You are on page 1of 8

Did Locke restrict membership of political society to the propertied?

What Locke does not say on the political society he describes the creation of is just as important, in many ways, as what he does say, especially when it comes to who is to be included. Some thinkers, such as Macpherson (1961) have come to take his silence on the matter as a suggestion that Locke followed the general paradigm of the time of the Labouring class or propertyless not being fit for being political members of society. Other thinkers have launched rebuttals against this interpretation of Locke, claiming that the property-less must be members of political society, as obligation to it is based on consent. (Ashcraft, 1986, Waldron, 2002). This essay will argue that, stemming from his theories on natural laws and rights held by every person in the state of nature, Locke was writing for the creation of a society unequal in terms of wealth and property, but equal in terms of rights for both propertied; which we take to mean those who own land or wealth equivalent to the amount required by Locke's contemporary society to be represented in parliament; and property-less in political society. A very important definition that needs making is that of what we mean, and what Locke means by political society. Political society could be thought of as that of government: those who make decisions about society, or those who are represented by those who make decisions about society, would be included in this definition. This essay however will begin on the assumption that political (or civil) society means what Locke (1980: 46) generally explained it to be: there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power [of punishment for disobeying the laws of nature]. Thus, society for Locke, means community; formed by each member's consent, it includes not just government and legislature but the entire state, be it the judiciary, the police force or the executive, all of which owe their authority to each member pooling their natural rights to allow the state to have full jurisdiction over the enforcement of natural laws. Of course, first we must understand what these natural rights are and where they derive from. Locke (1980: 8) begins his argument from a state of nature in which all members are both free of any social obligations; that is to say, there is no society with rules and norms to follow. There is however, a natural law, or right, which can be discovered through the level of reason any person has; due to God creating and owning each and every one of us, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions (Locke, 1980: 9). From these natural rights to our own life and health, our ability to do as we please so long as it does not infringe on others, and to that which we own, another right is realised: to ensure that the natural laws are kept, each and every person in the state of nature has the right to execution of the natural law, to both prevent it being broken and to punish those who do so (Locke, 1980: 11). Before society is formed however, and the new members pool their right to execution of the natural laws, the right to property evolves from a simple ability to mix ones labour with anything on the earth in common, thereby allowing ownership of property for sustenance and survival so long as one does not let it spoil(as food and many other things tend to do)(Locke, 1980: 20), to one in which, through the introduction of money, which does not spoil, every person in the state of nature has the right to accumulate as much property as they could possibly wish. This is to have a huge effect on the formation of society and is the basis for the contention surrounding inclusion in Locke's

political society. Whereas before everyone in the state of nature was equal in terms of their rights, and in terms of how much property they could own (due to spoiling), now property ownership can come to be unequal as the 'industrious and rational' come to gain more property than the 'fancy or quarrelsome'(Locke, 1980: 21). Over time, the situation arises in which some own large amounts of property, whilst others own very little. This is significant in that it now means that the laws of nature, through the passage of both time and reason, entail in them an inherent inequality stemming from an original total equality. Since political society is formed in an attempt to ensure the equal and fair execution of natural rights (Locke, 1980: 46), along with becoming responsible for the execution of the continuing right to each member's own life and liberty, it is also responsible for upholding each individual's right to their own property. This means that, as is noted by Poole (1980: 233), one of the main functions of Locke's political society becomes the supporting of an economic order which leaves some with large amounts of property, be it gold, land, or anything else for that matter, and others propertyless, dependent on those with property for wages in exchange for their labour, to live essentially hand to mouth. This leaves us to question something very fundamental to Locke's entire political society, if that which begins and actually constitutes any political society, is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite (Locke, 1980: 53), with all members then obligated to do as their collective sovereignty commands, why then, would those without property consent to a political society which leaves them significantly worse off than those with? An answer to this question given by C.B. MacPherson (1962: 222), is simply that Locke did not see the property-less as full members of political society. This, MacPherson does through several complex series of arguments, the first of which is through examining Locke's view of the poor in his writings which are not so ambiguous as to his opinions on the Labouring class. Locke's opinion on the unemployed especially seems to be on the whole very negative: with Locke writing in 1697 that the increase in unemployment was caused by nothing else but the relaxation of discipline and corruption (Quoted in MacPherson, 1962: 223)[Bourne, The Life of John Locke]. His opinion of the employed property-less also appears to be one which fits the view that Locke did not see them capable of a high enough level of thinking and rationality to be full members of society: the labourers share [of the national income], being seldom more than a bare subsistence, never allows that body of men, time, or opportunity to raise their thoughts above that (Quoted in MacPherson, 1962: 223) [Locke, Works]. The assumption MacPherson (1962: 223) attempts to show Locke is making in this passage is that the propertyless, due to their lack of opportunity, are unfortunately incapable of thinking or acting politically. This would have been a view held similarly by almost all of those who would have been his prime audience, and so possibly it would have been simply assumed that when Locke spoke about the laws of nature being governed by reason(Locke: 1980: 9), it would not include the property-less. MacPherson (1962: 230-232)then sets out to prove that Locke's aim was to go from a situation of equal natural rights into one in which two classes of society exist with differing natural rights. Although all start off with the same rights, through the introduction of money allowing unlimited appropriation, eventually there is no more land left for appropriation. This of course creates the situation where some have land and some do not, with those without land

depending on those with it for a wage. This means that they are not just unequal in property, but unequal in rights as this dependence on others for a wage leaves them stripped of the natural right to have no other person having any jurisdiction over one's life (Locke, 1980: 9). MacPherson continues his analysis of Locke's view of the property-less by explaining how Locke showed the property-less to be irrational. Locke (1980: 21) says in the first stage of the state of nature, before the creation of money, God gave the world in common to men, but meant for it to be given to the use of the industrious and rational to cultivate the land and so make the greatest use of it. Therefore, at this stage, rationality consists of appropriating private property and labouring on it (Macpherson, 1962: 232). However, with the creation of money, MacPherson (1962: 232-234) claims rationality moves from being about the appropriation and labouring upon the land or other raw items for one's use, to being just the appropriation, as money causes some to be without property, thus meaning they can no longer appropriate and improve the land themselves, someone else hires their labour, effectively owning the labour themselves to improve it. Instead, rationality comes about through making the greatest use of property possible, by allowing property to produce commodities and create a profit. Thus, those who were left without property after the land was all appropriated could not be accounted fully rational (MacPherson, 1962: 238) and so were not able to be fully-fledged members of political society, unable to revolt, revolting being a rational act, and yet still being forced to accept the laws of a fundamentally capitalist state. Ashcraft is another major thinker on the issue of whether Locke included the property-less in his political society, but takes pretty much the opposite view to Macpherson. Looking at passages from Locke's First Treatise, responding to Filmer's extensive patriarchial view of authority, Ashcraft notes that Locke affirms that it is God who is the author and giver of life (Quoted in Ashcraft, 1986: 260) [Locke, First Treatise] and so Neither monarchs nor fathers have a right to destroy God's workmanship, since such a right belongs to the maker of the property (Ashcraft, 1986: 261). Therefore, it appears Locke is strongly asserting that, as is stated in his natural rights of life, liberty and equality; no man can have dominion over another no matter the circumstances, as each person is still nothing but the property of God. This view of Locke's seems to suggest that McPhersons take on the property-less not being full members of political society is mistaken, as being excluded to just be little more than a resource of the state seems to suggest that some sort of dominion is held over them. The view of Locke as someone who looked down at the property-less also is challenged by Ashcraft. Although he does appear to hold strongly negative views on the unemployed, he also holds negative views on the bankers who hold a disproportionate of the kingdom's money (Ashcraft, 1986: 267) along with the country gentlemen who hand the money to him. Ashcraft takes Locke's views on those who are not landowners to be, on the whole very positive, claiming Locke in large part, was a defender of the Labouring Class, allowing Locke to contrast the social values of 'sobriety, frugality, and industry' associated with trade with the 'debauchery' and 'expensive vanity' of 'lazy indigent people'(Ashcraft, 1986, 268). So rather than Locke holding a negative attitude to all those without property, he should be seen as disliking those who do not use their labour to cultivate goods, whether it be for their own profit or for a wage, as both benefit mankind as a whole. This argument is employed at length in Locke's chapter on property, in

which he explains how, through taking something in common and mixing it with your labour removes it from the common supply, in the end it in fact benefits humanity, using the example of cultivating farmland: by cultivating the land, the farmer creates the same amount of food in his ten acres of land as could be seen in 100 acres of uncultivated land in common (Locke, 1980: 24) thus helping to preserve the rest of mankind (Locke, 1980: 9). This view of private property suggests that, whether or not a person in the state of nature owns property, they are indirectly benefiting from those who do: for Locke, a king of a large and fruitful territory [in America], feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer (Locke, 1980: 26) and provides another answer to the fundamental question of why the property-less would agree to a political society with the function of protecting the rights to property they do not own, and which keeps them living hand to mouth on subsistence wages. A contentious point raised by both Ashcraft and Macpherson is that of what constitutes a Freeman. Locke (1980: 53) states that, which constitutes any political society, is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. The issue of what Locke means by Freeman is important as it is a term little used today, and even at the time had different meanings. Locke contrasts freemen with servants, claiming that a servant is a freeman temporarily putting himself under the power of his master in exchange for wages. As a freeman is differentiated from a servant, it can be inferred that a man defined as a servant is not party to the social contract. Macpherson (1962: 282) claims that the term servant in fact means anyone who worked for wages, therefore excluding 35% of the population of Locke's time from being able to consent to political society, being in their master's power, similar to a child being in their parent's power (Stevens 1996). This, he argues is due to the term taking that meaning in the 17th century, the time of writing. Ashcraft (1986: 158) disagrees, asserting that none of the writers in the 17th century Macpherson cites as using the term servant as wage labourer actually equate the two terms, instead, he claims that the term in fact was similar to what we mean today: a household servant. Stevens (1996: 4301) disagrees with both, claiming the term meant someone, most often in their youth, who moved into the household of a master, hired by the year, essentially as an exchange of youthful members of society between families, one that was not necessarily class based. That this was a temporary arrangement means that just as a child is unable to consent to political society until they were of age, due to being under the power of their parents, a servant was similarly unable to consent until no longer under the power of their master they had willingly submitted themselves to. If we take this definition to be true, then 'freemen' can be taken to mean a lot more than just the propertied, but wage labourers too, since Locke nowhere specifically mentions any other distinction for who else shouldn't be included in the term apart from servants, slaves, children and the mentally deficient, the latter three being of no concern to this essay. Ashcraft's views on Locke's intentions, similarly to MacPherson should however be taken with a pinch of salt, as is noted by Schochet and Poole respectively. Both MacPherson and Ashcraft assume much of what they claim to be Locke's views, evidently leading to the large disparity between the two views. MacPherson's view that Locke views appropriation as a prerequisite to rationality, which underlines much of his basis for the argument that Locke did not mean to involve the Labouring class in political society is largely non-

existent in the text of the second treatise (Poole, 1980: 229) unless through large inferment made on the part of the reader, and Ashcraft's holding that Locke viewed the land-holding aristocracy in a negative light due his writings about wasted land and mentioning of the Fancy or Quarrelsome and Contentious is again a stretching of the meaning and is not strongly explicit within the body of the text(Schochet, 1989: 501-502). Ryan(1965: 223) too, notes Macpherson's large use of outside sources to justify his theory on Locke, pointing out that the sources used span a period of forty years, a large enough time period that it is highly unlikely Locke would have any clear cut political views throughout. He also argues strongly against MacPherson's account of the lack of rationality in the property-less. Macpherson's claim that the property-less are irrational is repudiated by Ryan(1965: 223), who points out that although MacPherson shows how extension of the natural law leads to only the propertied being rational, Locke himself explicitly says that men are rational enough to understand what is required by the law of nature: the State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone; and Reason which is that Law teaches all mankind (Locke, 1980: 9). Ryan points out that Locke specifically mentions those who are not rational, both those too young, or those who are mentally ill (1965:223). Evidently the Labouring class are not included by Locke here and it would be extremely presumptuous to say that lunatics and ideots (Locke, 1980: 34) in fact include the majority of the population who are not landowners. Waldron too disagrees with Macpherson's view. Although he agrees with the view that Locke saw the Labouring class as largely unable to fully develop their intellectual capabilities, citing a section from Locke's , An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he disagrees with MacPherson's argument that he therefore saw the Labouring class as unable to think for themselves or be fundamentally irrational(Waldron, 2002: 86-87), but claims that he in fact compared them to those repressed through censorship and indoctrination. This suggests a view of the Labouring class as effectively intellectually gagged through the lifestyle they are forced through circumstance rather than one of a class of people inherently irrational due to their inability to appropriate. The view that the property-less are irrational is also hard to accept due to the fact that Locke (1980: 52) bases political obligation on consent. If the Laws of Nature are commanded by reason, as was mentioned earlier, then how is it possible that someone irrational, and therefore unable to acknowledge or understand those laws or rights is able to consent to give them up? Macpherson's argument that Locke saw the property-less as inherently irrational, both intellectual and morally (1962: 224-226), therefore making them little more than an object of state policy (Macpherson, 1962: 224), suggests that Locke and his contemporaries saw them as almost sub-human, similar almost to animals. This argument is rather weak, as Waldron (2002: 116) notes: Locke never mentions in the text that he viewed those below him as effectively sub-human, and so it takes a lot of assumption to effectively erase large numbers of those included in what Locke says about everyone and the people. If we accept that MacPherson's view is wrong, that the property-less are in fact rational according to Locke, and so, to be obligated to society must willingly give their consent, then the question of why they would do so is in need of answering. One interesting inquiry is that of what Locke meant by the word property. Taking the view of property in the sense we use today;

possessions, we can see how the view that the property-less were not part of political society could be developed. Locke (1980: 66) explains how the creation of civil society is caused by the state of nature's uncertainty, for although every man is free and equal (though not in property rights), the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, and so they come together for the mutual protection of their property from each other. If one takes the view of property as solely possessions, then MacPherson's view makes a lot of sense, as pointed out by Ryan (1965: 221), if we take the view of property as lives, liberties and estates as Locke (1980:66) clearly stakes out, then it is easier to see why they would at least have an interest in forming political society. Yet still the question remains, why would those without property permit the formation of a society whose foundation is the protecting of those who keep them forced into subsistence wage labour? Neither the tricking, nor the coercion of the property-less work, as the obligation to political society comes from rational consent to its formation, which neither of these options allow for (Cohen, 1986: 303-304). Rawl's (2007: 150-151) argues that Locke is in fact not suggesting that the class state formed is an inevitable consequence of the natural laws and the rational extension of them, rather that it is the most possible, and most likely consequence of what occurs between rational actors with different interests with regards to property. Both Cohen (1986) and Rawls (2007) suggest the imagining of an initial choice situation, in which those in the state of nature must make the decision as to what kind of political society will be formed. For this agreement, we assume the equal natural rights and full rationality of everyone involved, be they propertied or property-less. The fact that property accumulation is already permitted through money before the choice situation means that each person involved will have differing interests, some leaning towards preferring a society which favours the propertied, others towards one more equal in nature. Cohen (1986: 316-7) explains how the rationality and self-interest of individuals causes three criteria needed for any decision to make sense: Firstly, that each individual will, after the agreement, end up at least as well off, if not better than they were in the state of nature, as otherwise not all involved in the creation of the state could rationally consent. Secondly, that there should be no other state possible to create which would make some better off and not affect others, as rationally, that would still be the better state. Thirdly, that there should be no group which would do better to go off by itself than by agreeing to the contract. From these criteria, Cohen (1986: 318) comes to show how although the option of a class state means the property-less are worse off than the propertied, individually they gain protection of their life, liberty and possessions, as a group, they are not worse off out of the state of nature despite the propertied gaining in their property and possibly political rights, and rationally, both groups are better off together as the propertied need the property-less' labour, and the property-less need the property owner's wages. Therefore, it can be shown that the property-less agreeing to a class state is possible, although not inevitable, circumstances depending. That a class society is inevitable for all political societies is also argued against by Waldron. At the time of writing, a class society evidently did exist, reflected in the fact that representation in government had a 40 shilling property requirement, and Waldron (2002: 118) does mention that in Locke's view there must be an assembly for property holders and taxpayers, so to assure that consent is given for taxation. This however misses the point Locke

was trying to make, rather it is that, since the form a political society takes is completely dependent on those consenting to it, if the legislative power is invested in a non-representative way, such as a monarchy, then the consent of property holders, whose right to their property is almost inalienable, is necessary to ensure taxation is morally correct. Lack of representation in Locke's political society is not necessarily inherently a bad thing though. Levine (2002: 113) describes Locke's political society as a minimal state: one whose duties entail few functions except for the enforcing of the natural rights and the provision of public goods such as infrastructure and defence. Due to this, Levine (2002: 123) explains that there is little need for representation of those without property because as long as the propertied consent to taxation, and the state enforces the protection of natural rights for all members of society, propertied or not, it is fulfilling its function. By increasing representation the state increases the likelihood of its functions expanding beyond its rightful remit and so infringing on peoples' liberty. By leaving government in the hands of those who are the principal beneficiaries of a minimal state, who are also more likely to be educated and able to comprehend the importance of certain political issues, it is much less likely to expand in an unlawful way. Waldron (2002: 116) notes that Locke made clear that the form of government is dependent on those forming it, so suggesting the form of political society agreed upon to take was one of a class state. He also however notes earlier in the Second Treatise, that mistakes may be made, or rather that decisions made about the form sovereignty should take may depend on the conditions of those people instigating a social contract. Locke (1980: 56) notes the large numbers of hereditary monarchs in his contemporary world, and puts their existence down to the fact that generally families had paternal heads leading them, and in forming political society, would seek to mimic the kind of authority they were accustomed to. They had neither felt the oppression of tyrannical dominion, nor did the fashion of the age, nor their possessions or way of living, (which afforded little matter for covetousness or ambition) give them any reason to apprehend or provide against it (Locke, 1980: 57) This view of political society, appears to suggest that different times call for different forms or government. Locke (1980: 58) goes on to explain how the most important function of kings in the early period of society was more war leader than domestic ruler, that the people consented to their subjection to a king in a time before vain ambition, and amor sceleratus habendi, evil conscupience, had corrupted men's minds into a mistake of true power and honour. This acceptance that monarchy was a valid form of political authority in a better age is in fact rather anti-monarchist, as Locke appears to suggest that monarchy is just that, suited to a better age. Locke goes on to claim that there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them, meaning that if the legislative called for by political society no longer reflects the people's wishes, they have right to change it. If we accept both the propertied and property-less as having this right to revolution, then we can infer that although society in Locke's time may have restricted the property-less, and hence their interests from representative

government, just as previously all had been excluded but for the monarch, changes in society may dictate changes in government. Just as the propertied in Locke's view must have a right to consent to taxation, suggested by Locke to be in the form of a representative body (1980: 75) and not have it arbitrarily taken away by a king, surely the property-less, as they become more educated and realise the importance of state decisions to their lives, as has been seen in our society today, should have the right to be involved in making decisions of state, seeing as they are the majority, and it is majority decision-making which determines the form the government takes according to Locke (1980: 53). Therefore, although unremarked upon in the text of Second Treatise, we can see how representative government could come to be possible for all in Locke's society, including the property-less. By starting at Locke's natural rights in the state of nature, and his account of how obligation in society is dependent on freemen; which we understand to mean those who are not children, slaves, the mentally deficient or servants; consenting to give up some of these rights in order to obtain security in the enforcement of them, we are led to the conclusion that both the propertied and property-less are included in Locke's definition of political society. Although the propertied have greater rights within this society, due to political society reflecting and enforcing the rights seen in the state of nature, this does not mean that the property-less would be irrational for being a part of it, or rather, inherently irrational and so not able to be a part of it. Although they may be lacking in material, or landed property, they still hold property in respect to their own lives, liberty and labour, and so still find themselves in a more favourable position within political society than without despite possibly not being represented in government.