Boris Johnson is a brazen racist given to casual dishonesty and the performance of buffoonery. Now that he has become the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom adequate measure must be taken of liberalism as an historical phenomenon.
Of course, liberalism was never a project exclusively rooted in England and its settler colonies. The long Dutch revolt against King Philip II of Spain, which finally came to a victorious conclusion in 1648, and the French Revolution in 1789, were both decisive moments in the material advance of liberal ideas. In philosophical terms, the innovations of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant were also important. But liberalism has been particularly enmeshed with English history.
The earliest roots of English liberalism are sometimes discerned in the Magna Carta, a charter of rights accepted, under duress, by King John in 1215. A compromise between the King and a rebellious aristocracy, it affirmed a set of rights against the King. Today habeas corpus, prohibition of torture, trial by jury, and the rule of law are all often taken to derive from the Magna Carta.
But the rights asserted in the Magna Carta were not intended to have a universal application. Since 1095, when Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, the Arab and Turkish Muslims to the East, described by the Pope as a “vile race”, had been demonised by powerful forces in Western Europe. When the Magna Carta explicitly affirmed the liberties of the “freemen of England” it imagined these rights as setting England apart from its enemies in the East. In time to come the idea that rights for some should be asserted at the same time as rights for others should be denied would be a central and consistent feature of liberalism, in theory and practice.
Liberalism’s founding text
The English philosopher John Locke is often described as both the ‘father of liberalism’ and the ‘philosophical founder of America’. His Two Treatises of Government, first published in 1689, is a foundational liberal text which argues for reason, tolerance, the separation of power and the right to rebel against an oppressive government. But at the same time Locke was directly involved in slavery and colonialism. He participated in writing the constitution of Carolina, which ensured that “[e]very freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his Negro slaves”.
Locke took the view that lands governed in common – be they in Europe or the Americas – rather than as private property mediated by money, were “waste” – “waste” that could and should be redeemed by expropriation. He offered explicit legitimation for the repression of the Irish and the dispossession of Native Americans, whom he described as “not . . . joined with the rest of mankind”.
This is not a matter of hypocrisy. For Locke, liberal equality could apply only to “creatures of the same species and rank” with the result that he simultaneously supported the advancement of certain liberal freedoms in England while actively supporting and profiting from slavery, genocide and expropriation in the North American colony.
Rights only for some
John Stuart Mill, also an English philosopher, and often considered to be the second great liberal thinker, was similarly explicit about the fact that the rights that he argued for in England should not be understood to have a universal purchase. In his essay On Liberty, published in 1859, Mill, who spent most of his adult life working for British colonialism, wrote that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”.
Liberal forms of political authority have been marked by the same simultaneous affirmation of rights for some and denial of rights for others. The Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo, who died just over a year ago, has shown that “liberalism and racial chattel slavery emerged together in a twin birth”.
The first liberal state was formed after 1648 when the Treaty of Münster granted the Netherlands independence from Spain. The wealth of the liberal bourgeoisie that came to power, and which is often celebrated as tolerant and enlightened, was largely rooted in colonialism and slavery.
In England the Glorious Revolution of 1688 enshrined the sovereignty of parliament and the right to revolution, laying the foundations of the more fully liberal state to come. England had settled its first American colony in Virginia in 1607 and one of the first major acts of the new regime was to seize control of the monopoly in slave trading from Spain, after which there was a rapid expansion in the slave trade.
The two great liberal revolutions, the American Revolution of 1783 and the French Revolution of 1789, both affirmed rights for some while simultaneously resulting in an expansion of slavery. It was the Haitian Revolution of 1804, a revolution largely fought by enslaved people born in what is now the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the northern part of Angola, that asserted a universal commitment to freedom.
The fascist horror that consumed much of Europe in the last century was explicitly understood by its intellectuals as an attempt to return the colonial practices of European liberalism to Europe. The initial complicity with fascism by liberal states was often motivated, in part, by a desire to oppose the dissident European currents of thought that proposed a universal conception of justice, and genuinely opposed racism. These forms of thought which can be clearly seen in thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, and Vladimir Lenin when he is counted as a European rather than an “Asiatic” threat to Europe, were savagely repressed.
In Discourse on Colonialism, a blistering pamphlet first published in 1950, Aimé Césaire, the great Martinican poet, called the return of colonial practices to Europe “the boomerang effect”:
“One fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised … and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.”
In the wake of European fascism, racism as a project rooted in claims about biology rapidly lost its credibility in liberal circles. Explicit racism would persist in the southern part of the United States, Australia and South Africa. But in its metropolitan forms there was a marked shift in liberal thought towards legitimating domination via claims about culture, education and stages of development rather than biology. This was a change in the form that racism took, and nothing approaching a genuine rejection of racism.
When liberal ideas have been taken up by elites in the formerly colonised world they have been shorn of crude racism. But in countries like India and South Africa liberal elites have continued to treat the bulk of their citizens as outside of the domain of civil society, the domain where liberal freedoms are protected, and to govern the impoverished majority with decidedly authoritarian forms of rule. Once again liberalism has meant rights for some at the direct expense of others.
Crisis of liberalism
Liberalism is now in crisis in its heartlands and in its periphery. That crisis has a significant economic dimension. The accumulation of vast wealth by a plutocratic class has come at the direct expense of the majority, whose conditions of life are in steep decline. There is also no doubt that the profound change to the public sphere consequent to the development of social media has been central to the rise of a grotesque array of right-wing leaders.
But on their own neither of these facts explain the rise of increasingly explicit forms of racism and xenophobia, and the willingness by elites and electorates to affirm a politics of chauvinism at the expense of embracing authoritarianism. In 2011, when the rebellion first ignited in Tunisia rushed through North Africa and into the Middle East, and then arrived in southern Europe and North America, there was a possibility of a politics of horizontal solidarity against the plutocracy.
That project failed, and figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson rose to influence and then power, because liberal societies have chosen racism over a politics of solidarity and justice. Instead of confronting soaring inequalities in wealth and power within their societies, electorates in the best-established liberal societies on the planet have chosen to protect what WEB du Bois called “the wages of whiteness”. Instead of the billionaire the migrant, understood in deeply racialised terms, has become the figure onto which the hostility stemming from a declining quality of life is projected. This is not a betrayal of liberalism. It is its logical outcome. Liberalism was never for everyone.