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In defence of liberalism 1: on historical critiques

Were more on the Left capable of reading liberal philosophy without foaming at the mouth, they’d realise that – actually – it’s perfectly possible to argue their case within the fundamentals of liberalism.

Marc Chehab
2 September 2014

Let’s spell out the obvious. Nobody in Europe with half a brain would knowingly challenge the basic tenets of modern liberalism. It is true that in the heat of economic turmoil (I’m in my twenties and live in Spain) hotheads will blame everything on one empty swearword: “Down with capitalism!”, “Corrupt politicians!”, “Rotten neoliberal society!”, “Damn banks!”, or – on desperate occasions – “Fuck the system!” But upon reflection most agree – if not in name, in essence – (how many would give up their individual rights or even their property?) – that modern liberalism is the least worst political philosophy we’ve come up with so far.

In Europe, fortunately, we have reached Fukuyama’s End of History where the alternatives to liberal democratic governance are wisely rejected by overwhelming majorities. We have progressed so far that, by sheer necessity, almost every political party on this continent has to define itself in contrast to liberalism – as though the question to any writer of a party manifesto were: “In what ways are you not liberal?” Hell, even proselytising Islamists and far-right extremists hypocritically (but ultimately justly) use liberal language to defend their right to spread their purist totalitarian fantasies – and the inherent conceding of ideological defeat shouldn’t be lost on anybody.

However, precisely in this dominance lies liberalism’s biggest threat – in ‘the deep slumber of decided opinion’ (Arthur Helps). As John Stuart Mill warned in his On Liberty,

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

Liberal ideas have become so common-sensical, Oxford University Press hasn’t even got a Very Short Introduction to it. Indeed, virtually all Europeans I know are modern liberals. Yet only few would say so. But if liberal commoners don’t call themselves by their name, who will uphold liberalism in a democratic society?

Therefore, let’s for once spell out what the essentials of modern European liberalism are:

Individualism: Before anything, the basis of the modern liberal ethic is the individual. We reject as false any group’s or state’s claim to hold a self-evident right to infringe upon the individual rights of its member unless it is to protect even more fundamental individual rights of other members. Individuals don’t need to ‘earn’ their natural human rights they have been endowed with from birth.

When individual rights clash, our Law works first and foremost according to a hierarchy of natural human rights, roughly as follows: Life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. According to this, you have no right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ if it involves taking somebody’s life, liberty, or property; nor can you have property of a person; nor does your liberty include taking somebody else’s life. (For an extended hierarchy consult the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Rule of law (and the separation of powers it requires): It follows naturally that people should be equal in the eyes of the Law and that – to ensure that – the judiciary must be shielded from political influence, as must the execution of Law be separate from its formulation in parliament.

(Limited) Democracy: Natural human rights say nothing about which side of the road you should drive on. For matters beyond natural human rights, people should be able to vote for those who make the laws and maybe even decide themselves on laws through referenda. Nevertheless, even a democratic majority – after all, just another group – has no legitimate right to take away the human rights of minorities – hence limited democracy. When two wolves and a lamb vote on what to eat for lunch, the outcome maybe democratic, but it certainly has nothing to do liberalism (example from Marvin Simkin).

Observe that within these fundamentals there is room for manoeuvre. So, for example, you can make a liberal-conservative case for immigration caps if you think of the state’s territory as the local populations’ property. In this view, future immigrants’ right to the pursuit of happiness does not trump locals’ right to exclude them from their state (and with genuine asylum seekers where the immigrant’s life or liberty is at credible risk, that’s different). But you can also make a liberal-progressive case by saying that if an immigrant could afford a living here and the state nonetheless discriminates on the basis of citizenship, we effectively violate the principle of equality before the law.

So who will be the future stereotypical liberal?

Will the future stereotypical liberal be the classical liberal primarily concerned about state interference? Or, a ‘muscular’ neoconservative liberalism primarily concerned about the social segmentation of society and the postmodern relativism that justifies it? Are those the only two options?

Sadly, it appears so. Because the one major political force missing in the battle over the dominant interpretation of European liberalism – the Left – has this weird tendency to stubbornly refuse to engage liberalism productively. And even though many leftists have probably read more liberal philosophy than your average liberal, it’s difficult to shake off the nagging feeling that they seem to have just skim-read it in order to find the parts about slavery, ‘negroes’ and ‘primitive savages’. It’s as though they read liberal philosophy like new atheists read the bible: to bash it.

One prominent mode of the Left’s critique of liberalism revolves around pointing out liberalism’s blood-stained history and poverty-ridden present of siding with capitalists. Domenico Losurdo for example points out on openDemocracy and in his book the elitism, racism, despicable disregard for the poor and outright support for slavery (chattel slavery or de-facto slavery in workhouses) by proto-liberal philosophers like Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, Constant, Bentham, and Sieyès. The liberal case for slavery was thus: The state should ‘laisse les faire’ (let them do) and not interfere with the slaveholders’ ‘freedom’ to treat ‘their’ slaves – which after all were their property – as they saw fit.

The Left’s liberalism-bashing also reveals the hypocrisy of early liberals whose concern for individual property rights wasn’t at all universal. Michael Perelman argues convincingly that classical political economists like Smith, Ricardo, Steuart and others often implicitly accepted, or even explicitly advocated that the self-sufficient peasantry be driven off their lands into the cities – and therefore factories and workhouses. Peasants’ traditional lands were not considered property. One could add that during the French Revolution, once the nobility and clergy were disempowered, then church property too was fair game and either nationalised (2. November 1789) or used to pay the monarch’s ‘public’ debt to private creditors.

So I am happy to agree to the simplification that early European proto-liberals – nay, nineteenth century European liberalism as such – was a political movement, first and foremost designed to secure the property rights of the growing capitalist class from absolute monarchy (by subjecting monarchs to the rule of law), to give the capitalist class access to politics (by narrowing access to parliaments) and by kicking the hereditary nobility and the clergy out.

But to read such critiques as somehow revealing of modern liberalism is to do little more than commit the mother of all ad-hominem fallacies – and I do have the nagging suspicion that it was the authors’ intent to make the mud stick.

So, for argument’s sake, shall we turn that fallacy around? David Conway has done that in his review of Losurdo’s exposé of liberalism, where he finds that,

on every count on which Losurdo finds fault with liberalism, such as its alleged racism and repressiveness, the track-record of its radical antagonist with which Losurdo and fellow members of the left  still clearly so heavily identify, has proved itself no less defective.

So, to use Conway’s example, does it dispute Marx’s theory to point to his virulent racism and anti-Semitism expressed in a letter to Engels, when he remarked that the “cranial formation and [curly] hair” of his German-Jewish socialist rival, Ferdinand Lassalle, showed that he “descends from the Negroes who had joined Moses’ exodus from Egypt (assuming his mother or grandmother on the paternal side had not interbred with a nigger [in English])” and that “this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product”?

It does not.

Is it a fair critique of Marxism to note that Marx no less fervently supported slavery in America than some liberals?

Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would be transformed into a patriarchal country… Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. (still from Conway)

It is not.

These quotes and the Leftist historical critiques of liberalism, in and of themselves, do not prove any inherent fault in modern socialism or liberalism, but point to the dark and cruel past we come from. Remember that from around the mid-nineteenth century to the interwar period almost all bigger western cities hosted ‘human zoo’ events where ‘primitive peoples’ were exhibited and these events were visited by hundreds of thousands of people. In more confrontational terms, most of your relatives beyond your great-grandparents were most likely still thoroughly racist.

Human zoos, Expo '31 in Paris, Bali.

Human zoos, Expo '31 in Paris, Bali. Editions BRAUN - SCAN de CPA/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.And sexist too. My candidly beloved country of origin, Switzerland, is a particularly good example, where still in 1959 men voted against a referendum to extend the vote to women by an overwhelming two-thirds majority. It wasn’t until a 1971 referendum when all parties actively supported a referendum (previously it was just the Left) that it was accepted at the national level (again with a two-thirds majority). Because of Switzerland’s federal nature (which we hold dearly), however, this wasn’t enforced on cantons. Women in the two cantons of Appenzell couldn’t vote until 1989 ad 1990, respectively. In the case of Appenzell Innerrhoden, men again voted against women’s suffrage in 1989 and women can only vote there today because the Federal Supreme Court enforced it in 1990! This all happened not only (without sounding arrogant) in probably the most democratic country in the world, but also in Appenzell with one of the oldest traditions of direct (masculine) democracy in Europe!

Thus the hypocrisy that the liberal movement can be accused of, Marx (and many socialists) can be accused of, everybody who visited a ‘human zoo’ can be accused of, Swiss (and other) men can be accused of, and the men of Appenzell can be accused of in particular.

Liberal democracy – like any political system – is susceptible to the limitation of access to the political process by those already in it. So the category of who’s a citizen that came out of the liberal revolutions was rather narrow. While many for the first time enjoyed very basic natural rights (à la ‘passive citizens’), active participation in politics was often constrained to male property holders. Like Peter Singer’s ‘expanding circle’ of empathy, this category has expanded as the category of who is fully human has expanded over time – not teleologically and automatically, but most often through a struggle ‘from below’ by and on behalf of the excluded.

Did they argue against the notion of individual natural rights? No, they argued with the notion that they are denied their rights! But did these movements seek to abolish citizenship? No, they opted to gain and expand citizenship. Did they seek to abolish the rule of law? No, they opted to change the law. Did they reject democracy? No, they wanted to gain access to voting!

So it is all very well to lift early liberals out of their racist, sexist, and slaveholding societies and exhibit their racism, sexism, or support for slavery in their concepts of citizenship, the rule of law, or democracy. But it takes considerable ideological fervour not to realise the necessary inherent irony of such criticism. For the fact that the object of criticism even exists – early liberals’ imperfect notions of citizenship, rule of law and democracy – you have to thank the very same racists, sexists and – at times – slave holders which you so passionately bash. It’s like criticising Karl Benz for building an imperfect first automobile.

If you wanted to criticise modern liberalism, you’d have to engage the core pillars of modern liberalism outlined above and show them to be inherently unfair. And were more on the Left capable of reading liberal philosophy without foaming at the mouth, they’d realise that – actually – it’s perfectly possible to argue their case within the fundamentals of liberalism. Socialist liberal capitalism is no contradiction. More on that in the next post.

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