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Locke and the Declaration (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

July 5th, 2015

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Daniel Ellen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

* I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

* Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.

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  1. Donald Oats
    July 6th, 2015 at 00:20 | #1

    I know it isn’t exactly the topic, but what of Michael Bradley’s take on the new “allegiance to Australia” for citizens who have the capacity to become dual nationals (which includes people born in Australia)? Is Bradley a bit paranoid, or has he nailed the colours to the LNP mast?

  2. Ikonoclast
    July 6th, 2015 at 08:51 | #2

    Chomsky on Locke. Remember, to Chomsky “libertarian” does not mean the right-wing libertarianism which today hijacks that term. (For proof of this refer to his article “The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in, and What’s Wrong with Libertarians.”) But first read a little of Chomsky on Locke from his 1991 essay “Force and Opinion” from Z magazine.

    “These (radical democratic) ideas naturally appalled the men of best quality. They were willing to grant the people rights, but within reason, and on the principle that “when we mention the people, we do not mean the confused promiscuous body of the people.” After the democrats had been defeated, John Locke commented that “day-labourers and tradesmen, the spinsters and dairymaids” must be told what to believe: “The greatest part cannot know and therefore they must believe.”

    Like John Milton and other civil libertarians of the period, Locke held a sharply limited conception of freedom of expression. His Fundamental Constitution of Carolina barred those who “speak anything in their religious assembly irreverently or seditiously of the government or governors, or of state matters.” The constitution guaranteed freedom for “speculative opinions in religion,” but not for political opinions. “Locke would not even have permitted people to discuss public affairs,” Leonard Levy observes. The constitution provided further that “all manner of comments and expositions on any part of these constitutions, or on any part of the common or statute laws of Carolines, are absolutely prohibited.” In drafting reasons for Parliament to terminate censorship in 1694, Locke offered no defense of freedom of expression or thought, but only considerations of expediency and harm to commercial interests. With the threat of democracy overcome and the libertarian rabble dispersed, censorship was permitted to lapse in England, because the “opinion-formers…censored themselves. Nothing got into print which frightened the men of property,” Christopher Hill comments. In a well-functioning state capitalist democracy like the United States, what might frighten the men of property is generally kept far from the public eye — sometimes, with quite astonishing success.

    Such ideas have ample resonance until today, including Locke’s stern doctrine that the common people should be denied the right even to discuss public affairs. This doctrine remains a basic principle of modern democratic states, now implemented by a variety of means to protect the operations of the state from public scrutiny: classification of documents on the largely fraudulent pretext of national security, clandestine operations, and other measures to bar the rascal multitude from the political arena. Such devices typically gain new force under the regime of statist reactionaries of the Reagan-Thatcher variety. The same ideas frame the essential professional task and responsibility of the intellectual community: to shape the perceived historical record and the picture of the contemporary world in the interests of the powerful, thus ensuring that the public keeps to its place and function, properly bewildered.”

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