Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo


Domenico Losurdo , Liberalism: A Counter-History ( translated by Gregory Elliott ), London : Verso , 2011 . ISBN-13: 978 1 84467 693 4 ( cloth ).

There was a stage quite recently—from which, thankfully, we seem to have moved on—when neoliberalism was critical geography's evil deus ex machina, a vicious, shape-shifting capitalist conspiracy that explained everything, yet seemed to require little explanation itself. A proliferation of more precise analyses is now underway, and while we remain far from a consensus “definition”, we are closer to a situation in which we can invoke “neoliberalism” with some conceptual clarity, or at least with some idea of the terrain we might cover.

Paradoxically, the same cannot be said for what is for all intents and purposes the majority shareholder in the idea of neoliberalism: liberalism. Indeed, I would wager that if you compelled a group of contemporary “critical” scholars to take a test, in which they must provide a definition of either liberalism or neoliberalism, the vast majority would choose the latter. (I’d make the same bet on structuralism and post-structuralism.) Now, one might explain this choice by arguing that in this case, “neo-” is not just a chronological filing code: there are qualitatively different dynamics at play today that are obscured by the bland historicism of the term “neoliberalism”, which seems to suggest that in the homogeneous flow of time, our liberalism is merely a “new” variation on an old theme. Whatever merit such a defense might enjoy, however, cannot disguise the fact that many (or perhaps most) of us have a conception of liberalism that is, as they say, a mile wide and an inch deep.

I suppose part of the problem might lie in the stark contrast between the term's European and North American everyday connotations: in Europe, the term is virtually synonymous with laissez-faire, whereas in North America, it has (via a remarkable semantic transformation) come to mean multicultural tolerance and big government. But even if this definitional divergence matters, it does little to dispel the conceptual fog. For it seems to me that liberalism is usually used, regardless of its definition and especially by its self-identified critics, to group together in a fuzzy set a collection of underexamined elements. In the same way that the term “urban” has a kind of “you-know-what-I-mean” feel—it's about “the city”, right?—“liberalism” is supposed to be about “freedom”. With that vague grounding, one can move reasonably easily into a more comfortable conversation about “rights”: freedom of speech, association, religion, and so forth. But does that really explain liberalism, or is it just an easy way to avoid the problem? Is liberalism really just a commitment to “individual liberty”—or, more precisely, to individualism, egalitarianism, universalism and “meliorism” (Gray 1986:x)—from which we might derive the more or less radical anti-statism usually attributed to so-called “classical” liberals? If things are that simple, then liberalism's “neo-“ variation is indeed a qualitatively different thing.

The problem, however, is that liberalism has never been merely a commitment to individual liberty or progressive egalitarianism more broadly. Indeed, the history of liberalism not only demonstrates irrefutably that it would be a terrible mistake to let any of these key terms slide by without critique, it also demonstrates that it has been as much about unfreedom as freedom, or in Domenico Losurdo's words, as much about “dis-emancipation” as emancipation (301).

There is certainly no shortage of Marxists and others who would find such a claim unsurprising, but Losurdo's point is not the standard Marxian one; that is, the bitter irony of “free labour” is that it is not so free. His point is rather more straightforward: from its inception, liberalism has been about asserting the liberty and equality of the “community of the free”, over and against those excluded from that community. It turns out that making this argument, at least in its most basic form, is not all that difficult. Virtually every prominent classical liberal you can think of—Locke, Burke, Constant, de Tocqueville, Franklin, Jefferson and so on—was an advocate or apologist for slavery, colonial domination, and indigenous extermination (Smith is a notable, if by no means clear, exception). Indeed, although some of them occasionally saw the contradictions in their views, much of the first two-thirds of Liberalism: A Counter-History makes the case incontrovertibly, if somewhat repetitively, via a relentless series of quotations from these and other men.

If this constituted the book's only contribution, it would certainly be meaningful, if only as a useful collection of evidence for the prosecution. But it would nevertheless be open to two standard liberal objections. First, it might be said that this evidence condemns not liberalism but (some) liberals, who sadly fell short of the commitments their worldview recommended. On this view, like communism despite Stalin, liberalism as a “hypothesis” remains unsullied. Second, it is often said that many of what Losurdo calls the “macroscopic exclusion clauses” (124) in liberalism's history are mere products of their time. That Locke, Jefferson or Disraeli celebrated slavery and the “inevitable” eradication of aboriginal peoples is passed off as a function of the unfortunate but historically contained “common sense” of their times.

Liberalism's more original contribution is to attack both these exculpatory revisionisms, echoing a longstanding theme in Losurdo's work, a rejection of “the self-serving way in which liberal thought traditionally describes itself” (Losurdo 2004:31). It aims to show not only that these excuses are false, but also that they are themselves characteristically liberal, as flawed as the edifice they attempt to defend. As Uday Singh Mehta (1999) and Vanita Seth (2010) have also shown, with reference to the colonial experience of India in particular, neither liberals’ deeds nor liberalism's ideological expansion has ever been adequate to the lofty Platonic forms they purport to materialize: forms that, ultimately, constitute the content of most of liberalism's congratulatory self-assessments (ie when liberals defend liberalism, they point not to history, but to its “ideals”). But Losurdo goes further because he refuses to allow liberalism a way out, he rejects any abstract faith in its claims of possibility or its categories of judgment. Indeed, Mehta ultimately discovers the seeds of liberal potential in the work of Edmund Burke, whose pairing of classically liberal commitments to individual freedom and a vociferous and unrepentant defense of slavery in the southern USA makes him one of Losurdo's favourite targets.

For Losurdo, liberalism is as liberalism does: “rather than at a conceptual level, the solution to the problem is to be sought at a historical level” (322). Burke, for example, commonly thought of as the father of modern conservatism, was in fact as committed to liberal ideals as any of the more commonly acknowledged “liberals” of his day. (In this he was not so different than us moderns; the line between neoconservative and neoliberal is by no means obvious today.) The “conservative” label is foisted upon Burke by modern liberals largely because of his oft-misunderstood critique of the French Revolution—he endorsed the Estates’“worthy” struggle for a liberté which would have been the envy of Europe, had it not been stolen by a rabble unfit to handle it (128–129). In other words, Burke is no enemy of the liberal order, but a rather typical liberal: freedom for all (subject to these rather large exclusion clauses).

The ideological and historical positioning this (more accurate) reading of Burke enables is crucial to the entire book. For one of the messages that Liberalism drives home is that in the history of liberalism, there is nothing unusual in Burke's commitment to both “the liberal government of this free nation” and “aristocratick principles” (243), or in his belief that “the people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with an higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty …[S]uch will all be masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves” (131). Losurdo's historical argument is straightforward: if slavery, genocide, the subordination of women and a litany of other crimes are how liberalism works, neither they nor their defenders can be “illiberal” in any historically meaningful way. The point is not to find in liberalism its suppressed or betrayed spirit of freedom, nor to highlight the “irony” of its historical operation. The point is to deny that it can ever be anything other than the emancipation/disemancipation dialectic it is and has always been.

Confronted with the “that's just how people thought back then” defense, Losurdo charges it with “vulgar historicism” (26). Drawing on the legacy of the French and Haitian Revolutions, he points, rather, to the many who did not think like that back then, but called liberalism's bluff and found it unwilling and unable to respond. His list is long, but even if a couple of his examples prove the point: the systematic attempt on the part of the paradigmatically liberal US state to undermine the Haitian revolution, or Simon Bolívar's necessary rejection of liberalism when he confronted the radicalism of the Latin American revolution (147–153). If, as is so often claimed, the classical liberals were the radical thinkers of their era, who threw off the burden of the ancien régime's caste structure, then any attempt to provide them with a “spirit of the times” (79) alibi simultaneously contradicts itself and misunderstands them.

It contradicts itself because liberalism is thus reabsorbed by—indeed, it is defended as a part of—the very status quo it supposedly overturned. More importantly, vulgar historicism misunderstands liberals and liberalism because it is entirely structured by the categories of liberal thought, less historiography than “hagiography” (299). The liberal account of liberalism is idealist—the emergence, among a cadre of European and Euro-American white men, of a set of universalist principles that become realized in the practice of the modern capitalist state and its bourgeois civil society—and completely dehistoricizes the ideas and the people who expressed them. It portrays liberalism as a product of its own Idea, the “universal” dream of freedom realized in freedom itself.

In contrast, Losurdo argues that the historical “paradox of liberalism” is only comprehensible when we remember, and try to make sense of, the simultaneous birth of liberalism and racial chattel slavery. Moreover, the problem is far deeper than something like the “American dilemma”; that is, the “need for race dogma is nearly the only way out for a people so moralistically equalitarian, if it is not prepared to live up to its faith” (Myrdal 1964:89). It is closer to the idea that “the hidden principle” of “theoretical humanism” is ultimately “the couple human/inhuman” (Althusser 1969:237; Balibar 1991:63–64), but far more concrete, even visceral. To understand liberalism we are “better to start with the slogan advanced by the rebel American colonists: “We won't be their Negroes!” (301). In other words, liberalism has always demanded equality and inequality at the same time. It was not born of an Enlightenment dream of freedom, but of the consecration of the private sphere—slaves and servants and wives and land qua property—as “equally” inviolable for sovereign and citizen.

It almost goes without saying that this same universalizing citizenship was necessarily only available to a very particular set of “citizens”: propertied, white, and male. Thus—as demonstrated so powerfully for example, by Manituana (2009) Wu Ming's beautiful novel of the American revolution—while liberalism's “community of the free” has arguably expanded over time, it has from its inception been strictly bounded. Although we can perhaps find the origins for this exclusivity in the Athenian cradle of democracy itself, there is not enough Whiggishness in the world to undo that fact that liberalism grounds a democracy (if that is the right word) of the Herrenvolk, the lords, the master-race (107; cf van den Berghe 1967).

Ultimately, then, the categorical problem reasserts itself: liberal categories cannot account for the history of liberalism. Politics—and not only in its radical forms—exceed liberalism's analytical and historical limits. As Losurdo (2004:115) puts it in an earlier study of Hegel:

Freedom and servitude-slavery do not exclude each other as they do in the liberal tradition; they are not the antithetical terms of a logical contradiction according to which they cannot be present simultaneously in the same situation … This relationship of contradiction, however, is not logical, but real and objective.

What remains unclear, however, is the historical constitution of the “relationship of contradiction”. If, as Losurdo demonstrates incontrovertibly, liberalism and racial slavery experienced a “unique twin birth”, we nonetheless remain unsure of their parentage; we know they are peers, but not if they are siblings. Once or twice, he gestures—vaguely—toward class (92, 302) as an originary political fracture, but does not follow it up.

There is, perhaps, something to be said for this ambiguity (however intentional or unintentional). It certainly avoids the “tie-in-all-together-so-it-all-makes-sense” temptation we probably all feel at times. It also refuses to fall victim to the quasi-functionalism that plagues, for example, some aspects of Foucault's (2003) account of the role of racism in state formation. To the question of whether liberalism and racial slavery are a product of the same, and not merely overlapping, historical developments, however, Losurdo offers no clear response.

One could, I believe, make a strong argument against fetishizing clarity in this case; but ultimately, the overwhelming feeling one gets is that he is too angry to answer, too enraged at liberals’ lies and smug self-absorption. We can certainly seek help with some of these questions in the work of those like Eric Williams (1944), C.L.R. James (1963), and Anibal Quijano (2000), who have done so much to demythologize liberal capitalism's autobiography. But this is work that remains unfinished. Or, more precisely, it is work that must be done again: the liberalism James traced to Saint Domingue, for instance, is definitively not the liberalism of today. The links between the past and the present are never broken, but they must constantly be reforged in the ongoing work of historiography. Neoliberalism, as a conceptual and historical category, tells us nothing if not that capitalist history has moved on. To understand where we are today we must attend to liberalism again in light of our current modes of life and death (indeed, I would venture that given our conceptual fog, it will feel like the first time). Its history is not over, nor will it ever get old. As someone very famous must once have said, histories are always histories of the present, and new presents need new histories.