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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Romney and Locke

Romney’s video – which is now as famous as Paris Hilton’s sex video, and like P.H.’s, shows what the rich do when they are naked – actually plays on the strings of national memory, going all the way back to our beloved John Locke. Locke, as we all know, was very important to the founders. In his own life, actually, he was very concerned with America, for he was, as Robin Blackburn points out in his history of New World slavery, a member of the Board of Trade, which dealt with matters from the colony. Incidentally, one of those matters was  slave conspiracy. Locke had an excellent opportunity, whilst attending such meetings, to put into policy terms his notion that slavery was a natural consequence of the state of war between “a lawful Conquerer and a Captive.” As Blackburn notes, during Locke’s time on the Board, it vetted many documents coming from the colonies, including the Act for Suppressing of Outlying Slaves, in which we read this:

“WHEREAS many times negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves unlawfully absent themselves from their masters and mistresses service, and lie hid and lurk in obscure places killing hoggs and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of this dominion, for remedy whereof for the future, Be it enacted by their majesties lieutenant governour, councell and burgesses of this present general assembly, and the authoritie thereof, and it is hereby enacted, that in all such cases upon intelligence of any such negroes, mulattoes, or other slaves lying out, two of their majesties justices of the peace of that county, whereof one to be of the quorum, where such negroes, mulattoes or other slave shall be, shall be impowered and commanded, and are hereby impowered and commanded to issue out their warrants directed to the sherrife of the same county to apprehend such negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves, which said sherriffe is hereby likewise required upon all such occasions to raise such and soe many forces from time to time as he shall think convenient and necessary for the effectual apprehending such negroes, mulattoes and other slaves, and in case any negroes, mulattoes or other slaves or slaves lying out as aforesaid shall resist, runaway, or refuse to deliver and surrender him or themselves to any person or persons that shall be by lawfull authority employed to apprehend and take such negroes, mulattoes or other slaves that in such cases it shall and may be lawfull for such person and persons to kill and distroy such negroes, mulattoes, and other slave or slaves by gunn or any otherwaise whatsoever.”
Or as us Continental Philosophe types say: Martin Heidegger, eat your heart out.
But besides countenancing genocide, Locke was also on the cutting edge of freedom. Freedom, in the Anglosphere tradition, takes a rather bizarre turn from its old theological and philosophical uses. It becomes attached more and more to property. The freedom to own becomes, in this tradition, the very soul of freedom, its breath, its majesty. Tacitly, the more you own, the free-er you are – which is of course reflected in a legal system tilted massively against the poor and towards the wealthy, which we keep like a beloved pet barracuda to this very day in our mock democracies.
Still, if property is the root of freedom, those who have no property are an embarrassment in a free state. They represent, well, non-freedom. Naturally, their superpowers of non-freedomness involve them in sucking the property from those who have them – or, in other words, quantitatively lessening their freedom. The image of the poor as parasites was not an invention of Locke’s – it was certainly part of a larger fear of the masses that one finds in all over Europe at the time –but what was different was attaching this fear of the poor to the idea that they were, in a sense, the antithesis of freedom. Thus, by a rather bizarre alchemy, those people who benefited least from the system, who, by any practical view of the system, had the least power, posed the gravest threat. This inversion of social reality has had a long and glorious career in the Anglosphere: most recently, the right has been drooling over its theory that the financial crisis arose cause black and Hispanic poor people, prodded by the government, tricked poor honest bankers  into subprime loans and couldn’t pay them, thus causing the downfall of the true and onlie system of Operation Freedom, under our beloved Bush.
Locke would have recognized the truth in this story. Locke, in his pamphlet to the Board of Trade on the Poor Laws, which responds to the appalling rise in the charge for keeping the poor (a diminishment of freedom if there ever was one), cast about for ways to repair the situation. He came up with solutions that Romney himself might consider. There were the working schools, where poor children from three (when idleness starts cropping out like a disease) to fourteen could be maintained in blessed industry; then there is the revival of Elizabethan laws against beggars, where Locke proposes seizing them and taking no shit from them, but hustling them off to seaports, finding places for them on ships, and treating them like galley slaves for three years time – which should be sufficient to do them in; and the maimed, of course – who have an excuse for begging – should be stuffed into a house of correction.

If I were Romney, I’d be reading my Locke. He’s your man for regaining the Freedoms We Have Lost to the rascally 47 percent.  


Ed said...

Locke wrote at the beginning of a long period century (roughly 1660-1789) that saw the greatest concentration of power in the hands of the elite until, well, our own period. It always struck me as suspicious in happier days in our "mock democracy", as you put it, that the writings of intellectuals in this period were held up as the philosophical basis of a free society. The only ones really worth paying much attention to are the Encylopedists and of course Swift.

Ed said...

Smith, Mill, Ricardo, and Malthus wrote in the early decades of the industrial revolution. Marx emerged later and was really the first major economist to fully incorporate its impact in his analysis.

Essentially the world did run into limits of investment/ growth in the late eighteenth century, as it had several times previously, and got around them by digging up fossil fuels and burning them to fuel increasingly powerful machines. But this end-run around the pre-industrial limits to growth would eventually run into its own limits, when the cheaper to extract fossil fuels were used up, and in fact the world economy hit peak oil in 2005 or so and has since stagnated. Meanwhile population growth has been following Malthus' script so far exactly.

The triumph of capitalism is really the triumph of fossil fuel extraction. Incidentally, some of the more impressive growth rates during the twentieth century were achieved by Communist countries at various points (and really China is at least technically still Communist). The system differences may have not been that important, especially as late stage capitalism increasingly consist of collusion of large conglomerates managed by central corporate bureaucracies.

As you imply, "growth" now increasingly exists in the form of extracting rents by finding ways to charge for things that were formerly "free", but since they are reducing wages at the same time this approach will run up against obvious limits in the medium term. You can't squeeze blood from a stone.

I'm also pretty sure that the classical four, Ricardo being the only possible exception, would have been opponents of the current system.