This is a piece of intellectual history by a Marxist, indeed a Stalinist revisionist apparently (it wasn’t Stalin’s fault!). It is a history of the ideology “Liberalism”.
Like any ideology, there are as many liberalisms as there are liberals, and the ideology has morphed over the centuries.
The starting question of the book is: How come people who extolled freedom owned slaves? Doesn’t this belie their liberalism? The answer is yes, it does.
Jefferson and Washington owned slaves. Locke was famously a shareholder in the Royal African Company. Slave owners and slave dealers were well represented in the British parliament.
How to resolve the contraction? The answer is that they were hypocrites, and consciously so. “Liberalism” was simply a propaganda term. This shouldn’t be surprising. The American founding fathers were obviously self-interested scoundrels. American independence made little difference to ordinary people, but made Washington and Jefferson very rich men indeed. (Adjusted for inflation, they are the second and third richest US presidents ever, centimillionaires in today’s money.)
(C.f. Moldbug: “What Bailyn shows us is that the rebels in the American Revolution were motivated by an ideology that was utterly deluded, that amounted to no more than a wacky conspiracy theory. The point is not even slightly arguable. Their interpretation of British politics simply had no basis in reality.”)
Many people did worry about their owning slaves, but did nothing about it. Grotius endorsed slavery without the least reticience; later Locke did so but between the lines; the US Constitution does so with even more reticience. “While English patriots and loyalists opposed to secession ironized about the flag of liberty waved by slave-owners, the rebel colonists reacted not by invoking the legitimacy of enslaving blacks, but by highlighting the British Crown’s massive involvement and principal responsibility in trafficking and trading human flesh. It is clear that the institution of slavery was now largely delegitimized.”
Slavery was supposedly not recognised by English law (“England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breath in”; Blackstone: “the law of England abhors, and cannot endure the existence of, slavery within this nation”), but in reality it was more complicated than that, and slavery was certainly was recognised in the British colonies. English law allowed slavery as long as it was confined to the colonies. Supposedly there were no slaves in Britain — actually there were — but regardless Britain relied on slavery for much of its consumption (coffee, cotton, sugar, tobacco). Slaves were traded in Britain and Ireland. Sailors were enslaved by impressment, because conditions were so bad “it was impossible to obtain crews by free enlistment”. Soldiers were “captives in uniform”. Foundlings were sold by workhouses — their price in London was significantly lower than that of black slaves in America, and lower still in the countryside. Wakefield referred to “English slavery” and “white slaves” as late as 1834.
What does “liberty” mean? Early “liberty” meant property rights. “Liberties” were property rights. This is a non-propagandistic, non-obfuscatory definition of liberty. One person’s “freedom” to own slaves depended on that slave’s lack of “freedom”.
One definition of “liberty” is “self-government”. But “self-government” is a nonsense. As Lincoln pointed out in 1861, “secession is the essence of anarchy”. Either you are literally governed only by yourself, in which case there is no government, or you are governed by a group of people. Even if you have a say in government, you must submit to the will of the majority. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the desire for “independence” was a desire for increased power over slaves, as opposed to the regulation of slavery by the central power.
“No nations in the world have been more jealous of their liberties than those amongst whom the institution of slavery existed”. This applied both to American independence, and in the later civil war. “Self-government” is merely the avoidance of “interference” by political and religious authority. Boucher thought that despotic nations like Spain treated their slaves better than republics like Holland. Grotius and Locke, both republicans, endorsed slavery, whereas Bodin, the theorist of absolute monarchy, questioned the absolute power of a master over his slaves. Josiah Tucker said that “republican Tyranny” is “the worst of all Tyrannies”. A republic is not a country where everyone is free, it is a country with a ruling class instead of a monarch. The ruling class may be slaveholders. In a republic, more people get a say in government, but not everyone. Tocqueville: “the love of liberty is all the more alive among some the less one encounters guarantees of liberty for all.” People want liberty for themselves, from those above them, but not for those below them. Masters wanted liberty to deal with their servants without outside interference.
Sidney was an admirer of Poland: “equal men in the face of the monarch were magnates who wielded absolute power over their serfs.” Burke: “In Sweden the years from 1719 to 1772 are known as the Age of Freedom, because at this time the Diet or Riksdag ruled without interference by the King.” Palmer: “The diets, estates, parlements, and councils all stoutly defended liberty, and indeed stood for many genuine liberal ideas; but at the same time they palpably insisted on the maintenance or enlargement of their own privileges.”
Losurdo: “representatives of English proto-liberalism… equated ‘true liberty’ with untrammelled control by the master over his family, as well as his servants and his goods.”
“Smith clearly identified liberty with the self-government of civil society hegemonized by the very wealthy. On the other hand, in calling for a ‘despotic government’ to abolish slavery, he was embracing a different theoretical paradigm, which identified liberty with the abolition of oppressive relations existing within civil society itself.”
“This is an observation which, albeit to a lesser extent, also applies to de Tocqueville. When he condemned the reduction of the working day in factories to twelve hours as an expression of despotism, he clearly identified liberty with the self-government of civil society hegemonized by the bourgeoisie. But on other occasions the French liberal argued differently. In a letter to an American correspondent, he observed: ‘…In practice, there are no precedents for the abolition of slavery on the master’s initiative. It has only been abolished thanks to the power of a government that dominated master and slave alike. That is why, precisely because you are completely independent, slavery will last longer among you than anywhere else.’ Rather than the locus of liberty, here self-government is the condition for the perpetuation of the evil of slavery. Only a strong government would be able to abolish it.”
Voltaire said “The English are the only people on earth who have managed to prescribe limits to the power of kings”. But compare Diderot: “the Englishman, enemy of tyranny at home, is the most ferocious despot abroad.” “The English, this people so jealous of their own liberty, have contempt for that of other men”.
Losurdo: “As in the case of the United States, self-government by the colonists could entail a drastic deterioration in the conditions of colonial peoples… now subject to the exclusive, unhampered control of their direct oppressors. We are familiar with Smith’s observation about the catastrophic consequences that ‘free’ representative bodies controlled by slave-owners could have for black slaves.” Smith looked to despotism to abolish slavery. Regarding France, Tocqueville would have preferred the end of the ancien regime to have been the work of an “enlightened autocrat”, not “its least educated and most unruly elements”.
Where did the concept of liberty come from? It started as a synonym for “generous”: “liberal allowance”, “liberal hand”. Hume uses the word synonymously with “disinterested” and “generous”. It became synonymous with the upper classes, who could afford to be generous (to themselves as well no less than others). Smith distinguished between the “liberal” view of the well-off classes who liked luxuries and the pleasures of life, and the “strict or austere” view of the poorer classes. A distinction between “liberal” and “servile” appeared: liberals were those who were not servile. The liberal attitude was an antipathy towards being “servile” towards the monarch. Burke criticized expansion of the Crown’s power, but also distanced his class from the servile class below. He scorned “indiscriminate” freedom, freedom for all. Liberalism was opposed to “coarseness and vulgarity”. Liberal tended to be synonymous with aristocratic. In Virginia, the “aristocratic spirit” was bound up with “a spirit of liberty” distinguished by its “more noble and liberal” character. Washington celebrated the “liberal arts”. In France, the liberal party distinguished itself from the monarchy above and the vulgar masses below. A “sort of affluence allows men to receive a liberal education”. For Constant, and for Madame de Staël, liberalism found expression in “respectable people”, “decent people”. Tocqueville: liberals were not those “with their incomplete education”, but “property-owners”, the “bourgeoisie”, “men of culture”, “in a word, all those who have received a liberal education.”
Tocqueville: “The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave.” (C.f. Lord Acton’s silly quote, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”) For Tocqueville, the desire for liberty was “a privilege of noble minds which God has fitted to receive it, and it inspires them with a generous fervour.” “[T]o meaner souls, untouched by the sacred flame, it may well seem incomprehensible.”
Locke thought that most people are not genuinely capable of moral and intellectual life: “there is a greater distance between some Men, and others, in this respect, than between some Men and some Beasts”. Sieyès: “this enormous crowd of bipedal tools, without liberty, without morality, without intellectual faculties…” Even Mill’s liberty did not apply to “children”, nor to “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.”
Benjamin Franklin, writing to a doctor: “Half the Lives you save are not worth saving, as being useless; and almost the other Half ought not to be sav’d, as being mischievous. Does your Conscience never hint to you the Impiety of being in constant Warfare against the Planes of Providence?” Tocqueville hoped that prisons would burn down, disposing of their populations. Losurdo summarises, “The eugenic temptation runs deep in the liberal tradition.” He refers to a “sort of social apartheid” in Britain whereby nobles and the elite didn’t want to mix with the plebs. Nassau Senior visited Naples and was annoyed by the mixing of ranks and having to look at the poor.
One interesting theme of the book is the horror of the upper classes at the lower classes not working very hard. It is not acceptable to the upper class that the lower class are able to subsistence-farm a small-holding. If people can do that, what incentive will they have to work for the upper class in the factories? Tocqueville desired the abolition of slavery, but wanted “to prevent the negroes of our colonies… abandoning the major industries to retire to a piece of fertile soil, which has been bought cheaply or grabbed”. In Britain, Enclosure of common land had the same effect. Emancipated slaves could be permitted to choose their “master”, but not to “remain idle or work exclusively for themselves”. Thus, they should be “temporarily” banned from owning land, to force them into “the position in which the European labourer finds himself.” Losurdo: “While he condemned legal regulation of working hours as ‘despotism’, de Tocqueville had nothing against the creation from above of a caste of wage-labour denied any possibility of social mobility.”
Smith’s famous comment about collusion (“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”) was actually aimed against trade unions — the price of labour!
Liberty was only for the elite. Locke proposed regulating the consumption of alcohol by the popular classes. Mandeville believed amusements should be prohibited on Sundays because they would draw people away from church.
Mill demanded barbarians’ “obedience” for the purposes of their education for “continuous labour”, which was the foundation of civilisation. He proposed a transitional phase of “slavery” for “uncivilized races”. There were “savage tribes so averse from regular industry, that industrial life is scarcely able to introduce itself among them until they are… conquered and made slaves of”. The slave is “one step in advance of a savage”. This would be temporary slavery, but for “the great majority of the human race”, “in a savage or semi-savage state”. Mill wanted “plural votes to be granted to the more ‘intelligent’”. Allan Bloom: “the primary intention of On Liberty was to protect the minority of superior men from the tyranny of the majority, that Mill believed mankind was threatened by universal mediocrity.”
Mandeville didn’t want to educate the poor, for fear of losing cheap labour. Arthur Young: “the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”. Destutt de Tracy: “In poor nations the people are comfortable, in rich nations they are generally poor.” Bentham thought workshouses could breed an “indigenous class” of labour. Sieyès imagined a cross between monkeys and blacks to create “the new race of anthropomorphic monkeys”, adapted to servile labour.
Losurdo: “At its inception, liberalism expressed the self-consciousness of a class of owners of slaves or servants that was being formed as the capitalist system began to emerge and establish itself, thanks in part to those ruthless practices of expropriation and oppression implemented in the metropolis, and especially the colonies, which Marx described as ‘original capitalist accumulation’. Against monarchical despotism and central power, this class demanded self-government and peaceful enjoyment of its property (including that in slaves and servants), under the sign of the rule of law. We can then say that this liberalism was the intellectual tradition which most rigorously circumscribed a restricted sacred space wherein the rules of the limitation of power obtained. It was an intellectual tradition characterized more by celebration of the community of free individuals that defined the sacred space than by celebration of liberty or the individual.”
American independence didn’t just make slaves worse off. Losurdo: “The conquest of self-government by civil society hegemonized by large-scale property involved an even more drastic deterioration in the condition of the indigenous population. The end of the control exercised by the London government swept away the last obstacles to the expansionistic march of the white colonists.”
Grotius, Locke and Washington all referred to Native Americans as “wild beasts”. Benjamin Franklin wanted to “extirpate these Savages in order to make way for the Cultivators of the Earth”. The land was given to whites by God or Providence. In 1871 Francis Amasa Walker compared “wild men” to “wild beasts”.
Locke’s “mixed his labour” theory turns out to be a way of disenfranchising hunter-gatherers, who could be said to own property in common, in favour of freeholders. Hunter-gatherers cannot survive in the face of the onward march of civilisation/freehold property and the erecting of fences. Freehold legal theory does not recognise ownership by hunter-gatherers: the land they use is deemed to be vacant, “unpossessed”. Tocqueville agreed: “Although the vast country that I have been describing was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, it may justly be said, at the time of its discovery by Europeans, to have formed one great desert [terra nullius]. The Indians occupied without possessing it. It is by agricultural labour that man appropriates the soil, and the early inhabitants of North America lived by the produce of the chase.” Tocqueville on Algeria: “the common property of the tribe is not founded on any title”.
Grotius declared that civilised men should declare war on “men who are like beasts”, just as they declare war on actual beasts. The losers of such a war could justly be enslaved. Enslaving their descendents was also acceptable because it created an incentive to keep the slaves alive. Grotius appealed to Aristotle’s concept of natural slavery, and St Paul.
Tocqueville was happy to have “two clearly distinct sets of laws in Africa, because we are faced with two clearly separate societies.” Losurdo: “Mill, de Tocqueville and Lecky passionately denounced monarchical or Jacobin absolutism, and at the same time enthusiastically saluted despotism at the expense of colonial peoples.” Bugeud, governor-general of Algeria: “Wherever there is clean water and fertile soil, it is necessary to settle colonists, without worrying too much about whom the land belongs to. It must be distributed to them so that it is enjoyed as rightful property”.
Even the Irish were at the receiving end of this ideology. Locke refers to the Irish as “brigands”. Carlyle called them “black”. Tocqueville: “Virtually all the country’s magistrates are in open warfare with the population.” Attempts were made in Ireland to obstruct access to education.
So not only did liberty not apply to the lower classes, it did not apply to other races. Tocqueville pointed to the United States as a country where “every individual” enjoyed unprecedented “independence”, ignoring the slaves. In Algeria, he said, “the role of the individual is everywhere greater than the motherland”, ignoring the Arabs, who were regarded by occupying forces as “evil beasts”. Theodore Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians. But I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Losurdo: Liberalism was an “intellectual tradition which, far from being inspired by a superstitious respect for property and property right in general, in fact promoted and legitimized massive expropriations of the Irish and Indians.”
Not that socialism is necessarily different. Losurdo concedes, “Socialist aspirations can readily be combined with colonialism. Followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon envisaged building communities of a more or less socialist type on land taken from the Arabs in Algeria.”
Under Locke’s “labour mixing” theory of property, birds and wild animals should have been regarded as common property. However, Locke was inconsistent, calling for the death penalty against hunters (“poachers”).
Locke supported enclosure both in Britain and America, viewing common land as like wild land. In America, the native hunter-gatherers were despoiled; in Britain, the peasants.
(Locke comes across very badly in this book. For a different savaging of Locke, see https://radishmag.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/democracy-and-the-intellectuals/ )
A racial distinction began to emerge. Losurdo refers to the “spiritual delimitation (the English model until 1833) and the racial delimitation (the American model until 1865)”. The race of liberty was a “strong, haughty race, bred to liberty” (William Walker). Burke wrote of the peoples “in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates”. He thought the “spirit of freedom” was most embodied by slave-owners of the southern colonies. The colonists formed an integral part of the nation “in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates”, “the chosen race and sons of England”. It was a question of “pedigree”, against which “human art” was powerless.
Lieber thought the “Anglican race” were those who fully expressed authentic liberty. The Spanish, Portuguese and Neapolitans had proved incapable of “self-government”, not to mention the Chinese and blacks. For Mill, “Anglo-Saxons” were the champions of representative government and “the general improvement of mankind”, while at the bottom, we find the Chinese and various savage peoples. Bentham thought Ireland was “half civilized”. Mill thought Ireland incapable of self-government, but in need of a “good stout despotism”, exactly like India. (Lecky however said the Irish were part of “the great Aryan race”.) Greece was “too Oriental” to govern itself. Cobden thought the Spanish were “barbarians”, and Nassau Senior despised the Neapolitans: “hateful… wicked… squalid and unhealthy.” Tocqueville thought France irremediably “revolutionary and servile”: “socialism is our natural disease”. France “is incapable and… unworthy of being free”.
Losurdo refers to “the proud self-consciousness of the community of the free, who lauded themselves for their immunity from the servile spirit attributed to the barbarians subjugated by them.” “We can understand why social Darwinism established itself above all in Britain, the United States and Germany… all three regarded themselves as members of a single family or race which, setting out from Germany, had first crossed the Channel and then the Atlantic. And all three tended to regard Latins (not to mention colonial peoples) as failures, and to attribute their own success to the action of natural selection”. “Aryan mythology was explicitly present in other exponents of this intellectual tradition”.
What is slavery?
The legal systems of the time recognised various categories of workers, of which slavery was just one. Blackstone referred to “proper slavery”, “strict slavery”, “absolute slavery”, where the master had unlimited power of the slave. Servants were a different category of people to freemen and slaves. Servants were subdivided into “domestics”, “apprentices”, “labourers”, each with specific characteristics.
Smith: “The master has a right to correct his servant moderately, and if he should die under his correction it is not murther [murder], unless it was done with an offensive weapon or with forethought and without provocation.” Losurdo: “It is difficult to regard such servants as free men… Smith included menial servants, together with slaves proper, in the master’s extended family.” Seymour Drescher: “For most of human history the expression ‘free labor’ was an oxymoron.”
Locke habitually used “absolute power of life and death” to define the essence of slavery. “Already in Grotius we find the observation that the condition of the slave is not very different from that of the soldier.” “The mortality rate of soldiers en route to India was comparable to that affecting black slaves during their deportation from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Moreover, the British soldiers were subject to the punishment traditionally reserved for slaves — flogging”. Defoe: “‘tis Poverty that makes Men Soldiers”. “[T]he figure of the officer tended to coincide with that of the master, and the contempt officers/masters had for troops was professed and ostentatious.”
Yet the soldier was not a slave. “The general that can condemn him to death for deserting his post, or not obeying the most desperate orders, cannot yet with all his absolute power of life and death dispose of one farthing of that soldier’s estate, or seize one jot of his good; whom yet he can command anything, and hang for the least disobedience” (Locke).
Slave-owners could not do anything they wanted with their slaves. In America, a white slave-owner could kill a black female slave, but he could not have sex with her. The “one drop” rule which prevailed in America, whereby someone with any negro blood was considered black, was intended to discourage miscegenation: the white man’s children would be treated badly. (In South America, by contrast, various gradations were recognised: mulatto, quadroon, octoroon…) (The “one drop” cultural rule now has the opposite effect, though affirmative action, which can even be used by immigrants with no slave ancestors at all! Barack Obama, half white, half Kenyan, was considered “black” and “African-American”. Another rule which has backfired is the one which counts non-citizens when allocating congressmen (the US Constitution distinguishes between “free Persons” and “all other Persons”). Previously intended to boost the representation of slave-holding areas in the House of Representatives, it now boosts the representation of areas with lots of foreigners.)
Grotius thought servitude was the defining characteristic of work. Calhoun thought work and slavery were inseparable, as did Fitzhugh (who wrote “Cannibals all!”). “In Scotland workers in coalmines and salt works were obliged to wear a collar on which the name of the master was inscribed.”
Those in workhouses were effectively slaves. Defoe said workhouses were “such a Terror to the Beggars that none of [them] will come near the City.” They were described by Engels as a total institution: “Paupers wear the uniform of the house and are subject to the will of the director without any protection whatsoever… families are separated… placed outside the law… inmates of work houses often deliberately make themselves guilty of any crime whatsoever in order to go to prison”. Many indigents preferred to die of hunger and illness than subject themselves to a workhouse. Bentham was enthusiastic: his famous panopticon was not designed for prisons, but for workhouses.
(Bentham was an interesting and creative chap, who by producing a lot of ideas and following chains of reasoning, anticipating some of the the most liberal aspects of contemporary society (homosexuality, animal rights), and also some of its most illiberal aspects. https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/29/open-thread-89-75/#comment-572661
In the period between 1660 and 1760, the rise of liberalism, an attitude of unprecedented harshness towards wage-labourers and the unemployed arose, “which has no modern parallel except in the behaviour of the less reputable of white colonists towards coloured labour”. (Bodin attributed this to the “greed of the merchants” and looked to “princes” to “set things in good order”.)
So-called “wage slavery” is a real phenomenon. People on the verge of starvation would commit crimes to survive as deportees. “In England, enclosure of common land was followed by the new law of 1834 which, abolishing any other form of assistance, confronted the poor with a brutal alternative: death from starvation or internment in a total institution.”
“From 1688 to 1820, the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to between 200 and 250, and they were almost always crimes against property. While attempted homicide was regarded as a petty crime until 1803, the theft of a shilling or handkerchief, or the illegal clipping of an ornamental bush, could entail hanging; and one could be consigned to the hangman even at the age of eleven…” Locke said that by stealing, the thief had made the victim his slave, deprived him of his liberty. Property, and thus liberty itself, was at stake. Locke called for penal slavery: “Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life by some act that deserves death, he to whom he has forfeited it may, when he has him in his power, delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service; and he does him no injury by it. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.”
Mandeville recognised that much theft was done by necessity, but thought it was in society’s best interest that thieves be hanged.
“On the eve of the American Revolution, in Maryland alone there were 20,000 servants of criminal origin.” Dr Johnson: they were “a race of convicts, and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging”.
After slavery was abolished, laws against vagrancy were used to force people into “apprenticeships”. Many indentured servants did not survive to the end of their contracts. Slaves were replaced by coolies, who though not hereditary slaves, were represented in chains in popular art of the time. Their mortality rate was high. Seymour Drescher: “In 1860, as in 1760, non-European compulsory labor was still the labor of choice for rational capitalists who chose to cultivate the vast undeveloped parts of the tropics… The 20 millions who left India alone, mostly as indentured servants, between the 1830s and the 1910s, amounted to twice the number of Africans forcibly landed in the Americas during the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade.”
In 1860, slaves were America’s second biggest property after land; their value was three times greater than the share capital in manufacturing and the railway industry.
Liberty was curtailed in various ways to shore up the slave-holding society. It was forbidden to teach slaves to read and write, or in Georgia to provide them with paper and writing materials. Abolitionist mail was censored by Andrew Jackson. Abolitionists were beaten up and killed.
Northern states, though not holding slaves, were required by the constitution to return escaped slaves to their Southern owners. Tocqueville: “prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Oregon “strictly prohibited access into their territories by blacks.”
“Blacks not subject to slavery began to be perceived as an anomaly that would sooner or later have to be rectified.” Ex-slaves should be driven further south, Latin America’s mixed blood population being the “only receptacle” appropriate for them, according to John O’Sullivan, theorist of “manifest destiny”. The end of slavery should mean the end of the presence of blacks in the land of liberty. Lincoln wanted to deport blacks to Latin America. Monroe famously used federal funds to send them to Liberia.
Abbé Grégoire on Haiti: “Simply by virtue of its existence… a black republic in the mid-Atlantic is a raised beacon to which the blushing oppressors and the sighing oppressed look.” Losurdo: “The United States not only refused to recognise the country… but did everything it could to isolate, weaken and overthrow it. Jefferson distinguished himself in this operation… Jefferson interpreted the principle of equality in radical fashion, but always within the ambit of the white community.”
Liberalism didn’t imply unity among the “liberal” nations. For Jefferson, the United States was “an empire for liberty”. “The ‘empire for liberty’ desired by him presupposed Britain’s defeat… the annexation of Canada (in addition to Cuba)”, “eternal war” ending with the “extermination of the one or the other party”. Kipling reported that 4 July 1889 celebrations in San Francisco were marked by official speeches against “our natural enemy” Great Britain “with her chain of fortresses across the world”.
Tocqueville: “Will anyone go so far as to claim that two peoples must necessarily live in peace with one another just because they have similar political institutions?” For Tocqueville, France was the “saviour” “of peoples whose liberty is in danger”.
Losurdo: Germany “had likewise begun to cherish the idea of an empire for liberty, putting itself at the head of a crusade for the abolition of slavery in the colonies.” “[A]t the turn of the century, even in England and America, Germany was regarded as a full member of the exclusive club of free peoples.”
Did liberalism lead to improvements in the lives of the lower classes? Losurdo: “The more the struggle for recognition developed as a struggle for the conquest of political rights and of economic and social rights, the more the popular and socialist movement was accused of not understanding the autonomous dignity of the individual, and in fact of wanting to trample it underfoot.”
“Individualism” was used to oppose regulation of working conditions. “Although convinced that ‘public education is salutary, above all in free countries’, Constant was firmly opposed to the introduction of compulsory schooling, since he considered unacceptable any form of ‘restriction’ that violated the ‘rights of individuals’, including ‘those of fathers over their children’. True, poverty meant that in poor families children were taken out of school and put to work early. Yet it was necessary to denounce any restrictions and wait for this poverty to fade away. On the basis of this logic, in addition to rejecting compulsory schooling, Constant did not even entertain the hypothesis of state intervention against the scourge of child labour.” Tocqueville compared English factory workers to slaves, and denounced those who sought to regulate their working hours.
For Mill, the Opium War was a crusade for free trade: “the prohibition of the importation of opium into China” violated “the liberty… of the buyer”. No “self-government” for the Chinese!
Constant refused to countenance non-property owners sitting on representative bodies. He worried that politics would encroach on property. Boissy d’Anglas warned against “fatal taxes” that would inevitably be imposed by legislative power once it was under the influence of non-property owners. Both were surely right about this — Luigi Einaudi predicted something similar. Tocqueville agreed. Mill: “any power of voting” in the hands of those who did not pay taxes was “a violation of the fundamental principle of free government”, “amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people’s pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one”. Lecky: property-owners would end up “completely disenfranchised”. Constant saw the poor as turning into ‘a privileged class”, benefitting from redistributive taxation.
Socialism began to be looked at as a “disease”. Tocqueville said it had made the French “ill”. Burke called it the French “disease”. Lecky spoke of “the contamination of the immigrant vote”. (Burke seems to be the first exponent of the theory of revolution as a Jewish conspiracy.)
Violence was called for. Tocqueville condemned Jacobin Terror but had no hesitation invoking “terror” for the purposes of suppressing “the demagogic party”. Theodore Roosevelt on suppressing strikes: “taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing… them against a wall, and shooting them dead.”
Losurdo: “the community of the free asserted itself demanding both negative and positive liberty, while excluding populations of colonial origin and metropolitan semi-slaves and servants from both.”
“In the first place, it should not be forgotten that not only did the classics of the liberal tradition refer to democracy with coldness, hostility and sometimes frank contempt, but regarded its advent as an unlawful, intolerable rupture of the social contract and hence as a legitimate cause for the ‘appeal to Heaven’ (in Locke’s words) or to arms.”
“Let us take authors like Montesquieu, Smith and Millar. Although condemning slavery more or less sharply… In no instance did criticism or condemnation of slavery involve exclusion of the beneficiaries or theorists of the institution from the community of the free and liberal party.” Disraeli (not a liberal) denounced the abolition of slavery in the English colonies.
However, liberalism did eventually turn against slavery. “Almost a century after its first turn, the liberal world underwent a second: now condemnation of hereditary slavery as such was dictated as a constitutive element in its identity… The principle of racial equality became a constitutive element in liberal identity only from the mid-twentieth century onwards.”
But liberalism was just moving with the times. “The process of emancipation very often had a spur completely external to the liberal world. The abolition of slavery in British colonies cannot be understood without the black revolution in San Domingo, which was viewed with horror, and often combated, by the liberal world as a whole.”
Losurdo concludes: “It is precisely from such historical reconstruction, remote from any apologetic, edifying tones, that the genuine merits and real strong points of liberalism emerge. Demonstrating an extraordinary flexibility, it constantly sought to react and rise to the challenges of the time. It is true that, far from being spontaneous and painless, such transformation was largely imposed from without, by political and social movements with which liberalism has repeatedly and fiercely clashed. But precisely in this resides its flexibility. Liberalism has proved capable of learning from its antagonist (the tradition of thinking that, starting with ‘radicalism’ and passing through Marx, issued in the revolutions which variously invoked him) to a far greater extent than its antagonist has proved capable of learning from it.”
“In economics, clearly distancing itself from an insipid ideology of social harmony miraculously lacking any element of contradiction, conflict and tension, liberal thought has vigorously insisted on the need for competition between individuals in the market, in order to develop social wealth and the productive forces. This is a further, major historical merit to be acknowledged.”
“Far from being a site where all individuals freely meet as sellers and buyers of commodities, for centuries the liberal market was a site of exclusion, de-humanization and even terror.” “In extreme cases the superstitious cult of the Market sealed huge tragedies, like the one which in 1847 saw Britain condemn an enormous mass of actual (Irish) individuals to death from starvation.”
“[L]iberalism’s merits are too significant and too evident for it to be necessary to credit it with other, completely imaginary ones. Among the latter is the alleged spontaneous capacity for self-correction often attributed to it.”
It’s a long book, and you could get the message by just reading the first chapter, or this review. There are occasional slips of referencing, e.g. Francis A. Walker is misnamed Francis C. Walker.
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