Ed Rooksby – Review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

Link to a review by Ed Rooksby of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History (2005; 2011 trans.).  Losurdo’s counterpart book War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (2015) should also be considered here, because it is arguably a better written (or better translated) book with a better exposition of its central argument.

“Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion? (Part 1)”


Selected quote:

“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.”


Bonus links: “Domenico Losurdo: Classical German Philosophy, a Critique of Liberalism and ‘Critical Marxism'” (“The political criticism that Losurdo directs towards liberalism is based upon a precise philosophical analysis: he exposes the lack of universalism in this train of thought: its inability to go beyond representing the special interests of the strongest classes.”) and The State and Revolution (“In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favorable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners.”  “in capitalist society we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority.”) and Critical Moral Liberalism: Theory and Practice (“liberal theories often serve as ideological cover for oppression of one group by others.”) and “Soviet Power and the Status of Women” (“Bourgeois democracy is democracy of pompous phrases, solemn words, exuberant promises and the high-sounding slogans of freedom and equality. But, in fact, it screens the non-freedom and inferiority of women, the non-freedom and inferiority of the toilers and exploited.”) and “The Spectre of Ideology” in Mapping Ideology (“In order to combat these new forms of organicist populism effectively, one must turn the critical gaze back upon oneself and submit to critical scrutiny liberal-democratic universalism itself — what opens up the space for the organicist populism is the weak point, the ‘falsity’, of this very universalism.”) and “What Is the Left Without Identity Politics? – Walter Benn Michaels” (“identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: It’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people being left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex.”) and “The Open Letter and the DNC” (“If fascists and / or racists are ‘born that way,’ then they can either be controlled or annihilated, because changing their circumstances won’t affect their nature (goes the theory).”) and Malcolm X on White Liberals and Free Jazz/Black Power and Against Liberalism and “François Furet, 20 ans après” and “Horizons Needed” and “When Liberal Democracy Means Plutocracy” and “Traditional and Critical Theory”

Shamus Cooke – History Blinded by Anti Socialism

It never ceases to amuse me how the insight of philosophy and psychoanalysis that ideology determines what is or is not a “fact” is proven again and again.  As Rex Butler put it,

“in the analysis of ideology, it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”

Lenin also wrote (in What Is to be Done?):

“the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology).”

Along these lines, Shamus Cooke has reviewed Ken Burns & Lynn Novick‘s mini-series The Vietnam War (2017):

“History Blinded by Anti Socialism: Ken Burns’ Vietnam”

The general tone of Cooke’s criticism reflects this statement by Malcolm X:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”


Bonus quote:

“How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!”

Che Guevara, “Message to the Tricontinental,” April 16, 1967


Bonus links: The Battle of Chile and “A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and ‘The Vietnam War'” and “It’s a Fact: Supreme Court Errors Aren’t Hard to Find” (this article engages in a certain kind of criticism that is largely blind to the issue Butler described)

Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paulo FreirePedagogia do Oprimido [Pedagogy of the Oppressed] (Myra Bergen Ramos, trans., Seabury Press, 1970)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire is a founding document of the the “critical pedagogy” school of educational theory.  In a nutshell, this school of thought takes MarxistLeninist politics and combines it with the classic Socratic method.  Along the way, it adds post-Leninist insights drawn from Fromm, Mao, Guevara, Fanon, and more.  Freire doesn’t really ever mention it, but his approach is founded on the real Socratic method, not the bastardized anti-socratic thing called “The Socratic Method” in schools, especially western law schools.  He also remains consistent with Leninist aims, citing What Is to Be Done? extensively, but really drawing from The State and Revolution principally.  The most basic insights of “critical pedagogy” is this:

“Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men and women.”

This flows directly from the Leninist view that everything is political.

“Lenin’s famous statement: ‘Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’ [What Is to Be Done?] means that a revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.  The revolutionary effort to transform these structures radically cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers.”

Freire is immanently practical.  And just as Lenin routinely denounces “reformists” and “opportunists”, Freire picks apart the flaws of accommodations to elites and minor reforms.

“It would be naïve to expect oppressor elites to denounce the myth which absolutizes the ignorance of the people; it would be a contradiction in terms if revolutionary leaders were not to do so, and more contradictory still were they to act in accordance with that myth.”

But he also is great at pointing out common tactical errors of the political left:

“the Left is almost always tempted by a ‘quick return to power,’ forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible ‘dialogue’ with the dominant elites.  It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls ‘realism.'”

Sound like Alexis Tsipras and Syriza in Greece, no? (see also Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party).

This is an excellent book, just as relevant today as when it was written.  It is meant to be readable by general audiences.  One flaw, however, is Freire’s repeated argument that humans are different from animals.  This is basically hypocritical, in that he repeatedly argues that all humans are equal, but tries to convince readers of that point by arguing that humans are superior to other animals.  Aside from the flimsiness of Freire’s argument here, which merely attempts to shift an antagonism among humans to one between humans and other animals, it is an argument that ecological crisis has conclusively rendered untenable.  As one latter-day Leninist put it, alluding to R. Buckminster Fuller‘s “Spaceship Earth” metaphor:

“We have to accept that we live on a ‘Spaceship Earth’, responsible and accountable for its conditions. At the very moment when we become powerful enough to affect the most basic conditions of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet.”

Still, that unfortunate argument can be largely ignored.  (If you must, read instead something like V. Gordon Childe’s more nuanced explanations).  Given the importance of education to Leninist political philosophy (through the October revolution, Lenin was finally able to institute educational programs that his parents had been blocked from doing under the tsarist autocracy, this being one of his most lasting concrete political achievements), Freire’s views are crucial in expanding upon the the overall organization of education, primarily at a more adult level.

Slavoj Žižek – Beautiful Soul Quote

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

Slavoj Žižek, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (2016)


Bonus links: Phenomenology of Spirit and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and “Margaret Atwood’s Work Illustrates Our Need to Enjoy Other People’s Pain” and The Twilight Zone Episode 63: “The Mind and The Matter” (essentially endorses the “beautiful soul” position)

Pascal Blackfoot – Beyond the Class Ceiling

Link to an article by Pascal Blackfoot:

“Beyond the Class Ceiling: Education and Upward Social Mobility”


This excellent article explicitly references the work of Pierre Bourdieu.  However, the specific questions address under that theoretical framework resemble Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett‘s The Hidden Injuries of Class, and some further examples of the concepts discussed specific to the academic/educational context can be found in books like This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class and Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class

Good Social Science

A major contribution of (good) social science is to uncover and articulate implied meanings, as well as to refute false denials of meaning.  This is to say that human beings are often disingenuous in their explicit statements.  While that statement is hardly shocking (or original), it nonetheless stands in marked contrast to the work of a large swath of academic studies that rely on surveys and take all survey responses at face value, for instance.  More useful is an analysis — often statistical — that largely disregards (or diminishes) stated intents and rationales and instead draws out hidden motivations and benefits.  Take for instance accusations of discrimination, like racism.  Many racists deny that they are in fact racist (often because they rationally understand that such admissions are treated with derision and, sometimes, are prosecuted/redressed), frequently relying instead on a professed mantra of individual choice (or “states rights”, etc.).  These are often subtle attempts to re-frame the discussion away from the kinds of statistical analyses that would show how those purportedly benign personal choice in fact rely upon and support discriminatory “social constructs”.  In a broader sense, this ties in to reliance on a very binary analytical system of individual subjectivity vs. scientific/observable fact that is overly simplistic.  More pernicious are things like “implicit bias” theorizing, which is really a characteristically Liberal response to this issue, and which still accepts the basic individual choice framework (largely side-stepping analysis of “social constructs”) but admits to errors of isolated individuals in order to leave the pre-existing (and unexamined) “social constructs” in place.  Well, and the outright hostility to the very idea of “social constructs,” to wit Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip, “There is no such thing as society.”

Selected illustrative links: See “A Southern City With Northern Problems” and “Marx’s ‘Capital’ at 150: History in Capital, Capital in History”

John Kenneth Galbraith Quote

“The modern conservative is not even especially modern. He is engaged, on the contrary, in one of man’s oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, Dec. 18, 1963.

M.G. Piety – Academic Bullying: the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy

Link to an article by M.G. Piety:

“Academic Bullying: the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy”

Most of this is general enough to apply outside academia.  Interesting that she cited Plato in one place about just behavior, but, rather than another philosopher like Rousseau, cites cognitivist scientists regarding trusting human nature.

Slavoj Žižek On Political Struggle

Ernesto Laclau has conceptualized . . . the struggle for hegemony.  *** That is to say, class struggle is ultimately the struggle for the meaning of society ‘as such’, the struggle for which of the two classes will impose itself as the stand-in for society ‘as such’, thereby degrading its other into the stand-in for the non-Social (the destruction of, the threat to, society).

“To simplify: Does the masses’ struggle for emancipation pose a threat to civilization as such, since civilization can thrive only in a hierarchical social order?  Or is it that the ruling class is a parasite threatening to drag society into self-destruction, so that the only alternative to socialism is barbarism?”

Slavoj Žižek, Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 (pp. 209-10)

See also “Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism” (“The struggle for ideological and political hegemony is thus always the struggle for the appropriation of the terms which are ‘spontaneously’ experienced as ‘apolitical’, as transcending political boundaries.”) and “‘I Hear You with My Eyes’; or, The Invisible Master,” Gaze and Voice as Love Objects: SIC 1 (1996) (“The question of the suitability of the term ‘class struggle’ to designate today’s dominant form of antagonism is here secondary, it concerns concrete social analysis; what matters is that the very constitution of social reality involves the ‘primordial repression’ of an antagonism, so that the ultimate support of the critique of ideology—the extra ideological point of reference that authorizes us to denounce the content of our immediate experience as ‘ideological’—is not ‘reality’ but the ‘repressed’ real of antagonism.”)

Bonus links: What Is to Be Done? (“the only choice is—either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology).”) and comments by Domenico Losurdo (“for [Niall] Ferguson as for today’s dominant ideology, there is no doubt: colonial domination and the bloodbath of world war are synonymous with normality, or even with psychological good health, while the October Revolution – opposed to all this – represents epidemic, the spread of madness.“) and The Fragile Absolute and “Fake News” and Annie Wood Besant, An Autobiography (1893) (“‘…Must there always be rich and poor?’ Some say that it must be so; that the palace and the slum will for ever exist as the light and the shadow. Not so do I believe. I believe that the poverty is the result of ignorance and of bad social arrangements, and that therefore it may be eradicated by knowledge and by social change.”) and The Closing Circle (“[Garrett] Hardin‘s logic is clear [in arguing for racist population control as a response to environmental degradation] . . . . Here, only faintly masked, is barbarism. It denies the equal right of all human inhabitants of the earth to a humane life.”) and “The Fools and the Wise” (“Almost two hundred years ago, Joseph Jacotot, thinker of intellectual emancipation, showed how anti-egalitarian folly was the basis of a society in which every inferior was able to find someone inferior to them and enjoy this superiority.”) and “Freud and the Political” and Πολιτικά [Politics] by Aristotle (basically one of the oldest works of political philosophy arguing for hierarchy, and a pillar of political conservatism: “government is a certain ordering of those who inhabit a city.”)

Contrasting examples: “Paying the Price for Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture” vs. “Social Democracy Is Good.  But Not Good Enough”; “GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.” John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630) vs. “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind” (1754); “Barbarism Begins at Home in America” vs. Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism; “Broken Windows” vs. “Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People”; see also The Dreyfus Affair and Snowpiercer