laps name lilies

AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

February 1 – Locke, Capitalism and Unequal Equality

Having examined Locke’s theory of property we can now see that he thinks  the state of nature amounts to a class divided society in which there are severe inequalities in the ownership of productive resources. This makes visible a third ambiguity in addition to his ambiguities about the niceness or nastiness of the state of nature and about the extent of sovereignty. This third ambiguity is actually a set of ambiguities, but they are so closely tied together than we can treat them together. We can now add them to our earlier chart:

Approach A     Approach B
1. nice state of nature nasty state of nature
allows requires
2. a limited sovereign an Hobbesian sovereign
(except that this is the majority)
based on based on
3. full, equal membership
explicit consent required 
equal rights and rationality
only the propertied full members
tacit consent enough
class differential in rights and rationality

When we note Locke’s theory of property we seem to get a new ambiguity: who are the members of civil society? At times Locke seems to include every adult male as a member of civil society. And this would follow from his first principles concerning equality and freedom in the state of nature (see sections 119, 94). Yet on the other hand he at times restricts membership in civil society to the propertied (see, for example, sections140, 138, 157-158). In section 140, for example, Locke says that only those with property will have a say in taxation, and the power to tax is the key power any government can have.

Locke had to argue 1. that everyone is a member and  2. that only the propertied could be full members. He had to argue 1. because there was an obvious need that everyone be subjected to the state. You simply could not leave out a large number of people recognizing no political obligation. But he also had to argue 2. because it was dangerous to allow propertyless labourers into political society and political power. They might use their legitimate political power to level property, which is inconsistent with the main end of civil society – which we now know is the existence of the unequal property that follows from the right to unlimited accumulation.

So in effect you have two classes of citizens: a first class of propertied citizens who are not only under the jurisdiction of the sovereign, but also share in sovereign power, who participate in the sovereign. But you also get a much larger group of second class citizens who do not participate but are simply obligated to obey authority, that is to obey the majority of the propertied class, or their agents or trustees in government.

This brings us to the matter of consent: sometimes Locke implies that explicit consent  is required to establish obligation, and in this he conflicts with Hobbes. For example, to begin with, at the origins of society, my consent does not obligate future generations. This is one of his arguments against Filmer. Explicit consent need not necessarily be verbal. An individual taking possession of their property is demonstrating consent to civil society. This form of consent applies to property owners, and makes them full embers of civil society. But sometimes Locke argues that tacit consent is enough to obligate a person. This means that anyone who can be deemed in any way to benefit from political society is obligated to obey, even, for example, if they take up lodging for a week. This form of tacit consentobligates without giving or requiring a share in power.

You might therefore conclude that in Locke’s theory of government the right to revolution refers to the property owners, that the “people” refers to the property owners, and that the sovereign means the majority of property owners. And all of this is derived from natural equality and natural freedom.

But are we any closer to explaining the existence of the first two ambiguities? In fact we are. Remember that we now know that civil society exists not only for the sake of protecting property (life, liberty and estate), but since we all consented in the state of nature to the use of money and all its consequences, we also know that civil society exists to protect substantial, systematic and permanent inequalities in wealth. Thus civil society must be able to protect unequal property and simultaneously any government must be kept from infringing on property rights. Therefore civil society must have any and all powers necessary to protect property. That is, it must be sovereign, absolute in relation to the individual. But, civil society must be limited in order to protect property and therefore the sovereign is limited. The sovereign is both absolute and limited… Locke is thus forced into systematic inconsistency by his need to legitimate a society of unequals, but a society that is, in the words of Orwells’ character Napoleon the Pig (and Boss of the Farm), a society where some are more equal than others.

There are two dangers to property.  One danger comes from the sovereign, and that is handled by Approach A. A second danger to property comes from the propertyless, who might come to think that they shouldn’t have consented, if they ever did, to money and all of its consequences while in the state of nature. And this second danger is handled by Approach B. The basic problem for Locke is that you can’t expect the propertyless to protect unequal property. Therefore you need a civil society that will have a strong, almost absolute sovereign. And that implies a nasty state of nature in which individuals have and are able to transmit effectively unlimited rights. But an absolute sovereign can turn nasty itself and start to infringe on the property it should be protecting from the great unwashed. One therefore really needs an absolute but limited sovereign, which implies a nice state of nature the niceness of which implies limited rights in individuals who are by and large rational and moral.

On top of this, in order to protect property, it is important to have not only a powerful, virtually absolute sovereign on the one hand; it is also important to convince the propertyless of their obligation and to convince the propertied of the justness of their elevated position. You can do this by referring to the nasty state of nature. (You may not have property to lose, but it’s a tough, mean world out there and you should obey because we still protect your life and allow you to grub out a hand to mouth existence.) You can also justify unequal property to the propertied by the nasty state of nature, because the nasty sate implied unequal rationality.

Actually, all three sets of inconsistencies can be traced back to one pair that emerges from Locke’s theory of property, and this would be the inconsistency about equal rights and rationality versus a class differential in rights and rationality. Sometimes Locke assumes that all are roughly equal in rationality and therefore in rights, but sometimes he assumes that there is inequality in rights and rationality based upon class. An inequality of rights in nature is implied because labourers would have to submit to employers, thus losing their equality of jurisdictions. An inequality of rationality is presumed because Locke assumes that the essence of rationality is working on nature, bending it to one’s subjective ends, appropriating something from nature to work on… Rationality for him means “industrious appropriation”. But with the division into classes due to money and all its consequences, one whole class (the vast majority) is denied the opportunity and the leisure to become fully “rational” (in this, for Locke, essential sense).

If you look, for example, at the first ambiguity, you can see that a nice state of nature would follow from equal rationality while a nasty state of nature follows pretty directly from a class differential in rationality. If the bulk of the people are not fully morally rational, they cannot be expected to follow the law of nature consistently.

On the question of ambiguous membership in civil society, if everyone were included that would follow from equal rights and rationality. If only the propertied were included, that would follow from unequal rights and rationality.

With regard to the third ambiguity, over the extent of sovereignty, full sovereignty can be deduced from either equality or inequality in rights and rationality. If rights and rationality are equal it is safe to allow civil society to be fully sovereign, because then the majority would not act arbitrarily against individuals or their property. If rights and rationality were unequal as between classes, it would not be safe if everyone were allowed in, but the propertied, more rational types would be safe for the same reasons as above.

Limited sovereignty, on the other hand, can only be derived from equal rights and rationality.

So we’ve now seen that all these contradictions or ambiguities exist in Locke’s doctrine and we’ve been able to explain them as being systematically connected and as issuing from the consequences of his theory of property. This should also be a clue as to how it is that Locke could construct such a rickety argument. Locke’s logical and theoretical weakness is an ideological strength. It is strong ideology because it both justifies capitalist society (along with its unequal political power) as natural, while at the same time (unlike Hobbes) it does not scare off prospective members with intimidating talk of Leviathans, mortal gods and absolute and self-perpetuating sovereigns.

But there is more to it. Many of Locke’s contradictions are unavoidable for anyone who will argue that capitalist society is just and natural. Any justification must show that private appropriation of socially generated wealth is just and must argue that class divisions with unequal rights is just and acceptable. It is hard, if not impossible, to do that without forcing together two contradictory theses. One must assume both a class differential in rights and rationality and at the same time assume or show that people are pretty equally rational in a practical or moral sense. That is, one must assume or show that everyone in capitalist society must be fundamentally equal in being able to shift for themselves because each is on his own inside the competition of the market.

Any liberal justification of capitalist society must assume on the one hand that all are free and equal and that all authority is based on consent. But it must also accept the unlimited accumulation of private property in productive resources and that labour is free to be sold. Economic relations are to be based upon free contracts. The equality of liberalism is not a full or complete equality, but a fundamental equality. That is all are considered equal in that all are subjected to the laws of the market; everyone is a contractor.

But capitalist equality inevitably leads to inequality in rights and (capitalist) rationality because it requires the sale of labour power. Liberal capitalist equality is equality before the law and some measure (compared to an ascriptive society) of equality of opportunity. But even when these two equalities are realized (and of course they never have been and arguably could never be realized), they produce a severe inequality of condition.

To justify a society built up on market relations, on contract, it requires that people be roughly equal in rational and moral capability. Feudal relations, like the ones Filmer was still defending, involved the protection of dependents (weak, limited creatures like serfs, children, women, lunatics). In Aristotle domination was based upon the idea of the existence of “naturally” weaker groups of people who could not shift for themselves. In capitalist society, social relations are no longer relations of dependence. All mature adults can and must shift for themselves, even if having everyone do this means that most will reduced to a situation in which they cannot do it with equal effective rights and with “rationality”.

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