Home > Philosophy, Politics (general) > Against Locke, Part 3

Against Locke, Part 3

August 15th, 2016

The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.

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  1. Newtownian
    August 16th, 2016 at 09:12 | #1

    A nice review of an important piece of social theory. Hopefully it will be picked up by teachers of Environmental Studies 101 (I am not being facetious).

    Its interesting how time, system growth/evolution and scale, and their interactions turn plausible/useful system models which Locke’s must have seemed at the time he was writing, into a bit of a disaster.

    If you are thinking of doing more on this theme you might next have a look at the history of a second example where time has made a mockery of an ideology/philosophy/model – the left’s damning of Malthus’s ideas notably by our old friend Karl as I understand it on the basis that industrialization would change the game.

    In retrospect industrialization sort of did. But when he was writing ca 1850 this was probably a reasonable conclusion given (see Wiki) a gross world product of $360 billion and a population of merely 1.2 billion mostly children with lower demands than adults. Cut to the present though we have a GWP 200 X larger at $77 trillion, a population of mostly resource guzzling adults 6X larger at 7.4 billion and a technology of transformative ferocity (and more in the offing via molecular biology) which neither Marx or Malthus could conceive (though perhaps Blake could) any more than we can predict the state of things 150 years hence. Yet the left continues to only give the conundrums arising and treats the threats (e.g. increasing racism and chauvinism of the Hanson kind) as mere management problems on the road to Shangri-la.

    To be sure the right is as much wedded to continued growth as the left. Nevertheless it is an ongoing disappointment that the Greens happily continue to put out ecotopian motherhood policies without a good quantitative analysis of the ugly side/implications of their policies i.e. who will lose and by how much if a sustainable steady state globe is ever to be achieved.

  2. Ikonoclast
    August 16th, 2016 at 09:21 | #2

    Obama’s statement, “You didn’t build that,” certainly resonates. There are certain genres of writing, usually dynasty novels or sentimental histories of famous families, where the following sorts of statements are made. “He built a new family mansion on Prominent Prospect”. I always get an amusing image of the patriarch of a soon-to-be “great family” striding shirtless up the rise, lifting great beams and hammering, building a vast mansion all by himself. He chisels every rock from the quarry, fells every tree, saws every piece of lumber and hauls all of it, maybe with two oxen and a dray, back to the site. He grows his own food and spins his own clothes in between shifts of mansion construction. Obama’s words, “You didn’t build that,” sum up the impossibility most succinctly.

    More to the point, I am not sure that recondite philosophy attacking Locke in order to attack propertarianism is really going to make much headway. At the same time, I admit that I don’t know what will make headway. I admit myself somewhat bereft of ideas on this score. Enculturation into a social system begins at birth. It normalises the existing state of affairs in people’s minds. Philosophy has a hard struggle against prejudices and mental categories instilled from birth. I guess the question is this. “What type of person is one trying to convince with a philosophical argument?”

    I would perhaps argue for making the ownership and equality argument more concrete, more material and more related to ordinary people. The question is how to do this. It’s a question much too big for a short comment reply.

  3. Ikonoclast
    August 16th, 2016 at 10:48 | #3

    I would like to add this.

    I am not sure exactly what view of scarcity, abundance and the Lauderdale “Paradox” is taken by John Quiggin. Let me quote a key paragraph from J.Q.’s article.

    “As this sorry history shows, Locke’s proviso is fundamentally at variance with the core doctrine of classical and neoclassical economics, that human needs and desires are unlimited while resources are invariably scarce. The idea of founding a defense of capitalism on a Lockean doctrine of just acquisition of property is inherently contradictory, pitting the role of the market in managing scarcity against a hypothetical origin story in which the absence of scarcity is critical.”

    To my mind, this leaves J.Q.’s precise views on scarcity, abundance and the Lauderdale “Paradox” somewhat unclear. The statement “resources are invariably scarce” surely needs some qualification. Is useable oxygen in the atmosphere scarce? I mean as breathable oxygen and oxygen available for farming and industrial processes? Surely, the answer is “it depends”. Oxygen is abundant in the atmosphere for primary human use in most cases. People with healthy lungs get enough oxygen free except maybe sometimes in super-polluted cities. In food production, free range animals get oxygen for free. In industrial processes oxygen may be free or it may bear costs. In a blast furnace, oxygen is no longer free. There is a cost in pressurising or supercharging the supply of oxygen. In this last sense, free atmospheric oxygen at STP is too scarce for some industrial processes.

    There is a second level to this lack of clarity. J.Q. does not address the role of the current economic system (now under the sway of neoliberalism or market fundamentalism) in deliberately creating scarcities out of previously abundant “commons resources” in order to profit from them. It is hard to tell, when J.Q. points out that “a Lockean doctrine of just acquisition of property is inherently contradictory, pitting the role of the market in managing scarcity against a hypothetical origin story in which the absence of scarcity is critical”, whether J.Q. fully supports and endorses this role of the market in managing (and unnecessarily creating) scarcity. This is so because a full analysis must recognise that current neoliberal markets, and the ownership systems surrounding and supporting them, can operate to generate new scarcities out of existing abundances in some cases.

    I summary, J.Q.’s simple statement of “the core doctrine of classical and neoclassical economics, that human needs and desires are unlimited while resources are invariably scarce” leaves open the question of whether he approves of this statement as accurate or rejects it as inaccurate. He may simply be combining this tenet of classical and neoclassical economics with Lockean doctrine simply to show that two are logically incompatible, whether or not the first is true in its own right. The reason for doing this would be that those tempted to be Lockean (or propertarian) thinkers on this matter would accept the first doctrine as a matter of course.

    The initial two-part doctrine that “human needs and desires are unlimited while resources are invariably scarce” is not primarily true of the natural or even of the human world. It only becomes true under a combination of capitalist relations and the application of advanced technology. If J.Q. is advancing this initial two-part doctrine as primarily true, as part of the fundamental “nature of man” and “nature of economics” apart from any specific historio-economic context then he is wrong in my opinion. But I may be misinterpreting his position and arguments. I admit I am left confused and dissatisfied by the Jacobin article but I am not sure where the confusion mainly subsists, in my mind or in J.Q.’s mind.

    I refer J.Q. to this article for a worthwhile exploration of these issues.


  4. Brian
    August 17th, 2016 at 05:44 | #4

    An ideology to justify acquisition by conquest. Roots deep in civilized time.
    I think now, we have an alternative, but this is the historical foundation.

  5. paul walter
    August 17th, 2016 at 21:17 | #5

    Thanks again Ikonoclast, that nails what JQ is getting at and from that point, Malthus, Ricardo, Bentham and the rest, hence the emergence of corrective critiques from Feuerbach, Marx and Engels, Kropotkin etc.

  6. Ikonoclast
    August 18th, 2016 at 12:42 | #6

    @paul walter

    Well, I am still waiting for J.Q. to fully engage on the issues of needs/desires, scarcity and the Lauderdale “Paradox”. Or at least provide links to his views or views he supports on these topics.

    The statement “human needs and desires are unlimited while resources are invariably scarce” needs considerable caveats. Admittedly JQ was in the confines of a short article. The current economic system (whatever we like to term it) shows an extensive capacity to speciously and worthlessly manufacture new desires, to waste resources, to misallocate resources, to employ strategies of planned obsolescence, fashion churn and advertising to boost over-consumption, to generate in some cases artificial scarcities for the purposes of wealth transfer and to call us to question what exactly is “efficient” about destroying the sustaining environment.

    J.Q.’s simple statement passes over these serious issues in silence (with, as I said, the allowable point that article space was limited).

  7. Ivor
    August 18th, 2016 at 15:09 | #7


    (whatever we like to term it)

    OECD capitalism

  8. Julie Thomas
    August 18th, 2016 at 15:13 | #8


    “human needs and desires are unlimited while resources are invariably scarce”

    The human referred to in this sentence is an autonomous individualistic male person.

    It does not apply to me as a woman in a patriarchal society where my needs and desires have always been limited by the political correctness insisted on by these male humans and the statement appears particularly empty and useless with respect to raising children and socialising them so that they have a chance to grow up into adult humans who take responsibility for the effect their behaviour has on other people.

  9. J-D
    August 18th, 2016 at 16:36 | #9

    @Julie Thomas

    Limitations on the fulfilment of desires are not synonymous with limitations on desires. The laws of physics are a limitation on the fulfilment of my desire for the power of unaided flight, but not on the desire itself; they stop me from having it but they don’t stop me from wanting it. Most people (and not just women) are prevented by other people from having everything they desire, but not prevented from desiring, just as, for example, slavery prevents people from being free but doesn’t prevent them from desiring to be free.

    There is strong objection to founding an analysis on the concept of unlimited desire inasmuch as unlimited desire is unrealistic, but it’s unrealistic for all people, not just some.

  10. Ikonoclast
    August 18th, 2016 at 16:41 | #10

    @Julie Thomas

    Yes, I agree to a very considerable extent. What I am trying to get at here is that the claimed phenomenon “human needs and desires are unlimited” is an emergent phenomenon, at least in its full expression. Its emergence, in what one might term florid or flagrant form, is a complex formed of basic human nature (insofar as that can be said to exist) and an economic system geared to validate (for some only) the desire to have unlimited desires.

    The very selection of “human needs and desires are unlimited” indicates a presumption has already been made favour of legitimating unlimited greed (for a privileged few in practice) and ignoring ecological and biosphere limits. This is the problem with orthodox economics. It is blind to the fact that its basic axioms are fundamentally flawed.

    Why is “human needs and desires are unlimited” apparently selected as a key axiom of economics? It does not represent any fundamental truth about human nature despite its implicit claim. One could equally select “humans need to live in harmony with each other and with the environment” as the key economic axiom, meaning of course the need to live in cooperative and sustainable ways. Our nature as a eusocial species requires cooperation. Our nature as physical, biological beings requires a sustaining natural environment. This interdependence of nature (human nature with broader ecological and biosphere nature) indicates my definition “humans need to live in harmony with each other and with the environment” is the more accurate one and better taken as a fundamental axiom for economics.

    Orthodox economics is intellectually and morally impoverished.

  11. John Quiggin
    August 18th, 2016 at 16:55 | #11

    To be clear, I wasn’t asserting the claim of unlimited needs, just making the point that it contradicts the Lockean proviso. I’ve talked about the broader questions before, for example,


  12. John Quiggin
    August 18th, 2016 at 17:01 | #12

    I’d never heard of the Lauderdale “paradox” and I can’t see the paradox. It looks to me a claim that’s trivially true in an accounting sense at any point in time (holding total income fixed, and dividing it between public and private), and trivially false over time (since total income changes, allowing public and private to move in the same direction). Feel free to explain further.

  13. Ikonoclast
    August 18th, 2016 at 17:19 | #13

    @John Quiggin

    My apologies for misconstruing then. My attack on “orthodox economics” is not meant to be a personal attack. I realise now it was clumsy and it could look like that. FWIW I don’t regard you as a clearly orthodox economist nor as a clearly heterodox economist. Your position is difficult for me to characterise. Some would say that’s because my thinking is a bit black and white.

    I will come back to the Lauderdale “paradox”. The scare quotes are necessary because indeed there is a debate about whether it is a paradox. Your “trivial” charges might be sustainable too… or not. I will come back to it.

  14. Julie Thomas
    August 18th, 2016 at 17:59 | #14


    “The laws of physics are a limitation on the fulfilment of my desire for the power of unaided flight, but not on the desire itself;”

    One of my sons really desired to be able to fly and he kept trying until he went to pre-school. I kept all ladders locked up so he could only run across the yard flapping his hands. He no longer desires to fly because he understands he can’t. I will ask him tonight if he still desires to fly and it is only his knowledge of physics that stops him or if he has managed to do away with the irrational desire itself.

    I hope he will say that he has learned to limit or reduce his desires because he realises that they are dysfunctional and holding on to them would cause him to feel unhappy.

    I’d say that Buddhism teaches humans how to control their desires and thereby achieve happiness. I am talking way too much.

    The patriarchal thing and the different way women’s desires are controlled from the control men are given over their desires is too big for me to talk about now. I do like the heteronormative patriarchy blog you linked to a while ago.

  15. Ikonoclast
    August 18th, 2016 at 19:50 | #15

    @John Quiggin

    The concept goes further than wealth measures in the formal economy. The following two paragraphs are from the Monthly Review article I linked to several posts above.

    “The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction” – John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

    “The ecological contradictions of the prevailing economic ideology are best explained in terms of what is known in the history of economics as the “Lauderdale Paradox.” James Maitland, the eighth Earl of Lauderdale (1759-1839), was the author of “An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of its Increase (1804)”. In the paradox with which his name came to be associated, Lauderdale argued that there was an inverse correlation between public wealth and private riches such that an increase in the latter often served to diminish the former. “Public wealth,” he wrote, “may be accurately defined, — to consist of all that man desires, as useful or delightful to him.” Such goods have use value and thus constitute wealth. But private riches, as opposed to wealth, required something additional (i.e., had an added limitation), consisting “of all that man desires as useful or delightful to him; which exists in a degree of scarcity.”

    Scarcity, in other words, is a necessary requirement for something to have value in exchange, and to augment private riches. But this is not the case for public wealth, which encompasses all value in use, and thus includes not only what is scarce but also what is abundant. This paradox led Lauderdale to argue that increases in scarcity in such formerly abundant but necessary elements of life as air, water, and food would, if exchange values were then attached to them, enhance individual private riches, and indeed the riches of the country — conceived of as “the sum-totalof individual riches” — but only at the expense of the common wealth. For example, if one could monopolize water that had previously been freely available by placing a fee on wells, the measured riches of the nation would be increased at the expense of the growing thirst of the population.” – John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark.

    The definition of “public wealth” in Lauderdale is much broader than in standard economics. All free, ubiquitous and abundant resources are “public wealth” in Lauderdale’s definition. By “enclosing” in some way, this kind of “public wealth”, previously outside the economic sphere, and thus making it private wealth which earns private income, national wealth on standard economic measures goes up but the total welfare of society (as the sum of health, happiness and amenity of all citizens) could go down.

  16. BilB
    August 18th, 2016 at 23:49 | #16

    Ikonoclast, I think the Bolivian water crisis disproves the automatic correlation. In this crisis only private wealth increased until the public took back command of the water supply.

  17. Ernestine Gross
    August 19th, 2016 at 08:11 | #17

    “Its interesting how time, system growth/evolution and scale, and their interactions turn plausible/useful system models which Locke’s must have seemed at the time he was writing, into a bit of a disaster.”

    Makes sense to me.

  18. GrueBleen
    August 19th, 2016 at 08:26 | #18

    @John Quiggin

    I know Ikono wants to make this “Lauderdale paradox” into some kind of philosophical point, but I simply took it much like you: for instance in a ‘gold standard’ or at least non-fiat monetary system in which the banks are only marginally creating capital, then, as you say, it’s just an accounting equation to say that the more wealth – ie money – in private possession, then the less in public, whatever ‘public’ may be taken to mean.

    Likewise, the ‘enclosing’ of commons which shifts them from public to private possession. Or so it seemed to me. But then I found out that the USA state of Wyoming is ‘taxing’ the wind: ie the State government is so upset about its declining revenue from coal, oil and gas mining, that it wants to gain revenue from their replacement: wind generators.

    A sufficiently large tax to possibly make planned wind generator construction uneconomic. In which case, they’d have to stop taxing the wind, I guess, because there would be nobody to pay the taxes.

  19. Troy Prideaux
    August 19th, 2016 at 08:30 | #19

    Ikonoclast :
    @John Quiggin
    My apologies for misconstruing then. My attack on “orthodox economics” is not meant to be a personal attack. I realise now it was clumsy and it could look like that. FWIW I don’t regard you as a clearly orthodox economist nor as a clearly heterodox economist. Your position is difficult for me to characterise. Some would say that’s because my thinking is a bit black and white.
    I will come back to the Lauderdale “paradox”. The scare quotes are necessary because indeed there is a debate about whether it is a paradox. Your “trivial” charges might be sustainable too… or not. I will come back to it.

    From my naive understanding: you can put all the various schools of economics into a spectrum and to use an analogy: the government and central bank would be a dude sitting in a chair about to fight a war. So, on one extreme of the spectrum (Austrian School) the dude would be handcuffed and blindfolded whilst fighting the war with no weaponry. He would be virtually defenceless. On the other side of the spectrum (MMT) the dude would have an unlimited supply of weaponry and ammo to tackle the enemy (an economic crisis). In the middle of spectrum there are various mainstream schools like the Keynesians who have limited weaponry which could be fiscal spending or monetary adjustments (monetary economics schools).
    I think John sits somewhere close to the Keynesian school of thought. Please correct me if I’m off the mark 🙂

  20. GrueBleen
    August 19th, 2016 at 08:41 | #20

    @Julie Thomas

    Don’t pay too much attention to J-D, Julie, he’s just given to flights of arrant literalism, so when he was told to “dream the impossible dream” he came to believe that only impossible things could be dreamed.

    Impossible things, such as terminal release from Samsara – other than by the rational conclusion that there never was a Samsara to have to be released from. Do you think Buddhism “teaches” control of desires, or merely suppression of desires ? What does control of desires mean, anyway, unless it means suppression ?

  21. GrueBleen
    August 19th, 2016 at 09:06 | #21

    @Ernestine Gross

    Hmm. Makes what sense ? To whom and in what way did Locke’s ‘model’ seem “plausible/useful” ?

    Then perhaps we could also consider this: “…a second example where time has made a mockery of an ideology/philosophy/model – the left’s damning of Malthus’s ideas notably by our old friend Karl as I understand it on the basis that industrialization would change the game. ”

    Apart from this “the left” thing that nobody can ever explain to me – who or what is “the left” ? who grants them or it membership ? why is Marx considered “the left” ? was the Club of Rome part of “the left” ? – then we’d have to admit that industrialization has indeed changed the game, at least so far, and that the game isn’t ended yet. Lots more “industrialization” to come.

    And talking of the “industrialization” yet to come, maybe we should all go read Arthur C, Clarke’s “Food of the Gods” again. And perhaps contemplate that when Isaac Asimov wrote “The Caves of Steel” in 1954, the idea was that a couple of thousand years into the future, the human population confined to those caves would number the unbelievably massive total of 8 billion. Currently 7.4 billion and growing rapidly.

  22. Ikonoclast
    August 19th, 2016 at 09:08 | #22


    There’s a little more to it than that. Lauderdale’s definition of public wealth was different from J.Q.’s (implicit) definition in his reply. J.Q.’s deductions were logical and correct under his definition of public wealth. Lauderdale’s reasoning is also correct under his definition of “public wealth”. I certainly argue that Lauderdale’s broader definition of public wealth (meaning use value or amenity straight from nature to people) enables us to see better the “paradox” of enclosure. It’s not really a paradox of course. It’s more a sleight of political economy. I mean to make people pay for something which they formerly received free from nature.

    None of these concepts are foreign to J.Q. The problem is more one of archaic or idiosyncratic terminology (Lauderdale’s) conflicting with modern economic terminology. “Public wealth” in modern terminology (so far as I can see) means wealth brought into the public sphere of the formal economy i.e. state owned in some fashion after having been expropriated from the free gifts of nature and/or from the transformations of labour and automated production. “Public wealth” in Lauderdale comprises free gifts of nature straight to persons without economic intervention of any kind. These free gifts tend to be abundant and ubiquitous, that is to say they are not scarce or not usually scarce. Scarcity simply is not an issue. The free air that healthy people breathe unaided is an example.

  23. GrueBleen
    August 19th, 2016 at 09:30 | #23


    You and ProfQ were ‘communicating’ somewhat at odds, Ikono, given his very limited subject matter and your much more ‘open-ended’ one. Which you have acknowledged above, so that’s all hunky-dory now.

    But in my usual fashion, I’m just having difficulties with understanding what things such as ‘public wealth’ actually mean. Quite apart, that is, from the much expanded idea of ‘wealth’ that you use, and the vagueness of ‘public’. Is the remaining stock of smallpox virus a piece of ‘public wealth’ ? After all, it was extracted from the free and open world in which smallpox was very much a ‘free gift’ that was firstly expropriated into individual private possession, and then ended up in a publicly owned laboratory.

    But also there is Newtownian’s bit about Malthus: it is possible for some populations to starve themselves, even unto obliteration, by continued, possibly excessive, consumption of nature’s “free gifts”. When a herd grazes on the savannah, who “owns” the grass ?

  24. Ernestine Gross
    August 20th, 2016 at 08:13 | #24


    You ask several questions in your paragraph one and then, it appears, you try to answer them with more questions in the subsequent paragraphs. Good luck with your method of ever reaching a conclusion.

  25. Ikonoclast
    August 20th, 2016 at 09:44 | #25

    Troy Prideaux,

    I recommend to people that they read “The Fragment on Machines” – Karl Marx – from The Grundrisse (pp. 690 – 712). This a short but very profound set of notes. (The Grundrisse is a notebook or workbook of Marx trying to work out his theories.)


    J.Q. linked to his Aeon article, “The Golden Age” to explain his views on the broader questions raised in this thread. J.Q. states at one point, “Ultimately, people would be free to choose how best to contribute ‘according to their abilities’ and receive from society enough to meet at least their basic needs.” This is a clear statement of socialism as a goal. It echoes the words “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”; a slogan first used by Louis Blanc in 1851 and popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program.

    “The principle refers to free access and distribution of goods, capital and services. In the Marxist view, such an arrangement will be made possible by the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist system will produce; the idea is that, with the full development of socialism and unfettered productive forces, there will be enough to satisfy everyone’s needs.” – Wikipedia.

    The idea that industrial production systems would produce, sooner or later, enough goods and services to satisfy everyone’s needs is common to Marx, Keynes and others. After mentioning the visionary positions of Edward Bellamy, Wilde, Marx and Engels, J.Q. writes, “None of these writers, however, had a theory of economic growth. Neither was one to be found in the literature of classical economics.” I assume, in context, he meant that while they had a vision of growth or improvement none had a detailed theory of or for that economic growth. This is incorrect. Marx certainly had a theory of how economic growth occurred in practice under early capitalism. He also had complex theories on where that process might lead. The old fashioned term is “dialectical materialism”, a term now sullied by its association with fundamentalist Soviet Marxists. “Dialectical materialism”, developed in turn from Hegelian dialectics, was nothing other than a physicalist theory of the processes of emergence.

    “In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. Emergence is central in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.” – Wikipedia.

    Complex systems theory and theories of emergence, at least in modern philosophy, were first developed or at least prefigured by Hegel and Marx (so far as I can tell in my investigations so far) though they did not use those terms. They certainly prefigured thinkers like George Henry Lewes and Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

    But to get back on topic, Marx indicated how a productive surplus was appropriated by capitalists, often via their managers and agents, and reinvested to expand fixed capital. Nothing could be clearer in terms of a theory of economic growth. Marx was also clear (though complex) in the Grundrisse fragment linked to above on how automation (mechanical automation in that era) and the power of machines (driven by coal powered steam at that time) could supplant labour power and by implication overturn his (and others’) crude labour theory of value.

    Too many people read Marx via out-of-context quotes. Marx needs to be read comprehensively to understand that often when he posits a theory, like the basic labour theory of value, he posits it to show its usefulness at a basic level and then its shortcomings. The shortcomings include the notion that while a labour theory of value might be a useful approximation in one era (and also while excluding the issue of “free gifts from nature”), the further developments of capitalism and industrialisation would eventually overturn that very labour theory of value. Both “bourgeois” and fundamentalist Marxist political economists are often guilty of reading Marx in a too piecemeal fashion and not understanding the higher syntheses at each stage of his thought. While propounding or restating a basic labour theory of value, reasonably applicable to early, crude industrial capitalism, Marx also posited the overthrow of this principle by the emergence of new powers of machine production.

    After that detour, we need to reconsider J.Q.’s position. His position is socialist going by the quote I mentioned above. He notes the power of modern production to abolish poverty and to ensure enough of the basics and even of basic fulfillments for everyone. This is no more than Marx saw or foresaw well before Keynes. However, J.Q. seems to want to implement socialism via welfarism, via redistribution after the fact of unequal ownership which first distributes unequally. J.Q. might think this an inaccurate characterisation of his position and of course he can argue to that if he wishes to further engage. On the one hand, J.Q. strongly questions and argues against the excessive extent of what one might call rentier or capitalist ownership or operations in the arenas of financialisation, I.P., and (land) property acquired by Lockean rationalisations of mixing labour to make land one’s own. On the other hand, I see little questioning of the extent, concentration and general nature of share ownership. I see little or no theorising from J.Q. (unless I have missed it) about the needs for worker cooperative ownership of enterprises and democracy in the workplace if a genuine socialist society is to be developed. Without these elements, one’s thinking can ever only be half-socialist, IMO.

  26. Ernestine Gross
    August 20th, 2016 at 11:49 | #26

    IMHO, JQ’s article contributes to dealing with the retrograde Properterians and other pockets of so-called intellectual life where Locke lurks. This takes place in the space of narratives where alternatives compete for influence.

    There are now methods for analysising how ideas and research programs grow over time. One example:


  27. Ikonoclast
    August 20th, 2016 at 14:19 | #27

    @Ernestine Gross

    Your initial sentence point is a valid one. I would add the caveat that all that takes place in the language exposition of ideas does not take place in the space of “narratives” (meaning, I assume, grand narratives or meta narratives). This is just my opinion of course.

  28. BilB
    August 20th, 2016 at 15:49 | #28

    Ernestine is this the propertarian thinking you are referring to?


    Watch out every other philosophy if propertarianism gets a toe hold. The Truth shall prevail,…like that would ever happen.

    The primary problem with all catchall philosophies is that they fail to understand and deal with the empathy spectrum of humanity. They can at best attempt to cope with it with laws and a legal system but that becomes ever more complex (attains a higher entropy in the scientific sense).

    I see where JQ is going with this argument and how it flows over time from one generational reality into another. In my lifetime the Lockean experience has been the quarter acre block. What started out as the basis for an equal society has become a tangled mess as the original participants fight for dominance as the boundaries apply pressure to the core ideal which becomes ever tighter and more expensive.

    However the quarter acre block ideal has failed for 2 main reasons. One is relentless population growth, and the other is the practical boundary of a workable city size.

    Australia’s quarter acre block abandoned the notion of developing a living from the land itself and accepted the industrial principle of applying labour to tradable goods in order to satisfy ones needs.

    So from there the Lockean notion moved on to the realm of ideas and it is here that it has validity as there is no end to the field of opportunities, even though it may well seem as though there are boundaries to those with limited imaginations.

    At this point we find the battle ground…IP. Which I am still thinking about.

  29. GrueBleen
    August 20th, 2016 at 16:36 | #29

    @Ernestine Gross

    Your #24 of 20 Aug

    I thank you for your wish of “good luck” on my behalf, Ernestine, but I’m afraid that in return, I must ask you yet another question: why would you propose that I might want to reach a “conclusion” ?

    After all, our web-wise mutual acquaintance, Ikono, is praising the “dialectic” method; but every “dialectic synthesis” – ie a nominal “conclusion” to the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis – is just the “thesis” of the next round of dialectic. A process that clearly has no definable end point. But you know all of this, of course, which is why you rhetorically avoided all of my questions, even the ones about syntheses that you had supported.

    And we know what they say about Jesus, don’t we:

    “In the Gospels Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3. Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings.”

    Then again, he was a Jewish Rabbi, wasn’t he.

  30. Ernestine Gross
    August 20th, 2016 at 17:18 | #30


    Well, yes, it is quite clear what JQ is getting at. He spelled it out: “The answer is that property rights, like legally enforceable rights in general, are social institutions that may or not be consistent with concepts of justice and human rights.”

    As for Propertarians, I had in mind JQ’s prior posts on this topic and the observation that some people try to justify ‘property right’ by treating these two words as axiomatic to human society. I recall one case from literally decades ago, which involves a set inclusion problem to my mind. That is, the good Professor argued that property rights are human rights and therefore nothing more than property rights are required.

  31. Ikonoclast
    August 20th, 2016 at 17:44 | #31


    Crikey, Curt Doolittle is as crazy as Ayn Rand times Malcolm Roberts… and that’s a lot of crazy. I’m tempted to use the expression “infinity to the infinity power” crazy. “Infinity to the infinity power” is a meme from my childhood. Within a small friend group we imagined that this was the biggest number possible, clearly being an infinite number of infinities bigger than infinity itself. But I better not let the concept into the wild. Curt or Malcolm will take it over for sure as in, “We are infinity to the infinity power more intelligent than all other humans combined both from history and currently existing.” That sentence certainly seems to sum up Curt Doolittle’s intellectual self-assessment.

  32. Ernestine Gross
    August 20th, 2016 at 18:18 | #32

    Good one. Your version of the ‘dialectic method’ requires only one person.

  33. BilB
    August 20th, 2016 at 20:01 | #33

    I was making comment, Ernestine, by way of coming up to speed on what this is about. But having got close to understanding what is being argued I get to a point where I can see a plane of human endeavour where Locke’s notion, having failed at every other level, might actually have a place, ideas and opportunities. JQ launches into this with his preconceived notions of IP Protection, but I think this is where the various protections can be rationalised in a meaningful way.

  34. GrueBleen
    August 20th, 2016 at 21:58 | #34

    @Ernestine Gross

    Your #32 of 20 Aug

    “[My] version of dialectic method” ? You flatter me greatly, I am merely repeating what greater minds than mine have preached. And we can all see the extraordinary success they’ve achieved.

    I did enjoy the “Mapping Change in Large Networks” paper you referenced above (your #26). Now we can confidently plot out the next 10,000 years of the life of Planet Earth and all who sail on it in lovely multi-coloured Alluvial diagrams.

    And I trust that your valiant attempts to explain what ProfQ was on about may one day achieve cognitive recognition.

  35. Ikonoclast
    August 21st, 2016 at 07:29 | #35

    I don’t suppose anyone has attempted to read “The Fragment on Machines” – Karl Marx – from The Grundrisse (pp. 690 – 712)? I recommend it, despite its problems.


    You will find;

    (1) It is complicated, messy and incomplete. After all, it is a fragment that is “notes towards” a small part of a theory, not a complete theory.

    (2) The terminology is archaic and confusing.

    (3) You may or may not agree with the picture it gives you of a “capitalist” economy.

    (4) Despite the above three points you will see that Marx is saying something important about what happens (or can happen) in economics when labour power gets transformed and then finally superseded by mechanisation and automation.

  36. Ikonoclast
    August 21st, 2016 at 07:43 | #36

    Here’s something from the Hannah Arendt website. It’s a little breathless, a little exaggerated but it captures the importance of Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” which was largely unknown until the 1960s.

    “Paul Mason argues that the information economy is creating new material conditions that enable a post-capitalist economy based on sharing and zero-marginal cost production to emerge. What is more, he argues that all this was foreseen by Karl Marx in a little known fragment on Machines from 1858. “The scene is Kentish Town, London, February 1858, sometime around 4am. Marx is a wanted man in Germany and is hard at work scribbling thought-experiments and notes-to-self. When they finally get to see what Marx is writing on this night, the left intellectuals of the 1960s will admit that it ‘challenges every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived’. It is called ‘The Fragment on Machines’. In the ‘Fragment’ Marx imagines an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them. He was clear that, in such an economy, the main productive force would be information. The productive power of such machines as the automated cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive did not depend on the amount of labour it took to produce them but on the state of social knowledge. Organisation and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the work of making and running the machines. Given what Marxism was to become–a theory of exploitation based on the theft of labour time–this is a revolutionary statement. It suggests that, once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, outweighing the actual labour spent creating a machine, the big question becomes not one of ‘wages versus profits’ but who controls what Marx called the ‘power of knowledge’. In an economy where machines do most of the work, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines must, he writes, be ‘social’. In a final late-night thought experiment Marx imagined the end point of this trajectory: the creation of an ‘ideal machine’, which lasts forever and costs nothing. A machine that could be built for nothing would, he said, add no value at all to the production process and rapidly, over several accounting periods, reduce the price, profit and labour costs of everything else it touched. Once you understand that information is physical, and that software is a machine, and that storage, bandwidth and processing power are collapsing in price at exponential rates, the value of Marx’s thinking becomes clear. We are surrounded by machines that cost nothing and could, if we wanted them to, last forever. In these musings, not published until the mid-20th century, Marx imagined information coming to be stored and shared in something called a ‘general intellect’–which was the mind of everybody on Earth connected by social knowledge, in which every upgrade benefits everybody. In short, he had imagined something close to the information economy in which we live. And, he wrote, its existence would ‘blow capitalism sky high’.”

  37. GrueBleen
    August 21st, 2016 at 08:31 | #37


    “Marx imagined information coming to be stored and shared in something called a ‘general intellect’–which was the mind of everybody on Earth connected by social knowledge”

    Goodness gracious, Ikono, Marx was a believer in the Akashic Record ? What crazy ideas come to the minds of men at 4:00am.

    Now I spent 35 years in the ADP/EDP/IT/ICT profession, so I’m more than happy to agree that “software is a machine”, but what do I do with that ? I can’t eat software, or wear software, or live in software, or catch software down to my shopping centre. So what exactly does this “machine” do for me on a day to day basis, exactly ?

  38. Ikonoclast
    August 21st, 2016 at 08:52 | #38


    Well, I did say the article was a “little breathless”.

    Your inherent point, that we are material (physical) beings is quite correct. Thus ultimately what supports us (food, transport, infrastructure etc.) must be material too. There is no escaping that. Embodied knowledge in machines and systems is a big issue along with the material savings it generates. I will post a longer post on this on this thread soon.

  39. BilB
    August 21st, 2016 at 09:21 | #39

    That is a good article there, Ikonoclast. Marx did indeed, by that account anticipate huge chunks of the future. But it also points out yet again Marx’s blind side. Marx refuses to accept the reality of economic gravity, or the positive effect of fair profit. Marx defaults to the extreme where the capitalist captures everything and the worker nothing. He is so determined that capitalism will collapse that he does not consider a mutually balanced economy, from what I can see.

    The notion of the “free machine” is interesting, because that is very much what many self employed capitalists do, they build a machine to do specific work and set it free in their own service. I’ve done this a number of times.

    “A machine that could be built for nothing would, he said, add no value at all to the production process and rapidly, over several accounting periods, reduce the price, profit and labour costs of everything else it touched”

    …I am not sure that this is true. I think the dynamic is different. What really happens is that it increases throughput while maintaining profit and reduces the cost of the goods and increases wage value via cheaper goods (see Henry Ford). I don’t know what Marx means by “labour cost”.

  40. Ikonoclast
    August 21st, 2016 at 13:04 | #40


    The labour theory of value (LTV) is fraught with difficulties. This is not to say that it is totally useless. It has some use “on the way through” as one theorises about economics. It also has some use as one works through sequential historical manifestations of economies. Marx discovered the uses of, and the difficulties with, the labour theory of value as he worked through his ideas. Crucially, he died before his intellectual work was finished. The “Fragment on machines” gives some idea of where his advanced thinking was headed. The three volume Das Kapital is to some extent a polemical work so it presents simplified theory starting with LTV. I certainly don’t align myself with those who occupy a fundamentalist Marxist position on LTV.

    What use is the LTV? In a cruder economy but one with markets, say the economy of Britain near or at the start of the industrial revolution, the LTV is an approximation of how economic value is created. What people get for free, say the air they breath, does not become part of the economy. Human labour (diaphragm muscles etc.) is still expended to get that free air but it is not social or economic labour. But when human labour is expended to make items for use or sale the act of labour becomes the generator of use value in excess of the use value of the free gifts of nature. When no tools or machines exist it is clear that use value in excess of the free gifts of nature comes wholly from human exertion or labour.

    Once tools, then machines and then inanimate motive power become involved, then the clear case for the LTV becomes clouded. Marx attempted to rescue the LTV by what is essentially the same idea as depreciation. Human labour is embodied in the tool or the machine in the making of the tool or machine. It is this embodied labour which the machine transfers to the product as the tool or machine is worn out. The product contains the embodied labour of the machine operator’s labour plus (let us say the machine wears out totally after making 10,000 products) in this case 1/10,000th of the labour value embodies in the machine.

    As machines become more sophisticated, more powered by inanimate power and more automated, their productive power increases exponentially. Trying to find the embodied labour value in such a product is a bit like trying to find the active component in a homeopathic solution after many dilutions to say the millionth power. By an attenuation process, the dilution of the labour component makes the human labour component vanishingly small and therefore the theory itself next to meaningless in this situation. This is doubly the case when other forms of human labour like social services (caring, nursing, educating and so on) do not suffer anywhere near the same degree of labour input “dilution” notwithstanding some (usually much less) possibilities for automation in these arenas also.

    In addition, there are at least two estimates of value, after all, under our economic system. There is the estimate of labour value (hours of necessary social labour by the average worker with average tools, machinery) and there is the market estimate (exchange value) for a product or service. Which is the truest estimate? The answer is “it depends”. It depends among other things on what we might mean by “truest”. Do we mean “truest” ethically or “truest” technically or “truest” pragmatically? Truest ethically might mean the fairest and most equitable result ethically speaking. Truest technically might mean truest with regard to achieving technical economic efficiency by pricing. Truest pragmatically might assert that what is “truest” to the workings of the entire complex socioeconomic system is that which assures the system as a whole is healthy (as a whole and in all or most of its parts) by a set of agreed metrics which would probably be both ethical humane metrics and technical economic metrics.

    Thus the Labour Theory of Value is a useful starting point in thinking about some aspects of economics. But its meaning and usefulness become more and more limited the more we introduce other factors (like markets) and the more the social-economic-industrial-information-knowledge-production system develops and transforms.

    I am not sure machines can ever be made for nothing. It would depend on how one does the accounting. Clearly any machine will require energy and/or materials for manufacture. Energy accounting, of course, says that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. However, as insolation (solar energy) is a free gift of nature, a fully self-replicating, self-maintaining machine or machine complex using solar power to produce useful energy (or maybe some other product) would indeed produce for free if the accounting used for costing was human dargs (human work days or work units). Of course, accounting in human dargs would not make sense in an economy like this. The most useful accounting then might be a “legitimate human needs theory of value” and certainly not a labour theory of value.

  41. GrueBleen
    August 21st, 2016 at 16:22 | #41


    Your #38 of 21 Aug

    I’ll get around to reading your long post in reply to Bilb in a while, but in the meantime I thought I might address this one: “Marx’s thinking becomes clear. We are surrounded by machines that cost nothing and could, if we wanted them to, last forever.”

    I was just a tad surprised, Ikono, that you didn’t hammer me over the ‘software machine’ by quoting the 3-D Printer. Now, if we can get 3-D Printer technology to the state that the printers can replicate themselves, then we truly do have machines that “cost nothing” don’t we ? And that truly are ‘software machines’, yes ?

    Of course, you’re a Very Serious Person ( 🙂 ), so you most likely aren’t a Star Trek fan, so you don’t know about the ‘Replicator’ and how it allows a whole complex future star-voyaging society to exist on the same economic plan as the Incas.

    The Star Trek Replicators started off in the series as just breakfast-lunch-dinner makers and have gone on from there – and that, of course, is the future for our currently primitive 3-D Printers. Though even in Star Trek, the Replicators can’t make a starship – but the future awaits.

    Unless, of course, self replicating 3-D printers go feral – like the rabid nano-particles that may yet reduce the universe to grey mush – and just convert all available matter into themselves.

  42. Ivor
    August 21st, 2016 at 17:58 | #42


    Marx did NOT suscribe to the LTV. This was Smith and Ricardo.

    The Marxist theory is “socially necessary labour theory of value”.

    This has never been successfully refuted. In general there are only deliberate misrepresentations and supposed refutations of such misrepresentations.

  43. Ikonoclast
    August 21st, 2016 at 20:27 | #43


    I stand corrected on the technical point. A “socially necessary labour theory of value” as socially necessary abstract labour time is more elaborated than a “labour theory of value”. It resolves some of the problems with a crude labour theory of value. In turn, it also runs into further problems (and further developments as capitalism evolves) which it cannot resolve.

    “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.” – Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”.

    Following on from this, we need to consider this point of view from Joan Robinson.

    “One of the great metaphysical ideas in economics is expressed by the word “value”… It does not mean market prices, which vary from time to time under casual accidents; nor is it just an historical average of actual prices. Indeed, it is not simply a price; it is something which will come to explain how prices come to be what they are. What is it? Where shall we find it? Like all metaphysical concepts, when you try to pin it down it turns out to be just a word…” – Robinson, 1966, p22, “Economic Philosophy”.

    Now, that takes a deal of unpacking and I am probably not wholly in agreement with Robinson on the issue of metaphysics. However, on the issue of the word “value” in relation to economics she pretty well nails it. “Value” without defined, objective and specific measurement units, which themselves indicate or even create and set the kind of value to be measured, is a metaphysical word. Objective measurement units of economic value in turn (be they days of labour or dollars) are theoretical or social abstractions pragmatically used to measure value in certain ways and certain circumstances and not in ways objectively (physically) equatable to each other (as opposed to being socially approximated to each other in various ways including possibly through markets).

    As an aside, I am not sure if Robinson is implying a complete rejection of metaphysics. IMO, metaphysics is not just words (meaning useless noises or scribbles produced by humans) with no relation to any real, pragmatic problems faced by humans. Metaphysics, among other things, begins the process of deciding what might be existent, how it might exist and how its elements or constituents might be categorised and related to each other. Metaphysics begins the process of science in this sense. It sets up a mental set of categories for generating hypotheses. In terms of method, Marx was doing exactly the right thing (IMO) by beginning with metaphysics. Beginning with value as a metaphysical concept is the right place to start. To generate a new theory or a new proto-science, as a field, the correct place to start is metaphysics. Time will tell whether such a new proto-science can be made a soft science or a science. As to Marx’s partially developed theories (he died before finishing his life word) , I would term them a proto-science or a soft science like the social sciences. It turns on what one is prepared to term “a science”.

  44. Ikonoclast
    August 22nd, 2016 at 13:30 | #44


    My grown-up daughter calls me Captain Obvious. I guess that’s like a Very Serious Person who has nothing original to say. 🙂

  45. GrueBleen
    August 22nd, 2016 at 13:51 | #45


    Hmmm. Captain Obvious, eh ? 🙂

    But then, Ikono, I don’t want everybody to have something “original” to say. Imagine a world in which 7.4 billion people (minus a few hundred million of the very young) all had something “original” to say. Nope, I’d prefer a world in which relatively few had only at least minimally mature (yet to be defined) things to say and that then the rest of us concentrated on whether to agree with the “originals” and if so, what do do about what they’ve contributed.

    Like, maybe, actually act on and implement some of it, and archive the rest ?

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