Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” [1].) He applied this to psychology [2], arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” [3]. And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property [4], which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” [5], but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.

The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” [6].)

Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”

If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” [7].

OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?

My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything [8]. That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.

So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.

Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” [9]. With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?

From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs [10]) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” [11]. Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.

  1. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
  2. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
  3. Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
  5. U.S. Declaration of Independence.
  6. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
  7. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
  8. The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
  10. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
  11. Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.

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20 thoughts on “Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

  1. I like Yuval Harari’s description of such things as “fictions”, which is not meant to be derogatory but simply to admit that theses notions — from money to justice to property — don’t exist anywhere but in the minds of humans, individually and collectively. As such, though they can become immensely powerful (people will kill and die for them and often do), they are also subject to our alteration if we decide to do so. Of course, that’s more easily said than done…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hey Bruce. I’d have to brush up, but you sound correct. Plato certainly would not be a clean slate guy. Aristotle? I can’t remember exactly, but his more empirical nature would definitely point toward a clean slate psychology … unless he was too invested in aristocracy to give up on innate hierarchies. (That late medieval/Renaissance investment in an inborn sense of aristocratic hierarchy is what Locke was up against in his day.) Until further notice, I will just say that I’m sure you are right about Plato and my hunch is that you are right about Aristotle. So that’s one amateur who has your back! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent! 🙂
    I have to say you hit on a new twist to Locke, Marx, + private property that definitely needs to be explored as we chart a new course economically + socially in the coming age. Since I came off a 12-hr shift in an ICU + am getting to bed for another tomorrow, I don’t have much time to comment now. However…I’ll be commenting more within the next wk since this is such a vital topic for our times.

    Thx for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thx for focusing on the contrast between Locke and Marx in regards to private property! In light of the extremes of the current political dynamic, this discussion needs to take place. You did an excellent job of showing how Locke and Marx’s ideas evolved historically through Adam Smith up to Piketty and Russell Brand in recent times.

        The following statement you made is one of the key points we need to consider as we look to the future. “Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfillment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity.”

        What I found fascinating is that by focusing on the different interpretations of property and economic-social interactions, you recognized a need in our modern era for both an individual and collective approach for economics and life in general. In essence, you seemed to make a pitch for Social Democracy – the mild form of socialism that many countries, from Scandinavia, to the United States, have aspects of. As you know, this type of system not only lets the individual be in control of many of their decisions; it also has a social safety net set up for all.

        As you know, Social Democracy is a time-tested blend of individualism and collectivism. It allows the Free-Market to provide many of the goods and services of society, while socialist aspects ensure that basic needs of all are met. The philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, amongst others, helped pave the way for this mild and successful form of socialism.

        Obviously, historical context for Locke and Marx needs to be looked to make them meaningful today. As for Locke, writing as he did during the Enlightenment and the ending of feudalism, he hit upon a revolutionary concept of individuality that not only extended to the concept of property, but also to the individual as well. By focusing on the sovereignty of the individual, Locke helped unleash a sense of creativity and freedom that lingers to this day.

        Nowadays, it’s easy to focus on Locke’s outmoded ideas on slavery, and the fact his ideas could be caricatured into a rugged individualism that leaves out a sense of the collective. However, it goes without saying that many features of modern life owe a certain debt to Locke. After all, his influence on the American constitution – a masterpiece of Classical Liberalism, helped usher in many of the later liberal reforms that we’re acquainted with

        As for Marx, one has to remember he wrote during a period of tremendous social unrest in Europe that was unleashed by both the French Revolution and the Industrial Age. After all, this was the era of William Blake’s phrase about the “Dark Satanic Mills” which many felt represented the factories in northern England. These factories became famous for their squalid and exploitive working conditions.

        Coming as it did after Locke, Marx’s ideas pointed out that manipulative exploitation on a grand scale could occur during the Industrial Revolution at the hand of powerful capitalists. Therefore, although tacit approval of private property existed at this time in history, Marx pointed out that the social relationships that grew out of large scale business – which in some cases led to powerful monopolies, tended to make Locke’s theories about private property almost seem quaint. Thus…Marx was not fond of bourgeois private property.

        Piketty and Brand are correct to point out that wealth inequality has grown in the past 20 years. Basically, we’re in the midst of an economic revolution far removed from the past. Ever since Finance Deregulation hit worldwide in the 90’s, tremendous changes – with many complaints, have occurred on all levels of society. As opposed to previous generations, wealth is held more in non-tangible forms of assets. This “financialization of our economies” has meant that as opposed to tangible assets like land, raw materials, or property, much wealth is generated now by the use of risky derivative instruments that are aided by high-tech mathematicians known as “Quants.”

        Although the history of market economies shows the necessity of hedging and the need to use mathematics, many experts have noted that we’re moving so far away from tangible assets that we’re creating an economy where the high risk of derivatives are being socialized. In a sense, Libertarian economists are correct to imply that the bailout of the finance industry in the 2009 Great Recession created socialism for the rich. Since the use of risky derivatives helped lead to the Great Recession, the bailout allowed the high use of derivatives – which creates tremendous wealth, to continue. Ironically, although capitalism takes the blame for this…we’re in uncharted territory. Since bailing out industries goes against a tenet of market economics, our economy has morphed.

        As a result of The Great Recession, we have perpetually low Interest Rates – which hurt pension plans and savers, and Quantitative Easing ( QE ). Many economic experts feel that both practices do not totally reflect market economies and are destabilizing. Many now wonder…where do we go from here?

        Also, I wonder what both Locke and Marx would think of these policies? ☺

        Thx again for posting this! I think you make some excellent points that we all need to consider. In a sense, you removed the discussion away from the dead-end theorizing that plagues economics and put it back where it belongs into the realm of what it means to be human. As I said before, the point you made below is very powerful and eternal:

        “Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfillment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Perry. Yes social democracy a la Northern Europe is not the end of history (a distance I cannot pretend to see) but is the best springboard forward from here. And yes to Locke’s greatness. When I say it’s time to revise Locke (or Marx), that doesn’t mean we need to reject him and destroy all likenesses (as the wokes might do); it means we need to recognize, as Locke’s contemporary Newton said, that if we have a better line of vision than those who came before us, it’s because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. (Also, I appreciate your more nuanced understanding of financial markets in relation to wealth – a needed addition to my perspective.)

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  3. How do you address the charge that those societies that experimented with the removal of the concept of private property during the twentieth century all failed? Not only did they fail, they failed catastrophically.

    I’m talking about Russia, China, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Mozambique, Congo, Ethiopia, Angola, Somalia, and others.

    Can you provide a counter-example?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those countries certainly prove that forcible expropriation doesn’t work. Luckily, that is not what I’m advocating. I’m talking about a shift in consciousness in how we think about property and ownership. Arguably, Locke is the last major shift in this regard. Cp. blogmate Phil Ebersole on Piketty’s newer book: “The Indians had no idea of buying the exclusive right to use a tract of land, keep everybody else off it and sell the land to someone else. Thomas Piketty pointed out in his new book, Capital and Ideology, that, in fact, this was a fairly new idea even for the English and other Europeans. The idea of absolute property rights did not exist in the European middle ages. Someone might have a hereditary right to grow crops on a certain tract of land, a second person the right to 10 percent of all crops grown on the land, a third person the right to grind grain produced on the land ….”

      You will note that I started by giving Locke credit as a marker of this shift in the concept of ownership as your countrymen moved from a land-based to a capital-based economy. History moves through epochs and there WILL be another shift in how we think about ownership someday. The expropriations you speak of are disastrous because the put the cart before the horse – forcible reallocation of private property before the collective consciousness has shifted. That won’t work. You can’t even see what the new material shift will look like until the shift in consciousness is well under way. I’m just trying to grease the shift in consciousness 😊. (Note that with my alignment of cart and horse, I think I just reversed Marx’s reversal of Hegel. I guess that makes me a dialectical idealist? Who cares? I’m just a hippie poet bum trying to use these subterranean voices from our past as best I can to get us one step closer to the Age of Aquarius 😊)

      Liked by 1 person

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