Locke the Socialist: applying Lockean principles to Anarchism


Yes, my title is accurate. I’m not some sleep deprived anarcho-communist that went to some liberal puke fest at Des Moines, Iowa trying to make some positive change for others. (oh wait…) I firmly interpret Locke’s theory of property to be socialist. This is also admittedly a very non-orthodox interpretation of Locke. While Locke’s political philosophy is filled with inadequacies, Lockean principles are not evil and in some cases compatible with anarchism and other forms of socialism.

The orthodox Lockean libertarian view comprises four claims:

1. Each person has a moral right to do whatever she chooses with whatever she legitimately owns unless her actions would harm nonconsenting other people in certain ways that violate their rights.

2. Each person has the right not to be harmed by others by physical assault, interference with liberty by coercion or force, physically causing damage to person or property, extortion, theft or fraud, breach of contract, libel, or threat of any of the preceding.

3. Each adult person legitimately owns herself.

4. All of these moral rights are forfeitable by misconduct, transferable from their holder to another by mutual consent, and waivable by voluntary consent of their holder.

An important derivative element in Lockean theory is that from the premises above, given a world in which material resources are initially unowned, it follows that individuals can acquire extensive private ownership rights over material resources.The exact specification of this derivation, the characterization of its outcome, and the assessment of its success are crucial and tricky issues for Lockean theory, much debated. However… I reject some of these and accept that in an anarchist society that there are side constraints that will affect fundamental rights.  My Lockean influenced anarchist theory makes three claims:

1. A person can do whatever they please with any of their possessions unless they would harm others

2. Each person has the right to equality of conditions, protection from harm(social or physical) and liberty from coercive elements.

3. A person is themself; they have complete rights to use their body as they wish.

Notice that I do not have an anarchist version of the fourth aspect of Lockean rights theory, this is done on purpose. While my idea of rights diverges from typical Lockean views of rights; the differences are important when discussing the Lockean Proviso and Lockean theory of property from an anarchist perspective. Anarchists reject the idea that you can own yourself and to be honest self ownership is fraught with metaphysical issues, it is not the purpose of this post to discuss that however.

As I said earlier I reach socialist conclusions from Locke’s theory from my reading of Locke, it is not a normal understanding of Locke and while my position is a soft Lockean one and certainly non-orthodox… Here is the Lockean Proviso:

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.

This is admittedly filled with lots of nuances and interpretations. Hard Lockean property theory presumes a communal earth and that people own themselves; and that effort generates property.  As my position is a soft Lockean one, I argue that two constraints exist that affects this, all of the constraints affect the Proviso.

Constraint 1: Marx was right with his criticisms of capitalism.

Whether or not you agree with all of Marx’s criticisms of capitalism, Marx’s Das Kapital was essentially correct. I am especially referring to Chapter Five: Contradictions in the General Formula of Capital and Chapter Twenty-Five: The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation. These criticisms from Das Kapital are essential in understanding my interpretation of the Lockean Proviso. Exchanges can not be exploitative and alienate someone from their labor.

Constraint 2: Property is theft

As demonstrated by Proudhon property is impossible without a state, which means that a Lockean inspired anarchism would have to deal with this issue. Luckily, anarchists divide property into two distinct groups – possession and property.  As shown by this section of the Anarchist FAQ:

The difference between property and possession can be seen from the types of authority relations each generates. Taking the example of a capitalist workplace, its clear that those who own the workplace determine how it is used, not those who do the actual work. This leads to an almost totalitarian system. As Noam Chomsky points out, “the term ‘totalitarian’ is quite accurate. There is no human institution that approaches totalitarianism as closely as a business corporation. I mean, power is completely top-down. You can be inside it somewhere and you take orders from above and hand ’em down. Ultimately, it’s in the hands of owners and investors.” Thus the actual producer does not control their own activity, the product of their labour nor the means of production they use. In modern class societies, the producer is in a position of subordination to those who actually do own or manage the productive process.

In an anarchist society, as noted, actual use is considered the only title. This means that a workplace is organised and run by those who work within it, thus reducing hierarchy and increasing freedom and equality within society. Hence anarchist opposition to private property and capitalism flows naturally from anarchism’s basic principles and ideas. Hence all anarchists agree with Proudhon:

“Possession is a right; property is against right. Suppress property while maintaining possession.” [Op. Cit., p. 271]

With this constraint in place that leaves the only legitimate property is a possession. This will lead to a very nuanced view of the Lockean Proviso. The Proviso effectively becomes a means of exchange only and can only justify legitimate claims of possession and in some cases provides a framework where people can freely trade. I am a supporter of anarcho-communism so the rest of this post will assume a communist community. Communists are the supporters of “from each according to their ability and to each according to their need”, but how will exchanges work? Communism is partially a gift economy with other aspects

A gift economy is a social theory in which goods and services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future quid pro quo. Typically, a gift economy occurs in a culture that emphasizes social or intangible rewards for solidarity and generosity: honor, loyalty or other forms of gratitude.In some cases, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within a community. This can be considered a form of reciprocal altruism. Sometimes there is an implicit expectation of the return of comparable goods and services, or the gift being later passed on to a third-party. The concept of a gift economy stands in contrast to a planned economy or a market or barter economy. In a planned economy, goods and services are distributed by explicit command and control rather than informal custom; in barter or market economies, an explicit quid pro quo — an exchange of money or some other commodity — is established before the social transaction takes place. In practice, most human societies blend elements of all of these, in varying degrees.

In his brilliant book The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde points to two types of economies. In a commodity (or exchange) economy, status is accorded to those who have the most. In a gift economy, status is accorded to those who give the most to others. Lest we think that the principles of a gift economy will only work for simple, primitive or small enterprises, Hyde points out that the community of scientists follows the rules of a gift economy. The scientists with highest status are not those who possesses the most knowledge; they are the ones who have contributed the most to their fields. A scientist of great knowledge, but only minor contributions is almost pitied – his or her career is seen as a waste of talent. At a symposium a scientist gives a paper. Selfish scientists do not hope others give better papers so they can come away with more knowledge than they had to offer in exchange. Quite the reverse. Each scientist hopes his or her paper will provide a large and lasting value. By the rules of an exchange economy, the scientist hopes to come away a “loser,” because that is precisely how one wins in science.

However, back to the Lockean Proviso: I think the proviso is an excellent way to adjudicate how communism could work and since my view of anarchism is a participatory direct democracy, I think that the proviso creates a situation where everyone is always working to compensate others through mutual aid and solidarity, and this would be consistent with anarchist principles.  Thusly, my interpretation of the Lockean Proviso is one that is very unorthodox, and the current system violates it. Through effort the workers should have control of the means of production, they are being exploited and stolen from from the rich bourgeois who have made unethical claims to property. They don’t exert effort, they subjugate the poor, and they restrict other’s liberty. Locke, might have nominally have been a capitalist, but he was a believer in liberty and justice, and I think he would agree that the bourgeois is a shining exampleo feverything that he disagreed with. Perhaps there was a time when Locke’s classical liberal solutions were just and correct, and yet the time is for us to progress. Locke said many things about justice, liberty, and influences much of political philosophy, it’s time that we work for justice and peace.

As John Locke said:

The people cannot delegate to government the power to do anything which would be unlawful for them to do themselves. … whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society, and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.

I rest my case.

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~ by ladycat123 on October 17, 2011.

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