Locke: The Founder of Bourgeois Capitalism?

As much as I had originally found the reading of John Locke to be repetitive and tedious—just the excerpt portions alone—our recent discussion in class today on the “industrious and rational” in juxtaposition to the “covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious” brought to life the relevance of certain topics that Locke dances around throughout his Treatise. While Locke’s argument may claim that it is the industrious and rational who are “fit” to take the land and use it up for all of its potential resources available and supplied both to and for mankind, I disagree that those whom he refers to as “quarrelsome and contentious” the land as valuable to them and that it should consequently be taken from them as a result. The American Indians, for example, were people that greatly revered and took care of their land. Instead of depleting their resources, they cherished and nurtured all of the living things in their environment, giving way to much abundance in both their crop yield and the preservation of nature as it should be, (at least in my opinion).

Locke however, seems to think that they are instead doing the complete opposite of this.By not using the land as it was “intended” to be used, we should instead exhaustively deplete and squeeze all we possibly can out of the land in order to give “more” back to humanity than the “covetous and quarrelsome” otherwise would have. I can honestly say that this has better allowed me to see the roots of slavery and colonialism, and how they extend even further back into the past than I had originally realized. In turn, I am better able to understand and see why race, bias, and discrimination are still so deeply entrenched and prevalent in our American society today. One can even see the budding ideology of capitalism, (another point we hit on today), and its early gaining of momentum, which can be seen as far back as the year of 1689, when Locke published his Treatise.

The point he goes on to make concerning the hoarding of wealth, in gold specifically, seems even more erroneous a claim, as, he goes on to say that this hoarding of gold can and should something that is deemed “virtuous”. To continue with the Lord of the Rings strand briefly mentioned in class today, I feel like Smaug is a great example of the “hoarding of wealth” we see in our present day system of capitalism, as, he is literally sitting atop a gigantic pile of hoarded gold and treasure on the Lonely Mountain, which brings benefit to no one but himself. How can sitting on top of a mountainous pile of gold be doing anyone any favors or be considered “virtuous”, regardless of whether it spoils or not? It might not “go bad” per se but I fail to see how Locke can convincingly argue that one cannot hoard up land or food without entering into the state of war, but that one can however hoard up as much gold as they like without that being unjust to, and initiating war with, the rest of mankind. Yes, Smaug is played by the beloved Benedict Cumberbatch, and because of that I can’t help but be somewhat partial to his character, but I feel like any one of us who reads Tolkien’s book or sees the movie must at some point ask ourselves something like: “Come on, dragon, you really don’t need all of that gold do you?” Now, however, I find myself almost unsure as to which side I am arguing both for and against, because my previous thought sounds a lot like the logic Europeans used when they began to settle in the United States.

Akin to what I inquired about pertaining to Smaug, one might have asked back then in regards to the indigenous peoples, going on to state something similar to: “You don’t really need all that land do you?” or the like. This kind of thinking is dangerous because it eventually led to us pushing the American Indians out of their own land—thinking that we knew what was best for a land that was undoubtedly theirs and used the “well-they-weren’t-using-the-land-anyway” kind of excuse as a kind of justification for what we were doing. I guess what struck me the most overall is the irony in Locke’s binary thinking that he constructs for his readers. How were we the “industrious and rational” and the indigenous people the “quarrelsome and contentious” when really we were the ones who initiated the quarreling and coveting that took place on American soil before it was ours (is it really ours– even now?). If we infringed on their land, then we were the ones to initiate the state of war, and the others had every reason to contest such an encroachment of territory because we were trying to take something that wasn’t ours but that we nonetheless felt some sort of claim to.

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