Monday, 28 April 2014

The truth of liberalism - Ross Wolfe

Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

"Taking stock of the internal tensions abounding within liberal bourgeois thought, Losurdo rejects as insufficient any attempt to blithely explain away these ideological inconsistencies as if they were of no consequence.  Liberalism’s inner divisions and cognitive dissonances were real, and cannot be so easily glossed over.  They deserve rather to be taken seriously, insists Losurdo.  And so what he instead chooses to affirm about liberalism is precisely the simultaneity of its contradictory aspects, discovering a dialectic of “emancipation and dis-emancipation”[9] hidden within its own conceptual underpinnings.  Central to Losurdo’s thesis are three main contentions.  To begin with, he controversially asserts that the dis-emancipatory characteristics of liberalism are by no means accidental to its historical appearance.  Quite the opposite, argues Losurdo: the emancipation of certain class elements within society was indissolubly bound up with the domination of others.  A corollary to this claim is the argument that the universal rights proclaimed by liberal thinkers were, from the very beginning, explicitly predicated upon “macroscopic exclusion clauses” that left large swaths of the population outside their sphere of application.  Thus, despite producing documents that were clearly “inspired and pervaded by a universal pathos of liberty,” the reality of liberal society failed to measure up to its high-minded rhetoric"


"While the enslaved status of blacks in the colonies was passed on to their descendents on a hereditary basis, the indenture of local subject-populations was usually maintained by threat of military force.  At the same time, however, Losurdo makes sure to emphasize that the dis-emancipation he associates with the rise of liberalism was hardly limited to the colonial fringe.  Meanwhile, in the metropole of these liberal Western states, a corresponding disenfranchisement was taking place.  Rehearsing the well-known Marxist narrative on the circumstances surrounding the primitive accumulation of capital, Losurdo argues that this was closely tied to the systematic dispossession and deracination of the English and European peasantry through enclosure.[12]  Many of the peasants uprooted in this fashion went on to look for work in the cities, merging there with the nascent urban proletariat.  Losurdo links this economic process symbolically to the political event of the Glorious Revolution."


"The automatic association of slavery with a particular race or skin color was something new"

Is this true?


"Moreover, liberalism’s impassioned defense of citizens’ absolute right to enjoy their personal property against the meddlesome influence of the state (i.e., bourgeois property rights) led to the further dehumanization of those who were themselves regarded as property.  In other words, Losurdo maintains, in undermining the absolute power of authority wielded by the patrimonial and ecclesiastical state over the commons in traditional societies, liberal thinkers transferred this absolute power of authority to individuals over their own property.  Whereas in the former relationship the entire territory belonging to the sovereign or prelate was viewed as simply an extension of his property (or as tributary regions subject to his suzerainty), in the latter relationship property rights were extended throughout the whole of civil society.  This leads Losurdo to make some of his most compelling observations."

"This leads Losurdo to make some of his most compelling observations.  Contrasting the work of the archliberal thinkers Locke and Grotius with the ideas of one of the most outstanding theoreticians of political absolutism, Jean Bodin, Losurdo notes the following: While the former two upheld the slave-owner’s inalienable right to dispose of his human property as he sees fit, Bodin appealed to the authority of both the Church and the Crown — that is, to the First and Second Estates — to step in and place moral and legal limits on the slaveholder’s prerogative.[14]  This stubborn reluctance on the part of liberal philosophers like Locke and Grotius to sanction any mandate imposed from above that would require an individual to discharge his legal property (in this case, his slaves) was mirrored in the prolonged survival of the “peculiar institution” in the colonies of liberal countries such as England and Holland.  Of course, this would by extension include the rebel colony of the former, the United States"

"This, in turn, took place over the course of the seventeenth century, all the way up through the first half of the nineteenth, as part of the more general transformation of traditional agrarian societies into their modern industrial counterpart.  Citing the well-documented expansion of the penal code during this period, Losurdo shows how this entire campaign of expropriation was accompanied, moreover, by a “criminalization of behavior that had hitherto been licit.”[16]  This only served to compound the already desolate situation in which the former peasantry now found itself, leading to an even greater depopulation of the countryside.  Upon arriving in the city, notes Losurdo, families dispossessed in this manner often lived in abject poverty and destitution, forced to take whatever job they could get — no matter how tedious, degrading, or dangerous — in order to survive"


"By treating radicalism — a category that includes most forms of utopian socialism, anarchism, and Marxism — as utterly exogenous to liberalism, one misses the moment in which (in an almost Hegelian transformation of something into its opposite)[254] liberalism itself became illiberal.  This moment, as stated, is June 1848.  Here the liberal worldview as a project of emancipation finally stalled out, unable to attain to the precedent it had set in 1789."


 

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