In his recently translated book, Liberalism: A Counter-History, the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo aims to read the history of liberalism against the grain, so as to subvert the triumphalist account provided by its most passionate celebrants and ideologues down through the ages. Adopting the maxims laid down by de Tocqueville at the outset of his 1856 history of The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, Losurdo sets about in good dialectical fashion the work of carrying out an immanent critique of liberal thought through an examination of the writings of its core protagonists, as well as the historical realities in which they lived. Quoting the French political theorist at length, Losurdo similarly vows to render the concepts so often invoked with respect to liberalism deliberately unfamiliar:
"We think we know [liberalism] quite well because we are familiar with its glittering surface and, in minute detail, with the lives of its most famous personages, and because we have read clever and eloquent critiques of the works of its great writers. But as for the way in which public business was conducted, how institutions actually worked, how the various classes truly related to one another, the condition and feelings of those segments of the population that still could be neither seen nor heard, and the true basis of opinions and customs, we have only ideas that are at best confused and often misleading."
It would appear here that Losurdo, in following de Tocqueville, is here looking to deploy the classic literary device of defamiliarization, later described by formalists like Viktor Shklovskii. Indeed, one of Losurdo's primary objectives in this work is to challenge the received wisdom of what liberalism even is in the first place. More than once in the course of delivering his interpretation, he repeats the foundational question: "What is liberalism?" Against some of the more commonplace answers typically offered up in response, Losurdo points out several ambiguities that problematize any attempt to supply a clear-cut, univocal definition to the term. Was John C. Calhoun, for example, a liberal? He at once sang hymns to the freedom of the individual from state interference, all while ratifying the constitutional unfreedom of black slaves under the law. What about Locke, that Ur-theorist (indeed the "father") of liberalism? Here again, Losurdo finds the evidence unclear. On the one hand, Locke denounced in his renowned Second Treatise on Government the political servitude of the citizen to the institutions of Church and State, the alternating tyrannies of the pulpit and the throne. In the space of only a few pages in that same tract, however, Locke can be seen defending the master's "arbitrary power of life and death" over his legal property, the slave. John Stuart Mill? An abolitionist, to be sure, but at the same time an apologist for British colonialism.
Taking stock of the internal tensions abounding within liberal bourgeois thought, Losurdo rejects as insufficient any attempt to blithely explain away these ideological inconsistencies as if they were of no consequence. Liberalism's inner divisions and cognitive dissonances were real, and cannot be so easily glossed over. They deserve rather to be taken seriously, insists Losurdo. And so what he instead chooses to affirm about liberalism is precisely the simultaneity of its contradictory aspects, discovering a dialectic of "emancipation and dis-emancipation" hidden within its own conceptual underpinnings. Central to Losurdo's thesis are three main contentions. To begin with, he controversially asserts that the dis-emancipatory characteristics of liberalism are by no means accidental to its historical appearance. Quite the opposite, argues Losurdo: the emancipation of certain class elements within society was inextricably bound up with the domination of others. A corollary to this claim is the argument that the universal rights proclaimed by liberal thinkers were from the outset explicitly predicated upon "macroscopic exclusion clauses" that left large swaths of the population outside their sphere of application. Thus, despite producing documents that were clearly "inspired and pervaded by a universal pathos of liberty," the reality of liberal society failed to measure up to its lofty rhetoric. Losurdo's third major premise in his interpretation of Liberalism is that the totalitarian and exterminative logic that legitimated the fascist regimes of the twentieth century and justified the genocidal atrocities they committed had been gestating within liberal society for some time. This logic, Losurdo maintains, was already at work in the colonial and expansionist projects undertaken by the ostensibly liberal governments of Holland, Great Britain, and the United States.
An audio recording of this interview can be found at: archive.org/details/InterviewWithDomenicoLosurdoForThePlatypusReview