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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Locke was wrong

by John Macbeath Watkins

I've been working on a long essay on political theory. It's about 38,000 words at this point, so a bit longer than a blog post. This is the basic argument:

Too much of our national conversation is about property, with both Marxists and libertarians insisting that if we perfect our relationship to property we will achieve perfect freedom. It all started with Locke's Second Treatise of Government, in which even life itself is reduced to property.

But what is property? Not objects, which exist regardless of owners. It is the web of rights and obligations we attach to objects. It is, in fact, the meaning of objects, and is only one category of the meanings that define us. For property to exist, meanings must exist, which means that language must precede property. Making and using language is a social act. The signs (words) that we attach to meanings are arbitrary, not instinctive, so we must agree to the signs to understand meanings -- it doesn't matter whether we say aloha or hello, as long as we agree these are words of greeting.

The social contract, therefore, is not a pact to protect property, but a conspiracy to imbue the world with meaning. To be free is to be able to engage in this creative act, to be unfree is to be denied it. Those who would control people against their will must first manipulate, then chain the word, and in so doing deprive people of the opportunity to define themselves, in fact, deprive them of their humanity.

That's the basic argument. The essay goes back to history and prehistory to talk about how we become human, how we define humanity and exclude people from that definition, the emotion of belief and its relationship with truth, the social construction of race, the subversive speech of groups like the lollards and Goliards and efforts to suppress them, and alternatives to democracy.

I'm still working on it, but you have the basics.

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad I got to read this, thanks to your more recent post on the matter. Charles Eisenstein covers some of this territory, both in his recent book _Sacred Economics_ and his previous tome _The Ascent of Humanity_. The phrase he uses to define money and property is that they are a "system of agreements". The common definition of money is that is a "store of value" and a "means of exchange" but that is only what money *does* not what it *is*.

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  2. I'm working on another post about Locke, dealing with why he made property central to his argument. Hint: In his day, you had to have property to vote.

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