Biblical Commandment, Natural Property and Authority: a Quasi-Marxist Environmental Perspective



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Biblical Commandment, Natural Property and Authority: a Quasi-Marxist Environmental Perspective

Nicholas Blake

Australian National University




Biblical commandment includes the injunction for humanity to have dominion over the earth. And prima facie, it is far from clear whether the terms of this commandment are actually consistent with a more ‘Green’1 view of natural dominion (e.g. such as that of stewardship). This paper seeks to understand this apparent tension (and ultimately defend a stewardship view) in the light of (Marxist cited) claims by the Reformation-era German cleric Thomas Müntzer, concerning the free appropriation of nature’s products on the one hand, and the just distribution of property on the other. It then outlines how the philosopher John Locke proved to be pivotal in how this understanding of property came to be distorted in contemporary capitalist society. Finally, the paper links this distortion with a tendency to treat the concept of authority in a similarly limited way, and ends with a recommendation that we need to (re)broaden what we understand by property and authority accordingly.

In biblical myth, humanity is given dominion over the entire planet. From the very beginning, humanity is divinely commanded to:


Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves over the earth. (Genesis 1:28).2
Of course, more liberal biblical exegesis might interpret this passage as referring to humanity’s custodianship over the planet. This depends on a particular political understanding of what ‘dominion’ practically means (e.g. as also entailing custodianship or protectorship) which seems absent from the passage itself, especially when acknowledging the additional command to ‘subdue’ the earth. Such an understanding becomes more sustainable when one acknowledges, as medieval theology at least sometimes did, that as God’s creation the world and its creatures (including, perhaps most especially, us) remained essentially divine property, and that consequently humanity had at best only stewardship rights vis-à-vis our ‘dominion’ over the planet. However, this view was certainly not incontestable, as a remaining and perhaps even more readily accessible interpretation is to view our divinely commanded ‘dominion’ over the earth as essentially ‘freely gifted’ (i.e. with ‘no strings attached’ as it were). It is also possible to understand this divine command to have lapsed when humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden, thereby forfeiting our former lofty place at God’s side. Even this interpretation of humanity’s Fall from grace leaves intact the claim that God originally made us to be dominators of the earth. Historically, this is certainly the understanding which best aligned with European imperial ambitions.3

For Karl Marx and the Marxian-inspired theorists who followed him, characteristic of our modern capitalist development, and thereby also its associated imperial ambitions and worldly domination, has been the elevation of money and exchange as the reified practical deities of both Europe and America. This seems obvious quite early for Marx, in what he says (albeit relying on some uncomfortably anti-Semitic identifications) to practical ‘Judaism’ in his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’4. But the ideation of domination, which Marx saw as part-and-parcel of capitalism, already had its ready counterpart in Judeo-Christian biblical text, and in particular in the Genesis commandment noted above. Marx seems to recognise something like this when he claims that:


The view of nature which has grown up under the regime of private property and of money is an actual contempt for and practical degradation of nature which does exist in the Jewish religion but only in imaginary form.5
Marx then immediately claims that it is in this sense that the Reformation-era German cleric Thomas Müntzer (also ‘Münzer’ or ‘Muentzer’, among other variants) declares it ‘intolerable’ that ‘all creatures have been made into property, the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth – all living things must also become free.’6

Now Müntzer has for some time been favoured in Marxist circles as an early communist revolutionary leader, on the basis of his participation in the Peasants’ War in sixteenth century Germany.7 On the basis of Marx’s text, he has also been depicted as an early environmental campaigner.8 However, this way of understanding what Müntzer actually preached here seems fundamentally mistaken. Rather than siloing Müntzer into this or that contemporary category, it is important to understand how his faith was integrally related to his awareness of both social justice9 and the natural world. Understanding this, and the significance that this has (particularly the foundational role that the concept of stewardship has, and what this actually means), is the first subject of the next section. The paper will then show how this view came to be substantially distorted in the ideological development of contemporary capitalist society, and finally how this distortion still persists in tending to limit our understanding of both property and authority.


Changing concepts of property: from Thomas Müntzer to John Locke et al.
It is hard to credit that Müntzer, as a cleric by ‘trade’ (including one who agitated for theological reform), would not have been aware of central biblical texts like that of the Genesis commandment to have dominion over all the earth; and that Müntzer, given that he was both a true believer and defender of what he perceived the Christian faith to be, would have ever rejected outright any biblical commandment.10 Rather, even acknowledging the seemingly ‘less-than-Green’11 credentials of the Genesis commandment, and of the dominant role which it accords humanity, it is important to note (especially in the context of what Müntzer was actually preaching at the time) that this role is accorded to humanity in general. It is not given to any one person to ‘lord’ it over all of creation; and in particular, it is not commanded for all of creation to be treated as if it is any one person’s particular property.

In other words, even given what Marx appears to quote from Müntzer (see above), it is entirely plausible that the latter was simply objecting to the fact that such worldly abundance was no longer able to be freely appropriated by God’s chosen (i.e. Christians and Müntzer’s followers in particular). And indeed, this is precisely what a closer examination of Müntzer’s actual claims here appears to show. In particular, it is important to note that Marx’s citation in ‘On the Jewish Question’ is itself somewhat problematic, at least as an exact translation of Müntzer’s original text. The above ‘quote’ is referenced to Müntzer’s 1524 pamphlet against the more renowned German reformer, Martin Luther, which begins ‘Hoch verursachte Schutzrede und Antwort12 (and which, on this basis, has been variously translated as ‘Highly Provoked Defense’, ‘Vindication and Refutation’ and even ‘Apology’).13 As will be noted below, the actual text has Müntzer denouncing Germany’s temporal powers for their avaricious presumption that all creatures must be theirs.14 Müntzer definitely does not claim that ‘all living things must also become free’ (i.e. from appropriation per se, as might be thought from a literal reading of what Marx claims). However, whilst the actual text strictly differs in this way from what Marx offers, it is important to note that the sense remains largely the same, provided it is put into the context of the private hoarding and even theft of property.

Müntzer himself was writing at a time when he was seeking or at least anticipating God’s kingdom on earth, after having attempted to press his case before Duke John of Saxony, only to be further denounced by Luther.15 In this respect, Müntzer not only disagreed with Luther on various aspects of religious doctrine, but he also violently denounced the social institutions which Luther still effectively supported, which in Müntzer’s view were inimical to any truly godly kingdom. Furthermore, because he saw the revolutionary change which would institute this new godly reign as divinely ordained, he also saw this change as inevitable (i.e. in precisely the same way, and for the same reason, that any true believer adheres to biblical prophesy as inevitable). Despite this, Müntzer failed to garner the necessary support from the ruling authorities for his evangelical aims, and was finally beheaded in 1525 following his ill-fated involvement in the Peasants’ War. However, Müntzer’s own relationship to the ruling elite was somewhat complicated, as the following claim (which refers to Müntzer’s ill-fated attempt to press his case before Duke John and others) suggests:
[…Luther] says that I wished to raise a rebellion, as he had discovered from my missive to the miners. He accuses me of this, but conceals another most discreet matter; to wit that I proved to the ruling powers that a whole province had the sword within their grasp, as well as the key for the unlocking16, and showed from Daniel vii., Rev. vi., and Rom. xiii.[,] 1[ Kings17]–8, that the rulers are not masters, but servants of the sword. They should not act as pleaseth them (Deut. xvii.), but do righteously. It is the greatest abomination on earth that no one will relieve the necessities of the poor…Look ye! Our sovereign and rulers are at the bottom of all usury, thievery, and robbery; they take all created things into possession. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the products of the soil – all must be theirs18 (Isaiah v.)[…] (as attributed to Müntzer by Kautsky).19
It should be noted that this is still a highly condensed extract from, and translation of, Müntzer’s 1524 pamphlet against Luther. Nevertheless, the broad intent of the text is substantively the same. And as already suggested above, it is in this context that Müntzer’s claim for all of creation to become ‘free’ should be best understood; namely, that the products thereof should be ‘free’ to be freely appropriated (i.e. in Marxian terminology) by all men, rather than by only the few. This understanding is supported and, for Müntzer at least, justified by the fact that the biblical passages to which he refers pertain, respectively, to:

1. An apocalyptic dream in The Book of Daniel 7:1–28, in which kingdoms are accorded power for a time, until the coming of a kingdom which ‘shall devour the whole earth’ (Daniel 7:23),20 and its subsequent judgement, destruction and replacement by an ‘everlasting kingdom’ which is given to ‘the people of the holy ones of the Most High’ (Daniel 7:27).21 In other words, what is promised is an end to domination by the unjust and ungodly, and its replacement by a dominion which serves and obeys those who serve God.

2. The apocalyptic visions of The Revelation to John (i.e. The Book of the Apocalypse) 6:1–17, which describes the coming of the four horsemen of the aforesaid apocalypse. Not insignificantly, from the midst of these four creatures a voice says: ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’ (Revelation 6:5–6).22 As noted by Meeks et al., ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay represents an exorbitant price for wheat, fifteen times higher than normal’, recognising that ‘shortages were often caused by hoarding for the purpose of profiteering’; and in this context the admonishment to ‘not damage the olive oil and the wine’ is to ‘not fraudulently withhold oil and wine to extort exorbitant prices.’23

3. The Letter of Paul to the Romans (i.e. to the church in Rome) 13:1–14. On its face, the reference to this passage seems rather odd, since it recommends to ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1).24 However, this is in the context of the immediately following qualification that ‘there is no authority except from God’ (Romans 13:1),25 and subsequently that ‘the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.’ (Romans 13:4).26 Müntzer clearly interprets this as meaning that there can be no proper authority except insofar as that authority is given by God, i.e. to do God’s work in punishing the unjust. On this basis, an ‘authority’ which fails to do this, and indeed is unjust itself, would be no properly constituted authority at all. Similarly, the recommendation to ‘Pay to all what is due them’ (Romans 13:7)27 could be interpreted as acknowledging that there only exists an obligation (i.e. to pay taxes, revenue, respect and honour) to those to whom those things are properly due.28

4. The First Book of Samuel 8:1–22 contains Samuel’s prescient warning to the Israelite elders of the unbridled acquisitive nature of kingship. The passage begins ‘When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel’, but that ‘his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice’ (1 Samuel 8:1 and 3).29 As a consequence, the elders of Israel demand that Samuel appoint for them ‘a king to govern us, like other nations’ (1 Samuel 8:5).30 After praying to God on the matter, Samuel (following God’s instruction) warns the Israelites that a king will take their sons and daughters and employ them for his own purposes, including for both military and domestic service (1 Samuel 8:11–13),31 and perhaps most importantly, agricultural production (1 Samuel 8:12).32 This is important because Samuel also warns that a king will seize the best of their productive property (i.e. ‘fields and vineyards and olive orchards’), one-tenth of their productive output vis-à-vis their grain and vineyards, their slaves, the best of their cattle and donkeys, and also one-tenth of their flocks (1 Samuel 8:14–17).33 In other words, what Samuel warns them of (in a way which is strikingly resonant with Marxist critiques) is both the diminishment and loss of control over much of their production, and that as a result: ‘you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you’ (1 Samuel 8:17–18).34 Of course, the Israelites refuse to listen to this warning, and the Lord commands instead that Samuel listen to their wishes (1 Samuel 8:19–22).35 As a result, Saul is then chosen to be king (1 Samuel 9:1 ff.).36

5. The Book of Deuteronomy 17:1–20. In addition to talking of stoning transgressors and the legal requirements for determining guilt (Deuteronomy 17:2–13),37 it is safe to assume that Müntzer’s main interest in referring to this passage is the verses referring to kingship (Deuteronomy 17:14–20).38 In particular, whilst the passage permits the selection of ‘One of your own community’ to be ‘set as king over you’, this is subject to the requirement that ‘he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses’, nor either ‘many wives for himself’ or ‘also silver and gold’ in ‘great quantity’ (Deuteronomy 17:14–17).39

6. The Book of Isaiah 5:1–30 is a poem which describes God’s love for the people of Judah (initially through the allegory of a vineyard), the betrayal of that love through iniquities, and God’s eventual retribution. Significantly, this retribution is exacted by a force external to Judah,40 i.e. by ‘a nation far away’ (Isaiah 5:26 ff.).41 However, more important for Müntzer’s purposes is the fact that the iniquities which the poet denounces include social injustice through accumulation, i.e. ‘you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you’ (Isaiah 5:8).42 In contrast to 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17 (above), this criticism is not particularly directed to any sovereign or rulers as such. Rather, for the poet in Isaiah, it is the people of Judah who in general are at fault (not least because God’s eventual retribution is visited upon the whole nation).43 However, the passage is sufficiently similar in tone that one can see how Müntzer is using it to license his own claims concerning the evils of accumulation. This includes, presumably, by the few to the detriment of the many.

However, it should be noted that free appropriation of the products of creation, which is to say under more equitable conditions, does not necessarily imply the abolition of private property – especially for the writer(s) of Deuteronomy etc. Rather, it only implies that it be subject to two complementary injunctions. On the one hand, there is the negative injunction that limits should be set on such ownership (and especially against what is essentially centralised ownership by the few), in the interests of equity and justice. On the other hand, there is a positive and circumspect injunction to share such property with those who are in need. For example: ‘Since there will never cease to be some need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”’ (Deuteronomy 15:11)44

Mészáros claims that this commandment serves to effect a ‘softening of internal class conflicts, in the interest of the cohesion of the national community in its confrontation with the outside world of the “strangers”’45. In Christianity, this commandment is potentially further radicalised to extend to all peoples, in the form of Christian charity.46 However, in neither case does it entail the surrendering of all private ownership, or even appropriate accumulation. Rather, it is about just distribution of goods, which is necessarily relative to the circumstances of the situation at hand (i.e. the degree of need). This is most obvious in the fact that the very next verses in Deuteronomy then proceed to outline the ‘just’ treatment of ‘slaves’ or bondsmen and bondswomen (Deuteronomy 15:12–1847). Another example of this balance between serving the interests of private ownership and that of communal need is provided in the limitations on foraging, as cited in full below:


If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container.

If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (Deuteronomy 23:24–25).48


As Meeks et al. note, these ‘rulings cogently define the limits of traditional hospitality extended to hungry wayfarers as well as to fieldhands.’49 However, it is important to ask why such traditional hospitality, which is common across many cultures, is extended to strangers at all. At least in the case of the above Deuteronomical ruling:
Apparently fields and vineyards were laid out in such a way that people often had to pass through those belonging to others. This was not considered trespass; to judge from Exodus 22:4–5,50 only damaging the field is trespass. When passing another’s crops, if one is hungry he may pick enough grapes or ears of grain to satisfy his hunger, but he may not take more than he can eat on the spot. According to nineteenth century travellers, this right was still recognized as a charitable obligation in the Middle East in recent times. A similar regulation is proposed in Plato’s Laws, according to which a foreign visitor traveling along the road should be allowed, out of hospitality, to pick enough grapes and figs of the type that are eaten fresh to feed himself and one attendant, but not of the types that are dried, stored, or used for wine. They may also pick less valuable fruits, such as apples and pomegranates.51
On this basis, the Deuteronomical passage is particularly interesting, because whilst it allows for the free appropriation of the products of creation, it does so recognising two things. First, there remains a prohibition on unjust appropriation or accumulation (e.g. by using a container). Second, what makes the accumulation or manner of appropriation unjust is the fact that it is your neighbour’s property. Implicit in this is the fact that, in more modern nomenclature, your neighbour has invested both time and resources in cultivating that land. Nevertheless, parcelling land for agricultural development presents impediments to what would have otherwise been free passage for people, including for the purposes of foraging (i.e. whether that be their primary purpose in moving to that area, or merely incidental to the fact that they get hungry whilst passing through). In other words, what the passage is acknowledging is a balance between foraging and cultivation rights, in circumstances which recognise both a general and reciprocal obligation to respect others and their needs (or as we tend now, perhaps more confusingly, to also call ‘rights’). The requirement to extend such hospitality, in conjunction with its recognised limits, seems strikingly well-suited to, and perhaps even originates from, that turning-point in humanity’s social development from a hunter-gather to agricultural society. And in this, one can see the nascent beginnings of, and especially tensions between, ‘natural’ rights (e.g. to self-subsistence) vis-à-vis property rights.

Most importantly, even acknowledging that there is a prima facie need to balance such rights, it becomes quite another question (including potentially on simply practical and circumspect grounds) as to where that balance should be drawn. Taking the application of the Deuteronomical ruling as an example, it is interesting to note:


That the biblical laws apply to any passerby is the view of Josephus and R. Isi b. Yehudah. The practice is reflected in a story in the Christian scriptures in which Jesus’ disciples pluck ears of grain while passing through grainfields; they are rebuked by the Pharisees, but only for doing so on the Sabbath52. However, the halakhah53 restricts the law to workers who are harvesting the field or vineyard for the owner because, according to Rav, granting all passerby the right to take some of the crop might well ruin the owner. It is not known whether changed economic conditions or some other factor lies behind the halakhic position.54
Such considerations (and their related pronouncements) seem very different from apparently more rarefied Christian idealisations of communal ownership. As noted by Sabine and Thorson, by the Middle Ages it had not been uncommon (i.e. within the context of a now Christian-state feudal society) ‘to suppose that common ownership is a more perfect and hence more “natural” state than private ownership, the latter being attributed to the effects of sin upon human nature after the fall of man.’55 However, consistent with what has been noted above, there seems no such radicalisation (viz. idealisation) in the Jewish canon. Especially in Deuteronomy (i.e. as interpreted by subsequent law and commentary), one finds a balance between practical needs and desserts, albeit always couched in terms of one’s duty to God.

As Sabine and Thorson also note, in Roman law there existed the ostensibly very different theory (i.e. compared with the ‘ideal’ medieval view above)56 ‘that private property begins with the appropriation of things which before had a common use though no communal ownership.’57 Now, such Roman (or Romanesque) theories need not be inconsistent with either the Deuteronomic-qua-Judaic perspective, or even medieval communal ideals, provided of course that they remain as simply descriptive of the origins of private property58. Even in this minimal sense though, such a theory would seem secondary, if not outright irrelevant, to a Deuteronomic or similar perspective, which seeks a just balance between what are essentially ‘natural’ rights (e.g. again including self-subsistence) and property rights. (NB: with the latter being recognised as having a certain pragmatic value, e.g. in the form of cultivation and, borrowing on the much later Christian example, reaping what one has sown.)

Sabine and Thorson go on to note their view that the English philosopher John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government, departed from both the Roman and medieval theories at the same time as he was continuing in the broader medieval, and specifically Thomist, moral tradition. Contrary to Hobbes:
Locke held that the state of nature is one of “peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation.”59 This is defended on the ground that the law of nature provides a complete equipment of human rights and duties. The defect of the state of nature lies merely in the fact that it has no organization, such as magistrates, written law, and fixed penalties, to give effect to the rules of right. Everything that is ever right or wrong is so eternally; positive law adds nothing to the ethical quality of different kinds of conduct but merely provides an apparatus for effective enforcement. In the state of nature every man must protect his own as best he can, but his right to his own and his duty to respect what is another’s are as complete as ever they can become under government. It will be noted that this is exactly the ground that Thomas had taken centuries before Locke. Locke was merely repeating Hooker and through him the medieval tradition about the relation between law and morals.60
And insofar as Locke also believed that in the state of nature ‘property was common in the sense that everyone had a right to draw subsistence from whatever nature offers’61, he was similarly drawing upon the same medieval, and specifically Thomist, tradition. The presumption that common ownership is a more divinely ordained natural state reflects, of course, the medieval Edenic trope. But both the Thomist tradition which Locke drew upon, as well as the medieval praxis within which that tradition developed, also reflect (if not necessarily always explicitly) something fundamental about human society. Namely, as individuals we are always indebted to, and thereby have corresponding obligations to, others for our very existence62 (e.g. in this respect, the injunction at Exodus 20:12 to honour your father and mother takes on an entirely different light).

At the same time, the Lockean account does seem consistent with at least the broad thrust of ancient Roman legal concerns, to recognise the quite different foundational right of individual appropriation (i.e. where no common use previously exists). As Locke himself argues:


God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And though all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and nobody has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life.63
What Locke does here (i.e. regardless of how innovative or derivative this claim may actually be) seems quite sophisticated.64 He effectively locates the ultimate origin of individual property rights in common use appropriation. To this extent, it seems consistent with both medieval communal tradition and Roman legally-recognised individual appropriation (noting this is definitely not to say, of course, that these two traditions were previously incompatible). And of course, the preserved entitlement to subsistence appropriation is entirely consistent (as already noted above) with the much earlier65 Deuteronomic laws. However, Sabine and Thorson also claim that Locke departed from both the medieval and Roman theories ‘by asserting that a man has a natural right to that with which he has “mixed” the labor of his body, as for example by enclosing and tilling land.’66

It is important to note, though, how contentious this claim of supposed radicalism actually is. Far from departing from earlier medieval theories, Swanson claims that although some medieval thinkers ‘might well have taken issue with Locke over some or other of the points he made’, they would not have found anything that he had to say about property ‘particularly innovative’, ‘not even the stuff about labor or money which is supposed to herald the advent of a new world’67. In this respect, Swanson points to a number of Locke’s predecessors, including the thirteenth-century theologian John of Paris, whom he cites as claiming that:


Lay property…is acquired by individual people through their own skill, labor, and diligence, and individuals, as individuals, have right and power and true lordship over it; each person may order his own and dispose, administer, hold or alienate it as he wishes so long as he causes no injury to anyone else….68
As Swanson also notes, many of Locke’s subsequent doctrines, including a labour theory of property, are to be found in such writings. The basic difference between Locke and John of Paris (and with him, his contemporary Godfrey of Fontaines) is that, whereas the latter argue that ‘the people’ must consent to government (essentially on the basis that the government is there to protect the people’s interests, including property rights), Locke instead specifies that it is individual people who must consent to government. However, although their notion of consent was therefore more ‘corporate’ than Locke’s:
Nonetheless, their constitutionalist thought foreshadowed Locke’s in essential ways. Both taught that individual persons intrinsically possess rights of property – pretty much amounting to life, liberty, and estate – which do not derive from royal or ecclesiastical authority and against which kings and popes have no right to trespass. These rights, moreover, properly describe the limits and define part of the purpose of governmental authority.69
Most importantly, whilst such individual rights might be characterised by what we would call ‘inalienable’ (i.e. insofar as they are held individually, and not by external fiat), they were nevertheless subject to both divine and natural justice limits, including for Locke himself. Whilst considered to possess such rights, individuals were not thereby divested of their obligations, both to each other and to God.

However, Coleman argues that whilst this medieval natural law tradition continues to feature prominently in Locke’s moral-qua-political philosophy, a significant change nevertheless occurs when he conceives of individual appropriation in a way which ‘turns a use right into a private right70. And that Locke adds something which she ‘cannot find either in classical or medieval debates’ when he writes: ‘though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself.’71 No precise citation is given here, but it seems clear that the reference is to the same passage in which Locke famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) then immediately claims the following:


The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left in it, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.72
For Coleman, it is significant that:
[…] sovereign direction of the self, the rule of, say, the soul over the body, was not in earlier periods the same thing as owning. Sovereign jurisdiction – the word in Latin was often dominium but it meant jurisdictio – was a duty of care of a superior over an inferior. Then there was another use of the word dominium which did refer to private property ownership and to say that someone has a property in something, in some exterior material good, meant he had a material interest in it and this required that the something be alienable.73
However, this way of characterising property ownership, as something which is ‘alienable’, seems very similar to the characterisation which (as has already been noted above) Swanson attributes to John of Paris in the thirteenth century, some 400 years before Locke would articulate his own claims. But if this is true, then what, it may be asked, is so distinctive about the Lockean account?

From the brief passages already noted above, a certain tension within Locke’s own claims can be detected. On the one hand, he characterises the state of nature, pace Hobbes, as one of ‘mutual assistance and preservation’. And yet when he comes to deriving the appropriation of private property, he starts emphatically with the individual qua individual. In the thirteenth century, the attribution of what are effectively individual property rights would necessarily have been understood in the context of the rights of individuals to enjoy the fruits of their own labour, provided (as has already been noted above) that they caused no injury to anyone else. But presumably, in that same context, this included the understood proviso that their social obligations of care towards others, which derive at least partly from the simple fact that no-one is ever a totally isolated individual, i.e. in the sense that we are always at least partly obligated to others for our very existence, were duly met.

Locke seems to want to preserve at least some of this same sense of indebtedness (especially to God) in his own account, including as it was manifest in the natural law tradition on which he was drawing. But post-Reformation England became subject to a very different set of ideals to that which tended to prevail during the thirteenth century. Most significantly, this included emphasising the individual, par excellence, as having a comparatively unmediated (and what would come to be treated as an essentially isolate) relation with God.74 In addition to this new emphasis on the centrality of the individual, it is also interesting to note that whilst Locke’s account might preserve much in the way of attempting to balance private rights with common goods, it does this in a way which is now couched in the rhetoric of improvement and benefit. Nowhere is this clearer than in Locke’s discussion of the advantages of European forms of agricultural production, over and above those of native Americans.75

In this respect, it is important to read Locke in the context of how his Treatises were actually accepted (or not) within his own historical milieu. As Swanson notes, Locke’s natural rights arguments ‘gave pause to fellow propertied Whigs.’76 And yet, despite being wary of the broader political implications of this argument, at least one of Locke’s contemporaries (William Atwood) also ‘heartily commended Locke’s exposition of property, albeit at the time Locke’s authorship of the treatises was unknown to him.’77 What is significant here is that Locke’s exposition of property could be ‘heartily commended,’ quite apart from any acceptance (or otherwise) of his broader natural rights claims. This is not necessarily the result of readers ‘cherry-picking’ only the parts of the Treatises that they like, for as already noted above there exists a certain tension in Locke’s claims, especially in the Second Treatise. This occurs, specifically, between Locke’s natural law characterisation of the state of nature as one of ‘mutual assistance and preservation’, and his derivation of the appropriation of private property with the individual qua individual. To this extent, these claims are therefore severable. Furthermore, by emphasising the second account, one can understand Locke’s natural rights claims as not only inhering in individuals as essentially ‘property’ rights (which Locke clearly does do), but as only inhering in individuals in this way, i.e. effectively sans their broader social obligations.

When read in this way, it can be understood how significant a change this actually was. Notwithstanding Locke’s continuation of the earlier natural law traditions, his account of property vis-à-vis inherently individual rights marked a significant, and indeed fateful, departure. By making this claim in the way that he did, Locke effectively helped blur the ancient Deuteronomic distinction between ‘natural’ and (pragmatic) property rights. From Locke onwards, private property rights are not only now instantiated as individual natural rights, but also vice versa. This occurs through Locke, and thence also to the American constitution, which enshrines rights like civil liberty as something which individuals have an inalienable right to own (e.g. compare again Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question.’)78 The result is that everything, including rights, is now conceived in the form of a kind of property, in the context of whether (and under what conditions) it may be subject to trade, exchange or simply surrender, as when someone surrenders the right to liberty by committing certain criminal offences.

Moving from the political to the strictly economic, Marx can be read as continuing his criticism of this conception of property (especially insofar as it grounded the political economy of his day) in the following lampoon from Capital:


Commodities cannot themselves go to the market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own, except through an act to which both parties consent. The guardians must therefore recognize each other as owners of private property.79
Here the object of Marx’s lampooning is not just the capitalist conception of property, but rather the naturalistic fallacy that political economy relied upon to justify it. Marx speaks of the ‘guardians’ of commodities in a way which seems resonant with the medieval (and earlier) conceptions of stewardship. And he speaks of using force against such commodities,80 if necessary, in order to take possession of them, which resonates with the Lockean (and earlier) expenditure of labour in relation to the appropriation of nature’s gifts, and to productive activity in general. But these gifts were never, in the first instance at least, ‘commodities’ as such, whose use included being taken to market for the purpose of exchange. And the ‘guardians’ of these gifts were never isolated individuals, who came ready-formed into the world as property owners. What gifts we have, we owe to the efforts of others: to both those who may help us now, as well as those whom have gone before. We owe not only our parents and other ancestors for our very existence, but also our teachers for providing us with whatever skills and knowledge we have, as well as those innumerable ‘others’ without whom we would not even know what it is to be this inherently social being that we call ‘human’.


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