‘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.

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For those not in the know, Scott Morrison is one of the head-kickers in the increasingly hated Liberal-National government of Tony Abbott (in Australia). Morrison has made a name for himself as former immigration minister, actively victimising asylum seekers for his own political gain. In the process, he has moved Australia further and further away from internationally agreed conventions concerning asylum seekers, refugees, human rights and so on. The crunch came when he asserted that some people can forego their human rights and be treated accordingly – as in the case of a man who had been convicted of womanslaughter for killing his wife, served his prison term and was now to be freed. Not so, said Morrison, since he had abrogated his human rights.

How can this be? Said many. Did not Morrison, the pentecostal Christian from Shorelive Church, once quote the words of Jeremiah, in his inaugural speech in parliament:

I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.

Morrison went on to explain:

From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others.

And then, quoting Desmond Tutu:

we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

And so:

My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous … generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.

Hypocrite, opportunist, betrayal … all these and more are levelled at Morrison. How can one who espouses such beliefs, who claims to be a true liberal, be so cruel to asylum seekers and refugees?

It is actually perfectly consistent with a liberal position. Morrison does not offer compassion, kindness and justice to everyone. The ‘poor’ in question are not all the poor, for liberals consistent limit the definition of the ‘all’ to whom their principles apply. The majority are actually excluded. For Morrison and his ilk, the excluded can be treated like dirt, since God doesn’t care for them.

Morrison is very much in the mould of John C. Calhoun, vice-president of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and champion of liberalism. Calhoun was an impassioned champion of liberty, which should be defended at all costs. His favourite targets were concentrations of power, ‘fanaticism’ and the spirit of ‘crusade’, against which he upheld the rights of minorities. Which minorities? They clearly did not include slaves. For Calhoun, slavery was a ‘positive good’ and the opponents of slavery were ‘blind fanatics’. In other words, tolerance, justice, compassion are for a select few, for those who count as human. The rest need not apply.

So there is no inconsistency in Morrison’s position. He is a good liberal, with Christian principles. In fact, he would make an excellent slave owner.

Back in the 1980s, Žižek was a member of the liberal opposition in the Slovenian part of Yugoslavia, pushing hard for the break-up of the country and even running for the presidency. Every now and then those old political colours show themselves once again, as in this recent interview with Al Jazeera:

I claim if we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new type of authoritarian society. Here I see the world historical importance of what is happening today in China. Until now there was one good argument for capitalism: sooner or later it brought a demand for democracy…

What I’m afraid of is with this capitalism with Asian values, we get a capitalism much more efficient and dynamic than our western capitalism. But I don’t share the hope of my liberal friends – give them ten years, [and there will be] another Tiananmen Square demonstration – no, the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over.

This little piece of bluster is interesting on at least two counts. First, it gives voice to a rather unsubtle Eurocentric nostalgia and arrogance over against Asia. At least, ‘we’ knew how to shape a capitalism that had democracy, but those unsophisticated Asians simply don’t know how to be so clever. Second, it reminds one of a statement from Richard Dawkins a little while back:

Given that Islam is an unmitigated evil … should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa? … Could our enemy’s enemy be our friend?

Translated into Žižekese:

Given that capitalism with Asian values is an unmitigated evil … should we be supporting anglo-saxon neoliberalism? … Could our enemy’s enemy be our friend?

A return of the old liberal? To be fair, Žižek  also said:

I think today the world is asking for a real alternative. Would you like to live in a world where the only alternative is either anglo-saxon neoliberalism or Chinese-Singaporean capitalism with Asian values?

The problem, my dear Slavoj, is that your belated effort to promote a communism with Žižekian values is a bit rich, especially in light of your earlier political efforts.

When a liberal is abused, he says: Thank God they didn’t beat me. When he is beaten, he thanks God they didn’t kill him. When he is killed, he will thank God that his immortal soul has been delivered from its mortal clay.

Lenin, Collected Works, vol 11, p. 385.

Like Lenin, I have even less time for pussy-footing, hand-wringing, easily-spooked and excuse-prone liberals than for obnoxious reactionaries.

It has long been known that the reactionaries are bold and that the liberals are cowards.

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 96.