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Losurdo, liberalism, and the Middle East revolutions

Leo Goretti14 September 2011

According to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen issued at the onset of the French Revolution, men were said to be "born and remain free and equal in rights" — as long as they were white, male, and possibly upper-class. The "unfolding dialectic of freedom and un-freedom" that has been inherent from the very beginning in liberalism, is one of the main foci of Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History, Tom Whittaker points out in a review for Counterfire.

In his piece, Whittaker stresses the coexistence of groups of free and excluded individuals that has been characteristic of liberal societies: Losurdo's account shows how the "boundaries" between them historically "ran as much along class as along racial or national lines." It is true that, in the West, political and social rights were progressively extended to the working-class —"but only after further and more intense social struggles on behalf of the excluded." Globally, however, colonial oppression and imperialism were the dark side of the liberal myth:

Ultimately, Losurdo deems the most important reason for rejecting this myth to be the tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation, meaning that the extension of the suffrage in Europe, was accompanied with simultaneous colonial expansion and the subjugation of peoples and races deemed inferior. Above all, liberalism sacrificed democracy on the altar of colonialism, slavery and empire.

In Whittaker's eyes, Losurdo's counter-history of liberalism is a warning for those who, following the recent wave of revolutions in North Africa, have enthusiastically hailed an advent of liberal democracy in the region:

In 2011, as great political struggles for democracy shake the Middle East and beyond, debates will emerge as to which ideological visions can best harness people's desires for emancipation. Liberalism, despite its recent regression into neo-liberalism and consequent association with powerful economic elites, will no doubt be touted as the default ideological setting for these movements to adopt. Those who seek a deeper emancipation and more radical solutions will however need to move beyond the contradictions of liberalism. In such an ideological context, Losurdo's critical history is a timely and invaluable contribution.

Visit Counterfire to read the review in full.

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