Thursday, October 16, 2014

Liberalism and its genealogy

A somewhat daunting compilation (800 pp.), Liberalismus, by Jörg Leonard (2001) explores the historical semantics of the term in Western Europe. In ancient Rome, the word liberalitas denoted a virtue that was exclusively possessed by the emperor, that of bestowing largesse. In the course of the Middle Ages, however, the expression Liberal Arts gained currency. Ostensibly open to everyone, they could actually only be accessed by the privileged. And so in eighteenth-century France and England liberality was the prerogative of the aristocracy. They cultivated the liberal arts in order to consolidate their status as gentlemen, and also showed their status in practice by noblesse oblige, conferring benefits on the lower orders. 

During the French Revolution this set of connotations began to change, as liberalité was now associated with the Third Estate, and ultimately with the middle class. Thus when the Liberal Party took shape in the UK in the 1850s it inherited much of this baggage.

Evidently exhausted by his monumental task, Leonard stops shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. More chapters in the story appear in Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo, admittedly a summation of the case for the prosecution. Losurdo points out that the rise of modern liberalism in the late eighteenth century coincides with the apogee of the modern institution of slavery. The ambivalence (to put it mildly) of the American Founders, many of them themselves slave owners, is well known. One who did not put it mildly is Samuel Johnson: "How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

Not even John Stuart Mill, that saintly icon of liberalism, escapes criticism. Mill believed in a hierarchy of races with, of course, English people ranking at the top. Even Germans, it seems, had a little too much of the tar brush for Mill.
The other disconcerting aspect of the heritage is liberal imperialism. Tocqueville, so eloquent about Democracy in America, was a fervent supporter of French incursions into North Africa, the subjection of the "natives," and the seizure of their lands for French colons. Karl Marx supported the British in India, because they were bringing the backward people who had the misfortune to live there into the modern world.
In the twentieth century such progressives as Margaret Sanger were openly racist.  Many progressives supported eugenics. 

It  now should be evident that the association between liberalism and democracy, now often taken for granted, is problematic.  

A curious further complication is represented by the compound Neo-liberalism, coined by a German economist in 1938. In more recent years the expression gained traction in Latin America, where it served to castigate the free-market policies advocated by the Chicago school. In this pejorative sense, it migrated to Western Europe and the UK. 

Employed in the US, the expression Neo-liberalism is confusing, since it connotes almost the polar opposite of the interventionism that has come to be associated with the liberalism of our Democratic Party.


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