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Liberalism: A Counter-History

“A brilliant exercise in unmasking liberal pretensions.” – Financial Times
In this definitive historical investigation, Italian author and philosopher Domenico Losurdo argues that from the outset liberalism, as a philosophical position and ideology, has been bound up with the most illiberal of policies: slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism and snobbery.

Narrating an intellectual history running from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries, Losurdo examines the thought of preeminent liberal writers such as Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, Constant, Bentham, and Sieyès, revealing the inner contradictions of an intellectual position that has exercised a formative influence on today’s politics. Among the dominant strains of liberalism, he discerns the counter-currents of more radical positions, lost in the constitution of the modern world order.

Reviews

  • “A brilliant exercise in unmasking liberal pretensions, surveying over three centuries with magisterial command of the sources.”
  • “Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo stimulatingly uncovers the contradictions of an ideology that is much too self-righteously invoked.”
  • “The book is a historically grounded, very accessible critique of liberalism, complementing a growing literature critical of liberalism.”
  • “Liberalism is far too serious to be left in the hands of the liberals.”
  • “There is always something to learn from books by Domenico Losurdo. And [this book] is no exception, for the outstanding knowledge of modern and contemporary political thought, the rigorous philology and the pursuit of sources that have been forgotten or expunged.”
  • “Vast historical research recommended for the depth of the ‘excavation’ and for the wealth of new material that emerges.”
  • “The latest, original work by Domenico Losurdo, a philosopher-historian of great lucidity, author of always innovative books … travels through and analyzes the dark, deep and often malodorous side of liberalism.”
  • “Losurdo is almost unbelievably well-read”
  • “Losurdo chronicles the ways in which the leading theorists of liberalism aided and abetted the building up of a ‘master-race democracy’ in the antebellum United States and, afterwards, a world-wide ‘war’ waged by the northern European empires of liberty against one another and for the colonial subjection of the rest of the world.”
  • “Liberals might be inclined to disregard Losurdo’s work as bombastic and hyperbolic, but they would be exercising poor judgment to do so. This is not revisionist history, but history told from the point of view of those who are making it.”
  • “Losurdo's point is not the standard Marxian one; that is, the bitter irony of 'free labour' is that it is not so free. His point is rather more straightforward: from its inception, liberalism has been about asserting the liberty and equality of the 'community of the free', over and against those excluded from that community.”

Blog

  • Forced Labor and Progress

    Published as part of Verso's Haymarket Series in 1996, Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South was the first book-length history of the convict-lease and chain gang systems of penal servitude in the Southern United States. Focusing on Georgia in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Lichtenstein traces the interwoven development of the region's notoriously brutal carceral forms and it's industrial and commercial expansion. "The postbellum history of Georgia's penal system," Lichenstein writes, "offers a clear illustration of how convict labor helped forge the peculiar New South 'Bourbon' political alliance, by accommodating the labor needs of an emerging class of industrialists without eroding the racial domination essential to planters."

    In the text below, the book's epilogue, Lichtenstein expands on his findings in a broader historical consideration of the relation between coerced labor and economic development.
       


    A Georgia road gang in Rockdale County in 1909, shortly after the state abolished convict leasing. (Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History).

    “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” –Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History”1

    Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin's Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.

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  • [Video] The Anti-Inauguration: Why Trump won, what he’ll do, and how we can fight him.



    While many of us are still reeling from Donald Trump’s unlikely presidential victory in November, best-selling author Naomi Klein argues that it is precisely during times of shock — the disorientation that follows a disastrous event for which we have no preexisting narrative — that we are most vulnerable to interests that would exploit our need for answers. Our first step, Klein contends, is to find our footing, find our narrative, and find the common threads that connect our movements.

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  • Fuck Trump Reading List

    The outrage, fear and depression after Trump’s inauguration is palpable everywhere. Trump’s first acts in office, moving to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, signing an anti-abortion Global Gag Rule, and reviving plans to build the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, signal that he will be as dangerous a leader as we expected. The 2.9 million people who marched around the country as part of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st send an inspiring message that many are galvanized to fight Trump’s hateful policies. But this is the very beginning of what will be a long and painful fight.

    We must never give in to despondency and futility, rather we must learn from the revolutionary movements of history and mobilize together against Trump’s regime of oppression.

    We present this reading list as a useful starting point for anyone sharing in our overwhelming sense of anger and despair at our present crisis, and anyone looking for hope and inspiration in the resistance movements of the past and the organizing strategies of the present.

    Download our free ebook, The Anti-Inauguration: Building Resistance in the Trump Era, here.

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Other books by Domenico Losurdo Translated by Gregory Elliott