Next week, as I’ve mentioned, I’ll take part in a debate/dialogue with Stephen Hicks, a North American philosopher, who has criticised postmodernism from a right/libertarian perspective. He’s on a tour of Australia, and was invited to Brisbane by Murray Hancock who’s setting up The Brisbane Dialogue which has the ambitious objective of promoting civil discussion across political divides. I ended up being dobbed in (is this an Australianism?) to present the other side, and chose the topic “Postmodernism is a rightwing philosophy”. Longterm readers of my blogging won’t be surprised: I was making this claim as far back as 2003. Thanks to Kellyanne Conway and “alternative facts”, I’ll have plenty of material to work with.
I plan to argue that in the absence of any objective correspondence to reality, it’s the truths favored by the rich and powerful that will win out, not those of the oppressed. Trumpism is the obvious illustration of this, but rightwing postmodernism on issues like climate change and creationism long predates his rise.
Still, I have a couple of problems. First, I’m not a philosopher, so I’m working with a pretty simple interpretation of postmodernism, roughly stated as “there are multiple truths, and no one is better than another” More precisely, as I encountered it, postmodernism involved a Two-Step of Terrific Triviality, putting forward statements that encouraged the simplistic interpretation most of the time, but, when challenged, retreating to into total obscurity, or else into something more nuanced and not very interesting like “there may be an actual truth of the matter, but we can never know it for sure” . But is there a better interpretation of postmodernism, one that is both interesting and comprehensible?
My second problem is whether constructive dialogue on a topic like this will prove to be possible. I think we’ll agree at least on not liking postmodernism, and probably on some of the intellectual history. I have no idea, though, what Hicks thinks about Trump and Trumpism, or for that matter about climate change and science in general. I’ll see how it plays out.
A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles in Jacobin showing how Locke’s theory of property, on which most modern propertarianism is based, was entirely consistent with his personal involvement in American slavery and the expropriation of indigenous Americans. Historian Holly Brewer has come to Locke’s defence, pointing to more evidence about Locke’s involvement in American affairs, of which I was previously unaware. I’ve responded, arguing that, far from exonerating Locke, the new evidence shows that Locke was deeply enmeshed in American slavery throughout his life, yet never took a stand against it.
Brewer’s broader concern is to defend liberalism against critics who argue, pointing to Locke and the US Founding Fathers, that the whole ideology was conceived in the context of slavery. Here, I think she is making a mistake in accepting the idea of Locke, rather than the much more defensible Adam Smith as the founding theorist of liberalism.
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I’ve generally been dubious about trolley problems and similar thought experiments in ethics. However, it’s just occurred to me that an idea I’ve tried to express in the economistic terms of opportunity cost, without convincing anybody, might be more persuasive as a trolley problem. So, let’s start with the standard problem where the train is about to kill ten people, but can be diverted onto a side track where it will kill only one.
In my version, however, there is a second train, loaded with vital medical supplies, which is about to crash. The loss of the supplies will lead to hundreds of deaths. You can prevent the crash, and save the supplies, by diverting the train to an alternative route (not killing anybody), but you don’t have time to deal with both trains. Do you divert the first train, the second train, or neither?
Hopefully, most respondents will choose the second train.
Now suppose that the first train has been hijacked by an evil gangster and his henchmen, who will be killed if you divert it, but will otherwise get away with the crime. As well as the gangsters, the single innocent person will die, but the ten people the gangster was going to kill will live.
The impending crash of the second train isn’t caused by anybody in particular. The region it serves is poor and no one paid for track maintenance. If the train doesn’t get through, hundreds of sick people will die, as sick poor people always have, and nobody much will notice.
Does that change your decision?
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The Grauniad has just resurrected Newcomb’s problem. I have a slightly special interest since the problem was popularized by one of my betes noires, Robert Nozick. So, in asserting that there’s a trivial solution, I have something of a bias.
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In the discussion of my three–part critique of Locke, I mentioned my view that Rothbard and Nozick added nothing of value, and promised to expand on this when I got some time. I discussed Rothbard here, and have finally got around to Nozick.
Someone (I think Jerry Cohen) remarked that Nozick was be taken very seriously by Marxists and not nearly as much by social democrats and (US) liberals. Obviously, my reaction (that of a social democrat) illustrates this. The reason for this divergence is obvious enough. If you would like to derive property rights from a notion of self-ownership (and the Marxist concept of exploitation is close to this), Nozick provides a reductio ad absurdam. So, a critique like Cohen’s is essential.
OTOH, if you start from the ground that property rights are social structures, and that their justice or otherwise is inseparable from that of the society in which they operate, Nozick is of no real interest. All the important errors in his work were already made by Locke. However, I’ll point out some new ones.
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In my final post on Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation, a while back, I mentioned that his latter-day successors, Nozick and Rothbard didn’t offer any improvement. I said at the time I would spell this out a bit more. I’ll start with Rothbard who is more politically relevant, and also, in my opinion, more interesting. As an example, at least during his 1960s flirtation with the radical left, and at the time he developed the theory of ‘homesteading’, he favored reparations for slavery.
The core of Rothbard’s position is that appropriation of property justifies ownership even without the Lockean proviso that ‘enough and as good’ is left over for others. Rothbard doesn’t, as far as I can see, go far beyond presenting this as a self-evident truth, and in any case, I don’t propose to argue about in detail. Rather, I want to look at Rothbard’s choice of the term ‘homesteading’ to describe this process. This choice of term is self-refuting in two ways, one that applies to any historical process of appropriation/expropriation and the other specific to the US.
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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.
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.
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.
“Freedom Commissioner” Tim Wilson has been quoted in The Australian saying that Australian schoolchildren ought to learn more about classical liberal theorists like John Locke. While loath to squeeze yet more material into an already overcrowded curriculum, I’d certainly be glad if there was more awareness of Locke’s actual ideas and actions, as opposed to his prevailing image as an early apostle of freedom. A proper treatment of Locke would have to explain how
* His theory of natural rights in property was designed to justify the expropriation of indigenous populations
* His advocacy of freedom included support for slavery
* His theory of religious toleration excluded atheists and Catholics
* His theory of political freedom did not extend to freedom of speech.
How then did Locke get such a high reputation? The answer isn’t all that mysterious. Locke was closely involved in the British colonisation of North America, both as an investor and as a participant in political activity such as the drafting of the Constitution of the Carolinas, which ratified the expropriation of the indigenous population and enshrined the absolute power of slave-owners.
When the slave-owning colonists achieved independence from the British Crown, it was natural for them to look to Locke to provide the basis for their political theories (theories that did not preclude the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts restricting political freedom). Locke then benefitted from the same historical amnesia that has absolved all the US founders from their role in maintaining and extending slavery.
Instead of Locke, it might be better for students to learn about that old-fashioned Tory, Dr Samuel Johnson, who remarked “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes”, and whose friendship with his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, a former slave, was a striking testimony to his character.
fn1. of course, the American Revolution embodied much nobler hopes than those of the Southern aristocracy that dominated the early years of the United States. Realising those hopes took decades of struggle and a bloody civil war.