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“The entanglement of emancipation and de-emancipation”: Domenico Losurdo on the Underbelly of Liberalism

Ryan Healey 1 May 2012

Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society recently interviewed Domenico Losurdo about issues present in his intellectual history, Liberalism: A Counter-History.  Losurdo argues that the “dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism.” Reviewing Locke as a “champion of slavery” and Mandeville as a zealous advocate of the death penalty, Losurdo demonstrates how 17th century defenses of liberty belied an affirmation of the power of property-owners while legitimizing, even celebrating, the subjugation of wage-laborers as “work machines.” When pressed on the (seemingly progressive) liberal project of de-emancipating the serfs that subsequently created an urban proletariat of revolutionary potential, Losurdo elaborates: 

[T]his possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism.

Building on these shortcomings of liberalism, Losurdo further clarifies on the historical and conceptual distinction drawn between liberalism and radicalism, namely that the term “liberalism” is a misnomer:

“Liberalism” and “individualism” are self-congratulatory categories. Why? If we consider individualism, for example, as the theory according to which every individual man or woman has the right to liberty, emancipation, and self-expression—that is not what we see in liberal society. We have spoken of the different forms of exclusion, of colonial peoples, of workingmen, and women. Therefore, this category is not correct.

Throughout this interview Losurdo elaborates on the problematic contradictions of liberalism—slavery, colonialism, eugenics, racism, and nationalism— originally advanced in Liberalism: A Counter-History.

Visit the Platypus Review for the full interview.


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