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Ivo Vegter fails in attempt to let liberalism off the hook for slavery and racism

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Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

Ivo Vegter’s response to my recent piece on the entanglement of liberalism and racism prefers gratuitous personal insult to any serious engagement with the voluminous and rapidly expanding literature on this question.

Read Ivo Vegter column here and Imraan Buccus’s earlier column here

Ivo Vegter asserts that “Racism and slavery … had been ingrained in societies across the globe since time immemorial.” This is simply not true. Slavery certainly has a history that goes back to the Ancient World, but there is a general scholarly consensus that racism, as we know now it, was invented in the English colony of Virginia in the latter part of the 17th century. Prior to this point people were excluded or oppressed on the basis of religion or culture, but race, as we have come to know it as a phenomenon tied to the body, did not exist. There is an established academic consensus that racism emerged from the system of plantation slavery in the New World.

By fabricating ancient origins for racism, Vegter is trying to let liberalism off the hook for its historical crimes against African people and indigenous people in the Americas. The historical reality is not just that African slavery, and the invention of racism, happened at the same time as the birth of liberalism. As the Italian historian Domenico Losurdo shows, “the rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery are the product of a twin birth”. Losurdo is a highly respected historian, published in English by Verso Books, arguably the leading serious press in the English-speaking world today. The Financial Times described his book Liberalism: A counter-history as “a brilliant exercise in unmasking liberal pretensions, surveying over three centuries with magisterial command of the sources”.

Losurdo makes a number of points in his book. One is to show that the leading liberal philosophers, John Locke and John Stuart Mill, were both personally implicated in colonialism, and that they worked explicitly and deliberately to legitimate racism. This is hardly an unusual position. A lot of work has been done in philosophy to demonstrate and examine the racism in Locke and Mill’s work.

Locke’s opposition to slavery was explicitly opposition to the enslavement of English people. However, he clearly legitimated African enslavement, as well as the violent seizure of land from indigenous people in the Americas. In fact, in 1669 Locke worked on The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a draft constitution for the slave states of what are now North and South Carolina, that ensured that despotic rule was asserted over enslaved Africans. Locke wrote that line that states that “[E]very freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his Negro slaves”.

As John Quiggin notes in a recent essay: “Locke’s principles perfectly suited the Southern Federalists who dominated the early years of the United States. On the one hand, they justified rebellion against the British Crown. On the other hand, they rejected any interference with property rights, including slave ownership. More broadly, Locke’s theory stood in opposition to the radical democratic possibilities of the American Revolution, represented by figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.” Quiggin concludes that “Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement”.

To suggest, as Vegter does, that Locke’s racism, in terms of his philosophy and his active involvement in English colonialism, and his personal investments in the slave trade, can be explained by the time in which Locke lived, carry no weight. Thomas Paine, who lived shortly after Locke, attacked African slavery in the clearest terms. In a 1775 essay, African Slavery in America, Paine attacked slavery as an “execrable commerce” and “outrage against Humanity and Justice”. However, it is Locke, not Paine, who is often referred to as “the father of liberalism”.

There is an equally solid academic consensus around John Stuart Mills’ racism. Mill worked as an official for the East India Company. An essay by Nick Cohen shows that Mill “was equally adamant that the freedom he wanted for white European adults could not be extended to ‘backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage’. The subjects of empire were too juvenile to be free. They needed a despotic government, which funnily enough in the case of India was provided by the East India Company.”

However, Losurdo’s critique of liberalism goes beyond the established academic consensus that Locke and Mill were racist thinkers and also provides a detailed examination of liberalism as a historical phenomenon. His central point, backed up with solid sources throughout, is that “slavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions [In Holland, American and France]. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success”.

In other words, under liberalism, as an “actually existing” political system in Holland, France and the United States, African enslavement was considerably expanded. Losurdo shows that this was not a paradox in which liberty and oppression grew from competing sources. He shows that “actually existing” liberalism was simultaneously committed to expanding rights for white people, and to denying them to indigenous and African people.

This is a simple historical fact. The only reason why liberalism has not been held to account for its historical complicity with indigenous genocide and African enslavement is that, from London to Washington, it is official philosophy of the ruling elite. In South Africa, it is the closest thing to an “official philosophy” of the white English-speaking elite. For a long time, this protected liberal ideas from serious academic and political scrutiny. But, as access to the academy has been democratised, liberalism has increasingly been subject to the same scrutiny as other political traditions.

Just as every socialist or communist must account for the realities of “actually existing socialism”, so too every liberal must account for the realities of “actually existing liberalism”. By choosing gratuitous personal insult over the careful examination of empirical evidence, Vegter aims to keep liberalism outside of the realm of critique. But that horse has bolted and Vegter’s attempt to slam the stable door shut comes way too late.

Most people would agree that Achille Mbembe is the most highly regarded academic working in the humanities in South Africa today. His international reputation is unparalleled. In Necropolitics, his brilliant new book, Mbembe argues that, “[J]ust as they needed, only relatively recently, to divide humanity into masters and slaves, liberal democracies today still depend for their survival on defining a sphere of common belonging against a sphere of others, or in other words, of friends and ‘allies’ and of enemies of civilisation.” The understanding that liberalism and racism are inherently enmeshed phenomena is far from being, as Vegter implies, some sort of marginal and “stupid” position. On the contrary, it is an established academic consensus, one held by our best and brightest.

Vegter is provoked into a particularly hysterical frenzy when confronted with the fact that Adoph Hitler looked to British liberals for inspiration, and aimed to do in Europe what British colonialism had done outside of Europe. Hitler was also inspired by American race laws.

These are simple facts that anyone with the stomach to read Mein Kampf can confirm for themselves. Moreover, pointing out the links between Nazism in Europe and white supremacy in the colonies is hardly a new idea.

In fact, it has long been a standard position from colonised intellectuals, and black intellectuals in the US. In the 1930s Mohandas Gandhi argued, “I assert that in India we have Hitlerian rule however disguised it may be in softer terms”, and pointed out that “Hitler was ‘Great Britain’s sin’.” In the 1930s WEB du Bois also noted a connection between Nazism and white supremacy in the Americas. Aimé Césaire made the same point in 1950. The contemporary Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has noted that the German state first committed genocide in what is now Namibia prior to committing genocide in Europe.

Losurdo has undertaken detailed research, including a close reading of Nazi texts, on the roots of Nazi thought. In his book War and Revolution he concludes that in Nazi thought, “The lexicon and institutions of the colonial tradition were explicitly invoked and their sphere of application extended to Eastern Europe. Hitler’s model was Britain’s colonial empire.” Anyone with the stomach to read Hitler’s own words will find repeated confirmation of this. Hitler was quite clear about the state that he wanted to emulate, writing that “[T[here has never been in Europe, since the disintegration of the old German Empire any State which … could compare with the British”.

The Institute for Race Relations may wish to live in the past, a past in which an outright and extraordinarily crude racist like David Bullard is considered an important thinker. Vegter may find a happy home there. But the world has moved on, and denialism about the liberal enmeshment with racism, of the “twin-birth” of liberalism and slavery, is now an established academic consensus. 

Vegter’s insults and hysteria provide no challenge to the weight of academic evidence that now exists to show the liberalism is deeply implicated, philosophically and in practice, in the history of racism and slavery.

Next time Vegter comes across an idea that disturbs his liberal convictions, he should dial down the hysteria and personal insults and do some serious reading. His collapse into personal insult does Vegter, and the liberal tradition that he wishes to defend, a tradition that, as I noted in my original piece has included dissident currents, like the Liberal Party in South Africa, no favours. DM

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.

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