Friday, October 07, 2011

Liberals and reactionaries

Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso, 2011), and Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, 2011)

I was speaking alongside Domenico Losurdo and Robin Blackburn at a launch event for the former's book at King's College some while ago. Losurdos' latest, Liberalism: A Counter-History, is an investigation into the limits and exclusions of liberalism. A salient point, which marks the beginning of one of his inquiries, is the fact that the three bourgeois revolutions conducted in the name of liberty and equality, were followed by a staggering increase in the global slave trade.

Three interesting problems arose in this discussion. The first is that it is a mainstay of marxist accounts of liberalism, and certainly central to C B Macpherson's analysis, that the core of it is property rights. This is not Losurdo's position, exactly. When a questioner from the floor asked about this question of property rights, he argued that what defined liberalism was not property, but the logic of exclusion. He mentioned the example of Palestinians who were expropriated at every opportunity by Israelis in the name of certain liberal values. And indeed the tension in Losurdo's narrative centres on how far liberalism can be made to expand on its revolutionary promise.

I still think that property is central here. For a start, the expropriation of the Palestinians doesn't disturb the principle of property rights. Property rights have always been structured in such a way as to allow white Europeans to expropriate non-white non-Europeans, from Locke to Vattel onward. After Katrina, the property rights of working class Americans, especially African Americans, were cancelled by fiat - but this didn't disturb the basic politico-legal order of property rights. In fact, I would bet on the idea that the state authorities and companies who carried out this expropriation worked very hard on devising a legal justification for this theft. Moreover, it is the nature of capitalist property relations, to which liberalism is committed, that builds exclusions into liberalism. The second difficulty concerned the distinction that Losurdo wished to draw between radicals and liberals, which is not always a stable boundary - for example, William Lloyd Garrison took liberalism to its most radical conclusions in opposition to racial slavery, the colonization of Indian land, and the oppression of women, but he by no means departed from liberalism (indeed, he refused the term 'wage slavery', supported capitalist 'free labour' and tended to be suspicious of unionism).

The third, related issue arose over the question of what, or who, counts as a liberal. Losurdo argues the case in his opening chapter for seeing the pro-slavery statesman John Calhoun as a liberal. Robin Blackburn disputed this, arguing that it involved far too expansive a definition of liberalism - Calhoun, he said, is a conservative.  Blackburn's concern was that Losurdo was risking a sectarian position, failing to acknowledge and that this wasn't resolved by cordoning off some liberals as 'radicals'.  Jennifer Pitts' recent review in the TLS takes this criticism much further, and in a much more hostile direction.  What I would say is that, taken as a whole, Losurdo's book is more appreciative of liberalism's merits than might appear to be the case from some of the tendentious readings - which, in a counter-history, has some validity.  His conclusions are not indiscriminately hostile.

Part of the problem here is that conservatism in its modern sense takes its cue from liberalism. Burke drew from Smith, almost all US conservatives draw from Locke, and modern conservatives are almost all influenced by classical liberalism. So, if Calhoun himself based his arguments on liberal precepts, which he certainly did, does this mean he is a liberal? There is also a deeper theoretical issue when discussing people like Calhoun. Antebellum slavery, some would argue, was a non-capitalist formation. That's a core part of Charles Post's argument in The American Road to Capitalism, written from a 'political marxist' perspective: that the US before the civil war was based on a combination of different modes of production - slavery, petty commodity production, mercantile capital, etc. The interaction between these different productive forms drove the expansionism of both north and south, eventually leading to Civil War.  (Some of these arguments were debated on a recent Facebook thread and recorded by Louis Proyect). John Ashworth's classic two-volume marxist history, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, makes the argument that southern political thought was largely pre-capitalist, drawing on classical republican ideologies because they happened to be conducive to the preservation of slave relations. Indeed, he maintains, the Democratic Party when it first emerged was anticapitalist - 'Jacksonian Democracy', based centrally on the valorisation of the white, freeholding farmer, could challenge the power of the banks and commerce in the name of agrarian interests while also being profoundly opposed to strong state intervention in the economy. So, was John Calhoun a liberal, because of his strong individualism and hostility to the over-concentration of central authority, or did liberalism merely provide part of the vocabulary for the defence of conservative interests?

This vexed question, of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism, receives a sustained treatment in Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind.  I have written a review of this for future publication, so I will make no detailed attempt to summarise its arguments here.  Suffice to say that, for the purposes of this discussion, there is no doubt for Robin that Calhoun is a conservative.  But what does being a conservative entail, then?  The image of conservatism as anti-modern, traditionalist, evincing a preference for the familiar and for gradual evolution, is one that he, like Ted Honderich, C B Macpherson and others before him, disputes.  The original conservatives - Hobbes, Burke, Maistre - are contemptuous of tradition, largely because of its inability to meet the challenge of revolution.  What they are conserving is not a traditional order (as mentioned, Burke was already a free market capitalist), but hierarchy, dominance, unfreedom: they are reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries.  To be effective counter-revolutionaries, conservatives must incorporate the ideas and tactics of the enemy.  They must speak in the language of the people, "make privilege popular", "transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses". 

Conservatism is thus not distinguished by its ideas which, with the enormous exception of race, it largely borrows from elsewhere, nor by its tactics, but by its praxis.  It would follow that it is not Calhoun's republican, pre-capitalist 'states rights' ideology that makes him a conservative, any more than his defence of private property makes him a liberal.  It is his attempt to arouse the South in response to the abolitionist danger, his attempt to conserve hierarchy against mass democracy, that makes him a conservative.  Liberals, you may say, have also been known to defend hierarchy and racial supremacy.  This is true, but liberalism does not pivot on the defence of hierarchies and domination; that is precisely why it devises 'exclusion clauses'.  Indeed, it is because of liberalism's much vaunted commitment to humanitarian and egalitarian values that 'the liberal defence of murder' is a hypocritical ideology, riven with tensions that aren't usually present in the rightist equivalent.