Part III: Losurdo in Light of Žižek & Michéa

Two alternative accounts of liberalism recently advanced

Before proceeding, it is helpful to contrast Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History with treatments of liberal thought carried out by two other noteworthy leftists — the Slovenian Marxist critic Slavoj Žižek and the French anarcho-syndicalist philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa.  Žižek’s stature within the world of radical theory has risen to such heights over the last decade that he no longer requires much in the way of an introduction.  Michéa, by contrast, is a relative unknown outside of his native France.  Still, his political orientation is so heterodox that it strikes readers of nearly any origin as eccentric.  Many of Michéa’s critics (and even his supporters) have suggested that he has made a career out of publicly airing his heterodox views and counterintuitive observations.[162]  Michéa understands his own work to be following in the footsteps of George Orwell, whom he has described as a “Tory anarchist” — or conservative anti-authoritarian.  And while Žižek and Michéa may be polar opposites, ideologically speaking, a side-by-side review of their writings about liberalism has the decided advantage of the authors’ past exchanges with one another on the subject.  In his 2007 (translated 2009) book, The Realm of Lesser Evil: An Essay on Liberal Civilization, Michéa picks up on a few of Žižek’s musings regarding the false permissiveness of the postwar liberal household.[163]  Returning the favor, Žižek spends a few pages in the opening chapter of his 2010 work Living in the End Times summarizing Michéa’s thesis about the logical inseparability of political and economic liberalism.[164]

Žižek and Michéa each explore facets of historical liberalism that Losurdo leaves out of his narrative — e.g., “the dramatic wars that defined the everyday horizon of human lives throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[165]  The religious wars raging throughout Europe during this period together constituted one of liberal ideology’s chief formative experiences.  In a 2004 interview with Dianna Dilworth for The Believer, Žižek expressed his appreciation for early liberalism’s response to this challenge:

[O]riginally [liberalism] was not an arrogant attitude, but…was quite a modest, honest attitude of confronting the problem of religious tolerance after the Thirty Years’ War.  In the seventeenth century, all of Europe was in a shock, and then out of this traumatic experience, the liberal vision came.  The idea was that each of us has some existential or religious beliefs, but even if these are our fundamental commitments, we will not be killing each other for them.  To create a coexistent social structure, a space where these inherently different commitments can be practiced…I don’t see anything inherently bad in this project.[166]

Though more traditional wars between rival kingdoms and principalities did not all of a sudden end, Michéa explains that this new kind of religious conflict — the French Wars of Religion, the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil War, etc. — now formed their “permanent background,” as a consistent frame of reference.  Liberalism, in Michéa’s and Žižek’s understanding, came out of this context.[167]  “Fear of violent death, distrust towards those around, rejection of all ideological fantasies, and the desire for a life that would at last be quiet and peaceful [shaped] the historical horizon of the new ‘way of being’ that the moderns would now incessantly demand,” explains Michéa.  “It is fundamentally one and the same thing, in their eyes, to establish a society in conformity with the progress of Reason, and to define the conditions that would finally enable humanity to emerge from war.”[168]  In this interpretation, liberalism originally represented an attempt to find an escape hatch, a way out of the cycle of religious conflict.  Michéa even contends that this atmosphere of generalized civil war lay behind Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature as the bellum omnium contra omnes.[169]

In their sympathetic retelling of the origins of liberal tolerance out of the turmoil of the Reformation, Žižek and Michéa capture a dimension that is nowhere to be found in Losurdo’s account.  Oppositely, however, the first two miss one of the Italian thinker’s most original insights concerning bourgeois society, regarding the intricate entanglement of emancipation and dis-emancipation at work in its historical unfolding.  But Michéa is to be preferred when it comes to differentiating the truly revolutionary quality of early liberalism from its later, reactionary form.  He almost seems to have Losurdo in mind, then, when he points out a common anachronism committed by leftists today in talking about liberalism: “As against the absurd idea, particularly widespread on the Left, that liberal policies are by nature ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’ (classifications, moreover, that by an irony of History [Hegel] go back to Benjamin Constant), it is appropriate to see liberalism as the modern ideology par excellence.”[170]  Michéa immediately picks up on the confused temporality at work in the attempt to go back and retrospectively brand classical liberal thought as having somehow been “conservative” all along.  He accuses those who attempt such a maneuver of harboring “a particular interest in maintaining the fiction of a left anti-liberalism.”[171]  Commenting upon the debasement of liberal politics, he thus confidently asserts (paraphrasing Hegel’s famous remark)[172] that “if Adam Smith or Benjamin Constant were to return today — an event that might well raise the level of political debate considerably — they would find it very difficult to recognize the rose of their liberalism in the cross of the present.”[173]

2 thoughts on “Part III: Losurdo in Light of Žižek & Michéa

  1. According to Franz Oppenheimer, the course of history is dominated by a running battle between the “political means” of acquiring goods and the “economic means” to this end. The terms may appear paradoxical, and need some explanation. Men may acquire goods either by production and exchange – the economic means – or by imposing their rule on others and taking their products from them – the political means.

    The latter represents coercion, organized as the state, to enforce a tribute, and stands for tyranny and exploitation. The political means enters history through the nomads, who fell upon agricultural tribes, seized their lands, and, instead of massacring them, enslaved them for the cultivation of those lands. Such a system, however, cannot be perpetuated, much less be made more efficient, without increasingly taking into account the interests of the ruled and thus preserving their ability and willingness to produce. The original robber state thus gradually shades off into the modern state, without giving up its identity.

    The economic means stands for reason, liberty and equality. It constitutes the exchange economy, which presupposes personal freedom and equal rights, and benefits all partners. Every able man works for himself and owns his land or tools – individually in a pre-industrial technique of production; through a cooperative where large-scale production makes this necessary – and all these workers so distribute and redistribute themselves among the different occupations as to equalize annual returns from the exchange of products. Oppenheimer’s interest is never focused on the isolated price of a product, but always on the income derived from that price.

    The exchange economy becomes perverted by a compromise with the slave economy. In the “pure economy” no one could dream of appropriating more land than he and his family could till; such appropriation presupposes a slave system. Yet the exchange economy did tolerate great landed property, that economic institution of the political means, as legitimate and on an equal footing with property arising from work personally done. In the hybrid system which combines the transformed feudal property with the exchange economy – this is the definition of capitalism – harmony is distorted by two interrelated effects of great landed (feudal) property: the countryside’s purchasing power for urban products is weakened by exploitation and ensuing inefficiency; and the urban labor market is flooded, and wages pressed down, by the slaves or serfs or agricultural workers who escape from pressure into the freedom of the cities. In a harmonious system, where the land is not appropriated, an urban worker would demand and get as much as he could otherwise receive as an independent peasant on free land; in the hybrid structure the wage is pressed down to that of an agricultural serf. This makes urban capital property a means of exploitation alongside great landed property: the propertyless suffers a deduction from his rightful wage, the product of his work, to the profit of the big owners. In this way Oppenheimer introduces his exploitation theory.

    It can be seen from this all too brief sketch why Oppenheimer calls himself a liberal socialist. He is a socialist in that he regards capitalism as a system of exploitation, and capital revenue as the gain of that exploitation, but a liberal in that he believes in the harmony of a genuinely free market. He parts from apologetic bourgeois liberalism in that he denies the harmonious character of the existing market, vitiated as it is by the foreign body, feudal property; only if this were rooted out would the cooperative and equilibrating character of the market assert itself.

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