Liberalism’s Exclusions and Expansions

A review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.

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Domenico Losurdo sets Liberalism: A Counter-History with the ambitious task of redefining a centuries-old political tradition. He spends little time exploring the usual definition of liberalism — a system of thought and political organization built on individual liberty — and instead dredges up aspects of it that “have hitherto been largely and unjustly ignored.” Losurdo focuses on the exclusion clauses written into liberal ideas and societies for slaves, laborers, the poor, and colonial peoples. He doesn’t just want to correct a record too hagiographic for his tastes, but to say something profound about paradoxes at the heart of liberalism.

Liberalism argues with liberal thinkers, major and minor, but it isn’t clearly an intellectual history. Against “liberal thought in its abstract purity,” Losurdo draws attention to how liberal theorists, particularly when they wrote about people denied liberty, either justified or glossed troubling aspects of the societies they touted: foremost Great Britain after the Glorious Revolution and the United States, but also the Netherlands, France (at certain moments), post-revolutionary Latin America, and the Germany that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. These liberal bastions are responsible for innumerable repressive and even barbarous policies, which today would be called illiberal without hesitation but at the time had no shortage of liberal defenders.

One of Losurdo’s central contentions, however, is that institutions like racial chattel slavery, colonialism, and legally codified class hierarchies not only found willing liberal apologists, but were expressions of liberal society itself. In his book’s opening salvo, he claims John C. Calhoun, theorist and statesman of the slave-holding American South, for liberalism. Calhoun inveighed against abolitionist “fanatics” and praised compromise; he declared himself an opponent of “absolute government” and believed firmly in constitutionalism. He argued for freedom — but only for some, and at the price of one of the least free and most brutal institutions in human history.

Placing Calhoun at the start of the book serves a few arguments that Losurdo wants to make. The first is that liberalism represented the revolt of civil society against central power, and therefore often led to new, more severe forms of power outside the state — the power of plantation owners, colonial corporations, and urban capitalists. Second, the harshness of these new forms was due in no small part to the foundational position in liberalism of property rights, including the right to human property. Third, membership restrictions on the “community of the free” made liberty all the more precious to its possessors, producing a caste of freemen eager to keep the lower castes (whose full emancipation would lead to far-reaching claims against private property) in place. The eventual enfranchisement of non-property owners, in turn, would rely on a “clear line of demarcation between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and redskins, on the other.”

This is a fairly sophisticated theory, but the inclusion of Calhoun in the liberal pantheon can’t help but raise some eyebrows. Do his arguments against fanaticism and “absolute governments,” and for “compromise” and constitutionalism, make him a liberal, or a conservative who knew how to mobilize the language of freedom for the benefit of his class? At moments, Losurdo seems to embrace the idea that there was little difference between the two, writing that liberalism’s “celebration of liberty” was “bound up with the reality of an unprecedented absolute power” and “can clearly be interpreted as an ideology.” But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that he doesn’t see every liberal theorist as a shill for existing configurations of power and wealth.

At the same time, Losurdo opposes the idea that some internal dialectic of freedom pushed liberals to confront more honestly the exclusions of early liberalism. Instead, he points to major conflicts within the community of the free — during the American Revolution, the French and Haitian Revolutions, the American Civil War, and the First World War — as moments of mutual embarrassment and demystification, when those on opposite sides of a political question exposed the forms of unfreedom their adversaries had institutionalized. The American revolutionaries, for example, proclaimed that they suffered under the yoke of “political slavery.” The British replied by “ironiz[ing] about the flag of liberty waved by slave-owners” and pointing to the brutal treatment of Native Americans. It became trickier, though not impossible, for liberals to justify slavery in the aftermath of these polemics. In the aftermath of the Civil War, they abandoned that line of argument altogether, though not yet the principle of race-based democracy. As a result of these bloody conflicts, liberalism absorbed more inclusive and even egalitarian ideas, demonstrating the “flexibility” that is one of the few merits Losurdo attributes to the tradition.

Though in some cases, like the American Revolution, the opposing sides in a conflict were composed of liberals with competing interests, in others Losurdo finds a different dynamic at work. During the French Revolution, he argues, people once inspired by the American Revolution became saddened that its promise of freedom had succumbed to an entrenched racial state. They ceased, in their disillusionment, to analyze liberal societies solely from the stance of the community of the free. Losurdo’s word for disillusioned liberalism is “radicalism,” a tradition whose proponents recognized that freedom from the state did not equal freedom in general, at least for the vast majority. According to Losurdo, more than any specific political commitment, radicalism entailed a shift from the perspective of those who enjoyed freedom to those who did not, and a willingness to allow the latter to take the “struggle for recognition” into their own hands.

The radical perspective gives lie to the division between what Benjamin Constant, in the wake of the French Revolution, called the “liberty of the ancients” (self-government) and the “liberty of the moderns” (the right to a private life and private property, free from state interference). Liberal defenders of the status quo praised modern, or (in Isaiah Berlin’s words) “negative,” liberty above all else, especially when it came to the redistribution of wealth. The majority, of course, did not have property to enjoy, in large part because they were denied the “positive” liberty to participate in governing their societies. More than disenfranchising the poor, however, liberals often showed a tendency, in theory and practice, “to govern the existence of the popular classes even in its smallest details” — through mandatory church attendance, internment of vagrants in workhouses, and restrictions on assembly, among other regulations. Both positive and negative liberty were out of their reach.

Losurdo argues, though only briefly, that radicalism owed as much to the Christian religion (which some liberals hoped to sweep away as so much superstition) as to the idea of freedom itself. By the end of the book, he mostly abandons that suggestion and instead describes “two liberalisms,” one that identified “‘true liberty’ with untrammeled control by the master over his family, as well as his servants and his goods,” the other “mobilized by servants, who refused to let themselves be assimilated to the master’s belongings and pursued emancipation through intervention by political power on their behalf, be it existing political power or that formed in the wake of a revolution from below.” The latter, of course, sounds nearly identical to the “radicalism” described as a force opposing liberalism a few chapters earlier — an unresolved tension in Losurdo’s book that might lead us to question whether “liberalism” and “radicalism” can be so neatly separated. Even Kant and Mill, Losurdo admits, had something of the radical perspective in them; and on the other side, the Rheinische Zeitung, which Marx edited in the early 1840s, was a radical paper but also a “liberal” one.

Losurdo’s relentless muckraking sometimes comes at the expense of a fuller picture of liberalism. If he admits to “two liberalisms,” it’s the more conservative of them that he spends most of the book exposing, and the less conservative that he most often calls “radicalism” rather than liberalism as such. Losurdo’s book is, no doubt intentionally, a reading of liberalism from the perspective of those it marginalized or worse, but he often seems afraid of allowing “radicalism” and “liberalism” to bleed into one another. Both Hayek and Von Mises, for instance, make cameos in Losurdo’s scant comments on the twentieth century after the First World War, denouncing liberal concessions to socialism; Keynes and Rawls, on the other hand, receive not a single mention.

This selection-bias problem will dog any book that covers so much ground and ties together so many contested historical interpretations. Losurdo is almost unbelievably well-read, which perhaps explains why his wide-ranging text lacks a systematic explanation of what makes liberalism liberalism. In some ways, this is to Losurdo’s benefit: though one can pick apart some of his interpretations or his nearly automatic skepticism of liberalism, he reaches numerous provocative conclusions, not all of which must stand in order for his book to persuade. Take, for example, perhaps his most provocative conclusion of all, sketched quickly in the final chapter of Liberalism: that total war, extermination, and the racial ordering of society, which would gain such a bad name in the wake of the Second World War, found expression in liberal society and thought decades earlier. Although he draws the conclusion from other scholars’ work, students of fascism will rightly dispute a vulgar genealogy in which liberalism leads to Nazism. But attending to the contradictory and sometimes cruel results of the liberal emancipation of civil society — including the liberal embrace of eugenics — is an important task for anyone concerned with avoiding a characterization of “the catastrophe of the twentieth century as a kind of new barbarian invasion that unexpectedly attacked and overwhelmed a healthy, happy society.”

Losurdo’s book is more than just a useful intervention in liberal historiography. But because he cuts it off with some brief comments on the Second World War, he never integrates liberalism’s developments since its encounter with socialism, the end of colonialism, legal desegregation, and the liberation of women with his theories stemming from the revolt of civil society. In particular, Losurdo’s silence on women’s struggles for recognition is so complete as to be puzzling. Does he leave these struggles aside because liberals like Bentham and Mill were fierce critics of their patriarchal society?

Instead of turning his critical eye to liberal ideas that blossomed in the twentieth century, like humanitarian interventionism and welfarism, he leaves off with open-ended questions like, “has liberalism definitely left behind it the dialectic of emancipation and dis-emancipation, with all the dangers of regression and restoration implicit in it?” Tacking an extra century onto his study would have required substantial additions to an already hefty book, but given the entanglements and paradoxes of contemporary liberalism, one can’t help but wish he’d undertaken the effort.

There is another absence in Liberalism that should trouble even readers sympathetic to the book’s arguments: capitalism is everywhere felt, but almost nowhere named. In one passage Losurdo explicitly distances “radicalism” from “socialism,” which he believes can involve exclusions (specifically with respect to colonies) similar to those in liberalism. In another passage he praises the liberal emphasis on “competition between individuals in the market” for creating social wealth and developing productive capacities, provided those markets meet certain conditions that prewar liberal societies never did. Liberals and radicals have found themselves on both sides of recent debates on imperialism and, after the victories of identity politics, seem to agree to a large extent on the “perspective” question that for Losurdo is a dividing line. Their disagreements on questions of economic organization and power should now be all the more salient.

Liberalism was published in Italy over five years ago, when the American empire probably seemed a more pressing concern than global capitalism. If it wasn’t obvious then, it should be now: critics of the forces that are subverting democracy and the free development of all individuals will need to do more than see through the eyes of the wretched of the earth. But for the crass realists who would say that this, alas, is the best of all possible worlds, a shift in perspective would be a very good place to start.