It is tempting to view the 17th and 18th centuries as eras of progress, reform, and enlightenment. Intellectuals and academics the world over tout this period of history as a sort of apotheosis for Western Europe, in which the West took over from the East in the domain of the material and the philosophical. That this shift coincided with the rise of colonialism and industrialisation is no cause for wonderment, given that such a paradigm transformation in philosophy needed a firm economic base, exploitative and oppressive, but at the same time advertised as liberal and inevitable to the exploited and oppressed. Take any thinker from these centuries and read into what they thought about rights, duties, and obligations. You will come across the same worldview: the world is composed of individuals, but this does not forbid the State from intervening in their (political) rights in the interests of economic freedom.
The economic, then, determined the general philosophical consensus regarding the individual during this time. This is true of roughly every society and is valid for every historical juncture, be it in the West or the East. From Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius, and Jean Bodin, history gave way to John Locke, who provided the perfect backdrop for the rising nouveau riche in England through a variant of the Social Contract which balanced the subject with the sovereign: “He was not an enemy of political authority.” During these centuries, moreover, the State, which had passed power from the landed aristocracy to the industrialists, sided definitively with the latter. The bourgeoisie had been the first revolutionary to rebel against the feudal manorial order; once history passed over to the market, he became the reactionary.
Liberty: Last week I pointed out that the word had a connotation different to the one we take for granted today. To sum up, and to add to what I wrote: When the world entered the epoch that paved the way for capitalism (in Fernand Braudel’s analysis, between the 15th and the 18th centuries), powerful towns gave way to even more powerful nation states. These nation states (precursors to the modern State, with a capital S) bloomed in regions where towns were not powerful: Spain, France, and Britain. The world had known of “liberties” until then, wielded by powerful groups against the less powerful (although when the economic tide turned, the less powerful, namely the peasantry, got the upper hand). It was a relatively peaceful era, demarcated however by ignorance, fanaticism, complacency, and slowness (between the 9th and the 16th centuries, writes Professor Ha-Joon Chang, income per capita in Western Europe grew at 0.12% per year). The transition from towns to nation states came about through war and its “imperious needs”, artilleries and armies. By the end of the 17th century, Europe was waging war on itself, usurping the monarch and turning him into a constitutional figurehead. The sovereignty of the State was soon above all laws, all kings, now.
Europe, hitherto regional, and limited to centres of urban power, became Europe: national, territorial.
From “liberties” to “liberty”: the world according to Hobbes, Grotius, and Bodin was now secularised, subject to no will higher than that of the sovereign. The sovereign was, however, subject to Natural and Divine Law. Even that changed: “Etiamsi daremus non esse Deum,” wrote Grotius, speaking for the new world order: even if God did not exist, the natural law prevailed. Divine law, though not disparaged or relegated or thrown away, was subsumed by the new secularism, and so soon enough, when the constitutional monarchy made it possible for the bourgeoisie to wield their clout in the parliament and outside it, “theism” (which held that God had the last word on material affairs) gave way to the at times confusing, convoluted “deism” (which held that God created man, but did not intervene in those material affairs). The man who stood between the secular absolutists of the 17th century and the deist liberals of the 18th century, which saw “liberties” give way to an amorphous and rather highly contentious-as-to-what-it-really-meant “liberty”, was Locke. It seems superfluous to devote an entire essay on the man, but it is at the same time essential that we do so.
Much has been written on Locke. Some contend that he was an apologist for ruthless commercial capitalism. Some point out that his tirades against exploitation were at odds with his ownership of stock in slave trading companies (remember, this was an era when one man’s right over a multitude was taken for granted). Some, not a few, contend that by distinguishing between sovereigns and tyrants, he gave the perfect excuse for Western powers, today, to differentiate between pro-Western dictators (who are favoured) and “anti-Western” democrats (who are deposed).
Whichever way you look at it, however, you cannot discount his influence on a period of history which defined the length and breadth of modernity. Western Europe owes it to Locke for its conception of liberalism, more specifically classical liberalism (which is what this series is about), and so does the world’s most vibrant “democracy” (note the asterisks), the United States of America. The truth is that without Locke, and his Two Treatises, there would not have been a Declaration of Independence.
He had it both ways: the subject could revolt against the sovereign, but the sovereign could be deposed only if he had lost the right to rule: “A tyrant has no authority.” The bedrock of the State was political authority, and authority flowed from property.
Unlike Hobbes, civil society for Locke was not preceded by a state of nature “nasty, brutish, and short”. On the contrary, what had preceded it was an Eden in which liberty flourished. As the population grew, however, so did man’s wants, and the Eden which had subsisted until then was threatened by property: there were just too many individuals, and too little land. It was to resolve this issue that he willingly gave up his liberty, and let his Eden fall: in return for his liberty, which was not really taken away from him, only reduced, he would be ensured ownership over his land. The secular absolutists of the preceding century had viewed the sovereign as a totalitarian tamer; Locke viewed him as a firm mediator. In doing so, he sanctified the instrument through which the sovereign became that mediator, private property.
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