lunedì 12 dicembre 2011

A review of Ed Rooksby’s review

di João Carlos Graça

Dear professor Losurdo,
Although Ed Rooksby’s review of Counter-History represents no doubt a considerable improvement by comparison with Jennifer Pitts’, I still think there are some fundamental problems with it and that those are worth mentioning, since they are also somehow typical, and in fact deeply “world-view” revealing.
Before that, however, let me point out that, when discussions are about definitions, as it is acknowledged to be here, they obviously risk being not very fruitful. Your definition of liberalism points to a deeply rooted logic of inclusion/exclusion, of “us versus them”, Rooksby notices, and he also recognizes that such logic does operate in lots of cases, and that a defender of liberalism must recognize it in case he/she wants to remain intellectually honest. Still, he responds, that’s not liberalism’s defining trait, rather just an accident, or a group of accidents.
Well, then ― now my time to answer ― in a certain sense it’s all right for me. He is entitled to pick up the definition of liberalism that he fancies the most. For the sake of lucidity, he just has to declare that fact at the customs of ideas, certainly not to pay for it. And yet, at the same time it’s not necessary to remember Lewis Carroll’s or George Orwell’s stories to understand that “language games” are often quite a political battlefield. To attribute names to things, it was observed by such different people as Plato and Paul Éluard, is to many effects the same as knowing them: “te connaître… te nommer…”
And so, what must be the verdict on this issue? Liberalism was sometimes, indeed very often (as a matter of fact most of the times) quite exclusionary, but that is not its “essence”, says Rooksby. Fair enough for me. I am completely convinced that Rooksby’s “liberalism” is not exclusionary. It is certainly an abolitionist liberalism (rejecting slavery), and a “demo-liberalism” (implying universal suffrage), and a “social liberalism” as well (idem for social rights, or “third citizenship”), and also an anti-colonial liberalism (abjuring formal empires), and who knows what more… And still ― for crying out loud ― does this produce a minimally realistic picture of social dynamics, or instead a complete mystification and a huge self-delusion? Does that correspond to “la verità effettuale della cosa”, or really just to the “immaginazione di essa”? Or, perhaps more exactly, bottom line that fact is not important for Ed Rooksby? In order to enlighten these matters, it seems therefore reasonable to step down from “language games” into the realm of socio-historical analysis.
There is one historical event that indeed very much implicitly builds the case for Rooksby’s liberalism. It is, somewhat ironically, the one of French Revolution, which as a matter of fact started as a liberal revolution and could develop its universalist potential ― whose beneficial influences warm us up to this day, and through all the “winters” of universal history ― thanks precisely to the fact that it quickly evolved into a radical (abolitionist, suffragist, “social”, anti-imperialist), Jacobin path. But the French Revolution is also enlightening because of what happened when it was partially reverted, that is, when liberals took over. With Thermidor and Directory, first: social constitutional rights suppressed, universal suffrage halted and the “tyranny of the rich” established. And then with Brumaire, Consulate and Empire: the “French George Washington” established (see your Democrazia o Bonapartismo), and also naturally attempts to re-establish slavery and return to power-politics in Europe, yet still “first citizenship” or “civic rights” safeguarded, and even some mitigated and mediated form of political participation guaranteed, at least for “les français”, and according to the global spirit of “la Benjamine”. A truly liberal, “negative liberty” ― or “modern liberty” ― Isaiah Berlin’s scenario, or at least a positive result of conscious albeit tragic liberal choices…
And therefore, let me now be stubborn, if only in the name of truth. If Napoleon got the bad, nasty image he got, it was specially out of loosing wars, certainly not out of lacking liberalism in spirit. Other “Bonapartist” or “Caesarist” politicians, however, had by contrast a quite different global inclination, their programs being therefore more exactly named as “radical” than as “liberal”: Simón Bolívar is probably the archetypical figure, but we certainly are not short of other candidates.
In fact, the triad conservatism/liberalism/radicalism, and the subliminal Whiggish historical narrative closely associated with it, apparently misses something very important, which prevents it from helping us grasp the deep logics of political phenomena. That triad partly corresponds to the triad right/center/left that of course was inherited from French Revolution, but that fact has originally got to do mostly with the right, or “conservatives”, accepting in a certain moment the possibility of royal veto, whereas the left, or the “radicals”, fully rejected Monsieur Veto (or Madame Veto, for that matter) pretensions, the center, or retrospectively the “liberals”, obviously leaning to a compromise. And so, “radicals” are anti-King whereas “conservatives” are pro-King, with “liberals” naturally occupying the juste milieu.
That aspect, however, is only a small part of the story. Indeed, the beginnings of the French Revolution came mostly out of a frondeuse intention by the grandees to keep privileges and continue evading taxes. That’s the basic fact, facing which the rest is really mostly legend. Even the factual initial coalition of nobility with “piccolo popolo” ― although partly propitiated by a Montesquieu’s argumentario on the need for “checks and balances” and respect for traditional unwritten constitution of the realm in order to avoid the alleged and most feared slippery slope to despotism ― proved to be basically a misunderstanding and a fundamental imposture (and not so uncommonly, when we think of modern talks on “slippery slopes”). As Christopher Prendergast put it brightly: “It was thus to be game, set and match to Privilege… As it turned out, game, set and match to the People, though not without substantial retranslations of the Tennis Court Oath further down the road” (Christopher Prendergast, From Arras to Thermidor, New Left Review, Jan.-Feb. 2007,
And so, “the (royal) one” may be represented as opposed to “the many” in a straight line, with “the few good” staying in between, which immediately evocates the translation of ancient Aristotelian typologies into a Cartesian straight line, with correspondent right, center, and left (or “conservatism”, “liberalism” and “radicalism”). But we must also notice that in many occasions royal favor has indeed protected the many from the exactions of the free few: of which fact precisely the tradition of aristocratic opposition to royal over-zeal systematically complained, and typically in the name of “freedoms” (libertates), later translated into privileges, and also speaking the language of opposition to despotic rule, the defense of European exceptionalism vis-à-vis “Asiatic despotism” and alike…
It’s probably better, therefore, to accept the need of a Cartesian second axis (or of a bi-dimensional space), and try to map political positions in accordance with the idea of a triangle of ideal-types, all of the sides potentially corresponding to alliances and/or to oppositions. And within this context, the idea that the recognition of “the few” is approximately an antechamber for the recognition of the many ― which is the nucleus of Rooksby’s contention that liberalism is somehow a quasi-radicalism, and already a fundamentally universalistic world-view ― is pure and simply wrong in socio-historical terms. As a matter of fact, it’s much more the other way round: Alexander abates the Macedonian nobility in order to get to an “ecumenical” social order, Julius Caesar, supported by the plebs, opposes the exclusiveness of patricians, Louis XIV systematically promotes men “from bellow” in order to check the power of the grandees, etc. Of course, there are limits associated with that trajectory as well: Alexander is himself a Macedonian, Caesar is a patrician, Louis an aristocrat, and so on.
If there is something clear as to this, it’s surely the fact that “though the heavens should be simple”, as they put it in Alejandro Amenábar’s movie (Agora), “they are not”. And in part the decisively radical (and novel) move of the late 18th century corresponds precisely to “little people” thinking of themselves as able to take their destiny directly into their hands, proceeding “for the people and by the people”, as only the “few good” had dared doing or assumed to do until then, instead of expecting too much from the monarchical figure. But then again, whenever the “radical”, “non-liberal” impulse is absent or weak, the liberal redefinition of situation by the “few good”, the “community of the free”, once liberated from monarchs, systematically aggravates the situation of “little people”, be them British wage workers of the late 17th century, North American slaves of the late 18th century or others. This is not a group of lapses on a fundamental liberal bona fide, or a mere series of anecdotes or aberrations, as Rooksby somewhere suggests: these facts indeed correspond to a deeply entrenched underlying tendency, and it is Losurdo’s merit to call our attention to those otherwise quickly forgotten aspects, that liberal hagiography systematically tends to push into mere footnotes, before erasing them altogether. For example: I wonder how many people are to this day aware that the fact of scarcely populated states being over-represented in USA’s Senate expresses a very conscious constitutional compromise preventing the North from carrying on with changes that could abolish slavery, that is to say, granting Dixieland a minority veto power which indeed forced the extra-constitutional coup that the North ― or rather the monarchical father-figure of Lincoln ― had to promote, thereby forcing the suspension of constitution, the immense bloodshed of civil war, and finally (“sic simper…”) tyranicide.
Can we, therefore, have a left-leaning as much as a right-leaning liberalism? Yes, we can. But we can also have a left-leaning as much as a right-leaning “caesarism”, or “bonapartism”, for that matter. And it was probably one of the main merits of North American constitution to provide a monarchical element within the “mixed regime” it produced that was largely imitated by the rest of the western hemisphere, and which in most of Latin America has produced left or radical-leaning results more often than right-leaning ones. (European cases of “presidentialist” or “semi-presidentialist” regimes, such as France, Portugal and more recently Russia have obviously rather more ambiguous associations).
Be as it may, one of the main merits of Losurdo’s work is precisely the pointing out of the deep logic inherent to the fact of liberalism NOT being a universalistic world-view; to its formulating of “liberty” as opposed to, or in a tradeoff relation with, “equality”; to its tight intermingling of partial enfranchisements with systematic disenfranchisement. It is also its merit to point out the social roots of the “radical” movements that over times have challenged liberalism and forced it to reinvent itself, indeed approaching universalism in certain cases, but always parting from it when let free to do things according to its deep character and tendencies (see the economic and demographic tragedies in countries of former Soviet Union in the last two decades, for example, or see the evolution of income distribution at a world level after the “end of communism”, as two bold heavy counterfactuals). Those social forces were first and foremost peasants and slaves, which is probably not so unexpected in societies where a Marxian industrial “proletariat” doesn’t exist, simply because massive industrialization didn’t yet occur. But it is an important fact that, from an officially Marxist perspective, Losurdo rightly notices that aspect, instead of denying these groups any historical protagonism, which is indeed an unhappy inclination of some variants of Marxism, and partly of Marx himself. (As opposed to this leaning, mention is due to Barrington Moore’s pointing precisely of the strong peasant element in French revolution’s Jacobin period, as well as in Russian and Chinese 20th century revolutions).
As to Rookby’s argument on alleged underwriting of individuality by liberalism, well, the fact is that “individuum est ineffabile” is not exactly a liberal, much rather a “romanticist” motto. On the other hand, Goethe’s words in his famous letter to Lavater (probably inspired by Pliny the Elder) were also known to be picked up and used by Friedrich Meinecke as an epigraph to his work on “historicism”. So, since “romanticism” in politics is probably a rare, odd category (to my knowledge, only Carl Schmitt dealt with that subject as such, or under that form), and since “historicism” doesn’t enjoy good fame in officially liberal sectors of opinion in the last decades ― at least, after Karl Popper’s celebrated crusade ― I don’t really think Rooksby is able to go much further via that road of argumentation… unless of course he rephrases his story, and lets “post-modernity” step in and take over replacing liberalism, putting whatever “great narratives” definitely aside in the name of the uniqueness of the unique (“yes, we’re all individuals”, as the crowd yelled in quasi-unanimous chorus in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian…). Ah, but in that case the story definitely goes much, much beyond liberalism itself.
And finally, and as for “economics”, or economic science, or “political economy”, or whatever you want, it doesn’t seem to me that Rooksby’s story, whatever it is, challenges whatever Losurdo has previously stated. Liberalism in politics has a big tradition of appropriating “invisible hand”, “self-regulatory” stories imported form economic researches, no doubt about that. But if we dig a little bit more, we find lots of strange things here. Adam Smith, for example, suggested his “invisible hand” argument partly against State intervention, partly as a moral philosophy’s thesis, and besides a very discussable one (we are known to be selfish even when obviously we are not, to be selfish as we breath…), but partly also as a quasi Panglossian argument of harmony coming spontaneously out of distress, and redistribution emerging favoring the poor, precisely thanks to rich men’s natural inclination to conspicuous consumption (which would otherwise be considered a bad thing, of course). Landlords, added Smith, are naturally “liberal and generous”, and have a collective interest convergent with the general interest of society. The same occurs with wage workers, whereas the opposite happens with merchants…
So, you see, if there is anything here of definitive, it is that you can pick up this example and build the variety of “liberalism” that more fits you. The big picture is prone to “laissez-faire”, indeed, or to “liberismo”; which certainly doesn’t seem to make a doctrine particularly recommendable these days. But still, who knows what contortionisms a doctrine is capable of. And at any rate, Smith at least didn’t deny the existence of a “general interest” of society, which would make him suspiciously “holistic” if not “filo-totalitarian” under certain liberal perspectives…
Besides that, however, it is worth mentioning the fact that for classical liberals ― and somehow up to our days ― even the more left-leaning ones, or more prone to compromising with “radicalism”, such as John Stuart Mill, “equality” was always a dangerous, hard thing to consider. In the case of Mill, egalitarian goals had systematically to be considered in a tradeoff relation with material progress, another of classical Enlightenment objectives: do you want more equality? In that case, you must accept less prosperity, or the cessation of economic growth. And these ideological biases still haunt economic speculations up to our days, leading some (Latouche is the more obvious case) certainly not to the transcendence of liberalism, but further into the nucleus of its mindset.
To conclude: let us call a cat a cat, and a dog a dog. We all need to build mythical genealogies as to many different aspects of our lives, political ideologies certainly included. And difficulties of classification of “isms” are genuine in many cases: ideological platypuses do occur. But please let us not add imaginary difficulties to very real ones. Let liberalism rest in peace, accepting an honorable place in the global portrait, but not going into much too many distortions and pirouettes, just for the futile purpose of vindicating it…
Saudações cordiais, Lisboa, 12 de Dezembro de 2011

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