Locke’s Road to Serfdom

The second instalment[^1] of my critique of Locke’s propertarian liberalism is up at Jacobin. I’m looking at an obvious (but, AFAICT, rarely asked) question about Locke’s theory: if land is acquired through agricultural labor, how is it that agricultural laborers have mostly been landless? The answer is simple: thanks to slavery and serfdom, it’s the owners of the laborers who acquire the property. To quote Locke

the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut … become my property

Locke’s political practice in the Americas was consistent with his theory. In his Constitution of the Carolinas, he suggested the creation of “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers, tied to specific areas, and bound to work for aristocratic landowners. As I observe (the point isn’t original)

Locke didn’t really need a new word for this institution. The founding figure of classical liberalism was proposing, literally rather than metaphorically, a Road to Serfdom.

[^1]: I’ve done with Locke, but I’m planning a third instalment on Jefferson, his most important successor.

20 thoughts on “Locke’s Road to Serfdom

  1. Good article. To a degree this is Environmental Planning 101..but it is really great to have a primary source on this crockpot. So thanks John.

    But where does this leave our Australian law so much developed with property rights in mind and the bastard child of property rights, modern neoliberal Economics?

    Its been clear to anyone who has done environmental studies since Mabo that ‘ownership’ and private property are partly-Snow based cobbled together rationalizations of the status quo, designed to justify forcible redistribution from one custodian group to another, and the privileged position of the powerful who benefit to enforce their ‘rights’ through chain mail fist of brute force and the velvet glove of law.

    Marx tried to get around this by cobbling together a different rationalization but it was still a rationalization.

    The medieval system was more straightforward : God > Pope/Emperor > King/Cardinals > Vassals/lower clerics > Yeomans > Serfs/Slaves.

    or something like that – until the enclosure movement and industrial revolution demanded changes in the narrative of deserving power.

    (not sure where women fitted in but now as they are breaking the glass ceiling they get to be just as nasty as their male counterparts – and to judge by Queen Islabella they are more than capable of this).

    And this robber baron system is to be the basis of carbon trading to save the planet – exchanging such property ‘rights’??!!

    [ The obvious dorothy dixer rejoinder to my above grumbled is put up or shut up or give all your goods away until you are at the 50th percentile.

    To this ‘what if a commie soldier was about to rape your sister? style argument I would say ‘there has be something better but we wont get there by embedding this nonsense mythology at the heart of our social system]

  2. How relevant is it to today’s society or globalised market places though – I mean even in a generic/conceptual sense?

  3. It seems to me that moral, social, political and economic philosophers divide themselves into two groups. The first group seeks to justify history to date, the status quo and their privileged “birthright” position. The second group attempt a genuine and objective analysis of history and the status quo. It is clear that Locke belongs to the first group.

    With respect to the globalised market, it is the latest and perhaps last phase of capitalism. Capitalism works by extending its form of exploitation to all regions. It is clearly highly successful at doing this. Capitalist exploitation replaces earlier forms of exploitation. An objective property theory and a retrospective analysis of Locke are very useful in understanding how this process continues to be justified. This is how we get a fuller exposition of the growth of the philosophy which justifies concentration of ownership and the dispossession of the powerless.

    There are still about 2 billion “peasants” (for want of a better term) yet to be brought into the global capitalist labour system. This estimate comes from writers like John Bellamy Foster. This is at a time when unemployment in the developed nations is quite high. The opportunities for global wage arbitrage are also high. In other words, expect more industries in high wage countries to be shut down and moved to low wage countries. In this respect, global capitalism is far from its logical end-point. Only two factors can likely stop it moving much further in this direction. These factors are worker resistance and/or environmental collapse.

  4. If I remember my Marc Bloch correctly, feudal serfdom in Europe did not arise prior to landed property. The late Roman and Carolingian system had landowners working their land with slaves and a few free wage-earners. With the ninth-century collapse into disorder, nobody could rely on state provision of security. The regression of the economy meant that it became burdensome on landowners to feed slaves. In the chaos, a new and still unequal social contract was forged: the slaves were partly emancipated into serfs, with customary rights of use of land, but responsible for feeding themselves, or not; but they were tied to the land and owed a share of their labour. In exchange the seigneur promised Mafia-style protection from other armed men.

    This doesn’t refute Locke, but it does underline the ahistorical character of his thought experiment. Note that Bloch is not that far from Hobbes.

  5. “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers

    An interesting use of the concept “hereditary”. They don’t inherit an asset. They inherit a liability.

  6. Sorry to be this guy, but I didn’t know who to contact about this at Jacobin. I just read the article and you claim Locke is debating “John Filmer” – this is not correct. Robert Filmer was the author of Patriarcha.

  7. Here is Bernard de Mandeville at the beginning of the eighteenth century being up front and honest about the realities of the propertarian system that is essentially propounded and advocated by Locke:

    “It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in, nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in the society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get…. Those that get their living by their daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make him desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy…. From what has been said, it is manifest, that, in a free nation, where slaves are not allowed of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor; for besides, that they are the never-failing nursery of fleets and armies, without them there could be no enjoyment, and no product of any country could be valuable. “To make the society” [which of course consists of non-workers] “happy and people easier under the meanest circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor; knowledge both enlarges and multiplies our desires, and the fewer things a man wishes for, the more easily his necessities may be supplied.”

    It is intriguing and technically correct from a Marxian standpoint that de Mandeville writes “the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor” and “the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle.”

    Of course, the “surest wealth” means the wealth of a very wealthy minority. And while “the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle” this does not preclude the necessity under capitalism for a significant minority of the poor to be idle: to act as the reserve army of the unemployed needed to discipline labour.

    It is very much worthwhile to read this article if you want to understand these matters and what is now happening with global capital.


  8. What would Locke have to say about the modern phenomena of the (‘illegal’) economic asylum seeker? Isn’t the mass movement of people, such as the current push of sub-Saharan Africans – Syrian refugees are fleeing war – the logical result of globalisation in capital, land and labour? The German destination simply confirms the optimal economic ‘vision’ for these maligned folk.

  9. @J-D

    Inheritance of liabilities is not routine. Descendants being bound to work for aristocratic landowners might have been enforced in some regimes, e.g. slavery, but it is hardly widespread compared with inheritance of assets.

  10. @Chris O’Neill

    Where’s the non sequitur? John Quiggin described Locke’s proposal for the creation of a hereditary status effectively equivalent to serfdom; I observed that hereditary status is a routine phenomenon. (It’s not universal, but it is commonplace.)

  11. I note that the historical institution of Russian serfdom was created in the same circumstances as Locke’s hypothetical “leetmen”. The combination of the Black Death and land clearing opened up a new frontier for Russian peasants where they could become free landowners. They were reduced to serfdom to prevent this happening.

  12. Interesting that while Lincoln argued against slavery he did not know how to end it – one solution proposed was to send them to another place, like Liberia. To free them and live with them as equals was unacceptable to him.

  13. Dark stuff, in a week or so of dark stuff. James Wimberley’s plea for historical context is only valid up to a point, terra nullius woud have more relevance in Locke’s time, except that Locke goes far beyond just proposing a constructive employ of cornucopic resources.

    If the quotes are genuine, it conjures up visions of a pathology far nastier and more myopic than history would have had us beleive defined him previously.

    I think his ghost is alive and well though, on the top floor of Citibank or Goldman Sachs or Barclays.

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