Liberals have been failing to live up to their ideals for centuries, but we mustn’t give up on liberalism.
By Peter Clarke, Slate
Posted Saturday, May 14, 2011, at 7:54 AM ET
George Washington himself, that unillusioned soldier and great patriot, extolled “the benefits of a wise and liberal Government” and advocated “a liberal system of policy”. There was not only political principle but political expediency in proclaiming oneself motivated by liberal ideas in that era. The fact that the American Revolution was made in terms of this political prospectus helps explain its ultimate success. There were simply too many Britons who felt that the colonists actually had the better of the argument-they were the better liberals. For British Whigs, too, looked back reverently on canons of government that extolled liberty in thought, speech, religion, government and trade alike. It was part of the heritage of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Indeed, for some more incendiary spirits on both sides of the Atlantic, the Good Old Cause of republican virtue was at stake.
Coalition is, of course, a current problem for Liberals. It could be said that every successful political party is itself a coalition, the broader-based the better. This was what gave the Liberal party such traction in British politics in the Gladstonian era; and what sustained the New Liberals of the succeeding generation, with comparable electoral triumphs in the era of Herbert Henry Asquith and Lloyd George, was again the party’s ability to adapt itself to new social forces. The tacit electoral alliance with the early Labour party was not actually called a coalition, though in some ways it served as such. The point was that, in all but a few constituencies, Liberals and Labour did not oppose each other; and in the House of Commons a Liberal government was sustained by what contemporaries called a Progressive Alliance, including both Liberals and Labour. This is an instructive formula: almost the opposite of the current arrangements, which simultaneously implicate Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in a basically Tory government while permitting their partners in Westminster to undermine them in the country. The current failure of this strategy could not have been clearer when, in a referendum held less than a week before the two parties marked a year in coalition on May 11, British voters overwhelmingly rejected the more [proportional voting system that Lib-Dems had hoped would be one of their chief rewards.
What has Losurdo got against liberalism? He resolutely exposes the internal contradictions of a doctrine that ostensibly upheld freedom, autonomy and self-government, yet failed in practice to universalise its own ethic. The presence of Calhoun in his canon alerts us early on to one important dimension. For Calhoun, steeped in the political culture of the antebellum American south, simultaneously coupled his liberal defence of individual and states rights with an explicit defence of slavery, which excluded blacks from the exercise of these great principles. Was this just the same old one-eyed hypocrisy that we expect of politicians?
There is, in fact, more to the book than this. It shows how slavery was legitimised within the liberal canon all the way back to Locke. And it gets worse. Once slavery could no longer be defended, the same liberals who now made a big deal out of its abolition promptly turned to excluding and repressing former slaves in slightly more subtle ways, such as indentured labour. And not just across the colour line, but also countenancing the oppression of workers closer to home when they, too, got uppity. It was the liberal economists, from Smith onwards, so Losurdo assures us, who shackled the working class by demonising early trade unions and who then turned their hard faces on some of the consequences of their inviolable free market, whether in the form of pauperism in Britain or famine across the Irish sea.
Did these great liberal thinkers really have no answers to the social problems of their day? Well, Locke thought compulsory churchgoing for the poor might be one remedy. So the best defence of the liberals against the charge of racism might be their willingness to inflict on their own kith and kin most of the indignities normally visited on slaves. But “master-race democracy”, excluding blacks or Arabs alike, remains a significant indictment. Chapter by chapter, one liberal after another is knocked off his plinth. “Compared with the liberal tradition,” Losurdo writes, “Nietzsche proved more lucid and consistent.”
Conservatives will enjoy reading this book as a demolition job. They will turn to it in hopes of finding an intellectual arsenal with which to bombard their opponents. They will take advantage of a moment when the historic political affiliation of many liberals in the Anglosphere has become a love that dare not speak its name. But liberals, too, should read this book as part of the task of reconstruction. This task, of course, cannot be accomplished simply in intellectual terms but the message that liberalism needs to be inclusive in its claims and its constituency alike is one with a current significance that is truly international.