Locke up the Liberals
As a hardcore progressive, I never thought I would champion the dismantling of the very philosophy which granted the freedom of women, slaves and children from the domination of the white privileged male; and yet, it seems that the rhetoric of this very ideology is being used to create the very same disparities to which it was hailed as the solution so many centuries ago.
When John Locke posited, in the 17th Century, that ‘no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions’ all being ‘equal and independent’, he did so in a context in which society and its legal institutions considered women, children and slaves as chattels, property owned by their husbands, fathers and masters. He did so in a context in which wealth was not accumulated through toil but through inheritance. He did so in a context in which positions of power depended not on merit but on principles of primogeniture and the whims of the monarchy and clergy.
The society in which Locke existed was strictly hierarchical and feudal. We need only examine the literature of the day or the postulations of important lords, who not only determined the law but also oversaw its execution, to realise that these social constructions took no heed of what we today consider fundamental human rights. Locke’s emphasis on our being ‘equal’ and ‘independent’ were revolutionary ideas; surely women, the weaker sex, were not to be accorded the same rights and status as men? Surely we were not to grant slaves the ability to determine their own actions and acknowledge them as free-thinking individuals? Those very same people from whom these ideas were designed to protect us have hijacked what was once revolutionary.
Conservative governments of the day, which, unfortunately dominate the Western world (if not in name, then most definitely in policy, despite the best efforts of Barrack Obama) take the fundamental tenants of Locke’s revolutionary treatise as assumptions; where Locke says that we should enjoy freedom from government interference ‘all being equal and independent’, our governments (and the voters who democratically elect them, unfortunately blind to the ways in which they are being manipulated using the words of the Father of Libertarianism) assume that we are all equal and independent, when the reality is far from the truth. Because of this assumption, the protection of private property seems a legitimate concern (after all, everyone wants to accumulate things, don’t they? And they will accumulate my things if I don’t protect them!) and anyone who questions this is immediately branded a socialist or, worse, a left-wing nutter (a label I have been proud to wear many a-time). In fact, though, when we acknowledge that we are not equal, it provides us with the opportunity to see that, in fact, the private property protection is for the primary benefit of the elite; the elite who once, in Locke’s day, paraded in carriages and occupied themselves with backgammon and reading Latin editions of Homer, but who are nowadays disguised by the myth of equality and assumption of equal opportunity.
Whilst there are, of course, notable exceptions (and, no doubt, every reader will jump up and down to point these out to this left-wing nutter), privilege is still, primarily, inherited, though this looks different in a modern society. The disadvantage is that this is masked by the way that those people manipulate the rhetoric of equality and liberty to in fact protect their own assets. It is always so enlightening to hear the responses to any policy or statement that takes proactive measures to address the clear consequences of the inequality that is ignored further and further by those protecting their own position: “we all have the same opportunities”, “well they should have stayed at school”, “they can go and get a job whenever they like”, “she only got hired because she’s a woman/refugee/Aboriginal, that’s not fair”.
With the merging of the ideological tenants of liberalism and capitalism, the consequence has been a significant emphasis on competition and self-preservation in what is referred to as our ‘dog-eat-dog’ world (don’t you love how this phrase is used by ruthless people to justify their lack of empathy?). What has escaped the majority of the population, who conflate the principles of Locke’s liberalism, a philosophy about the entitlement to equality and freedom to control one’s own body and labour, with capitalism, a set of economic principles that relate to the accumulation of wealth through efficiency. The assumption that these are compatible, let alone the same, is extremely problematic.
Firstly, let us take Locke’s philosophy. It is, as stated, problematic because it can only apply if all beings begin as equal and independent. Locke advocates the protection of property on this condition whilst also rejecting the subordination of one being to another. This is fundamentally at odds with the nature and aim of capitalism: competition. In fact, capitalism not only creates inequality is a condition necessary for the existence of capitalism. Therefore, to assume that the spirit of Locke’s philosophy, born from conditions of inequality and subordination, supports the ‘free market’ paradigm and its consequences for equality is not only ignorant of their conflicting nature but also perhaps legitimising the very conditions Locke so strongly opposed.
Secondly, Locke treatise was born from his reaction to movements for men and women to be allowed to keep what they had laboured for and own their own labour, rather than working for the benefit of and enriching their landlord, whose farm they worked without sharing in the profit. This was simply one of the ways in which those lower on the social hierarchy were kept firmly in their place. Thus, Locke’s appeal that individuals be entitled to own their own labour was aimed at empowering and equalising those who were at the mercy of the wealthy asset holders. Again, capitalism is at odds with men and women being accorded equal worth for their labour; thus, it not only defies the spirit and context of these liberal concepts but also perpetuates the inequality of wealth present in the periods we classify as feudal and relatively primitive in terms of human rights. A key aim of capitalism is to accumulate capital through the most efficient means possible. That means, should the most efficient means possible be reducing labour costs while expecting the same labour output, as is the trend of trans- and multi-national companies which utilise offshore labour (a pleasant euphemism for the act of exploiting vulnerable families in third world countries) then this would be a perfectly acceptable method of increasing profit for the owner of the business. You’ll see here, of course, that once again we are in a situation where the labourer labours for the benefit of the capital holder; they do not own their labour nor do they have the right to determine the value of it (despite what the free market rhetoric might have you believe about their opportunity to work at the factory next door for $3 per month more). Their labour is exploited to benefit their lord - I mean, boss or shareholders - who are performing comparatively little labour for a lot more capital gain. The paradigms are inherently opposed to one another; one relies on exploitation to achieve efficiency and one eschews exploitation in the name of an entitlement to freedom and empowerment.
The solution to the ever-widening gap between our society’s most powerful and minority groups lies, perhaps, in the second of the pre-conditions that Locke posits: independence. This has always been a trait that Westerners hold dear. It is also the trait that arguably allows us to visit the atrocities and abuses upon each other that we so often do; just like equality, though, it is a myth in our modern society, but it too is taken for granted and placed beyond examination. As human beings, we are interdependent socially, physically and spiritually. We rely on family, sporting teams, church groups, schools, business networks, online communities, local, national and international government bodies to govern, guide and provide the complex social systems of which we are part and the social roles we assume. As John Donne rightly assumed ‘no man… exist(s) entirely of himself’. Humans, as social creatures, rely on these systems to experience a meaningful existence. Considering ourselves as socially independent from others, though, increases competition and eases our conscience as we exploit others in the capitalist way to which we have become accustomed. If we were awakened to our reliance on others and if the damage we did to this social interdependence was more palpable, we might be more inclined to not only ask questions about the independence that we value so highly, but to reject it altogether. The ‘othering’ that comes so naturally to us after years of competing against one another, benefits not those who are our most vulnerable but those who wish to maintain the power structures that exist, thereby securing their own position of superiority relative to the others they actually depend upon to enjoy this very position. Thus the supposition of independence and the fear that is created about that independence being violated (just look at the reaction of Americans to the proposal of Medicare!) are myths; construction of those who benefit from the capitalist wish to maintain wealth at the expense of others in the systems they rely upon.
If we are to have any hope of reducing the percentage of our population living in poverty, eliminating the exploitation of others to increase the wealth of a few and moving forward into the future together, we must acknowledge that the conditions which underpin Locke’s call for the limitation of government interference, equality and independence, do not exist within our society. Therefore, the protection of (and indeed the encouragement to amass) vast amounts of private wealth at the expense of others who support the systems and the relationships that result in that wealth, are unconscionable. Further, the assertion that equal opportunity exists for all to acquire such wealth is a falsehood perpetuated by those conservatives who are served by capitalist policies. An examination of the context from which Locke’s philosophy sprung reveals that capitalists are today using its rhetoric and disguising it as ‘rights’ in a way that contradicts Locke’s original purpose. Our focus now should not be on individual rights but on collective responsibilities and the reparation of the complex systems of interdependence, which have been damaged by generations of manipulation by capitalist proponents.
Parkour teaches Literature and Language to high school students and writes fervently in her spare time. She loves a good story and a passionate argument. She currently lives in the country and longs for the buzz of the city.