Thoughts on Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism

Liberalism is a great book. Like many great books it picks an audacious, painfully obvious question and attacks it relentlessly with courage and intelligence. Here, the question is simplw: why were the countries with the strongest liberal traditions (Britain, the US, France) simultaneously those most embroiled in the slave trade? And, simultaneously, how did the liberal commentators resolve this seemingly obvious contradiction? Exhaustively considering the positions of the most prominent liberal scholars of the time, from Locke to de Tocqueville, Losurdo takes us down the many disturbing avenues that this question opens up.

While the narrative moves through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up to the early twentieth, the intellectual argument jumps around considerably, due in no small part to Losurdo’s appetite for ideas. As a result, I want to consider in turn the book’s most prescient arguments.

  1. Liberalism as the right to property, including the human kind.

Liberalism is typically understood as a system of freedom. This begs the question: where does this concept of freedom come from? As David Graeber has pointed out, our collective historical ignorance here is troubling. Traditionally defined, freedom allows us to do what does not obstruct the freedom of other. This tautologous definition is, of course, very limited. Interesting, it also betrays liberalism’s complex origins:

“Slaves are ‘free’ – after all, they can do anything they want except for those things they can’t do. So why did they develop this absurd definition? The reason is that what Roman magistrates were imagining was in fact a relationship between two people of total power, which therefore renders one of them a ‘thing’….A ‘free’ person becomes a person who has people they can do anything they want to, or who approaches the world as a set of properties in the same way – someone who has a personal private domain, within which they can do whatever they like…That has had a deeply insidious effect on how we look at the world.”[1]

This being so, it’s no surprise that slave-owners in Virginia, as Losurdo writes, were at the forefront of resistance to the British Crown: “The self-styled champions of liberty branded taxation imposed without explicit consent as synonymous with despotism and slavery. But they had no scruples about exercising the most absolute and arbitrary power over their slaves.” (10)

  1. Liberalism as ‘master-race’ democracy.

While today there is a strong association between liberalism and universal – i.e. applying to all – human rights, this dimension was a long time coming. Losurdo explains this in terms of liberalism’s ‘sacred’ space, in which the emerging capitalist class “demanded self-government and peaceful enjoyment of its property…under the sign of the rule of law.” (309). This was distinguished from the ‘profane’ space, meaning the metropolis or the colonies, where the inhabitants were dehumanized and openly treated like animals.

This distinction, which frequently but not exclusively fell along racial lines, was only abolished by what Losurdo rightly terms ‘radicalism’. This ‘radicalism’ consists in “to rejecting both the spatial delimitation (the English model until 1833) and the racial delimitation (the American model until 1865) of the community of the free.” (169). It’s also interesting to note the religious dimensions of universalism, as “Abolitionist radicalism and Christian fundamentalism were closely interwoven” (162). This “abstract” radicalism, rejecting all prior distinctions, comes close to the universalism described by Badiou in his reading of St. Paul, which highlights the radical universalism expressed in Paul’s statement: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female (Gal. 3.28).”[2]

This might seem terribly abstract, but two points are worth making. Firstly, as Graeber writes, the word ‘free’ emerges throughout history frequently as the opposite of both slavery and debt.[3] Bearing this in mind, we can see the vast implications of this radicalism/universalism today, whether it’s with regard to the ongoing appropriation of indigenous property by Western institutions (the renewed ‘primitive accumulation’ discussed by David Harvey, see endnote for reference) or the vast servitude which sustains our opulent Western lifestyles. Here, the abolitionist approach has lost none of it’s potentiality.

This introduces the second point. As argued by Alberto Toscano in his excellent “Fanatacism” , it is abstraction – and the universalist position is nothing if not abstract – that has underpinned revolutionary struggle throughout history. As he writes:

“Abstract passion and unconditional demands are an enduring dimension of politics, especially when the space for negotiation is absent – as in the case of abolitionism. “[4]

As leftist movements remain in disarray it is essential that we begin to clarify our positions. In part, this calls into question the role of abstract commitments, the opposite of ‘pragmatic politics’.  As Toscano writes:

“…Political disorientation and crisis mean that responses relying on passionate conviction alone – whether of a charismatic, religious or secular nature – are bound to proliferate. Cognizant of the long history of fanaticism as a term of abuse for emancipatory efforts, we should be wary of simply dismissing or pathologizing: the refusal of compromise, the affirmation of principle and passionate partisanship are moments of any politics that seeks the radical transformation of the status quo.”[5]

3. The Status of Work

Losurdo also discusses the ambiguous differneces between workers and slaves, alongside the distinction between liberalism in general and the working class: “Opposed to anything vulgar and plebeian, liberal’ tended to be synonymous with aristocratic. In fact, among Virginia’s slave-owners the ‘aristocratic spirit’ was intimately bound up with ‘a spirit of liberty’ distinguished by its ‘more noble and liberal’ character. “ (242-3)

This, in turn, informed the liberal attitude to work and phrases like ‘work machines’, ‘bipedal instruments’ or ‘beasts of burden’ crop up regularly in liberal texts from the time. What’s interesting for our purposes here is simply to reflect for a moment on the nature of work. What’s interesting is how work and slavery are distinguished: the worker, while engaged in slave-like servitude, was not a slave because he formally had the protection of the law and, later, political rights. Nonetheless, this is where their resemblance to the ‘free’ ends, as their ‘indigent’ condition required that they remained at the will of another.  Thus, we can find the likes of Locke arguing that:

“…it was meaningless to grant political rights to those who, as we have seen, were ‘made slaves’ by destitution, need, labour and the servitude implicit in this- and who did not form part of civil society, whose purpose was the defence of property.” (184-5)

The explicit acceptance of a class of people lacking liberty but nonetheless having legal protection (what Sieyes called the “passive citizen”) is important in demonstrating the limits of liberalism today. Consider, for example, the basis upon which Constant, some decades after Locke, excluded wage labourers from political rights:

“…he lacked ‘the necessary revenue to subsist independently of any external will’ and ‘property holders are the masters of his existence, since they may refuse him work’.” (184-5)

In a modern context, in which we are told again and again of the necessity of appeasing large corporate entities, on the basis that they might otherwise deny us work (i.e. move overseas), can we not see the limitations of combining political rights with the rights of property, in the sense that the latter is considerably stronger and less well distributed than the other?

4. The holes in the Whiggish Narrative.

If you went to school in the UK, as I did, and took history, as I did, I have very little doubt that in amongst the obsessive discussion of the Third Reich you will have been told about the gradual liberalizing of the UK as a natural progression from humble origins. In his closing chapter, Losurdo takes aim at this particular fallacy. Not only did liberal thinkers often see the emergence of democracy as a potential cause to rise up in arms, but the removal of exclusion causes (racial, sexual, class-based) was frequently painful and accompanied by extreme strife. What’s more, the advance of freedom was frequently reversed and what Losurdo calls the “process of emancipation” was often fuelled by events occurring outside the country in question. Thus, the revolution in San Domingo spurred on abolition and the October Revolution and the threat of communism threw racial discrimination in the U.S. into crisis

5. In Conclusion

It would be misleading to pretend that this book is an unqualified attack on liberalism, and in closing Losurdo highlights some of the system’s positive characteristics. Instead of dwelling on this, or proposing some sort of final judgment on the matter, I want to use this conclusion to discuss some contemporary issues surrounding the philosophy.

Certainly, liberal rights (and human rights in particular) have become common currency among many of those concerned with progressive change. Whatever the success of this approach, I think the above discussion shows that the current crop of human rights hardly form a complete and indivisible whole. As Losurdo demonstrates in his discussion of radicalism, universal commitment to human wellbeing and the right to property have primarily existed in stark opposition.

While the right to property may no longer include the possibility of owning people per se there are serious problems with the notion that the existing, highly-concentrated property relations are capable of producing emancipation without redistribution. While there may well be legitimate means for individuals to acquire vast chunks of property (encompassing more than they in any sense require) I can imagine few who would maintain that the produce of land-grabs, aristocratic brutality and contemporary expropriation (see Harvey[6]) would fall under these banners. And what happens when these rights come into conflict? To quote Marx: “Between equal rights, force decides.” With this in mind, the human right to property’s coexistence with the others should be the subject of serious reflection.

Property is power, a fact not lost on the liberal intellectuals quoted above. If we are to truly confront environmental degradation, spiralling debt and destructive capitalism – all of which ultimately come down to power – it is essential that our reading of liberal arguments keeps this in mind. Indeed, one wonders if it not the time for an anthology or reader of historical anti-monarchist propaganda, if only to get a better understanding of how naked power has been apprehended in the past.

[2] Cited in Badiou, Alain, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (2003) Stanford University Press pp. 9

[3] Graeber, David Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) Melville House

[4] Toscano, Alberto Fanatacism: On the Uses of an Idea (2010) Verso pp. 250-1

[5] Ibid. pp. 253

[6] Harvey, David The New Imperialism (2003) Oxford University Press

  1. #1 by Ross Wolfe on May 5, 2012 - 4:36 am

    Pam Nogales and I, members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, recently interviewed the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, author of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2006, translated 2011).  We talked about Marxism, the problematic legacy of liberalism, and the State.  You might be interested in checking out the edited transcript of our conversation, which was recently published in The Platypus Review.

    You can also find full video of the interview on our Vimeo page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: