughout time. He essentially identifies three main currents in liberal thought before 1848: a conservative strand, represented by the likes of Burke and Locke, which intended to maintain the traditional structure of society but opposed the absolutism of the monarchy on behalf of the merchant class, and which had no sympathy even for bourgeois revolution along the lines of the American and the French. The second strand was the 'moderate' one, which perhaps is better called the reforming one, represented by many abolitionist thinkers as well as people like Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant and Immanuel Kant. This group sought to abolish the feudal privileges previously inhering in society and wishes to extend the liberal conception of freedom to all. However, it was consistently unable to rhyme its desire for the extension of liberty in any meaningful sense to humanity without being confronted with the problem of inequality of property, most completely expressed in the oppression of colonial peoples, the working classes in the metropole, and servants. It could not resolve this problem without breaking the boundaries of liberal thought and turning against the class it represented, and this the liberal reformers, even J.S. Mill, were unwilling to do. Each time they came up against this barrier, they fell back and retreated to the safer terrain of the conservative position - as exemplified by Constant's opposition to abolishing the property requirement for suffrage, Mill's enthusiasm for colonialism, and so forth. The racism and hypocrisy required of the reformers to maintain their position in society while preaching the gospel of freedom was not, as Losurdo shows, much different to that of the 'liberal' defenders of slavery and the Confederacy in kind; perhaps only in degree.
The third trend, a very small one, is the trend of what Losurdo calls the radicals. These were the ones that did seek to make such a break with established society and having recognized the limitations of liberal thought as a social phenomenon were willing to criticize the order of society as such, not just call for liberty within it. Before 1848, these could not easily be called socialists, and instead we find them in the ranks of radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Thomas Paine. But Losurdo traces the development of socialism as a competitor of liberalism to its origins in this wing of liberalism, what used to be called 'Bourgeois Radicalism', and he is probably correct in doing so. Only this group was willing to question the received order of society fundamentally, not just from the interest of the middle class against the aristocracy and monarchical power. Only this group was willing to re-imagine society afresh and to criticize oppression wherever they saw it. But even this group did not yet reach the understanding of socialism: they did not see oppression in many cases where it existed, not just the oppression of other races and of women, but also the genocidal policies implemented in colonization and settlerism in the name of the spread of freedom and civilisation. Challenging and uprooting the causes of these phenomena was to be the task of socialism, as was the development of a historical understanding which in the first place allows ideologies such as liberalism to be traced to their political-economic interests and vantage point within a given society. But without liberalism paving the way, this could not have been done.
It is important therefore to keep in mind that this excellent work is first and foremost a work in the history of ideas, not a political critique. It is precisely as the title says a counter-history: a real history of liberalism and its great thinkers and the way in which liberalism has always relied on the exploitation and exclusion of groups outside its great realm of liberty to prosper. Importantly, it also does away with the mythology of liberalism as a self-repairing phenomenon. Most current-day liberal philosophers would gladly admit to the errors of the past, but these are always reinterpreted as being inherently part of liberalism's supposed amazing ability to overcome its own flaws and move forward; ironically, an almost dialectical self-analysis. But Domenico Losurdo tells the story more realistically: for most of the great liberal thinkers, the exclusionary aspects of their thought were not just flaws or personal prejudices, but were in fact inherent and essential parts of their worldview, and they knew full well that such exclusion was absolutely necessary to maintain the order that liberalism was invented to defend in the first place. The racist and genocidal aspects of liberalism are no mere mistake or an idiosyncrasy of a particular time and place, as a sort of liberal counterpart to the Moscow Trials. They were 'working as intended', and that is precisely what socialism originated to critique. As Losurdo reminds us, in a time when liberalism has once again become the ruling ideology and looks on its past with increasingly warm feelings (viz. Niall Ferguson), that critique is more needed than ever.