The Meaning of Labour In John Locke’s Theory of Labour

The Second Treatise of Government (1690) presents the presumed right to appropriate parts of the commons as private property by labouring (hereafter, theory of property) as the justification for the political and economic inequality between the propertied and the wage-earners in civil society. After exploring how John Locke’s theory of property attempts to epistemically justify appropriation as well as inequality in civil society, this paper argues that a logical fallacy at the heart of this theory of property undermines the justification it lends to appropriation and civic inequality.

Section 27 presents a theory of property which purports to demonstrate that men can acquire private property from Nature (God’s gift to mankind in common) in the absence of “the express consent of all” (§29). Labouring on a part of Nature (hereafter, I refer to parts of nature as “natural objects”), impregnates it with the labourer’s exclusive property–namely, the surplus-value added to the natural object through labouring (§27). For, by labouring on a natural object, man, whom “possesses the labour of his body,” transforms it into a “useful object” (ibid.). Locke uses this theory of property to account for and epistemically justify the historical emergence of limited and unlimited rights of appropriation during the first and second eras of his fictional state of nature.

During the first era, the right to appropriate from the commons was limited by three provisos. Under the “Mixing” clause, one could only appropriate what their labour mixed with (ibid.) Under the “Enough and as Good Clause,” one could only appropriate if “enough, and as good” remained for others (ibid.). Finally, under the “No Spoilage Clause,” one could only appropriate what they could use before it spoiled (§31). However, the second era’s introduction of money, a means of exchange which is useful and conventionally valuable as an expression of the value of labour materialized in private property, facilitated the transcendence of these limits to appropriation (§49-51). The use of money permitted unlimited appropriation. Specifically, its non-perishability allowed it to emerge as a durable means of exchange for the “perishable supports of life” which, in turn, allowed men to overcome the No Spoilage clause (§47). Moreover, since men whom are unequal in terms of their natural capacity for industriousness agreed on the value of money, the use of money entailed the tacit agreement of all to the unequal distribution of property amongst men, a condition which carries over to into civil society (§50).

Protecting the property (i.e., estate) that men obtained in the state of nature is the raison d’etat of Locke’s civil society (§128). Consequently, its positive laws protect its members’ property by retroactively legalizing the property obtained in the state of nature as well as the inequality between the propertied and the wage-earners (§123-4). In doing so, Locke’s civil society legitimizes the existence of two economically and politically unequal classes: the propertied members of civil society that can sell commodities produced on their land for money, and the non-propertied wage-earners whom are excluded from membership in civil society although subject to its laws (ibid.). Hence, Locke’s theory of property grounds political and economic inequality in civil society on the presumed right of the “Industrious and Rational” to appropriate parts of the commons (§33).

But Locke’s theory of property is built on an invalid argument. At the core of this theory is the notion that a labourer can appropriate a natural object he mixes his labour with (C₁) because he possesses the “labour of his body” (P₁) (§27). For C₁ to follow from P₁, it must be true that man owns both his active labouring and the products of his labour. But, “labour” in P₁ only refers to active labouring. Consider the second half of section 27’s last sentence which states: “for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer [premise], no man but he can have a right to what that is joined to [conclusion]” (ibid). This suggests that because man possesses “the labour of his body,” he is entitled to the products of his labour (“what that [labour] is joyned to”) (ibid.). This argument thus indicates that “labour” in P₁ refers exclusively to active labouring (i.e., working, making, etc.,) and not to active laboring and the products of labour. But how does Locke move from P₁ to C₁ if labour refers to active labouring? If labouring (verb/action) and the products of labour (noun/effect) are categorically distinct entities, then it does not follow that the labourer acquires a private property right from that which was given to mankind in common by labouring.

The “mixing” metaphor, which purports to explain how man acquires property by labouring on a natural object, also indicates that “labour” in P₁ refers to active labouring (§27). All of the products of labour belong to the labourer since they were produced when the labourer “mixed” his labour with a natural object thereby annexing his active labour to the useful object thus produced (§27). However, the mixing metaphor does not logically permit Locke to move from P₁ to C₁. C₁ cannot be deduced from P₁ without assuming that man can legitimately appropriate the products of his labour from the commons. As the agent of labour, the subject owns the labour he applies to a natural object at T₁. The subsequent production of a useful object at T₂ is the effect of labouring at T₁. Labouring and the natural object laboured on are categorically distinct from the useful object produced at T₂. In other words, C₁ follows from P₁ only if man owns both his labour as well as the products of his labour. But Locke has not established that appropriation in the state of nature is ever legitimate.

This paper has argued that the theory of labour Locke presents as epistemic justification for appropriation in the state of nature and inequality in civil society is premised on a devastating logical fallacy. Future research should consider whether appropriation is ever justified in state of nature as well as the viability of alternatives to private property[1] in the Second Treatise of Government (1690).





Works Cited

Locke, John. 1690. Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. MacPherson. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980).



[1]Maybe biological necessities for food, shelter, comforts, etc., could be obtained through a system of semi-permanent rents which confer certain obligations on those appropriating from the commons. For instance, perhaps I could use the tree I cut down to build my house provided I satisfied the “Enough and as Good” clause by planting an equivalent tree beforehand. Perhaps I could use the land and consume the products I cultivate therein as a renter from the commons whom is obliged to pay for her rent by redistributing everything that exceeds what is needed for subsistence. These alternatives are consistent with many of the premises and arguments Locke draws on in the text(e.g., Nature is held in common, man owns his labour, etc.,) to both dispute Robert Filmer and to advance his own theory of government.

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