domenica 8 gennaio 2012

A review of Nick Serpe’s review

João Carlos Graça

Dear professor Losurdo, dear all
The review of Liberalism, a Counter-History by Nick Serpe in Jacobin Magazine is more often than not a pertinent one. It probably touches the central point when Serpe writes that “Losurdo opposes the idea that some internal dialectic of freedom pushed liberals to confront more honestly the exclusions of early liberalism. Instead, he points to major conflicts within the community of the free (…) as moments of mutual embarrassment and demystification, when those on opposite sides of a political question exposed the forms of unfreedom their adversaries had institutionalized”.
Indeed so, and thanks to the reviewer for not simply denying facts out of not appreciating them. In the meantime, however, Serpe looses ground when he states that “Losurdo’s word for disillusioned liberalism is «radicalism», a tradition whose proponents recognized that freedom from the state did not equal freedom in general, at least for the vast majority”. That’s definitely stretching “disillusionment” too much… Of course, Serpe makes clear that in his opinion you put too much emphasis in the divides between liberalism and radicalism, whereas he is inclined to see them “bleed[ing] into one another”; and on the contrary you call “liberal” to a number of other authors Serpe thinks you should call “conservatives” instead.
So be it. All these operations of denominating things are, he recognizes, history-dependent, having really got a lot to do with particular conjunctures, etc. Be as it may, and raising-of-eyebrows notwithstanding, the fact is that those you called “liberals” have called that way themselves, and above all they have proceeded according to the logic you indentified: rebelling from “monarchic-tyrannical” domination on the one hand, defending their “liberties” with unquestionably liberal zeal, only to more at ease continue to enjoy and indeed reinforce privileges (or “freedoms”) vis-à-vis third parties. Was this retrospectively considered a “conservative” rather than a “liberal” way of acting? Yes indeed, but that fact expresses the huge conjuncture-dependency of terminology and even more so the blurred character of the distinctions between those two categories; and at any rate it should not obfuscate the reality that Calhoun and alike never appealed to the strength of the political centre, rather on the contrary. And so, there are really no signs of “conservative-Tory” instinct here, rather on the contrary. Therefore, I suggest, they really must be considered as “liberals” regardless of all possible bien pensant eyebrow-raising.
Of course, there are lots of others aspects that you could not possibly have tackled, and Nick Serge recognizes that. Still, his underwriting of the alleged “omission” of Keynes and Rawls ought not to go unanswered. As a matter of fact, in case we were living in, say, the “glorious 30 years” from 1945 to 1974, it could possibly be argued that an “internal dialectic of freedom” was in operation, so that liberalism was via calm reforms, the adoption of Keynesian economic policies and the installment  of “third citizenship”, managing to build up a just, fair society, progressively extending both “negative” and “positive” freedoms, adding the Rooseveltian “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” and generalizing them to indeed virtually everybody… At least in the “free world”, that is, because you would certainly not present that as an acceptable political thesis for instance to a Vietnamese person whose village had been napalmed days before, or a South American left activist whose country had recently fallen into military dictatorship, would you? These were, however, the years when some people even talked of a “convergence” between western and eastern “blocks”, that is, between the USA and USSR, each one bringing its own satellites to the universal Keynesian-Rawlsian feast.
Yet still, the main point to highlight here is: after the economic crisis of 1974-75, after the cultural shift to “post-modernity” and the concomitant leaning to the “New Right” in the late seventies and early eighties, after Thatcher, Reagan, and especially after what happened at a world level in the last two decades, now including the “free West” ― where the welfare state has been (and continues to be) largely dismantled under pretext of “reform” more often by liberal and even “socialist” governments than by officially conservative one ― Losurdo’s notions of simultaneous processes of enfranchisement and disenfranchisement immanent to liberalism, and also that liberalism tends to universalism only when it is challenged “from the outside” by a strong radical, non-liberal impetus, seem to be largely vindicated by events, or indeed to accompany them, whereas liberal “white legend”, or narcissistic self-image, promptly reveals itself as sheer imposture, pathetic collective denial or “blindness”.
And so, I tend to disagree from Serpe’s statement that “Losurdo’s book (…) cuts it off with some brief comments on the Second World War, he never integrates liberalism’s developments since its encounter with socialism, the end of colonialism, legal desegregation, and the liberation of women with his theories stemming from the revolt of civil society”. Indeed, post-WW II events were not your centre of attention, but if Serpe contention is that your basic tenets were somehow short-circuited or overcome by later events, then that notion is plainly wrong: “counter-history” is indeed a much more useful guide to deal with recent events than usual official (and most of the times blatantly hagiographic) historiography.
Concerning this, Nick Serpe also mentions a group of other aspects that it would certainly take much more time to consider properly, but mention is due at least to the fact that really the mapping of political positions is much richer than what the mere triad conservatism-liberalism-radicalism suggests. “Identitarian” tendencies, for example, have certainly gained the upper-hand during the last decades. But they must in my opinion be considered within the global notion of a “Divide et Impera” very consciously put into practice and promoted by the political, economic and cultural Western elites, precisely as a mode of carrying on with a silent, smooth disenfranchisement of the plebs. Without that global background the selling out and promotion of, for instance, Laclau and Mouffe (not mention others even worse) as presumably “Left” or “radical” thinkers would have ring so many alarm bells that such variety of speculations would certainly have been set aside a long time ago.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the fact that imperialism, and indeed nationalism, are categories partly transversal to liberalism and to socialism… and indeed presumably to radicalism and conservatism as well. But I definitely don’t think that the events these last years, presumably shifting the fulcrum of problems ― and desirably of analysis ― from “American empire” to “global capitalism”, may challenge whatever contention you might have made in your book. (Probably, and concerning this subject, reading Il Linguaggio dell’Impero. Lessico dell’Ideologia Americana would also do Serpe considerable good. Let’s hope an English translation appears soon as well). Anyway, yes indeed, the category of “capitalism” is largely susceptible of being considered as overlapping the one of “liberalism”, but that fact suggests much more a complement to rather than a refutation of your book.             
As to this last subject, I think that an aspect worth mentioning in the relationship between radicalism and socialism has got to do with the fact that in “classical” radicalism, namely in Jacobinism, direct state intervention in the economy was generally seen with suspicion, for it was mostly associated with royal, “majestic” monopolistic companies, besides often intermingled with bellicose, imperialistic ventures. Within this context, the economic policies of radicals had fundamentally got to do with progressive taxation, the provision of the essentials for the most needed (or the rudiments of the so-called “welfare state”), also up to a point the promotion of public works aiming at full employment, and particularly the generalized establishment of maxima in prices of goods, especially goods of first need for the vast majority.
These measures, of course, were to have very different fates. If full employment (the “right to work”) or progressive taxation were goals to be picked up later by different currents such as socialists, Marxists or not, Keynesians and others, the establishment of generalized maxima in prices, by contrast, was soon to be recognized as mostly an inducer of “black market”, at least in situations where the State simultaneously abstained from intervening from the “supply-side”. That is to say, in case public authorities really wanted to promote lower prices, and besides preventing monopolies (which was itself considered a legitimate goal, of course), they absolutely ought also to be producers. And so, the “liberal” dogma formally interdicting public enterprises, or the so-called and most demonized “producer-State”, had to be abandoned in order to make efficient the purpose of avoiding too high prices in the essential provisions. (And this is of course an important truth up to our days. Think of the supply of education, health services, but also public transportation, electricity and gas… we will see about that in Western Europe during the next years, by the way, just as people in Eastern Europe has been seeing it for the last twenty years or so.)
Understandably, it took time before the importance of what in nowadays economics’ jargon may be easily captured as a displacement of the supply curve to the right ― thereby enhancing ceteris paribus a descent of prices ― could be clearly understood by political deciders, or indeed by political currents at large. The strength of “anti-statism” was so big, that the universalistic prevalent reference continued to be mostly the one of a society with neither employers nor employees, or of generalized small independent production. Understandably, the very fact of the emergence of industrializing processes produced crescent difficulties to that frame of reference, hence the usual assuming of industrialization as the generator of a “new feudalism”, the field for growing inequalities between men, instead of the social equality that the mostly peasant and artisan radical constituencies were convinced they were able to produce. And so, on the one hand we had this pre-industrial origin of Jacobinism, or classical radicalism, as an inhibitor of the acceptance of more state intervention in the economy, whereas on the other hand “socialism” was really born wrapped in a quasi-religious aura (with Pierre Leroux and saint-Simonism) that largely made it prone to a non-political or “meta-political” leaning, which was itself partly a sublimated expression of the conditions of political defeat that the poor had to endure with the demise of Jacobinism: another variety of “escape from history”, so to speak. Therefore, you see, there were a considerable number of obstacles that had to be overcome in order for a bleeding of radicalism into socialism to be made possible. And yet still, that collective apprenticeship eventually happened, as we know.        
However, if this pre-industrial character of Jacobinism makes it retrospectively understandable for us the kind of mental and political blockages that had to be surpassed so that fully socialist ideas could emerge, it is no doubt disturbing that nowadays a self-proclaimed defender of equality like such as for example Andrew Levine cavalierly dismisses altogether the very notions of public enterprises and of economic planning in the name, apparently, of “liberal” (or “libertarian”) trends hegemonic even amidst the official Left, or official supporters of equality. Indeed, Levine also candidly admits, he is basically ignorant of factual socialist alternatives to our state of things: “We know a lot about capitalist property relations, but we have only a dim understanding of what socialist alternatives to capitalism are apart from state ownership and Soviet-style central planning. Neither are any longer poles of attraction; and, for good reason, neither are likely to become so again. But state ownership and central planning hardly exhaust the possibilities.” (Andrew Levine, Bringing the Bottom Up, What Equality?, CounterPunch, 30 Dez. 2011,
However, the basic thing here is: even regardless of the fact that we have to demystify the colossal “black legend” correspondent to the ways that history of former socialist countries was and is being told both in mainstream journalism and in mainstream academic wisdom ― wishfully in order that a simple mention to “Soviet-style central planning” as soon as possible ceases constituting a freezing anathema and a complete blockage to any further reasoning ― Levine ought to at least know that “economic planning” was largely akin to “economic policy” even in Western countries during various decades between 1945 and 1991. And so was indeed the presence of very large and influential public companies, generally very beneficial from the point of view of the vast majority: or must we now, following Levine’s recipe, proceed to write a “black book” also on Enrico Mattei and rephrase our egalitarian claims in order to make them assume an oleaginous “post-modern”, smoothly “pluralistic”, “central-planning-free” and “state-ownership-free” version that renders them acceptable even by the “seven sisters”?
Returning to Nick Serpe, mention must be made to the fact that Kant would rather be pictured as a “crypto-radical”, or a “self-censored radical”, than as a liberal or even a compromising author. It’s really a piety that your book on this subject (Autocensura e Compromesso nel Pensiero Politico di Kant, 1984; French edition Autocensure et Compromis dans la Pensée Politique de Kant, Lille, Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1993) is not yet translated into English, but Serpe would certainly like to learn how astoundingly far parallelisms may indeed be established between Robespierre’s strictly political discourse and Kant’s speculations in the politically rarefied philosophical realm.
Stuart Mill is, however, a totally different story. On the one hand, he may be considered, via theorization of imperialism and allegedly “benevolent” domination of superior “adult” peoples over inferior or “childish” ones, as a typical proponent (together with Tocqueville and so many others) of what were to be the imperial “games” of late XIXth and early XXth centuries… with all the gallery of horrors that was to come with them, no doubt about that. “Students of fascism” may dispute whatever they want: facts are definitely much more important than real or imaginary “genealogies”. It was the “fanatical” radical, “paranoiac tyrant” Robespierre (aren’t they all alike?) who famously proclaimed that “let colonies perish rather than a principle”, certainly not liberal Mill or liberal Tocqueville, who indeed diligently theorized in the opposite direction. If “students of fascism” don’t like it… well, shame on them. Isn’t it a piety? But Serpe would know better than that, anyway: the historical factuality of liberalism was inextricably inseparable from these openly Herrenvolkisch (whether not “exterminationist”) tendencies.
As to women’s emancipation, that’s certainly a very long story. Suffragist ideas showed up more often than not closely associated with radical and socialist ideas, but indeed liberals very early learnt to co-opt some of them. Two references must be left here, for Serpe’s use. As Perry Anderson noticed almost half a century ago (Portugal and the End of Ultra-Colonialism, NLR; Brazilian edition Portugal e o Fim do Ultracolonialismo, Rio de Janeiro, Editora Civilização Brasileira, 1966), feminine enfranchisement had initially got to do much more with the existence of strong gender demographic imbalances than with any intent of systematic approach. It remained therefore a geographically “peripheral” phenomenon (Finland, Rocky Mountains’ states, Australia, New Zealand) much more than a “central” one, before events could be retrospectively interpreted and those peripheries with their “eccentricities” emerged as avant-gardes in a general trend. It was also closely intermingled with specific varieties of colonization, namely the ones correspondent to “dominions” rather than “colonies”, with “indigenous” populations being expelled/exterminated rather than submitted (and miscegenation being virtually absent).
Also, and as remarked by Domenico Losurdo in Democrazia o Bonapartismo (still waiting for English translation; Brazilian edition Democracia ou Bonapartismo: Triunfo e Decadência do Sufrágio Universal, Rio de Janeiro, Editora UFRJ / Editora UNESP, 2004), women’s vote was frequently granted in obedience to a “checks and balances” mental disposition, and consciously as a compensation for black vote: “conservatism” checking potential “radicalism”, if you will (or abstinence compensating drunkenness…) in order to allow for a globally “balanced”, liberal scenario. Alas, neither Anderson nor Losurdo expanded into the field of possible associations of feminine vote with Protestantism, but I sincerely think that probably more pertinent than usual sociological lucubration, following Max Weber’s trail, on Protestantism-capitalism alleged links.
Um bom ano novo para todos.
Lisboa, 6 de Janeiro de 2012

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