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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part IV

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Apart from its original connection with universal franchise (severed by now), the ownership concept, especially as it relates to fruits of one’s labor, is fairly uncontroversial. Conceptual problems arise once we extend the concept to cover self-ownership, in particular, ownership of one’s labor and landed property as well.

Commodification, turning everything into a commodity to be traded in the marketplace, is the expected result; and it carries with it the entire gamut of unanticipated problems which seem to undercut the olden, traditional ways of humans relating. Of particular importance here is commodification of labor, the basis of Marx’s concept of alienation, but more on that later. Meanwhile, let’s turn our attention to the kind of difficulties which crop up in connection with unlimited accumulation of landed property and all that it entails – in short, the capitalist mode.

Originally, Locke’s formulation was far more sensible than that. Accumulation of property was subject to restrictions due to spoilage and other concerns, the main idea being to appropriate just enough to sustain life and livelihood, nothing more, making certain the same considerations applied to each and everyone: no one was to be left wanting. However, once ownership of land and all that it entailed was reconceived as capital, the spark behind all productive activity, Locke’s mercantile instincts took over. The advent of money – not the advent, strictly speaking, because money has been around long before Locke, but more likely, making “money” part of the equation (since gold and silver, even copper, weren’t subject to spoilage) – unleashed the beast within. And once the spoilage restriction was removed, all bets were off.

No question, Locke was guided here by the phenomenal success of mercantile England and its use of capital, in whatever form, to her best possible advantage, to enrich herself and her people at the expense of all others; and in this respect, Locke was right but only to a point. Once fierce competition developed, as a result of other nation-states catching up with the idea, England’s superiority was neutralized. Soon enough, it was back to dog-eat-dog.

Locke’s assumption was that unlimited appropriation of land and capital was, in the long run, more beneficial to the interests of all, in terms of increased productivity, general prosperity, what else have you, even if it meant excluding a great many from being able to participate in the process.

Locke was a modern man in a manner of speaking. His cardinal mistake was to assume that macro events guaranteed likewise results in the realm of the individual.

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