‘How do you deal with slavery in the ancient world?’ Someone asked the person who had just given a paper on class as a ‘reductionist’ category.

‘Well’, came the reply. ‘You need to consider the situation of each individual slave. One slave may be in the mines under brutal conditions, while another may be a slave in a wealthy household, or another may be a skilled artisan. Each individual situation is different, with many determining factors that need to be analysed. So it is not helpful to consider slaves as a class, which is a reductionist category …’

At this moment, I realised once again that liberalism really does mess with people’s minds. The presenter in question had skipped through a number of European philosophers such as Deleuze, Latour and Balibar, claiming some vaguely ‘Marxist’ credentials so as to show how even Marxism had given up on the ‘crude’ category of class. I was waiting to see Margaret Thatcher quoted as well: ‘there is no society’. With this conjuring trick, class had apparently disappeared.

Obviously, class was a real bogey for this person. It had to be fought off and denied any validity. The context of course was the return of class as a way of understanding and acting in the world. We can identify a a wide range of causes: the rise of a range of left-wing movements, even in bourgeois democracies (from Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders), the strength of angry forces on the right, the decline of the United States and the increasing strength of socialist China with a very different vision for the world. In this context, it should be no surprise that class had returned with a vigour not seen for a while, even in the fraying and disintegrating hegemony of Euro-American practice and thought. Thus, as a desperate rear-guard action, class must be denied any validity, even in the cocoon of intellectual inquiry. It is a ‘reductionist’ category, it is argued, slotting people arbitrarily into ‘boxes’ – standard rhetorical moves you will encounter again and again.

Let me give another example, again in discussions about ancient slavery. Now the emphasis was on manumission and freed persons. In slavery, it was argued, the promise of manumission held a powerful ideological force, ensuring that many slaves ‘behaved’ themselves so as to keep alive the possibility of manumission. And freed persons contributed greatly to ancient Roman society and economics.

Then came the question: ‘But why did the Roman ruling class still see them in terms of slavery?’ I would add that they also viewed peasants, under tenure or not, and even the later coloni (when all were tied to land rather than masters or landlords) in terms of slavery. The answer: you have to consider the individual situations of freed persons. Some became relatively rich and owned houses, while others ended up being poor day labourers. Their individual situations and status differed greatly … By now, the strategy should be obvious: negate class through a thousand qualifications in favour of the private individual. And one can even add a little bit of Max Weber, suggesting that status, if not Weber’s great love of the role a ‘free labour’ (conjured out of thin air), played a role.

This effort to deny class in the name of a pernicious liberalism has a number of levels, not least of which is denying class all round you (I was in the United States, believe it or not, where Trump was president and homeless people crowded the streets). But I would like to stress one point that is directly connected to the examples given: modern liberalism arose in the context of slavery. In other words, liberalism is based on a constitutive unfreedom, the exclusion of many from the category of the free and private individual. The first ideologues of liberalism were either slave owners or strong supporters of slavery. Think of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, or Hugo Grotius, John Stuart Mill or John Locke.[1] Indeed, they saw what came to be called liberalism as a sober and reasonable position, so much so that abolitionists were regarded as fanatics and extremists who would tear society apart. All in the name of the private individual.

In other words, the power of liberalism is to deny and negate the exclusion and oppression at its heart. If you stress the complexity of each individual situation, class dissipates and you can get on with your individual life in blissful ignorance. Liberalism really does screw your mind.

[1] Tellingly, liberalism arose first and was strongest in three contexts: the revolution of the Dutch against Philip II of Spain (1655-1648), the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the American Revolution (1765-83). In each place, the slave trade provided the basis for wealth and power.