1980s >> 1988 >> no-1007-july-1988

1688 and All That

This year is a good one for patriots as there are three big anniversaries for them to celebrate. The shipwrecking of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the colonisation of Australia by British convicts in 1788 and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. This last is perhaps the least well known. Not that this is such a bad thing since there was nothing glorious for ordinary people in the revolution which replaced King James II by King William III.

1688 did, however, have an immense importance for the propertied classes of Britain as it established a stable property regime that has lasted to this day, under which those who held property at that time were legally established in their rights and their descendants have ever since enjoyed the full legal backing of the Courts against the kind of arbitrary dispossession that frequently occurred up until then. It also established the constitutional principle that the sovereign is subordinate to Parliament. Although he was more than the well-paid rubber stamp that present-day occupants of Buckingham Palace are, William was appointed king by Parliament. He did not claim to rule by “divine right” as had all previous monarchs, including his immediate predecessor James, who paid dearly for his illusion, as did his father, Charles I, who had his head chopped off in 1649 in the course of the English bourgeois revolution that much more deservingly merits the title of “glorious”.

The ideological defence of the 1688 revolution was provided by John Locke whose Two Treatises of Government is still required reading on political philosophy courses in English-speaking universities. This work is not only a defence of the “rule of law” as drawn up by a parliament of property-owners but an explicit defence of private property as against common ownership. Locke was forced to do this in order to refute any embarrassing literal interpretation of the Christian doctrine which he quoted in the chapter “Of Property” in his second treatise: “God gave the World to Men in Common”. Political argument at the time was conducted in religious terms — which takes some getting used to for those, like socialists, who know that god is a myth and religion a collection of superstitions, but less than 40 years before William III replaced James II, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers had interpreted Christianity in just such a communist fashion.

Locke’s way round this embarrassing aspect of Christian dogma was to argue that God did indeed give the world to humanity in common, but that it wasn’t his intention that it should remain so. According to Locke, it was clearly God’s intention that humans should take action to keep themselves alive and that to do so they should consume products from nature, insofar as they worked to obtain these products (even if the only effort involved was reaching out and picking an apple from a tree) they were entitled to ownership rights over them. As Locke, speaking for God, put it:

“Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men.”

Locke’s argument here, that natural materials that are “common to all Men” can legitimately lose this status and become private property when they are mixed with human labour, is not as obvious as he assumes. For it could just as logically be argued that the natural materials from which all wealth is fashioned should remain common property even after they have had human labour mixed with them. This, at any rate, was the prevailing view in those societies which practised common ownership. Nor is human labour the individual product Locke assumes, but a social product — all humans acquire their skills in and through society — and, in fact, since human beings are a part and a product of nature, human labour is itself a natural force.

Locke used the same principle of labour to justify private property in land: a person was entitled to own the land which they had worked because they had mixed their labour with it. At one point in his argument, however, Locke contradicted himself, writing about his right to own “the Turfs my Servant has cut” whereas, on his own argument, these turfs ought to be the property of the servant, who actually did the work and mixed his labour with the natural material, rather than of the servant’s employer who had done nothing. This was probably only a slip on Locke’s part, but a revealing one, as it demonstrated that Locke took for granted the division of society into masters and servants and the right of the master to appropriate the product of the labour of the servant. It was, of course, by exploiting this contradiction that early socialists, at the time of the Chartists, were able to turn the labour theory of property against the landlord and capitalist classes and to denounce them for the parasitic exploiters of other people’s labour that they were.

But Locke was concerned not just with justifying the private property of the working farmer or artisan but also with justifying that of the rich merchants and large landed estate-owners who existed both before and after 1688 and whose rights the revolution was intended to consolidate. Here again he came up against Christian dogma which taught that humans were entitled to take from the common store of nature and make their property only what they needed and no more. In fact, to the extent that taking more than was required for personal use deprived someone else of their basic needs, this was robbery and the person in need was fully entitled to take what they needed from the greedy person’s surplus.

Such a doctrine provided no justification for the accumulation of capital and the concentration of property ownership that were necessary for the development of the capitalist society that the 1688 revolution was designed to accelerate. On the contrary, it ruled out the accumulation of property beyond the personal needs of the property-owner. So, after refuting common ownership, Locke had to go on to refute also the idea that there were limits to the size of property holdings. He did so in what has to be admitted was an ingenious, if entirely specious way.

Agreed, he wrote, property-owners have no right to own more than they can use but the reason for this limitation is that they have no right to let any surplus to their own needs go rotten. If however, he went on, some means could be found of accumulating a surplus in a form which didn’t rot this would be all right from a moral point of view. This could be done, Locke concluded triumphantly, if the surplus in the form of perishable agricultural products is converted into non-perishable metals like gold and silver, in other words, if they are sold for money and accumulated as such.

Locke took the argument even further. In agreeing to the use of money and to the putting of a value on it, humans had tacitly agreed to the accumulation of property and the unequal distribution of wealth ownership:

“But since Gold and Silver, being little useful to the Life of Man in proportion to Food, Rayment, and Carriage, has its value only from the consent of Men, whereof Labour yet makes in great part, the measure, it is plain, that Men have agreed to disproportionate and unequal Possession of the Earth, they having by a tacit and voluntary consent found out a way, how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, Gold and Silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one, these metalls not spoileing or decaying in the hands of the possessor. This partage of things, in an inequality of private possessions, men have made practicable out of the bounds of Societie, and without compact, only by putting a value on gold and silver and tacitly agreeing in the use of Money.”

It is for having provided this pathetic justification for unequal property society that Locke is regarded by contemporary capitalist society as the greatest political thinker of the 17th century and is taught in English-speaking universities throughout the world. Winstanley, on the other hand, who was by far Locke’s superior, both in style and quality of argument, is dismissed as a minor religious fanatic. But then, he defended common ownership and denounced the rich merchants and landowners as robbers and usurpers while Locke flattered them and justified their riches.

Locke was, however, right on one point: the link between money and the unequal distribution of wealth. A money economy is, or inevitably soon develops into, a society characterised by two main classes, those who own and accumulate wealth having a monetary value and those who don’t. It is because the so-called Glorious Revolution was designed to stabilise such an unequal society that we socialists won’t be celebrating it. After all, as class-conscious members of the majority propertyless class in society, why should we celebrate the consolidation of the property rights of the ancestors of today’s property-owning minority?

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