Monthly Archives: February 2012

John Locke, Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Rights

What implications does Locke’s theory have on current environmental struggles?

On April 22nd 2010, in Cochabamba Bolivia, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change drafted the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth. The document advocates the bestowing of legal rights on nature, such as that to live, to exist, to continue its “vital cycles and processes”, and to clean water and air, amongst others.

The idea of giving rights to Mother Nature has been around for some time. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, for example, has helped many municipalities in the US draft ordinances defending the inalienable rights of their ecosystems to exist in the light of the threats posed to them by corporate mining or fracking operations. It has also helped Ecuador include environmental rights within its 2008 constitution. Most environmental rights legislation obligates governments (and allows citizens) to legally defend ecosystems from threats that would significantly alter or inhibit the ecosystem’s ability to regenerate itself.

The advancement of environmental rights is a noble endeavor, one that has been equated to the abolitionist and woman suffrage movements. It is often seen as an extension of existing rights to a subject which was previously deemed inferior or negligible[1]. What is interesting, however, is to analyze the assumptions underpinning the granting of environmental rights. In fact, there are two different approaches to the issue: one occurring within Western juridical discourse and the other pertaining to aboriginal and indigenous cosmology.

According to Christopher D. Stone, nature could enjoy rights -and thus be legally defended in court- on the grounds that it cannot defend itself. This would occur in the same way as a senile elder or a child are defended in court by someone else acting in their stead. Thus, when citizens witness an ecological disaster, they could sue the party responsible for the damage by appealing to the ecosystem’s inherent rights[2]. This has been termed the “guardianship” approach, and it works well within Western jurisprudential tradition. Its core rationale is that of extending the protection of existing rights to a previously uncovered subject.

The aboriginal and indigenous people’s approach is based on radically different assumptions. Their rights-claim does not demand a mere extension of existing rights but the recognition of explicitly non-western ones. It demands that Mother Earth be recognized as “an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny”, a being enjoying intrinsic value in itself[3]. It is based on a holistic cosmology opposed to an anthropocentric (i.e. Western) understanding of nature. Within this cosmology, humans are but one part of a greater harmonious being that they are obliged to respect.

This approach breaks away from the philosophical thought informing Western juridical discourse. A brief glimpse into the theory of John Locke, the “grandfather” of modern liberal rights, will reveal how different these two approaches actually are.

John Locke builds his famous theories of individual rights and government by consent upon a hypothetical state of nature. Before modern civil society existed, humans hunted and gathered in an environment lacking property rights and political organization. The example Locke used to describe the state of nature was late seventeenth century north America, a wild and unexplored continent inhabited by Amerindian societies and those few European colonies huddled along the Atlantic seaboard.

“Thus in the beginning all the World was America

Second Treatise §49

In this setting, Locke constructs his political theory by contrasting it to Amerindian societies. Amerindians still lived in the state of nature primarily because they lacked property rights. Property rights, for Locke, were conferred when individuals mixed their labor with an object they found in nature. For example, if someone made a pot out of clay, that object was said to be rightfully hers. However, Locke did not recognize as valid the forms of labor and modes of production practiced by Amerindians. In fact, he understood of “labor” as consisting solely of European production practices such as the tilling of land, large scale husbandry or the construction of edifices. These practices, says Locke, “improved” on nature and gave it greater “value”. In his theory only European forms of labor could confer property rights –hunting, gathering and other Amerindian production practices would not[4].

“For it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing; and let any one consider what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.”

Second Treatise §34

Locke’s theory of property (a bedrock of modern jurisprudence), therefore, arises directly out of European practices of molding nature towards human needs. Modern political societies necessitate the mutual recognition of possessions acquired through labor: labor intended as the exploitation  of natural resources (“improvement”) through European productive practices . Moreover, societies which do not do so (Amerindians) are perceived by Locke and his contemporaries as still inhabiting a superseded state of nature.

The approach to environmental rights which seeks to merely extend rights to nature does not go to the root of the problem, and corresponds to a typical liberal maneuver of absorbing alterity into its avowed universality. The rights-claim advanced by indigenous peoples, contrarily, seeks to force their world-view directly into the political traditions of Western juridical discourse. It attempts to replace the Lockean idea that nature acquires worth only when it is instrumental to human uses (i.e. surplus production) with a holistic approach demanding the recognition of nature’s intrinsic worth.

Indigenous claims to environmental rights explode the historical justification which European juridical discourse has constructed for itself by challenging the social contract theorists’ conceptualizations of the state of nature. In doing so, it forces us to reconsider the alleged universality of individual rights and problematizes the rationale informing the concept of private property.


Tully, J. 1993. “The Two treatises and Aboriginal Rights” in An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Stone, C.D. 1972. Should Trees Have Standing? –Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Available online @

[1] Stone 1972

[2] Stone 1972

[3] Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth 2010:

[4] Tully 1993, p150


Filed under Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, John Locke, liberalism, political theory

Popular Sovereignty and Sovereign Debt

What does the friction between popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entail for our democratic orders? Are we experiencing a loss of popular sovereignty in the sovereign debt crisis?

Voices from both the left and the right decry the austerity measures devised by supranational institutions as amounting to nothing less but an assault on popular sovereignty. As fiscal hawks chip away at the welfare state in their “give-no-quarter” pursuit of balanced budgets, many a political pundit has donned the populist cape and rushed to the rescue of the “sovereign people”. Indeed, the austerity-medicine shoved down the throats of most European citizens -without their consent- has brought to the fore what now appear as two diametrically opposed concepts: popular sovereignty and sovereign debt.

It is easy at this point to slip into demagoguery, claiming that sovereign debts are illegitimate because, after all, “the people” did not cause the crisis. Blame the bankers, right? What is harder, however, is to understand what the friction between the concepts of popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entails for our democratic regimes. A look into the past at one of the first moments in history when this tension surfaced will help us understand the matter more profoundly.

The years were the 1690s in England, a period also known as the Financial Revolution. In 1694 the Bank of England was established to supply fresh credit to a cash-strapped Crown for the expansion of the Royal Navy’s fleet. For the first time individuals and firms could invest in the fortunes of government on the assumption that they would be paid back with interest at later date. Future revenues from taxation and/or economic growth of the nation would serve as collateral for investment – hence the build-up of national, or sovereign, debt[1].

The institution of national debt however was not well received. In fact, it implied a radical re-thinking of the relationship between the people and government. In the late seventeenth century this relationship had been defined by the political theories of civic republicanism (Harrington, Milton) and social contract theorists (Pufendorf, Locke) as one based explicitly on the consent of the governed. It was the people’s responsibility, as bearers of god-granted rights and as free citizens, to erect a government through the election of public magistrates (or monarchs) which would rule in their stead. Sovereignty ultimately resided with the people who enjoyed the right to revoke the mandate given to their representatives if their trust was breached. Late seventeenth century political consciousness generally conceived of a legitimate government as one founded upon on the will of the people and upon some idea of a social contract.

Accompanying the idea of “the people” as the original source of political sovereignty was the concept of civic virtue. The civic virtues were those qualities required by citizens and governments alike to be in control of their destiny and not succumb to external dominion. Civic virtue entailed political agency: participating in the political affairs of one’s community as a means of protecting individual freedoms. In fact, the very notion of personal liberty was intimately connected to the idea of civic virtue. Liberty was defined by a certain degree of political self-determination which ensured autonomy from external rule (the arbitrary rule of a monarch or of another nation for example). On the contrary, not being free was caused by being dependant on the will of someone or something else. Un-freedom thus entailed the condition in which one lost human agency and the ability to defend and define one’s liberty[2].

Within this conceptual universe, the idea of sovereign debt clashed with both the concepts of popular sovereignty and civic virtue. While before the fate of the nation was conceived as inextricably tied to the political agency of the sovereign people, now sovereign debt chained the fortunes of government to the will of anonymous investors. As nations increasingly relied on external and private credit (and eventually on the issuing of bonds), it was perceived that the people would steadily lose political agency and control over the fate of their nations. Sovereign debt therefore created a condition of dependence of government towards creditors. And, as we have seen, dependence signified the loss of civil freedom[3].

In such a way, the stability of government was no longer sustained by the civic virtue of its citizens, nor from that holy pact called the social contract. Now, government was to rely on the fickle nature of investors and what would eventually become the almighty bond market. As the historian J.G.A. Pocock puts it:

“Stability of government in the present became linked to the self-perpetuation of speculation concerning the future … government and politics seemed to have been placed at the mercy of passion, fantasy and appetite, and these forces were known to feed on themselves and to be without moral limit”[4]

“Booms and busts, bulls and bears became the determinants of politics”[5]

The lesson we may draw from this historical example is not that sovereign debt is intrinsically bad. Every modern government must at some point take up debt in order to deliver on its responsibilities. The lesson here is in recognizing the dangers posed by the loss of democratic control over the institutions of public governance. Increasingly the policies of sovereign nations are unduly influenced by credit rating agencies, international markets and anonymous investors through their speculating and passing judgment over sovereign debt. Brought to an extreme this situation becomes incompatible with the basic tenets of democracy. Subsuming popular sovereignty to the arbitrary whim of capricious markets robs the concept of the social contract of its fundamental source of legitimacy, namely, what Locke called the “consent of the governed”.

The political discourses of the late seventeenth century show us that, at times, the machinations of the world of finance and the balanced functioning of a democratic regime may be at odds. It also warns us that dependence of our governments on unaccountable institutions minimizes the political agency of citizens, thereby curbing our democratic freedoms first of which is the exercise of democratic control over government. No matter how serious the sovereign debt crisis may be, democracy and popular sovereignty must remain non-negotiable.


Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 1990. “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty”, in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Pocock 1985, p69

[2] Skinner 1990

[3] Pocock 1985, p69

[4] Pocock 1985, p112

[5] Pocock 1985, p112


Filed under Democratic Theory, John Locke, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract

Innovation and Indignation: from Tahrir to Liberty Square

They say that when America catches a cold the rest of the world gets pneumonia. Even a mild recession in the US is able to send ripples of influence throughout the globe which balloon into tsunamis of change for third world countries. And yet, recent events have turned this statement on its head. A street vendor in Tunisia, by setting himself on fire when bullied by the regime’s police, set in motion a chain of events which eventually worked their way back to the very epicenter of US financial power. From that initial act of immolation, a shared sentiment of indignation spread to Tahrir square, hopped over the Mediterranean to the “Indignados” at Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and eventually jumped the Atlantic to Zucotti Park, placing itself right under the mighty halls of Wall Street. It is one of those rare moments in history when events at the neglected “periphery” of capitalism profoundly shake the previously unassailable financial and political hegemony of institutions such as Wall Street.

And yet, many say, there is not much in common between these worldwide protests other than a sentiment of indignation. The Economist recently labeled the OWS and European Indignados movements as protesters merely venting their “rage against the machine”, simply reacting to inequality and denied opportunity[1]. Moreover, these movements are often portrayed as heterogeneous groups, articulating disparate demands ranging from the environmentalist to the anarchist, and incapable of producing coherent political programs or leaders. Although these critiques may have a point they should not be understood as inherent weaknesses of these movements, on the contrary they are the source of a novel strength and resilience. Within these collages of disparate identities we find much more than mere indignation: we find a common logic of democratic re-appropriation expressed through the reclaiming of a public space -a space in which to collectively construct alternatives to an unsustainable system embodied by Wall Street.

Let us take for example the Indignados movements in Europe and compare them to the Occupy movements in the US. A brief look at European demands reveals a greater concern for the protection of those public services which are presently under attack by austerity measures devised by unaccountable supranational institutions. Another popular demand is an end to the lavish privileges that many European politicians have bestowed upon themselves. On the other side of the pond, throughout the Occupy movements, a common demand is the end to the influence that big corporations and Wall Street exert on the democratic process. Despite differences in their claims -which reflect local and national contingencies- there is much more that ties the Indignados and OWS together in a truly global framework for change.

Both the Occupy movements and the European Indignados share similar organizational strategies which are non-hierarchical, horizontal and which aim at achieving the broadest consensus possible when collectively taking decisions in assemblies. Both have also embraced a staunchly non-violent stance in regards to police repression. Many of these strategies were first adopted by the Spanish Indignados and eventually exported to OWS. In fact the Spaniards, taking from the Egyptians, demonstrated how powerful the form of protest of indefinite occupation of a public square actually is -not only in its organizational successes but more so in what it represents symbolically.

The act of occupying has a specific logic behind it. Firstly, it is the reclaiming of a public space in which difference and social plurality may be expressed. The celebration of difference in these movements shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. The occupied square provides an inclusive platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by our present political system.

Secondly, the occupied public square is a space of transparency. Every decision is taken openly, publicly and collaboratively. There are no deals being made behind closed doors as all assemblies record what they deliberate and make it available for all to see online. This is in stark contrast to the unaccountable, obscure and far-removed ways our political and economic institutions are run and reminds us that transparency is a pre-requisite for democracy.

Thirdly, the occupied public square is a space in which to construct an alternative to the status quo through the exercise of direct and participatory democracy. It provides the space in which we can confront each other so as to come up with new ideas to challenge the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism which feeds upon the democratic deficit it is responsible for.

Every movement is different and will produce different claims. But what makes these movements truly global is not a common shopping-list of demands. What links Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol and Zucotti Park is that shared feeling of denied basic dignity which spurs the will to construct spaces and organizational methods which defy the “business as usual” paradigm. It is that constructive will to re-create our financial and political institutions so that difference is adequately represented, where there exists an effort for transparency and accountability, and where collective decisions are taken in a more participatory manner. This shared will creates the empathic channels through which events at the periphery of the first world are finally able to influence even the most powerful institutions on earth. Today, when Tahrir square catches a cold, Wall Street shudders.

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Filed under Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, social movements