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Classical Views on Liberalism: Locke, Rousseau, and Marx

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Classical liberalism, as expressed by Locke, contains the notions of both intellectual or physical liberty (i.e., the natural rights and freedoms of man with respect to society) and economic liberty (i.e., the right to own and transmit property). With respect to the development of property rights, Locke argued from the standpoint of both Christian theology and the development of early man. Locke wrote that, in the Bible, God gave the world to the “children of men,” and that all men thus have a claim of sorts to the fruits of the natural world. Locked suggested that it is intuitive that a man who consumes something from the natural world, such as fruit from a tree or water from a stream, becomes the proprietor of whatever is consumed and digested, and that man is also the proprietor of his own body and abilities (i.e., labor). Therefore property exists intuitively, and the starting point where something becomes one’s property is when one extracts something from the natural world; e.g., when a hunter kills a deer, the carcass becomes his property. The interaction of man and the natural world, described as labor or work, in that fashion transforms nature and creates something proprietary. Thus, combining labor and nature creates property.

With respect to the development of farming, since God gave the world to man, man has a natural right to the earth, and Locke argued that an individual man can claim as his as much of the earth as he can cultivate and use: “As much land as a man tills… and can use the product of, so much is his property.” Locke wrote that doing so is “in obedience to this command of God,” and that since there is plenty of arable land on the earth, no harm is done to the rest of mankind through one man’s appropriation of land. Since land is useless and valueless without labor, the only thing that limits the amount of land one can claim is one’s capacity to work on that land; one has no such right to more land than one can cultivate. Hence wealth could not, by right, be accumulated.

In Locke’s further history, population growth and the rise of sedentary communities necessitated fixed boundaries and a positive agreement to settle and defend property rights. The invention of money as an exchange medium allowed for the accumulation of wealth and the expansion of personal property beyond simply the amount of land and goods one was capable of using. With money, one would not be required, by natural law, to use all of one’s spoilable crop; instead one could farm a surplus and sell it, and thus accumulate more property. Locke argued that money’s value came entirely from the consent of men, and that this agreed-upon method of allowing the transmission of goods meant that “men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth.” In other words, it is within man’s natural rights to create inequality, and this inequality entirely exists because society wills it by recognizing the value of money.

In many ways, Rousseau agreed with Locke with respect to the development of property rights. Both men argued from the standpoint of the human condition of pre-civilized man, with Rousseau offering a pleasant view of “savage” man as self-sufficient, empathetic, and generally kind to other men insofar as he had no reason for competition or cruelty. When man first began to create tools and fashion hides in order to meet environmental challenges, notions of privation and necessity followed; as man settled in clans and communities and became aware of the qualities and capacities of one another, notions of jealousy and inequality came into being. Notably, Rousseau suggested that property rights and inequality began when it took more than one man to complete any craft; thus “corporations” and commoditized labor came into being, and the accumulation of wealth and property could begin. Activities like the cultivation of land and metallurgy inevitably led to the development of property and the necessity of labor. The use of labor itself meant that individual differences in productivity would be amplified in that some would create more goods than others, thus forging inequality. The poor became dependent on the rich for jobs and goods, and the rich became dependent on the poor for labor; thus self-sufficiency was eliminated. Rousseau placed the creation of money here on the timeline of human history, as a means of investment and exploitation of trade imbalances. According to Rousseau, property rights did not at all come from natural rights; instead, they were an ideological necessity emanating from the desires of wealthy “first occupants” to be secure from those who would argue that property belongs to whoever can take it.

Marx offered a far more radical critique of liberalism in “Estranged Labour.” Marx rejected the “fictitious primordial condition” from which both Locke and Rousseau argued, proceeding instead from “actual economic fact.” Marx argued that laborers in the 19th century were alienated from the objects which they made, the things from nature combined with their labor — in only this respect does Marx seem to have agreed with Locke, that the combination of labor and nature creates. These objects in fact represent the objectification of labor itself and contributed to the deterioration of workers’ selves. To Marx, the act of working is itself alienation, and labor, as an unnatural act which objectifies man’s life, estranges man from his essential nature. Marx wrote that as laborers were alienated from objects, capitalists were “familiar” or “belonging” to them. From this analysis, private property appears as both a consequence of alienated labor and a means of alienation. Marx agreed with the general suggestion of Rousseau, writing that the political economy institutionalizes estranged labor and exists entirely in the favor of private property (c.f., Rousseau’s inequality). Marx’s alienation theory represents a radical departure from the liberal ideas of Locke, one that is more critical than Rousseau’s disagreement since Marx entirely condemns the capitalist-laborer relationship as one of total unnaturality and calls for its dismantling.

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