Liberalism: the illiberal “statism” of Losurdo
My Platypus Affiliated comrades, Pam Nogales and Ross Wolfe, interviewed Domonic Lusurdo on Liberalism. While Lusurdo’s history of liberalism is enlightening, it also involves some strange definitions: arguing, for example, that Hegel and Kant don’t belong in the liberal tradition and neither do the Jacobins despite being directly out of the Enlightenment tradition. A lot of my anarchist friends and North American automatist Marxist friends liked Losurdo’s redefining of the liberal tradition, but I would point them to this:
RW: “Radicalism,” as you have been defining it, would be liberalism without exclusion. If one were to get rid of the division between the “sacred space” and “profane space,” it would just be liberalism for all. Insofar as radicalism purports to remove any distinction between those who are inside and those outside the realm of freedom, and thereby bring everyone into the “sacred space” of freedom, wouldn’t radicalism to some extent just be universal liberalism?
DL: It is impossible to universalize in this way. For instance, colonial wars were for the universalization of the condition of the white slave-owners. That was the universality proclaimed by colonialism. The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism. These forces were, however, in some cases inspired by certain declarations, for instance of the Rights of Men.
In speaking of the enduring legacy of liberalism, I have never said that we have nothing to learn from liberalism. There two primary components of the legacy of liberalism. First, and perhaps the most important point: Liberalism has made the distinction between “sacred space” and “profane space” that I have spoken about. But liberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score, I counterpose liberalism to Marxism, and rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism in comparison to Marxism.
Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such—not the limitation of power, but its disappearance—the withering of the state and so on. This vision is a messianic vision, which has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel the obligation to limit power. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.
RW: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State—as Lenin, following Engels, put it—was misguided?
DL: Totally misguided!
RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the state? Must the state always exist?
DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the state would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of state domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty—this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.
Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the state into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated state intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.
RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.” In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern state as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a state, if the state is only there to express class domination.
DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the state is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the state. They write that the state functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the state would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.
Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the state. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the state as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the state in terms of today’s political form.
RW: And the other great legacy of liberalism?
DL: The other great legacy of liberalism exists in its understanding of the benefits of competition. And here I am thinking of the market, too, about which I speak positively in my book. We must distinguish different forms of the market. For a long time, the market implied a form of slavery. The slaves were merchandise in the market. The market can assume very different forms. Not that the market is the most important fact. We cannot develop a post-capitalist society, at least for a long time to come, without some form of competition. And this is another great legacy that we can learn from liberalism.
So let’s recount Losurdo’s position: there must be a state, the emancipatory premises of liberalism cannot be realized for everyone, and the prime good in the competition. I would like to point out that I have heard all this before, and in was in Enrico Corradini’s National Syndicalism. For all the placing fascism as an outgrowth of liberal racism that Losurdo’s work has done, and sometimes quite convincingly, I am struck by how similar his platform is to national syndicalism: markets without capitalism, the need of competition, the need for a strong centralized state of which there will NEVER be another form beyond (Losurdo’s comments are obfuscatory on that front), and one must be aware of the despotism of civil society. Now that I think of it, Paul Krugman also says the same thing: the illiberalism of Losurdo isn’t a demand that liberalism keep its promises, it’s advocating anti-liberalism on the grounds that it can’t and never could. (Which is more to point: There is a way that certain readings of Stalinism sound like both fascism and liberal Keynesianism. Oswald Mosley was a Keynesian afterall).
Beware of enemies of your enemy.