Against Locke, Part 3

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.

45 thoughts on “Against Locke, Part 3

  1. @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.

  2. 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.

  3. @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.

  4. @BilB

    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.

  5. @BilB

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. @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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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’.”

  10. @Ikonoclast

    “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 ?

  11. @GrueBleen

    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.

  12. 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”.

  13. @BilB

    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.

  14. @Ikonoclast

    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.

  15. @Ikonoclast

    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.

  16. @Ivor

    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”.

  17. @Ikonoclast

    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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