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“The dark side of liberal thought and practice:” Ed Rooksby on Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

Leo Goretti 1 December 2011

Ed Rooksby reviews Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History in an in-depth two-part article for the New Left Project. In Rooksby's words, questioning "liberal hagiography," "Losurdo's argument is certainly striking" and

highly effective ... Even those familiar with radical critique of liberalism and, indeed, with the historical crimes committed in liberalism's name, will find some of the practices and political positions uncovered by the author shocking.

According to Rooksby, the crux of Losurdo's argument is that the hallmark of liberalism is an "internal logic of inclusion/exclusion" that "separat[es] the legitimately free from the legitimately unfree, masters from servants, ‘us' from ‘them'."

In Rooksby's view, this is "a powerful argument", but not entirely convincing. He concurs with Losurdo that the logic of exclusion has been constantly at work in the history of liberalism. And yet, this cannot be considered the "defining feature" of liberal ideology. According to Rooksby,

one sees a commitment to principles of liberty and equality running through the history of liberal thought. These principles crop up time and again in liberal political philosophy. These political commitments are, in addition, typically rooted in an underlying philosophical individualism. ... The liberal view of individual liberty in itself implies equality. Liberal individuals are equal primarily in terms of their individuality. They are equally unique. This ontological and ethical worldview, then, and the normative commitments to liberty and equality (or a particular individualistic conception of those principles), is what defines liberalism as a political philosophical tradition.

It is true that historically there has been a gulf between proclaimed principles and liberal politics, Rooksby writes. Nonetheless, in his view, oppressed people appealed themselves to liberal principles to fight against their exclusion:

It is quite difficult to explain the successes of the ‘struggle for recognition' waged by the excluded unless we understand that this struggle drew on the normative resources provided by liberalism itself. ... It is precisely because liberalism proclaims universal values for itself—commitment to liberty and equality for all—that these values provide a kind of ideological-ethical ammunition for struggle on the part of those who are, in practice, subjected to conditions of unfreedom and inequality.

Rooksby concludes by describing the age of liberalism as

characterised not merely by exclusion but also by a process of permanent revolution in which a series of social groups—slaves, women, workers—rise up to stake their claim to liberty and equality. In this process liberal ideals are pushed forward and made progressively realised more fully by the struggles of the marginalised.

One could note that, by reducing political radicalism to a "progressive," emancipatory form of liberalism, here Rooksby's seems to overlook the importance that pre-liberal ideas about moral economy and social justice had in shaping European radical labour movements. There are few doubts, however, that the tensions between principles and practice inherent in liberalism have been a powerful argument for the oppressed in their struggles:

Liberalism has always been a battleground—a shifting terrain of struggle on which a war between masters and servants, exploiters and exploited has been fought out.

Visit the New Left Project website to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Ed Rooksby's review.

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