Tag Archives: John Locke

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.

Bibliography

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 @ http://www.derechosdelanaturaleza.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/C.Stone-Should-Trees-Having-Standings.pdf


[1] Stone 1972

[2] Stone 1972

[3] Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth 2010: http://pwccc.wordpress.com/programa/

[4] Tully 1993, p150

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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.

Bibliography

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

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

The Retreat to the State of Nature

The Tea Party’s Denial of the Enlightenment

Taming Leviathan

The economic views embraced by the Tea Party movement understand of big government as the major cause of America’s financial woes. An expansive, gargantuan and leviathan-like state is not only inefficient in delivering public services, but also has no right to decide what is right or wrong for private individuals. “Freedom to choose” said Milton Friedman in the 1960s, while calling for a retreat of the Keynesian welfare state in the name of private sector efficiency and individual freedom. Echoing neo-classical economics, the Tea Party movement calls for limited government and fiscal austerity through the reigning in of public spending particularly in services such as healthcare and education. However, this popular resurgence of neo-liberal ideology should be viewed with a critical eye, particularly because of its fiercely oppositional and almost phobic attitude towards the role government in society. We must ask therefore whether such a staunch and borderline-paranoid perception of government is in some way detrimental to American national unity and to its democratic process.

            The fierce rejection of government, accompanied by a deep suspicion of politics, in fact implies a denial of democratic values and traditions. Brought to its logical extreme, economic libertarianism attempts to remodel social interactions upon individuals inhabiting a state of nature devoid of an intrusive government. This represents a denial of the social contract, a rejection of democratic politics and the refutation of the politics of the enlightenment (with all of its flaws of course).

The Nightwatchman State

            Both libertarian and neo-classical economic theories –which the Tea Party movement broadly seems to subscribe to- believe that government should be limited for two main reasons. Firstly because individuals possess the inalienable right of self-ownership: they own themselves and the fruit of their labor. Government therefore has no right to coercively redistribute what they have acquired through the sweat of their brow. In addition, government has no right to force individuals to do anything which they don’t consent to, for example buying health insurance[1]. The second reason why government should be limited is that government formulates public policy on the basis of what it considers to be the common good. However, as David Hume and J. S. Mill have taught, and as F.A. Hayek has re-iterated, there is no way of discerning what this common good empirically is, as every single individual has a divergent conception of it. Centralized national planning (such as healthcare or education programs) should therefore be resisted[2].

            Without burdensome regulation and heavy taxation, so the theory assumes, private companies and entrepreneurs will be able to deliver efficient services which cater to specific consumer needs. The role of government in society is therefore minimal, as its main concerns become protecting the nation’s borders, protecting citizens and property, providing a just legal framework and enforcing private contracts[3]. There is of course disagreement over the extent to which government should be limited. Hayek and Friedman are critical of a complete laissez fair order; while, in Robert Nozick’s utopia, government should limit itself only to the protection of citizens and the enforcement of contracts, thereby merely acting as a night watchman.

The Retreat to the State of Nature

            Brought to its logical extreme, the doctrine of limited or minimal government implies the remodeling of society upon a world in which political participation and democratic deliberation are replaced by voluntary interactions between individuals in the state of nature. In its most extreme form, economic libertarianism does away with the idea of a community of consenting citizens while retaining solely individual natural rights. Moreover, it implies that the political act of national self-determination could be in some sense morally wrong because it offends the natural liberty of the individual by imposing laws and norms decided through a collective process.

            But what is the state of nature exactly? As employed by the social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it referred to a condition of mankind before it entered civil society and before it erected authority or government: in short, before real society existed. A brief look at three of the most important social contract theorists will help us understand this concept better.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau the state of nature is a hypothetical thought experiment used to determine mankind’s natural conditions, impulses and behaviors. Humans in the state of nature are neither good nor evil[4]. They live in a primitive world which is scarcely populated, where individuals are isolated from one another and where the only concern is that of self preservation. The impulse of self-preservation is however tempered by our inborn capacity for compassion, so that natural law tells us to “do good to yourself with as little possible harm to others”[5]. Humans become evil and selfish once they enter into society, when they begin to establish relations amongst themselves based on natural inequalities such as strength and intelligence.

            For John Locke, the state of nature is one where god created all humans free and equal. Natural law, which is discoverable by men through the application of their reason, tells individuals that everyone as god’s children possess the right to enjoy their life, liberty and property. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”[6]. However, in Locke’s state of nature, every man possesses the ability to exact his or her own justice, a condition which leads to the “State of War”. Individuals should therefore alienate this ability to a government established by the consent of the governed and ruled by law.

            Finally, for Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is one in which every individual is solely concerned with preserving his or her life. The instinct of self –preservation inevitably clashes against that of others in the competition for scarce resources. This leads to the omnium bellum contra omnes: the war of all against all, and “it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.”[7]. As a result, the life of man in the state of nature is “poore, nasty, brutish and short”[8]. Only a complete surrender of all rights to a powerful sovereign, which will keep all individuals in awe, will allow for a condition of peace. 

The Libertarian State of Nature

            In  Anarchy State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick founds his theory of the minimal state upon Locke’s state of nature, in which humans are born with the inalienable rights to their life, liberty and possessions. More importantly, we are all born with the right of self-ownership: we own ourselves and the fruit of our labor. Mankind in the state of nature is thus in a “state of perfect freedom” [9], a condition which Nozick, as a libertarian, aims to preserve. However, in this state there is no institution which provides for the fair distribution of justice, thus every individual may exact his own justice inevitably leading to the “state of war”. For Locke, men should therefore erect a government to which they all consent, thereby instituting a social contract between citizens and governors based on trust and the rule of law. Nozick, however, does not agree. There is no real need for such a process as something resembling the state may arise out of the state of nature through an “invisible hand explanation”.

            Nozick believes that individuals in the state of nature will spontaneously bond together in “protective associations”. Such voluntary associations would protect their members’ life, liberty and possessions. Eventually, out of the maelstrom of competing protective associations one would muscle out competition and establish itself as the “dominant protective agency” [10]. This dominant protective agency fulfils the basic Weberian role of the state: providing for the monopoly of legitimate force within a territory, which for Nozick, qualifies as a minimal state. This is an “invisible hand explanation” of the emergence of government from the state of nature, as it arises spontaneously without a conscious collective effort[11].

“We have explained how, without anyone having this in mind, the self-interested and rational actions of persons in a Lockean state of nature will lead to single protective agencies dominant over geographical territories; each territory will have either one dominant agency or a number of agencies federally affiliated so as to constitute, in essence, one.” (Nozick 1974, p. 118)

The Invisible Hand vs. the Social Contract

            Nozick’s minimal state therefore emerges directly out of the state of nature and models itself upon natural and spontaneous behavior of individuals interacting in the state of nature. This is in direct contrast with the whole of the social contract tradition upon which the democratic politics of the enlightenment are founded. All three of the social contract theorists we have looked at propose some sort of contract between individuals and a sovereign body with the specific aim of lifting ourselves from the state of nature.

            Thomas Hobbes believed that in order to stop the “war of all against all” we must institute a commonwealth so as to give up our rights to a sovereign which will establish peace and prohibit the private use of force:

“A Common-wealth is said to be instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly of Men, shall be given by the major part , the Right to Present the Person of them all.” (Leviathan, Part II, Chap. XVIII)

For John Locke it is the duty of man towards God to establish a government by consent which protects the natural liberties of individuals through the rule of law:

“And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a Society. And this is that, and only that, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful Government in the World.” (Second Treatise  §99)

Finally, for Rousseau, individuals cannot subsist in the state of nature and are thus required to come together and establish a sovereign body through the social contract:

“This act of association produces a moral and collective body made up of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives by the same act its unity, its common self, its life and its will…As for the associates, they collectively assume the name people and individually call themselves Citizens as participants in the sovereign authority, and Subjects as subjected to the laws of the State.” (The Social Contract, Book 1, Chap. 7)

Nozick’s idea of the minimal state does not lift people out of the state of nature, but is aimed specifically at reproducing the conditions of “perfect freedom” found in such a state. Yet, the idea that a government may arise spontaneously through an “invisible hand mechanism” represents a denial of the social contract theory tradition. The establishment of the minimal or “night watchman” state  is bereft of a founding political moment of collective self-determination. This implies a veiled attempt of denying social and national unity, democratic deliberation and citizen participation. It also implies a denial of the categories of the citizen and of government which are the participants of the social contract.

European and American democratic traditions are not perfect. Carole Pateman has revealed a sexual contract hidden within the idea of the social contract, thereby exposing the displacement of the female sex. Similarly, Bikhu Parekh and James Tully have shown how western democratic politics exclude different cultures through the establishment o universal rights[12]. However, the complete denial of democratic politics represented by a libertarian retreat to the state nature is very dangerous. The democratic politics of the enlightenment should be exposed for their colonialist, misogynist and exclusionary characteristics, but they must also be used as a platform on which to construct a broader participatory and more inclusive democratic framework. Let us not deny the social contract. Now, more than ever, we must revive it so as to counter the grave democratic deficit which is crippling our political and economic institutions.

Bibliography

  • Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom
  • Hobbes, T. 1996. Leviathan, ed. Tuck, R. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Locke, J. 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, P. Cambridge University Press
  • Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell: Oxford
  • Rousseau, J. 1984. A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin: London
  • Rousseau, J. 1997. “Of The Social Contract” in The Social Contract and other later Political Writings” ed. Gourevitch, V. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Steger, M.B., Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Hayek 1944, p 79

[3] Steger & Roy 2010, p 14

[4] Rousseau 1984, p 98

[5] Rousseau 1984, p 101

[6] Locke, Second Treatise §6

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIV

[8] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIII

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, §4

[10] Nozick 1974, p 17

[11] Nozick 1974, p 18

[12] See Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract (1988), Bikhu Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism (2002), and James Tully’s Strange Multiplicity (1995)

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Libertarianism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract, Tea Party, Thomas Hobbes, Uncategorized

The Liberal Ontos

Subjectivity and Raison D’état in Liberal Democracies

“You either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism …or else you criticise the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality.”

Foucault “What is the Enlightenment?” 1984, p43

Intro

In What is the Enlightenment (1984) Michel Foucault refuses what he calls “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”: he refuses to be “for” or “against” it. One of Foucault’s main objects of study was to understand the techniques and disciplines utilized by modern governments and their role in the creation of the modern individual. His aim was to expose the relation between the subject and subjectivity and between power and knowledge. As he saw modernity as the product of the Enlightenment, and as he deeply disagreed with modern governmental disciplinary techniques, Foucault set out to understand how the Enlightenment produced such coercive modern institutions. He sought to do this without condoning the disciplinary techniques of modernity as inevitable products of the Enlightenment, but at the same time without refuting the Enlightenment’s tradition as a whole. Refusing the blackmail of the Enlightenment would require embarking on a “historical ontology of the self”, a genealogy of subjectivity which would reveal the relation between the individual, understood as an autonomous agent, and the state, the governor of subjects through liberal-democratic rationalities.

Nowhere else does Foucault address this problem more concisely than in his lectures on Governmentality. It is here that he discusses the raison d’état of the early liberalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that of modern liberal mass democracies. Foucault’s studies expose the pivotal power relationship between governmental rationalities and individual subjectivity, and traces how this relationship changes from its birth during the Enlightenment to contemporary expressions of neo-liberalism.

What Foucault’s work allows us to address are the political rationalities on which early and modern liberalism rest. This, in turn, enables us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our rights, liberties and democratic agency as free and autonomous citizens. What does it mean to be in liberal democracies? This is the central question of the “historical ontology of ourselves”. Answering it requires exposing one of liberalism’s most explosive tensions: namely, that between its alleged neutrality in regards to conceptions of the “common good” and its imposition of an abstract and universal understanding of the self. Studies in governmentality allow us to clearly see that liberalism is not in fact value-neutral but rests on strong and well founded epistemological and ontological assumptions. Exposing the violence embedded in these assumptions is the main object of this enquiry.

The first part of the essay will analyse Foucault’s understanding of early and modern liberal political rationalities, delving into the differences between the principle of sovereignty as opposed to scientific knowledge. The second part will demonstrate how liberalism has presented itself through history as the ideology based on the tenets of negative liberty and limited government. This will be then contrasted with the particular ontological assumptions liberal government attributes to its democratic citizens. In turn, this will enable us to challenge the symbolic framework with which we come to understand ourselves as free and autonomous agents, thereby exposing the tension between liberalism’s alleged value-neutrality and its imposition of a particular form of subjectivity. I will conclude with a brief discussion of contemporary liberal subjectivity occurring in neo-liberalism.

Liberal Raison D’état

In his lecture Governmentality (1991), Foucault traces a distinctive change regarding social policy in the transition from early to modern liberalism. Early liberalism – that based on theorists such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf or Locke – grounded the legitimacy of government on the principle of sovereignty. Eighteenth century liberal political rationality is based on the concepts of popular sovereignty, limited government, the social contract, natural rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the subject over which the government rules has a distinct identity. Early liberal subjectivity conceives of the individual as a rational being who is constituted prior to society: a transcendental self, equal to all others in the eyes of God, with inalienable natural rights and liberties. As such, governing citizens required minimum state intervention and the codification of clear demarcations between the state and civil society as well as between the public and the private. In short, law and its juridical apparatus are the sole legitimate instruments through which the state could govern its subjects (Foucault 1991, p95)

However, Foucault points out that beginning in the eighteenth century the exponential growth of population and the expansion of commerce begin to morph the way government firstly relates to its citizens and secondly comes to conceive of them. As governing over large populations becomes increasingly difficult, scientific knowledge comes to the aid of the state, providing it with averages, statistics, surveys and studies which generalize and calculate virtually every conceivable characteristic of society with the aim of efficientizing and simplifying the art of government. Foucault suggests that this type of knowledge, garnered through the developing fields of the social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics, eventually came to supplant the rule of law as a more efficient technique of governing. It was not enough to threaten citizens with harsh penalties for breaking the law. Subjects could be made to conform to laws not through deterrent, but by following the suggestions of the social sciences which produced “truths” and “norms”. This expert knowledge pontificated, to citizens and governments alike, how populations should behave “normally”. Therefore norms garnered through authoritative and scientific sources provided statistics, averages and means to which the population would synchronize itself in order firstly to ensure domestic tranquillity and secondly to actually improve itself (Foucault 1980, p105).

Thus, a defining feature of modern liberalism is that it increasingly grounds its legitimacy in socio-scientific knowledge rather than in the juridical apparatus (Ashenden 2010, p62). It does not govern through the limited architecture of “rights and duties of citizens” but rather guides its population towards efficiency and self-improvement, so that citizens may exercise their inalienable freedoms in a disciplined fashion (Dean 1999, p175). The modern liberal subject is now conceived not only as a static bearer of rights and liberties but as someone who conforms to normal and reasonable codes of conduct. The patterns of behaviour he or she is supposed to follow are not derived from transcendental notions such as “the state of nature” or “natural rights”, but from what scientific knowledge has calculated to be normal, healthy, balanced and productive (Foucault 1984, 74).

Foucault asserts that advanced liberal democracies govern their subjects through a “demonic” mix of the early and modern political rationalities of liberalism. Today’s Western governments exercise their power firstly on the legitimacy of the concept of popular sovereignty and secondly through the techniques of disciplines offered by the sciences (Foucault 1980, p106). This is the theoretical context, as presented by Foucault, in which I wanted to place liberalism. Now I would like to analyse how liberalism presents itself as a coherent and unified ideology through time, and how is it that it has come to be the dominant political rationality.

Limited Government

From its earliest inceptions, liberalism presents itself as the theory of limited government. But why limited government? This is because it perceives as dangerous and potentially destructive any notion of the common good which could jeopardize the natural liberties of individuals. Government is limited in the sense that its primary purpose is restricted to the protection of the self-regulating sphere of civil society (Hindess 1996, p67). For example, early liberal theorists saw the wars of religion that had ravished Europe as factions of fanatics engaging in mass slaughter to impose an alleged divine order. The social unrest generated by religious strife destroyed and taxed property, inhibited progress and, more importantly, was bad for business. It is the imposition of a unitary notion of what is “right”, “divine” or “good” which liberalism sees as potentially dangerous and conducive to civil strife. Its emphasis on religious toleration embodies one of its earliest rejections of totalizing world-views and a move towards a neutral position in regards of what is “good”.

This is evident in Hobbes’s criticism of Christianity (directed primarily at the Pope and Scottish Presbyterians alike) in books III and IV of Leviathan, in which he states that religious strife was responsible for civil war and social unrest in the commonwealth. For the sake of stability and the preservation of life, Hobbes concludes that the sovereign should control the sphere of public worship in order to avert sectarian violence waged in the name of spiritual convictions. Privately, anyone could believe what they wished, as Hobbes fully embraced Parliament’s principle of Independency, that is, religious toleration (Tuck 1996, p.xliii). Similarly, Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration describes toleration firstly as a basic Christian value and secondly as an inalienable right (Tully 1993, p.57). But these early liberal theorists were not solely opposed to the imposition of totalizing religious orders but also of political ones. In Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) Quentin Skinner gives a detailed description of Hobbes’s rejection of civic-republican as well as classical notions of freedom. Hobbes believed that republican intentions of instituting popular sovereignty on Aristotelian assumptions were just as responsible for civil strife as religious factions were (Skinner 2008, p.75). In the same way, Locke’s Two Treatises are an attack on the illegitimacy of the divine right of kings, as his specific aim was that of delegitimizing authoritarian and absolutist claims to sovereignty (Dunn 1969, p67). Hence the stress on a limited form of government, with the main purpose of averting totalizing claims (be them religious, absolutist or civic republican) which can potentially deprive the inalienable and natural rights of freedom and self-government pertaining to individuals in civil society.

We can therefore see that liberal hallmarks such as representative forms of democracy, checks and balances, bicameralism and the separation of powers are all instituted with the aim of protecting the otherwise self-regulating sphere of civil society from a potentially coercive government. A brief look at James Madison’s Federalist X will reveal a plan for an architecture of government with the specific aim of diffusing the fiery passions of the “tyranny of the majority” and of violent factions (Madison 1987, p125). From Mill, to Berlin, to Rawls, liberalism offers a negative understanding of liberty whose main purpose is that of assuring neutrality and averting the encroachment of any dangerous conception of the common good (positive liberty) which could spiral out of control and into totalitarianism (Berlin 1969, p152). As such, liberalism has emerged victorious in modern history: it has achieved religious toleration, abolished the divine right of kings, survived the nationalisms and totalitarianisms of the First and Second World War and defeated the Soviet Union in the last great ideological duel of the twentieth century. Moreover it has done so by not imposing any apparent form of subjectivity on its citizens: liberalism perceives of individuals as self-determined subjects with inalienable rights and liberties. It rejects any particularised ontological grounding of the individual, limiting itself to the protection of a self-regulating and interest-motivated civil society within which individuals can perceive themselves as they see fit (Burchell 1999, p133).

The “Doubling” of Liberal Ontology

So we must ask now how the previous exposition of liberalism as proposed by Foucault can serve as a basis for a profound critique of the symbolic framework within which liberalism conceives of its subjects and within which citizens perceive of themselves. As I have shown, Foucault asserts that there are two distinct political rationalities working within liberalism: one based on the seventeenth century concept of sovereignty and the other, more modern, on socio-scientific knowledge which provides the government with the necessary expertise (and legitimacy) with which to govern. This in turn engenders a doubling of liberal subjectivity: the individual is simultaneously a bearer of rights and liberties as well as a subject to be studied, disciplined and made to improve him/herself. It is towards a critique of this doubling of liberal subjectivity to which we must turn now.

Liberal subjectivity engendered by the concept of sovereignty conceives of the individual as a rights bearing entity which is constituted prior to society. Most of the social contract theorists perceive the individual as possessing certain a priori characteristics which are not the product of political arrangements or social articulations but which are transcendental values granted by God. James Tully points out that the state of nature is an abstract condition: a “quasi transcendental speech situation” from which we derive an understanding of the self as being free and equal (Tully 1995 p64). Michael Sandel asserts that the Kantian notion of the universal self claims transcendence because it is constituted and imagined prior to the social, economic and political conditions in which an individual is born. “The antecedent unity of the self means that the subject, however heavily conditioned by his surroundings, is always, irreducibly, prior to his values and ends, and never fully constituted by them” (Sandel 1982, p22). This specific ontological articulation allows liberalism to claim a neutral stance. Contrarily, say, to an Aristotelian understanding of the self as the zoon politicon which can fulfil its telos solely through political participation, liberalism refracts the constitution of subjectivity to a higher and universal level of abstraction. In such a way, natural rights are prior to any other value, conception of the good, culture or religion. This allows thinkers such as Rawls (1993, p10) to articulate a theory of political liberalism as based on the priority of the right over the good: a theory which is perfectly compatible with liberalism’s fundamental mandate – limited government.

On the other hand, Foucault shows how liberal subjectivity changes once modern governments begin to act on individuals on the basis of evidence garnered through the social sciences. The conception of the transcendental self which defined early liberalism is now complemented by an understanding of the self as expounded by anthropology, psychology and sociology. These new typologies of knowledge produce what Foucault calls norms. On the basis of empirical evidence, presented in the form of statistics, calculations and percentages, governments formulate policies which enforce correct codes of conduct and particular patterns of behaviour which are deemed to be “normal” (Rose 1989, p6). For example, scientific studies suggesting a healthy diet or daily exercise are examples of norms which point to specific forms of behaviour meant to efficientize, help and improve individuals. As suggested by Rose (1989, p4), this knowledge shapes subjectivity: individuals see the “ideal self” as someone with a healthy diet and which exercises regularly and aspire to achieve that status.

In this sense, scientific knowledge is not an imposition of the government, but is rather a suggestion of a way to improve oneself. We must always bear in mind that liberalism views society as a self-regulating sphere on which it has no right to intrude, let alone dictate what to eat or when to exercise. Norms, therefore play the pivotal role of guiding and channelling the behaviour and interests of individuals in a productive and disciplined fashion. At the same time these codes of behaviour entail the need for the individual to synchronize his or her person to them: hence the link between subjectivity and norms. But how are norms created? Norms are averages. For example, the idea of the “average man” is a norm. It is derived through statistical information which tells us what the average man’s height is, how much he should weigh, how old he is and what kind of income he has. Mitchell Dean (1999, p171) refers to norms as “counter-factual and self referential”: they refer to us, but are pure abstractions. The “average man” does not exist: he is an arithmetic construct and blind calculation of what a man should look and behave like. This is the profound critique to modern liberal ontology which Foucault allows us to make. Therefore, we can see a doubling in the abstraction of the self as present by liberalism: the individual is at once a transcendental being deriving his or her rights from the abstract condition of the state of nature, as well as the product of blind statistics pointing to non-existent stereotypes.

Challenging the Symbolic Framework

Foucault’s work allows us to point out where liberalism is at its most hypocritical. While claiming to be the only ideology capable of ensuring individual autonomy without imposing conceptions of the common good on its society, it also makes very specific assumptions on the nature of the individual, of how civil society behaves, and on the relation between government and population. By exposing the assumptions that liberalism rests on, in its early and modern articulations, we finally see that both natural law and empirically determined norms are firmly grounded in the realm of abstraction and not in alleged objectivity. Far from receding from the realm of the metaphysical, liberalism ascends to a new level of abstraction, manufacturing universals which inform and construct the modern self. It is behind the “neutral” conceptualizations of the self that we find liberalism’s hidden violence: in a globalized world, the vast majority of the population finds it very difficult to conceptualize of the self as being constituted by transcendental rights and having to behave in rational (read Western) ways. The post-modern point worth making here is that individuals all over the world can equally identify themselves in ethnic, nationalistic, gender, religious, class or cultural terms, and not universal liberal ones. The imposition of liberal forms of subjectivity which the west has unleashed on the world (often with the most sincere and benevolent intentions) nonetheless have had devastating consequences: from socio-political marginalization of minorities to “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Not only must we be weary of the imposition of early forms of liberal subjectivity, but we must also be critical of the modern manufacturing of norms. Although it claims neutrality in regards to any conceptions of the good, the production of norms is not a mere exercise of blind scientific calculations, but the creation of statements which suggest the “right” way to behave and think. Ashenden points out that norms work on the normal-abnormal polarity, where “normal” inevitably points to what is “good” and abnormal to what is “bad”. Behind the veil of socio-scientific objectivity norms make profound normative statements (Ashenden 2010, p72). These, in turn, are based on very specific Eurocentric assertions which state that the individual behaves according to his or her interest-motivated choice. Norms are built upon a thoroughly capitalist conception of civil society in which individuals interact and are motivated by rational choice: a sphere which spontaneously regulates itself thanks to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (Burchell 1991, p134). Hence the normative and value-laden charge of norms suggests “right”, “correct” and ultimately “good” patterns of behaviour which are however inextricably enmeshed within western capitalist conceptions of the individual, of society and of government.

Conclusion

Two conclusions follow from our discussion. Firstly, an analysis of Foucault’s understanding of liberal political rationalities and subjectivities enable us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our freedoms. This is one of the key challenges of our times: instead of hiding behind a “veil of ignorance” and procedures ensuring neutrality, liberalism should bear full responsibility for the exclusions and violence it commits in the name of its very enlightened principles. The West’s problematic approaches to multiculturalism, the troubled relations with the Middle East and a grave democratic deficit are problems which can be traced back to the adoption of a symbolic framework which rests heavily on abstract and universal notions which are faltering in today’s globalized world. It is high time that liberalism recognizes that it too, as much as civic republicans, Marxists or Islamic fundamentalists, is promoting, imposing and exporting a conception of the “common good”. Perhaps the very ideology championing negative liberty should heed the warnings of Isaiah Berlin.

The second conclusion we derive from our argument is that Foucault’s work points towards a new terrain of contestation. This novel battlefield is located within the institutions where norms and socio-scientific knowledge are produced. If, according to Foucault, socio-scientific knowledge informs and sustains our very subjectivity, then such knowledge must be criticised and contested for the sake of the very definition of the self. Moreover, as neo-liberalism increasingly devolves, decentralizes and privatizes norm-creating institutions (think lower and higher education, hospitals, insane asylums, the armed forces, jails) citizens lose the scant democratic control they have on the production of normalising knowledge, thereby forfeiting any participation in the production of ontological discourse and abandoning it to the vagrancies of the fee-market.

Bibliography

Ashenden, S. 2010, “Legality, Legitimacy and the Circumstances of Sociology” in Tarnhill and Ashenden, S. Eds., Legality, Legitimacy: Normative and Sociological Approaches, Nomos, Baden Baden

Berlin, I. 1969 Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press

Burchell, M. 199, “Peculiar Interests: Civil Society and Governing the System of “Natural Liberty” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P. Eds., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Dean, M. 1999, “Normalizing Democracy: Foucault and Habermas on Democracy, Liberalism and Law” in Ashenden, S., Owen, eds. Foucault Contra Habermas, Sage, London

Dunn, J. 1969, The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Foucault, M. 1980 “Two Lectures” in Gordon, C. ed., Power/Knowledge, Harvester Press, Essex

Foucault, M. 1984, “Truth and Power” in Rabinow, P. Ed. The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London

Foucault, M. 1984,What is the Enlightenment” in Rabinow, P. Ed. The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London

Foucault, M. 1991, “Governmentality” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Hindess, B., 1996, “Liberalism Socialism and Democracy: Variations on a Governmental Theme” in Barry, Osborne, Rose, eds. Foucault and Political Reason, UCL Press, London

Madison, Hamilton, Jay. 1987 The Federalist Papers, Penguin, London

Rawls, J 1993. Political Liberalism. Columbia University press, New York

Rose, N. 1989 Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. Free Association Press, London

Sandel, M.  J. 1982, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 2008 Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tuck, R. “Introduction” in Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tully, J. 1993, An approach to political philosophy: Locke in contexts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tully, J. 1995 Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Michel Foucault, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes

In Defence of Limited Government

Can we best understand Locke’s Second Treatise as a defence of secular rights and property or as an essentially Calvinist call for men and government to do their duty to God?

Intro

Much of the debate regarding the true meaning of Locke’s Second Treatise has revolved around the pivotal chapter five: Of Property. On one hand, some scholars assert that it serves as an apology to individual wealth accumulation thereby marking the genesis of the liberal capitalist order; on the other hand, some assert that Locke’s theory of property cannot be understood outside of the theological context in which it was written. Both sides of the argument present valid points, however adopting only one of them would be incorrect as a complete understanding of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and a specific understanding of chapter five, requires a detailed contextualisation of John Locke the man and his work.

This paper will argue that the Second Treatise is indeed a defence of secular rights and property. However, the particular way in which Locke justifies and legitimizes both his theory of property and his conception of limited government is grounded in a theological understanding of the duty of men and civil society to follow divine will as prescribed by natural law. This means that we cannot begin to speculate on the possible meanings of the Second Treatise without recognizing the theological context in which Locke was working, living and writing. In other words, Locke could not propose any theory of secular rights or property without grounding it on a solid religious base.

Debate regarding the true understanding of the Second Treatise was inflamed by C.B. Macpherson’s work The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) in which he asserted that Locke’s intention was to provide a moral justification for unlimited individual wealth accumulation. For Macpherson, Locke was not merely sowing the seeds of what would eventually blossom into modern capitalism, but was actually presenting an apology for an existing capitalist order complete with wage relationships and class exploitation. Macpherson’s argument is complemented by Leo Strauss’s essay in Natural Right and History (1953) in which he states that Locke’s theory is guided by the principle of self-preservation (as was Hobbes’s) and that it ultimately accounts to a protection of property and life.

On the other side of the argument, we find James Tully (1980, 1993), John Dunn (1969, 1984) and Jeremy Waldron (2002) arguing for a theological understanding of Locke’s theory. These authors, particularly Dunn, endeavour to show that it is not possible to recover Locke’s original meaning without recognizing the normative theological vocabulary of the late 1600s (Tully 1993, p99). Moreover, a complete understanding requires the recognition of three factors that shaped Locke’s thought: the Exclusion Bill crisis, the centrality of the theory of limited government and natural law as prescribed by divine will.

The first two sections of the essay will explore the interpretation of Locke’s theory by both Macpherson and Strauss. They will specifically analyse firstly Macpherson’s idea of the transcendence of natural law and secondly Strauss’s assertion that Locke does not in fact base natural law in God. The third part of the essay will begin by offering a historical contextualisation of Locke, while the subsequent sections will critique Macpherson and Strauss’s ideas through an analysis firstly of Locke’s understanding of limited government and secondly of natural law. In the concluding remarks, it will be suggested that Macpherson’s thesis can be generally accepted solely if it recognizes that Locke’s intent in the Second Treatise was in fact not to justify the claims of a nascent bourgeois class, but to provide a theory of limited government which genuinely based its assumptions on natural law and the duty of men and governments to God.

Possessive Individualism

For C.B. Macpherson, Locke’s sole purpose in the Second Treatise was to provide a moral justification for unlimited wealth appropriation (1962, p198). “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property” (Second Treatise -ST from now on-, §124). From this statement, Macpherson begins to construct a critique of Locke’s theory which involves the movement of property rights from the state of nature into civil society. This occurs in two steps: firstly by basing property rights on natural law, and secondly by removing the limitations of natural law from property accumulation. “The Law Man was under, was rather for appropriating. God Commanded, and his Wants forced him to labour. That was his Property which could not be taken from him where-ever he had fixed it.” (ST, §35) Locke shows that it is natural law and God’s will which commands mankind to labour. When a person mixes his/her labour with the objects of the world (which is given as a gift by God in common to all mankind) that act of labour confers an exclusive right on the object taken out of the commons. However, Locke puts a very specific limitation on the extent of appropriation, the famous “proviso”, where he states that men can appropriate in so much that there is enough left for other men to meet their basic sustenance (ST, §36). The other limitation Locke imposes on property appropriation is what Macpherson calls the “spoilage limitation” (1962, p204), where men may appropriate as long as the objects they appropriate do not spoil, rot or perish (ST, §46). This is what Macpherson’s refers to as Locke’s first step: the grounding of property rights in natural law.

It is the second movement that Locke performs which Macpherson sees as problematic: the transcendence of the limitations set out by natural law. Macpherson presents us with the three limitations, these being the spoilage limitation, the “proviso” (as long as there is enough left for others) and the labour limitation (only by mixing one’s labour with an object can one appropriate it). It is through the removal of these limitations that Macpherson sees Locke as justifying unlimited property accumulation and where we witness a “transition from the limited right to the unlimited right” (1962, p203). According to Macpherson, it is the introduction of money in the state of nature which allows for the limitations to be transcended, when men “had agreed that a little piece of yellow Metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of Flesh, or a whole heap of Corn.” (ST, §37) In this way, if money cannot perish because it is made out of metal, the spoilage limitation does not apply, thereby sanctioning the unlimited accumulation of money (Macpherson 1962, p208). In addition, the introduction of money implies the possibility to sell one’s labour. This means that the “proviso” does not apply: one can appropriate all he/she wants without leaving enough for others because the others can work for a wage now that money has been introduced (1962, p214).

Macpherson thus states that Locke’s state of nature is an ambiguous one. At first, it seems as if it is one which implies the respect of both the will of God and of fellow human beings. Yet, the introduction of money transforms the state of nature into a race towards unfettered property accumulation (1962, p243). Moreover, embedded within the state of nature is the alienation of one’s labour (through wage relationships) and consequently class exploitation. Macpherson asserts that Locke could not have been oblivious to the class differentiation in his society, and it is only fitting that he would reproduce them in his conceptualization of the state of nature (1962, p231). The state of nature therefore has two different sets of rights, one for the propertied and one for the property-less. Thus when men enter in civil society, the sole purpose of forming a government is to protect the property rights of the wealthy (1962, p248), which brings us back to the afore mentioned quote from which Macpherson begins his critique: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.”

Self Preservation

According to Leo Strauss (1953), Locke did not make natural law dependent on the will of God. Locke’s humans, when obeying natural law, are not acting in consonance with the precepts set out by divine will but in truth are following their inherent drive towards self preservation. For Strauss, there is no way that Locke’s definition of human reason could ever allow men to know the true will of God. Thus, the guiding principles of human reason were principles simply the aversion to pain and the propensity towards happiness. “The law of nature is nothing other than the sum of the dictates of reason in regard to men’s “mutual security” or to the “peace and safety” of mankind.” (Strauss 1953, p228)

Similarly to Macpherson, Strauss goes on to demonstrate that Locke‘s theory allows for the transcendence of the limits of natural law. Regarding the “proviso”, Strauss asserts the drive towards self preservation simply cannot allow leaving enough for others as this could potentially jeopardize one’s life (1953, p237). He then goes on to show that with the introduction of moneyed relationships Locke performs the “emancipation of acquisitiveness” which effectively liberates man firstly from the limitations of natural law and secondly from any kind of social responsibility (1953, p249) “Man is effectively liberated from the bounds of nature and there within the individual is emancipated from those social bonds which antedate all consent of compact, by the emancipation of his productive acquisitiveness, which is necessarily, if accidentally, beneficent and hence susceptible of becoming the strongest social bond” (1953, p249). Strauss concludes that man enters in civil society not only to protect his life, liberty and estates (this corresponds to the principle of self preservation) but actually to enlarge his possessions (this corresponding to the pursuit of happiness) (1953, p245).

Contextualising Locke

Macpherson and Strauss present us with a Hobbesian Locke (if indeed his natural law is guided by the principle of self preservation) whose aim in the Second Treatise is to articulate a theory of moral justification for unlimited capitalist accumulation and the legitimization of class exploitation. Such a harsh explanation of Locke was met with much resistance by professors John Dunn (1969, 1984), James Tully (1980, 1993) and Peter Laslett (1988). The argument against the theory of possessive individualism hinges on the contextualisation of both Locke as a man and of his work. Dunn (1969, 1984) suggests that it is impossible to recover the meaning of the Second Treatise without looking at three important factors: the Exclusion Bill crisis, Filmer’s Patriarcha, and the theological vocabulary of natural law. For all three mentioned scholars, there can be no assumption of Locke’s intent without recognizing the political and religious backdrop in which he was writing. For James Tully (and indeed for Cambridge scholars such as Austin and Skinner attempting to recuperate the illocutionary force of an author’s writings): “Understanding, as opposed to explanation, turns on recovering the meaning the author intended to convey by reading the text in light of the available conventions and assumptions, and so of coming to understand it in these terms” (Tully 1993, p99).

The Exclusion Bill Crisis and Sir Robert Filmer

As it became apparent in the late 1670s that King Charles II would be succeeded by his brother James Duke of York, it was feared that the new King, a Catholic, would re-institute pontifical authority and force Catholicism on the English people. The Earl of Shaftesbury (Locke’s employer) led the Whig Party in drafting the Exclusion Bill, a piece of legislation aimed at excluding James II from becoming king (Dunn, 1969 p44). The stage was thus set for the advent of an absolute monarch without concern for religious toleration or parliamentary legitimacy. It is within this context and within this historical moment that Locke was writing the Second Treatise (Laslett 1988, p54) thereby articulating a theory of limited government and the right to revolution with the specific purpose of delegitimizing absolute monarchy. The Exclusion Bill crisis is the first fact that we must recognize for our understanding of the Second Treatise.

Within this political crisis, Locke faced a formidable adversary, Sir Robert Filmer, the author of Patriarcha, a book arguing in favour of the divine right of kings and in direct support of James II. If Locke was going to publish any theory of limited government aimed at curbing arbitrary absolute power he would first have to disprove Filmer’s thesis (Tully 1980, p95). However, proving Filmer wrong was no easy feat. Patriarcha’s basic assumption stated that God gave the world specifically to Adam who would rightfully own it and who would have dominion over it and his own posterity. Seeing that monarchs rule in the stead of God on earth, Adamic rule transferred solely to kings. Filmer’s thesis accounted ultimately to a scriptural justification of the divine right of kings (Dunn 1980, p35). Moreover, it gave a clear and simple justification of the theory of property: the world and all the things in it, including people, belong to the monarch, and the regulation of property can only derive from the king’s positive laws (Tully 1980, p96). Other natural right theorists such as Grotius, had found it difficult to reconcile common property with private property. Filmer did not, as absolute authority over all property simply pertained to the king as sanctioned by God Almighty (Dunn 1969, p65; Tully 1993 p110).

The Theory of Limited Government

Locke’s aim in the First Treatise therefore accounts to a scriptural rejection of Filmer’s assumption that God gave the world particularly to Adam and more generally to males (Locke summarises this succinctly in the very beginning of the Second Treatise: “It is impossible that the Rulers now on Earth, should make any benefit, or derive any the least shadow of Authority from that, which is held to be the Fountain of all Power, Adam’s Private Dominion and Paternal Jurisdiction”). According to Jeremy Waldron (2002) the First Treatise is Locke’s attempt to demonstrate that God gave the world to all in common as a gift and that all men are created equal. Waldron suggests that Locke’s work is essentially a “defence of the proposition that humans are, basically, one another’s equals” (2002, p15). Thus he was not solely fighting Filmer on scriptural basis, but had consciously understood that a theory of equality necessarily required a theological basis.

However, if the world was given to men in common, and if men are all equal, how could private property be possible? It is here that Chapter V On Property becomes pivotal. With the theory of property Locke is able to move men from “that State of perfect Equality” (ST, §7) where “God gave the World to Adam and his Posterity in common” (ST, §25), through one in which the individual has the right of self ownership over himself and his property, and ultimately into civil society where he is finally able to propose a doctrine of limited government. “It is through the theory of property that men can proceed from the abstract world of liberty and equality based on their relationship with God and natural law, to the concrete world of political liberty guaranteed by political arrangements” (Laslett 1988, p103). In Locke’s political theory, individual political freedom cannot be justified without the prior institution of private property rights. Moreover, Locke’s general use of the term property seems to encapsulate this point: “Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general name, Property” (ST, §123). Locke could not separate political freedom from economic freedom as he used the concept of Property to define them both; and he needed this concept ultimately to ground his theory of limited government, natural rights and majority rule in individual freedom rather than in absolute despotic rule (Dunn 1969, p67). In the light of the Exclusion Bill crisis, Locke’s ultimate goal was to propose a theory of limited government and the right to revolution, not, as Professor Macpherson has it, to provide a moral justification for class exploitation.

The Theological Vocabulary of Natural Law

The arguments Locke used to justify the political theory of the Second Treatise required a theological understanding of natural law, as he ultimately needed the supreme authority of God as a starting point if he was to firstly disprove Filmer’s thesis and secondly convince the political audience of his time. For Dunn (1969, p88), Locke wrote within a thoroughly theological backdrop in which man and all the creatures of the world where part of a divine plan created and ordered by God: a “great chain of being” in which some creatures had power over others as willed by God. The order that God had set for the rational functioning of the world was expressed through natural law. For James Tully (1980, p36) Locke’s God was the ultimate maker of the divine order. It followed that mankind, as his product, was thoroughly dependent on him. It is through the use of reason than humans could discover the natural laws that God has set; these being the duty of the preservation of mankind, the laws governing the acquisition of property and the rights accruing from these. “Reason, which was the Voice of God in him, could not but teach him and assure him, that pursuing that natural inclination he had to preserve his being, he followed the Will of his Maker” (First Treatise, §86). By demonstrating the dependency of man’s duties and rights on the will of God, Tully is able to disprove Strauss’s claim that man is driven by subjective egotistic self-preservation: “The point of grounding morality in Man’s relationship to God, and thus making him morally dependent on God’s objective will, is to repudiate this subjectivism” (Tully 1980, p47). Tully shows that there was simply no other natural law vocabulary, other than the theological one, available to Locke to justify all of his theory on (Tully 1993 p100). Locke’s teleology therefore does not entail, as Macpherson and Strauss suggest, the pursuit of unlimited wealth nor the principle of self preservation. For Tully, Locke’s teleology is the finding and obeying of natural law which is our duty to God (1993, p46).

Conclusion

From this analysis it is clear that a thorough understanding of Locke’s Second Treatise necessarily requires recognition of the political and religious context he was writing in. Only after can we proceed to speculate on what the text represents and means, and only after is it possible to accept Macpherson’s and Strauss’s criticisms to Locke. Yes, Locke was indeed a member of a rising Bourgeois class (Macpherson 1962, p261), and yes his theory does perform Strauss’s “emancipation of acquisitiveness”. However, this was not Locke’s intent. It has been demonstrated that Locke wanted to propose a theory of limited government aimed at countering the despotic and absolutist rule of James II. His motivations were indeed economic as he did fear arbitrary taxation; however these are not the sole motivations spurring Locke to write the Second Treatise. Locke was equally (if not more) concerned with the issues of political liberalism, individual rights, and toleration. Above all he was concerned with justifying his politics within a theological context as he genuinely believed in the God-given fact of the equality of mankind (Waldron 2002, p15).

In conclusion it is not possible to posit a dichotomy of interpretation for Locke’s Second Treatise as being either a defence of secular rights and property or a Calvinist call for men and government to do their duty to God. The former is dependent on the later. Both views are thoroughly enmeshed, and mutually supportive at a logical, political and more importantly theological level.

Bibliography

Dunn, J. 1969, The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Dunn, J. 1980, Locke, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Locke, J. 1988, Two Treatises of Government ed. Peter Laslett, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Macpherson, C.B. 1962, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Strauss, L. 1953, Natural Right and History, Chicago University Press, Chicago

Tully, J. 1980, A discourse on property: John Locke and his adversaries, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tully, J. 1993, An approach to political philosophy: Locke in contexts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Waldron, J. 2002, God, Locke and Equality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Negative Liberty, political philosophy, political theory