The liberal betrayal of freedom

Domenico Losurdo, the author of Liberalism: A Counter-History, tells spiked that the principle of liberty continues to be too important to be left in the hands of liberals.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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‘The deep inspiration of this book is the desire to expose the hypocrisy of the liberal West today. But it is not a polemic.’ Domenico Losurdo, a professor at the University of Urbino, is telling me about Liberalism: A Counter-History, an impressively erudite work published in his native Italian in 2005, but only emerging in English earlier this year. ‘In order to understand the hypocrisy of the modern West today’, he continues, ‘it was necessary to study the liberal tradition from the beginning. So I began not with Tony Blair or George Bush but with Grotius in Holland and John Locke in Britain.’

As summaries go, Losurdo’s is accurate. His book is a thorough, reflective, but critical history of a particular intellectual tradition, and it does have a grand historical canvas, zipping back and forth over the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before ending with the outbreak of the First World War. And by its conclusion, Losurdo’s ‘deep inspiration’ is well and truly manifest: the contradictions of liberalism, from the fundamentally illiberal realities of a self-conceived liberal society, to the wilful inconsistencies of liberty’s greatest classical proponents, lie exposed on the equivalent of the historian’s dissecting table.

For those who think of themselves as liberal today, it ought to make for a discomfiting sight. If conventional histories of liberalism that tend to chart its inexorable triumph are, to use Losurdo’s choice of word, ‘hagiography’, then Liberalism is a warts-and-all biography. He takes the familiar ‘surface glitter’ of the tradition of Locke and Mill, of Jefferson and Lincoln, and peers beneath to look at its less than star-spangled underside.

His treatment of Locke is a good example. After all, here we have the thinker widely referred to as the ‘father of liberalism’, and for good reason. In ‘Book Two’ of his Two Treatises of Government, Locke provided a characteristically powerful argument in favour of the liberty of the individual. So, having distinguished the freedom of the individual in nature from that of his freedom in society, he writes: ‘The Liberty of Man in Society, is to be under no legislative Power, but that established by consent, in the Common-wealth, nor under the Dominion of any Will, or Restraint of any Law, but that which the Legislative shall enact, according to the Trust put in it’. For the individual, this entails ‘A Liberty to follow my own Will in all things, where the rule prescribes it; and not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another Man.’ (1)

And yet Locke was also prepared to argue for what, properly speaking, is the antithesis of liberty – namely slavery. That is, he was prepared to justify an institution that, in essence, entails an individual’s subjection to ‘the Arbitrary Will of another Man’. Locke did so on the basis that if someone has taken another person captive in a ‘state of war’, the conqueror can then choose to do with the captive as he wishes. If this argument possesses a slightly abstract quality in the context of the Two Treatises of Government, it acquires, as Losurdo reveals, a decidedly more concrete flavour in the 1669, Locke-penned Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. ‘Every freeman of Carolina’, Locke wrote, ‘shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion so ever’. The inconsistency is flagrant: Locke argues against the despotism of absolute monarchy in one breath, while defending the despotism of slave holding in the other.

As far as Losurdo is concerned, this seemingly contradictory conception of liberty was no mere mistake. In fact, he tells me, it would not even have been perceived as a contradiction by supporters of the ‘parliamentary coup d’état’, as Marx called the English revolution of the 1640s. Rather, the liberty to dispose of one’s property as one sees fit, free of the arbitrary inference of a political power – in this case the English monarch and to a lesser extent the church – also entailed the liberty to dispose of one’s human property, be it slaves or servants, as one sees fit. The emancipation of civil society from its political thraldom was no less than the emancipation of increasingly self-conscious property owners, or ‘freemen’ to use that seventeenth-century term, from the ‘Arbitrary Will’ of the monarch. Theirs was a form of freedom all right, but it was limited to people like them – it was exclusive. Little wonder that to oppose the burgeoning institution of slavery, to oppose the Carolina freeman’s ‘absolute power and authority over his negro slaves’, was seen to violate the principle of liberty itself – a principle, that is, restricted to what felt like a naturally demarcated community of freemen.

This tangle of emancipation and disemancipation, of progress and regress, reappears in the American revolution of the 1770s and early 1780s. On the one hand, the rebel colonists were certainly fighting the good fight, the fight to be recognised as the political equals of their emancipated masters over in Britain; ‘No taxation without representation’, went the popular cry. And in the famous lines of the Declaration of Independence in 1775, the cause of liberty certainly seemed to have been enshrined: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

But once more, while championing their own incipient liberty, while conscious of themselves as aspirant freemen, entitled to self-government, the American revolutionaries were simultaneously more than content to render the liberty of black labourers all too alienable, with 12 of the first 16 US presidents all slave holders.

In fact, slavery – and the slave trade – was not a hangover from less enlightened times; it actually underwent a massive expansion against the background of the English and American revolutions – revolutions considered, in the main, as liberal. So, in 1700, America’s slave population numbered 330,000, by 1800 it was three million and by 1850, six million. ‘We cannot say that slavery persisted despite this axis of liberalism’, Losurdo tells me. ‘On the contrary, slavery reached its highest development in the wake of the triumph of liberalism. That is the greatest paradox in my book.’ Or, as Samuel Johnson said in 1775 of the American revolutionaries, ‘How come we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?’.

If slave-holding jibes such as Johnson’s were common anti-American currency at the time, the hypocrisy of English liberalism was also being increasingly highlighted – and not just in relation to the treatment of the American colonists or its economic foundations in the slave trade. The harsh, largely economically free but politically unemancipated life of the labouring classes in England had also come to contemporaries’ attention. In some cases, a waged existence was little better than explicit slavery. In the salt mines and coal works of Scotland, observed the classical economist Adam Smith, workers wore collars with the name of their master inscribed; elsewhere, the jurist William Blackstone noted that servants could be physically punished by their master and prevented from marrying.

Not that the conditions of the decidedly unemancipated classes were being criticised as unfree. Quite the contrary: they were being naturalised as the conditions befitting the emergent day labourer, a type of person ‘no more capable of reasoning’, to quote Locke once more, ‘than almost a perfect natural [ie, an aborigine]’. So in the 1770s, Smith could talk of ‘the race of journeymen and servants’, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham could speak of ‘an indigenous class’ of disciplined industrial labourers, and, of course, writing at the same time as Bentham, Thomas Malthus – the hero of today’s green-hued liberal and a progenitor of yesterday’s workhouses – could write of ‘the race of labourers’. The transformation of a social relation into a natural one, indeed, into a nascent racial one, is apparent from the terms used in an issue of the Saturday Review in 1864: ‘The English poor man or child is expected always to remember the condition in which God has placed him, exactly as the negro is expected to remember the skin which God has given him.’

Yet to the guts of those who believe that it was the liberal conscience of the time, in the shape of the abolitionist William Wilberforce for instance, which corrected matters, Losurdo delivers a well-timed kick – not to mention a timely reminder that freedom is not something that Good Liberals grant to people, but something people fight for. ‘Of course we have seen the emancipation of the former slaves’, he told me, ‘of course we have seen that working men in the metropolis are no longer an inferior race or caste; of course we have seen great steps on the road towards emancipation. The question is, are these steps towards emancipation the result of an internal, spontaneous tendency of liberalism or not? My answer is no, they are not.’

Rather, Losurdo argues, the impulse and aspiration towards emancipation came from those excluded from the liberal tradition, from those who stood outside the community of the free, as its ‘bipedal machines’, its ‘race of labourers’. Aided and abetted by an assortment of liberal intellectuals from Tom Paine to Nicolas de Condorcet, those without liberty radicalised the liberal tradition; they aspired to universalise its promise. Not just the promise of economic liberty – of being able voluntarily to enter into a private contract – but the promise of political and moral freedom, too. The promise, that is, of being able to decide how best to live one’s life. In fact, it was at this stage – the beginning of the nineteenth century – that economic liberty and political liberty started to separate. The reasons are obvious: the attempt to acquire political liberty on the part of the ‘race of labourers’ posed a threat to the economic liberty of the ‘community of the free’. As Benjamin Constant warned French liberals in 1815: ‘the necessary aim of those without property is to obtain some: all the means which you grant them will be used for this purpose… [political rights] will inevitably encroach upon property’.

The threat to traditional liberals from the increasingly freedom-conscious masses was most definitely abroad. One thinks in England of the Chartists, but Losurdo’s main point of reference, in the first instance, is to the Jacobin revolution in France in 1789 and to the 1791 Black Jacobin revolution in the then French colony of San Domingo, known today as Haiti. Take the leader of the latter slaves’ revolt, Toussaint L’Ouverture. ‘Natural liberty is the right which nature has given to every one to dispose of himself according to his will.’ (2) In L’Ouverture’s hands, these words, taken from the French philosopher Abbé Raynal’s Philosophical and Political History of the Establishment and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies (1770), were read and interpreted, according to CLR James, as the liberty to which L’Ouverture and his fellow enslaved were also entitled. Self-governance – political and moral autonomy – was no longer conceived as the provenance of the propertied alone; it ought to be the provenance of every man.

That this radicalisation, indeed this actualisation of the principle of liberty, of which Losurdo cites Marx and Engels as heirs, emerged from without the liberal mainstream should be apparent from the response in the West at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Britain, habeas corpus was suspended and between 1800 and 1850, 1,800 people were deported for political crimes alone, while in the US, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), a direct response to the perceived threat of the French revolution. In 1812, US politician John Calhoun even wrote to one anxious slaveholder, reassuring him that ‘more than half [of the slaves] have never heard of the French revolution’.

Admittedly, Losurdo barely touches on the twentieth century, let alone our current era. But throughout Liberalism, the message is clear. Too often, and too frequently, self-conceived liberals deny the freedom to others which they arrogate to themselves. Today, whether it is the contradictory creed of liberal interventionism in which usually dark-skinned people are deemed incapable of determining the future of their own societies, or the nudging and nagging ‘libertarian paternalism’ of Western political elites, who feel that the majority of us are just not to be trusted with our own lives, liberty remains a far from universal principle. Yet this only makes the principle all the more important to defend. The promise of being able to exercise one’s autonomy, writ so large and powerfully in the self-consciousness of liberalism’s greatest proponents, from Locke to Mill, may have been developed on the material basis of a property-owning few, but its political and moral importance transcends its economic origins. Losurdo, you see, comes not to bury liberalism, but to unearth its emancipatory promise – a promise that today’s bomb-happy interventionists and behaviour-obsessed politicians continue to inhibit.

Tim Black is books editor of spiked.

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