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A Compact to Protect Property, or a Conspiracy to Create Meaning? Rethinking Liberal Theory Part 3

A Compact to Protect Property, or a Conspiracy to Create Meaning? Rethinking Liberal Theory Part 3

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Published by John M. Watkins
For hundreds of years, we've argued about how to live in justice and freedom by perfecting our relationship to property. Here's why that doesn't work.
For hundreds of years, we've argued about how to live in justice and freedom by perfecting our relationship to property. Here's why that doesn't work.

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Published by: John M. Watkins on Dec 28, 2011
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A compact to protectproperty, or a conspiracyto create meaning?
Rethinking liberal theory 3
 by John MacBeath Watkins
Thanks to John Locke and Karl Marx, we've spent hundreds of years arguing about howwe can achieve freedom and justice through perfecting our relationship with property.Locke was actually following Hobbs, who realized that if kings ruled by divineright, Europe's religious divisions would tear it apart: People would not accept the divineright of a king not of their faith. He looked to the value system associated with property
to shift the legitimacy of the state away from religious authority. When he said, "The‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much aswould be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thingdependent on the need and judgment of another," he was not just applying this system of value to tradesmen, where it had been applied as long as money or barter had existed. Hewas saying that sovereigns were to be valued because we needed their services to prevent people from killing each other. It is significant that he said this after the Thirty YearsWar, at the end of which Germany had about two-thirds the population it had when thewar started, and the German states were still divided into Catholic and Protestant sects.It's easy to see why Locke continued Hobbes' concern with property. You had tohave property to be a full citizen in Locke's England, so to argue for wider voting rights,he had to argue that we all possess property in our persons. Even long after his death, itwas still quite normal for nations to restrict the voting franchise to those with sufficient property. Hobbes used the value system of property to give us a secular way of legitimizing government. Locke adopted the system of rights associated with property toargue that we all have rights, and no one can buy them off you; that is, your propertyright to yourself is inalienable.Locke was radical enough to put his freedom and possibly his life in peril had hestayed in England, but his philosophy was based on the ideas already existing in hishomeland's political culture. Even marriage and family could be viewed through the lensof property, with women as chattel and children as part of their parents' property untilthey came of age. Thus, Abraham Lincoln's father could rent him out for labor, themoney going to his father as if Abraham Lincoln were a slave, leading to his statement, "I
have been a slave." It was the simple truth, and likely had a strong effect on how Lincolnviewed slavery.Locke was eager to expand our understanding of what qualified as property, buthe never really defined property. If you've ever tried to take a chew toy from a dog,you've seen the instinct to possession that makes the institution of property necessary.But that emotional need is not itself property, any more than love is marriage.Property is the institution that regulates our emotional attachment to objects, anddefines the rights, privileges and obligations people have to things they possess or use.And when I say defines, I'm using the term more literally than you might think.Locke maintained that society was formed to protect property, but a moment'sreflection will reveal that such a system of rights can only exist once symbolic thoughtexists. Language gives us the categories we use to think in the symbolic manner thatallows us to have such an abstract thing as a system of rights. And language, as Swisslinguist Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out in
The Course in General Linguistics
about acentury ago, is a social enterprise.The categories of thought that I referred to earlier are what we wish tocommunicate. They are, in Saussure's terms, the signified. We use words to signify them,and the sounds we choose to represent the signified are arbitrary. Call it water if you areEnglish, call it eau if you are French, as long as your society agrees that the sound youuse signs the meaning you intend, it doesn't matter what sound your society has chosen.The fact that the signs are arbitrary, and must be agreed upon within a society, iswhy we have different languages for different groups of people. In fact, changing thesigns so that only the "in" group understands them, as with slang, is a way of defining a

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