Sunday, February 23, 2014

Whiteness and Self-Evident Truth: Historical Reflections on Reason and Race in Classical Liberalism

It is hard to argue with the basic logic of Dr. Martin Luther King's statement, quoted above, that all Americans should expect to enjoy the unalienable rights and privileges spelled out in the nation's founding documents. Indeed, most of the social justice struggles of the last half century have been grounded in the assumption that the goal of oppressed groups ought to be to gain unfettered access to those rights. It is widely believed that if the liberal principles of the American Revolution were fully realized, our society would at last be racially just. It is also widely believed that we have already achieved this goal, and, according to many, that we've gone too far. But I digress. The purpose of this post is to present the argument that, contrary to the lofty rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, the "all" of the liberal project was never intended to be taken that literally, and indeed, the logic of exclusion is woven into its very fabric.    

I should emphasize right up front that this blog is about Classical Liberalismnot the contemporary liberalism of Democratic politics. Classical Liberalism is the political philosophy that informed the American and French revolutions. It is the intellectual foundation for representative democracy, as well as freedom of expression, religion, and the press. It is rooted in the basic premise that individuals are born free and independent, and that they join with others to form governments only to ensure that their God-given freedoms are preserved. The Declaration of Independence contains this famous and succinct articulation of Classical Liberalism:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

This philosophy remains a touchstone for both conservative and liberal politics.

The contradiction entailed by wealthy slave-owners justifying their democratic revolution by appealing to  "rights of man" is obvious enough to have a name - the paradox of libertyIt is routinely admitted that the American revolutionaries failed to live up to their own ideals, yet we still celebrate them for their visionary aspirations. Certain critics, though, suggest that there was no deep contradiction in the minds of the revolutionaries since the phrase "all men are created equal" was only meant to refer to property owning white men like themselves. If this theory is correct, we'd need only reinterpret the phrase as including all humans. We'd still have to fix our institutions to reflect that, but, since almost everyone agrees with that meaning, it wouldn't be that difficult. If this tactic were adequate, we'd have gotten to the promised land long ago. History, however, doesn't support this conclusion. After all, the founders openly conceded the paradox.

A more cogent critique accepts the revolutionaries' liberalism at face value, and locates the problem within liberalism itself. Critics in this camp note that liberal theory can never fulfill its universalist
promise because, beyond the discrepancy between the idea of liberty and the reality of slavery, there is actually a fatal contradiction within liberalism itself. Although every person is supposedly born equal and endowed with rights that cannot be taken away, personhood is defined in an implicitly conditional way. Specifically, for the liberal philosophers, being a full person depended on the possession of reason, which, though posited as a universal endowment, was construed in a highly gendered and culture-specific way.

Because of the fundamental contradiction within liberal theory, scholars of Critical Race Theory, such as Charles Mills and David Theo Goldberg, doubt that genuine racial justice can ever be achieved by appeals to an unreconstructed liberalism. This post is a contribution to that reconstruction, beginning with a deconstruction of the linchpin of liberal theory, reason.

The Official History of Reason

The peculiarly Western concept of reason was born out of the reflections of classical Greek philosophers. Reason, as the ancients defined it, was the highest expression of human nature. But it was not merely a matter of individual human cognition. They understood the cosmos as a unified, purposeful, and divinely ordered whole, and reason, or logos, was its primary ordering principle. Human reason was an expression of the participation of the human soul or psyche in the structure of the cosmos.

The possession of reason was, for the ancients, what separates man[1] from the other animals. It was also what separates man's higher (human) nature from his lower (animal) nature. Reason was thus set up in opposition to the emotions and appetites, and tasked with controlling them. For Plato, reason must rule over the passions and appetites as a king rules over the masses of peasants and slaves.

At the dawn of the modern era, the development of reason was closely associated with the new cosmology of the Scientific Revolution. Philosophers and proto-scientists of the 17th century, such as Galileo and Rene Descartes, were keenly interested in finding a method by which one can gain direct, reliable knowledge of the universe, independent of scripture and traditional authority. They proposed a method of careful observation and measurement, coupled with mathematics. It may sound mundane and obvious, but it was quite radical at the time. Remember that Galileo caught the attention of the Inquisition for privileging scientific over scriptural knowledge.

To make sense out of their theory of knowledge modern philosophers proposed a new cosmology, which redefined nature as a realm governed strictly by universal laws of motion. Where the ancients' cosmos was an organic whole into which human consciousness was intimately woven, the moderns' universe was like a mechanical clock, entirely devoid of consciousness, will, and intrinsic meaning. Set in motion at the beginning of time, the universe runs by itself, governed only by the laws of mechanics.

Since the new cosmology left no room in the physical world for consciousness or meaning, it became necessary to posit a distinct, immaterial realm for the mind. Descartes proposed that the rational mind occupies its own plane of existence, separate from and independent of the physical world. For Descartes, mind is pure disembodied reason. It may still become clouded by the passions and appetites of the body, but the scientific method enables such distortions to be eliminated, allowing reason to contemplate nature dispassionately. Thus, men no longer needed to rely on scriptural or traditional authority for knowledge of the natural world, since such knowledge could be obtained directly by way of observation, rational analysis, and experimental verification.

In this way, Descartes and other modern philosophers transformed reason from what it was for the ancients - primarily a guide to wise action in human affairs - into an instrument for the prediction and control of the natural world. The extraction of reason from nature represented its ultimate triumph. It became the sole locus of consciousness, meaning, and will in the world, and promised to free man from the darkness and superstition of the past and usher in a new age of human power over the Earth.

The Intertwining of Reason and Racism

I have described the genealogy of modern reason as if its emergence was simply a product of European philosophers struggling to free themselves from the hegemony of the Church in order to advance human knowledge. Indeed, this is the dominant narrative. However, to understand the contours of modern reason fully, we need to consider the political context in which they were formed. Nothing in 17th and 18th century Europe can be understood apart from the rise of colonialism and capitalism. These historical processes engendered conflicts, not only among the various European powers, but also among social classes and, most crucially, between colonizers and the non-European peoples they were attempting to conquer. Reason did far more than secure intellectual freedom for philosophers and scientists; it became deeply implicated in a race-based ranking of humans.

From the mid-15th century onward, European explorers were sailing around the globe, looking for new trade routes and gold. In the process, they came upon a wide variety of peoples, almost none of whom were Christian. The Europeans initially responded to the diversity of religious beliefs and practices they encountered with simple religious chauvinism. Confident in the universal significance of Christ, they convinced themselves that they must spread the Gospel by any means necessary. They also decided that God would want them to claim these newly "discovered" lands in His name. The Church, in fact, supported the dispossession as well as the enslavement of non-Christian peoples.

Despite the early and lasting importance of Christianity to the colonial project, it ultimately proved inadequate as a justification for the subjugation of non-European peoples. For one thing, it is a basic tenet of Christianity that anyone can convert and be saved, which, if taken literally, would have produced a serious moral crisis. It did, in fact, for at least one member of the clergy, Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas had the moral clarity to recognize the absurdity of appealing to Christianity to justify slavery and slaughter. His writings, which were widely read, engendered much self-reflection and consternation. These pangs of conscience did not slow the colonial project, of course, but they did undermine the reliance on Christian moral superiority to justify it.[2]

Some time later, leading European thinkers began to write about man's natural rights. In response to the moral inconsistency of the Church and various abuses of power by the aristocracy, these philosophers of the Enlightenment began to argue that all persons have fundamental rights to liberty and self-government.[3] This of course risked creating an even more explicit contradiction between real world practices and professed values. How could the new liberal philosophy be reconciled with the atrocities underway in the colonies? This contradiction was resolved by racism, which deployed the concept of reason to support the natural rights of (property owning) Europeans, while allowing those very rights to be denied to non-Europeans whenever it was convenient.

From its first delineation in antiquity, reason had been put to political and ideological purposes. Plato's theory of human nature already implicitly ranked people according to their capacity for reason. It placed philosophers at the top, and peasants, slaves, and women - since they were supposedly ruled by their passions and appetites - nearer the bottom. Christianity, meanwhile, always gave unequivocal primacy to the spiritual over corporeal and material. Descartes blended the two, and, although he did not address class and gender explicitly, his philosophy clearly elevated discarnate rationality to a metaphysical plane above the physical realm, thereby inscribing the prevailing social hierarchy into his cosmology. The continuity between Platonic, Christian, and Cartesian metaphysics enabled a smooth transition to a secular rationale for European domination. Moreover, the norms of reason, more so than those of Christianity, could be tailored to reflect the agenda of the powerful.

The role of reason in the hierarchical conception of human nature provided vital scaffolding for the construction of racism. Enlightenment philosophers saw their discourse on universal natural rights as a repudiation of the old hierarchies, but many of them also understood that those rights could not really be extended to everyone equally. The solution, it turned out, was readily available. They needed only to affirm that being endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and property [4] was intricately connected to being endowed with reason. Then, anyone considered deficient in reason could also be considered less than a full person, and therefore not entitled the natural rights guaranteed to all men.[5]

The final piece of the new ranking system was the concept of race itself. Race developed gradually, between the 16th and 18th centuries, as a way to categorize and rank humans. Carl Linnaeus, who is famous for developing the classification and naming system that we still use for plants and animals, also produced the first "scientific" racial classification, dividing up humanity into four main groups: Homo Sapiens Europaeus (European), Homo Sapiens Asiaticus (Asian), Homo Sapiens Americanus (American Native) and Homo Sapiens Afer (African). He went beyond mere physical description, ascribing different psychological temperaments to each of the groups, naturally attributing the most positive qualities, including those associated with reason, to Europeans. This should come as no surprise, since the stereotypes on which he based his classifications reflected the views of settlers and slaveholders, precisely the people who benefited from denying full personhood to non-Europeans. The connection between whiteness and reason (i.e. intelligence) has remained central to scientific racism to this day

Racism helped to address the contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment, while replacing Christianity as a rationale for the colonial subjugation of non-Europeans. Claiming that the possession of reason gave all men equal rights to liberty and self-government, Enlightenment philosophers sought to overturn the unjust power relations to which their social class was subjected. They made effective and clever use of reason to formulate a revolutionary theory of the human nature that delegitimized the power and privilege of the aristocracy and, at the same time, defined non-European people as less than fully human.

The Social and Political History of Reason and Racism

Thus far, we have seen how European philosophy developed its conception of reason into a basis for intellectual and social liberation, and, at the same time, into a rationale for colonialism. The link Linnaeus and other classifiers asserted between race and reason was about categorizing the existing ideology. The ideology itself arose in the context of the colonial project by those who had a direct stake in the land and labor of non-Europeans. In this section, we examine the social-political context surrounding the construction of whiteness and the ways in which reasonable and unreasonable came to reflect the interests and values of those with social and political power. In particular, we consider John Locke's political philosophy, which he developed against a backdrop of ongoing conflicts between colonizers and Native North Americans. Understanding Locke's influence is crucial since his philosophy has been, and continues to be, used by those who seek to deprive non-European peoples of their collective integrity, self-determination, and land.[6]

John Locke was among the most influential of the modern political philosophers. Among his many contributions, he is remembered as the father of Classical Liberalism and as the intellectual Godfather of the American Revolution. Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), served as a sort of instruction manual for Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots as they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke's political philosophy was based on natural law. According to this "law of reason," there is a set of universal natural rights, which are revealed to an individual by the light of reason. For Locke, though, there is one natural right that precedes and is a prerequisite for the others, and which is the main factor motivating men to form governments - the right to own and control private property. His entire political theory can be seen as an extension of his theory of property. The logic entailed by Locke's theory proved to be quite useful to those defending European appropriation of the land of indigenous people. Indeed, the same logic continues to be used to justify the privatization of common property in the name of commerce, whether land or water or the electromagnetic spectrum.

Locke's emphasis on property may seem bizarre until we realize that, for Locke, the primary form of property is one's own physical body. The right to own and control one's body, which is self-evident to reason, is the starting point for all other natural rights. From there it inevitably follows that, as the owner of his body, a man must also own his labor and, by extension, the fruits of his labor. If an individual wandering about on the commons (land that is owned by no one in particular) picks an apple from a tree or kills a deer in the forest, these naturally become his property because they have acquired substantial additional value as a result of his body and his efforts. 

This logic extends to the land. According to Locke, land starts out as the common property of all men, but has little value in its natural state. Eventually some industrious soul comes along who is willing to work the land, and, like the apple and the deer, the land becomes his property because his labor gives it value. Once gained, the owner's property rights are not permanent, but rather depend on him continuing to make the land productive[7]. Reason dictates that if he lets his land "lie waste," it should return to the commons. (One doesn't have to do the work the land himself, by the way. In a very telling passage, Locke counts, as his property, "the turfs my servant has cut").

While, from the perspective of the colonizers, Locke's ideas can be seen as liberatory and egalitarian, they had nothing positive to offer Native people or to the Africans brought to America in chains. Indeed, his theory made it easier for the colonizers to justify dispossession of the former and enslavement of the latter. The principles of private ownership, productivity, and progress articulated by Locke constituted an absolute negation of the values and worldview of many indigenous peoples. Thus, not only did Locke implicitly define Indian land as available for appropriation, by representing his culture- and class-specific point of view as self-evident to reason, he deftly consigned any opposing worldview to unreason.

Lockean natural law thus justified not only depriving native peoples of their property rights, but their liberty as well. Although Locke claimed that liberty is a natural right, he reserved the exercise of that right for those who possess reason. With respect to children, for example, Locke wrote: "he that is not come to the use of his reason, cannot be said to be under this law." It follows that the same logic applies to anyone judged deficient in reason. In other words, if one is not subject to natural law, one cannot claim sovereign ownership of one's body or of one's labor. Indeed, it was not uncommon for slave masters to argue that their slaves benefited from the loss of their liberty, since they were not equipped to handle it. It is no coincidence that the early American writings routinely referred to Indians and Africans as childlike.

I want to make clear that my discussion of Locke's theory should not be read as an indictment of Locke as a person. Whether or not he meant for his philosophy to serve as a justification for genocide and slavery in the colonies, seems to me largely academic. Indeed, I think we gain more insight into the way liberal ideology functions if we assume that Locke's intent was genuinely egalitarian. The point is that, regardless of anyone's conscious intentions, the "law of reason" embedded in liberalism reflects the material interests and social values of those in the property owning class who have benefited (and continue to benefit) from the subjugation of people deemed deficient in reason. This also explains why it has proven so influential.


While reason may not have created racism, it has provided ingenious ideological support for the development and durability of global white supremacist capitalism. In my view, this makes liberalism highly suspect as a foundation for a social justice struggle. Yet, if we cannot appeal to the egalitarian ideals of liberalism to support the demand for social justice, what's the alternative? First of all, let me be clear that I am not actually denigrating reason. I am (I hope) making good use of it in my writing. The point is that what is presented as reasonable must always be viewed critically. It has long been established by science and philosophy, for example, that Descartes was wrong. There is no such thing as pure, disinterested, a-historical reason. Reason is always embodied, and always shaped by the complex historical, social, and class situation of the body that expresses it.

Nor am I also suggesting that we ought to jettison the principles of liberty and equality. After all, these ideas have obviously inspired a great deal of social progress. I am simply calling for a deep understanding of their intellectual origins. If we adopt the mantle of liberalism uncritically, without a full awareness of its complex and bloody history, and of who it was intended to liberate, we risk remaining prisoners of its limitations. We may, for example, imagine that institutions designed to maintain white supremacy can easily be reformed to produce racial equity. This may lead us to overlook the fact that Native Americans attempted to abide by liberalism and its standards of reason, signing treaties and taking their grievances to court, only to see their land, their culture, and their children forcibly taken from them again and again. And black folks endured physical beatings and worse to bring an end to legalized racial segregation, only to be targeted by a racist drug war and to end up, on average, economically worse off than they were in 1960. To consider liberalism in terms of its true origins is to understand that these setbacks are not anomalies. They are just more confirmation that liberalism's promise of universal liberty and justice was never really intended for everybody.

[1] A note on gender pronouns. I am using masculine gender pronouns throughout this essay to be consistent with the writers I am discussing. They used "he," "his," "man," "men," etc., not because it was convenient, but because, by and large, they really were only talking about male humans. 
[2] In some cases, the writings of de la Casas merely offered Protestants in America a chance to view their marginally less cruel treatment of Indians as proof of their moral superiority to Catholics. See Lepore, J. (1998). The name of war : King Philip's War and the origins of American identity. New York, Knopf.                
[3] I have discussed elsewhere the internal political motivations for the assertion of natural rights and self government. To this could be added the class struggles that precipitated the end of feudalism and the gender-based struggles that accompanied the rise of capitalism.
[4] Yes, Jefferson took this and substituted happiness for property in the Declaration of Independence. Still, the Constitution, in preserving slavery, left no doubt that property rights would not only trump happiness, but life and liberty as well.  
[5] Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
[6] There is some academic debate about whether this was his intention. Given what actually happened, I would call that question academic.
[7] Locke, John, (1689). Two Treatises of GovernmentSection 28. 

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