Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion? (Part 1)

by Ed Rooksby

Ed Rooksby examines the arguments in the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo's 'Liberalism: A Counter-History'.

First published: 18 November, 2011 | Category: History, Philosophy and Theory, Politics

In the first of a two-part review, political theorist Ed Rooksy examines the original perspective on the liberal tradition set out by Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo in Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso 2011). His critique of Losurdo and rival account of the nature of liberalism are developed in Part 2, which follows shortly. 

Beyond liberal hagiography

As Anthony Arblaster has pointed out, the history of liberalism has, in the main, been written by liberals and, consequently, liberalism tends to get a rather better press than it would probably otherwise enjoy.[1] Indeed liberal definitions of liberalism are often more than faintly self-congratulatory – frequently, they consist of a list of Good Things that are taken to be the core, defining values and commitments of this political tradition. A typical list might include such values as liberty, respect for the individual, democracy, tolerance, human rights, scepticism and reason for example. Thus, in many liberal accounts, the historical rise of this political ideology is a story of unalloyed progress – the emergence, generalisation and consolidation of enlightenment and freedom. 

Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: a Counter-History is written in deliberate opposition to this prevailing wisdom. His aim is to get beyond what he calls the ‘habitual hagiography’ and to present a much more critical account of liberalism and its historical rise to ascendancy. Losurdo is clear that one cannot adequately understand this political tradition (or, by extension, any other) simply with reference to proclaimed normative commitments in abstraction from the concrete social and political relations that liberalism actually established and found expression in. It is a peculiar characteristic of liberal thought, in fact, to assume that political ideas can be analysed and grasped in a state of more or less abstract purity with little or no reference to the concrete social conditions in which those ideas emerge and are manifested. Indeed it is only on this basis that liberalism can maintain its highly flattering view of itself. The history of liberalism as a political movement – as an evolving set of political practices (as well as of ideas) that established and reproduced a shifting series of concrete social relations – is, in fact, not a very pretty one as Losurdo shows. Analysed in this way the history of liberalism as a political movement is a history of coercive expropriation, violence, racism and exploitation as much as, if not even more than, it is a history of the unfolding extension of modern individual liberty, political rights and so on. Losurdo’s focus throughout remains very much on the dark side of liberal history since it is this that is consistently obscured and repressed in the prevailing historical narrative. It is in this sense that Losurdo’s book is a counter-history – it is intended as a corrective or a counterweight to liberal hagiography. 

Liberal paradoxes

Losurdo’s counter-history begins with a paradox. The birth and early consolidation of the liberal political order – supposedly an order devoted to liberty – was accompanied by concurrent expansion and intensification of colonial slavery. Indeed the three countries that Losurdo identifies as the key pioneers of liberalism – Holland, England/Britain and America – were all deeply involved in the slave trade and in the direct employment of slave labour. It is not just that slavery and the slave trade persisted despite the success of liberal revolutions in these countries, Losurdo stresses, it is that slavery ‘experienced its maximum development following that success’ (p. 35).[2] For example, liberalism was decisively consolidated in England, according to Losurdo, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – by the mid-18th Century Britain owned more slaves than any other country. The institution of slavery reached its fullest development in America only after the victory of the revolutionary war of independence that established a new liberal political order in that country. Furthermore, the institution of slavery took on its most historically oppressive form in this period. In previous ages slavery was not always hereditary and, in addition, slaves could reasonably hope that they or their children might be able to achieve free status. The form of slavery that emerged with the liberal revolutions, however, was much more radical. This period saw slaves increasingly reduced to chattels and established slavery as a permanent, hereditary condition from which it was almost impossible to escape.  Furthermore, slavery under liberalism took on a racial character – the institution was increasingly justified by its apologists in terms of an ideology of white supremacy and the non- or sub-human status of black people. The ‘rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery’, Losurdo points out, ‘are the product of a twin birth’ (p. 37) – one cannot adequately understand the former in abstraction from the latter and vice versa

A similar paradox emerges in relation to liberalism and colonialism. The core liberal states were deeply involved in territorial and colonial conquest (whether overseas in the case of Holland and England/Britain or in terms of continental expansion in the case of the United States). Indeed, colonialism reached its apogee with the diffusion and consolidation of liberalism across Europe in the late 19th Century. The spread of a doctrine supposedly committed to ideals of freedom and self-government, then, seems to have been very closely bound up with practices of invasion, conquest, violent subjection and domination of foreign peoples. Just as in the case of slavery colonial expansionism in the liberal period was closely intertwined with an ideology of racial supremacy. This racism often took murderous, even genocidal, forms. The victory of the American Revolution for example was followed by accelerated seizure of land from Native Americans on the part of white settlers – a process of territorial expansion that involved not just expropriation and expulsion but organised and deliberate massacre too. This was justified with reference to the alleged inferiority of ‘Indian’ peoples – branded as ‘savages’, ‘barbarians’ and ‘wild beasts’. 

The forms of intensified oppression and domination bound up with the rise of liberalism were not confined, however, to the colonies. Losurdo shows how the lives of what he calls ‘white servants’ and the poor in the metropolis underwent, in many ways, a marked deterioration in at least the early period of liberalism’s ascendancy. The late 17th Century and 18th Century, Losurdo points out (quoting R. H. Tawney), saw ‘“an attitude of unprecedented harshness spread in England towards wage labourers and the unemployed”’ (p. 33). This harshness towards the poor was reflected in increasingly draconian criminal penalties. From 1688 to 1820 the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to around 200-250 and almost all of these were crimes against property. From 1717 deportation of criminals – which amounted to a form of penal slavery - assumed major proportions. Particularly harsh treatment was meted out to beggars, vagrants and those unable to support themselves financially. The workhouse system which reached its fullest development in the 19th Century was, of course, deliberately designed to be ‘as odious as possible in order to reduce the number of those who sought refuge in them’ (p.72). Orphans and children of the poor were often sold on the market as virtual slaves. Interestingly, the gulf between masters and servants in the metropolis was often explained or justified in semi-racial terms. The lower classes were regarded as, more or less, a race apart - born to serve their natural masters like black slaves in the colonies.

Losurdo is clear that there is no straight-forward conflict between contemporary liberal thought on the one hand and the practice of liberal states or dominant classes within those states on the other. Indeed Losurdo draws out the various justifications and apologetics for slavery, colonialism, white supremacy, and class oppression propagated by a range of figures from the canon of liberal thought. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Locke (usually regarded as the father of liberalism) emerges as a particularly unpleasant theorist in this respect. Infamously, Locke’s Second Treatise seeks to justify the forcible expropriation of ‘Indians’ and indeed the destruction of those who resist. Locke’s brutal views, however, are far from exceptional or unusual amongst key figures in the liberal tradition. Jefferson, for example, called for the ‘extermination’ of Native Americans (and, of course, most of the major protagonists of the American Revolution were slave owners). Bentham was an enthusiast of the workhouse system – which, famously, he wanted to perfect along the lines of his ‘Panopticon’ design for total control and surveillance. In one of the greatest texts of liberal political philosophy, On Liberty, J. S. Mill seeks to justify (temporary) colonialism and European ‘despotism’ over ‘barbarians’.

Liberalism’s logic of exclusion

How do we make sense of this paradox at the heart of liberalism – the simultaneous invocation of liberty on the one hand and the justification and promulgation of severe forms of oppression on the other? The key to all of this, Losurdo argues, is to grasp that liberalism is founded on an implicit logic of exclusion. Only once we have understood this can we start to resolve the seeming inconsistencies. Liberalism has always pivoted, Losurdo argues, on drawing a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those who are worthy or capable (morally, intellectually, biologically/racially) of the gamut of rights and liberties we associate with liberalism and those who are not. Liberalism was always, of course, centrally concerned with the condemnation and limitation of despotic power and the corresponding assertion of rights to self-government, autonomy and so on – but this struggle was always waged by, and on behalf of, an exclusive section of humanity – what Losurdo terms ‘the community of the free’. The history of liberalism is thus in great part a history of how the particular specification and location of the boundary line between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded has evolved and shifted.

With this exclusionary logic in mind we can make sense of the paradoxes of liberal slavery, liberal empire and liberal authoritarianism towards wage labourers and the poor. In each of these three apparent paradoxes we are, in fact, confronting particular instances of the opposition between the justly free and the justly unfree. It is not that the brutal world of slavery, for example, represented a failure or negation of proclaimed liberal values, or revealed the hypocrisy of contemporary liberals, it is that the ‘community of the free’ in which the sphere of liberal rights and freedoms applied did not, and was not intended, to encompass black people. Liberalism, for Losurdo, was never a doctrine of moral universalism. We can see now, how racism and class contempt operated as necessary ideological supports for this system of exclusion. Slavery and colonial expropriation and domination was justified on the grounds that non-white peoples were by definition uncivilised, in a condition of ‘nonage’ (Mill), not fully human or even ‘savage beasts’ (Locke) and were thus rightly excluded from the ‘community of the free’. Similarly, workers and the poor in the metropolis were not intelligent, morally developed or, again, human enough to be admitted into the sacred space of the free community of liberals.

It is not just that liberalism was long characterised by exclusion for Losurdo – it is also that, to a great extent, the liberty of the community of the free has depended on the exclusion and oppression of the unfree. That is, the relationship between the community of the free and the excluded has been one of exploitation in which the privileges of the former have been rooted in the expropriation and coercion of the unfree. It is here that class relations come into play. The twin birth of liberalism and the slave trade is explicable, for Losurdo, in terms of the changing self-conception and growing confidence of a propertied class becoming increasingly wealthy from the slave trade and from direct exploitation of slave labour in the colonies. ‘The wealth and leisure…  [that this class] enjoyed, and the culture it thus managed to acquire’, Losurdo argues:

reinforced the proud self-consciousness of a class that became ever more intolerant of the abuses of power, the intrusions, the interference and the constraints of political power or religious authority. Shanking off these constraints, the planter and slave owner developed a liberal spirit and liberal mentality. (p. 38)

This explains the intensification of slavery with the victory of the liberal revolutions. The defeat of the British in America, for example, allowed the American ex-colonists to intensify their accumulation of wealth and power through the exploitation of slave labour once they had achieved political and economic autonomy - once the externally imposed constraints on this process of expanding riches and power had been removed. Similarly, the increasingly draconian measures of repression and control exerted over ‘white servants’ in the metropolis is explicable, for Losurdo, in terms of the rise and generalisation of capitalist property relations. As the bourgeoisie became wealthier they demanded greater political power and condemned the ‘interferences’ and ‘intrusions’ of the ancien regime. The consolidation of liberalism – i.e. the new capitalist political and social relations – in England in 1688 set the scene for an intensification of capitalist exploitation. As Marx pointed out a process of accelerated ‘primitive accumulation’ – the expropriation of peasants to make way for large landowners – took place after the Glorious Revolution. This augmented the wealth, power and self-confidence of the propertied class but also gave rise to the need to strictly discipline the dispossessed and the emerging class of urban wage-labourers with little material stake in the new order.

We can see, then, that liberalism brought freedom for some and unfreedom for others and that, indeed this freedom and unfreedom were mutually intertwined. Losurdo, indeed, argues that (as against the hagiography) the history of liberalism must be understood as a ‘tangle of emancipation and dis-emancipation’ (p. 301) rather than as a story of progressively unfolding freedom. The exclusionary logic of the tradition means that it can be no other. Interestingly, Losurdo argues that this exclusionary logic is present in the historical beginnings of the term ‘liberal’ as a political label. In the period of liberalism’s rise, Losurdo shows, the term ‘liberal’ was defined by antithesis both to monarchical absolutism and to the plebeian mass. One finds the term associated, for example, with those who have received a ‘liberal education’ – a group who are contrasted with those labelled ‘mechanics’ or ‘common people’ (see pp. 241-6). From the start, then, the label ‘liberal’ has possessed elite and exclusive, class connotations.

Liberals and radicals

With the French Revolution a new political tradition Losurdo terms ‘radicalism’ started to emerge. This tradition has a complex relationship with liberalism for the author, but Losurdo tends to treat them as more or less clearly distinct traditions. The main line of division between liberals and radicals, for Losurdo, is that the latter were prepared to support and encourage ‘revolution from below’. Indeed it was the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolution in France that transformed that revolt from a liberal revolution into a radical one. France was not the only major geographical locus of this emerging radical tradition. The slave revolt in San Domingo (Haiti) and the revolutions in Latin America associated with Simon Bolivar also manifested and drove forward this new tradition for Losurdo. All three radical revolutions met with great hostility on the part of liberalism in general – indeed, a kind of cold war stand-off developed between the US and San Domingo/Haiti after the slave revolt.

The struggle for recognition and the evolution of liberalism

Much of the book is taken up with an account of how liberalism’s demarcation of the boundary between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded shifted and evolved over the centuries. From the 19th Century especially liberalism was increasingly transformed by the struggles of the excluded within the metropolis. Losurdo characterises this struggle (along with the emancipatory struggles of the colonised) as a ‘struggle for recognition’. These were struggles for inclusion – for a redrawing of the line of division between the ‘community of the free’ and the excluded. Liberals responded to these social struggles in a variety of ways. In response to working class demands for the vote, for example, it was asserted that further expansion of the political to encompass the enfranchisement of the poor was intolerable and, anyway, impossible – the demands ran counter to the ‘natural’ hierarchical order ordained by God. Once the working class had won political concessions, however, the liberal reaction fell back on a new line of defence. While political rights for the lower orders might now be tolerable, the extension of social and economic rights had to be resisted. It was now asserted that working and living conditions had no political relevance. In this way material class inequalities were expelled from the realm of the political.

Nevertheless, social and economic concessions were increasingly wrung from the liberal state. By the late 19th Century liberalism had split into two major factions. One of these was prepared to reform capitalism fairly significantly in response to the struggles of the excluded – this faction, associated with figures such as T. H. Green, become known as ‘the New Liberalism’ and eventually produced key 20th Century liberal reformers such as Keynes and Beveridge. Opposed to this faction was a group of liberals (such as Herbert Spencer and, later, Ludwig Von Mises) who opposed and resented the concessions granted by the New Liberals – this group held fast to a more classical conception of liberalism and invoked the inviolable liberal right of the property-owner to dispose of his property without state ‘interference’. From Losurdo’s perspective this latter faction sought, essentially, to shore up and reassert a sharp dividing line in the metropolis between the ‘community of the free’ (bourgeois property owners) and the excluded (workers, servants, the poor and so on).


[1] Anthony Arblaster, The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1984) p. ix.

[2] All quotations specifying page numbers only are quotations from Losurdo’s book.


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