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John Locke in Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origin of Capitalism

It is amazing that so many of us accept that it is our lot to work for others and to pay rent. Was it always so or did this come about through sophistry?

Whilst in part a review of aspects of Ellen Meiksins Wood's stimulating book,
The Origin of Capitalism, a longer view, Verso, London and New York, 2002, this article features a passage from that book. The passage analyses how John Locke's philosophy of the Law of Property characterises capitalism and documents changes to property law in England which created a massive landless labour force by facilitating dispossession on the pretext of efficiency.


John Locke's work on property goes back to the end of the 17th century. To many it will seem eerily familiar because we hear constantly its echo in arguments about efficiency and enclosure. In Orwellian Waterworks: big-agribusiness and Victorian Government, the reader of this article may recognise that the same excuses are still being made for new enclosures of land. It is false to believe that these are the good old days and that our society protects us from legally sanctioned predation. For instance, it is no wonder that the people of the Riverina have scheduled a demonstration in front of Parliament in June 3 at 12.30pm. What is happening close by in country Victoria is of utmost seriousness.

In her book, Ellen Meiksins Wood sets out to find the origins of capitalism. Personally I think they go back further, but she is on the right trail and you won't find her work disappointing. Woods agrees that capitalism originated in England and recognises that things were and still are different in continental Europe, albeit she also recognises that capitalism culminates in the globalisation movement.

Half the book consists of a very thorough literature review where she disputes a number of well-known theories, both Marxist and ‘liberal’, on the grounds that they all wrongly assume that capitalism sort of emerged organically from simpler societies. This is in fact the deadening ideology preached daily by the world's syndicated Anglophone media and Anglophone governments. In jingles and visual noise more invasive than the muezzin, we constantly hear that "Capitalism is the culmination, the natural way, the only way, and we must overcome all its problems by being more productive in order to have endless growth. To go 'backwards' is to perish etc."

Yes, Wood also disputes the widespread inference that capitalism was an inevitable kind of human social progress. She disagrees with the idea that capitalism confers overwhelming benefits. Whilst many theories identify capitalism with cities, she sees capitalism as being born in rural agricultural society.

She describes capitalism as a special arrangement of capital, labour and market. She sees both the owners of capital and those who work for them as subservient to the market. In her view, the market is something that developed from the separation of power and economy.

She constructs an original and useful thesis that the commercial market in capitalism has developed a life of its own. The market now controls people rather than their controlling it and that it is a source of much unhappiness. Whilst she concedes that those who own the capital benefit from this situation for longer than those whom they oppress, no-one will escape in the end. At the bottom of it all is the elevation of profit above all other things, which means we cannot protect anything if destroying it will make someone a big enough profit.

At no time does she display an awareness of the role of fossil fuels in capitalism, but those of us who are aware of this, can supply the gaps. What she has done is create a framework.

Wood correctly identifies dispossession as fundamental to the emergence of capitalism in England. She locates the “first major wave of socially disruptive enclosure” as having occurred in the 16th C. (Some have placed it earlier but she does not mention this. Neither does she identify the mechanism which first permitted private property.)

She does, however, also correctly identify English society as different from societies on the European continent, with France typifying continental societies. She acknowledges that Dutch society was also different from other continental societies, but still dissimilar to England. She does not explain how Holland came to be different from the continental roman societies.

She does identify changes in the law as an important part of capitalism. The changeover from traditional (oral) and customary (mutual, often inherited, obligations) is known to be a fulcrum of abuse which permitted and still permits land-owners who were educated in written law to take advantage of peasants and hunter-gatherers who were and are not. She notes that written laws replaced tradition in passing, without dating the phenomenon or otherwise particularising it in relation to her theory. She stresses, however, a change in philosophy of property law, of which she does date some documents and events. These are, notably,

Document: Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516)
Event: The Expropriation of Ireland (1610)
Document: Locke’s Theory of Property. (1690s)

John Locke

John Locke,, (1690s), cited by Ellen Meiksins Wood, pp110-115:

“Lock begins with the proposition that God ‘hath given the world to men in common’ (II.26), but he goes on to show how, nevertheless, individuals come to have property in particular things. In fact, he writes, such private, individual property is a God-given natural right. Men (and in his argument, it is always men) own their own persons, and the labour that they do with their hands and bodies is therefore their property too. So, he argues, a natural right of property is established when a man ‘mixes his labour’ with something, when, that is, by means of his labour he removes it from its natural state or changes its natural condition.

"Locke was certainly not the first thinker to propose that unoccupied land could be claimed by those who would render it fruitful, but, as he developed his labour theory of property, he introduced some enormously significant innovations. We shall consider some of their implications more closely in Chapter 7, in connection with the ideology of imperialism. For now, the central point is that Locke’s whole argument on property turns on the notion of ‘improvement’.

"The theme running throughout his discussion is that the earth is there to be made productive and profitable, and that this is why private property, which emanates from labour, trumps common possession. Locke repeatedly insists that most of the value inherent in land comes not from nature but from labour and improvement:

"‘tis labour indeed that puts the difference of value on everything’ (11.40).

"He even offers specific calculations of value contributed by labour as against nature. He suggests, for example, ‘it will be but a very modest Computation to say, that of the Products of the Earth useful to the Life of Man, 9/10 are the effects of labour,’ and then immediately corrects himself: it would be more accurate to say that 99/100 should be attributed to labour rather than to nature (II.40).

"Locke also makes it clear that the value he has in mind is not simply use value but exchange value. Money and commerce are the motivation for improvement; and an acre of land in unimproved America, which may be as naturally fertile as an acre in England, is not worth 1/1000 of the English acre, if we calculate ‘all the Profit an Indian received from it were it valued and sold here’ (II.43).

"Locke’s point, which not coincidentally drips with colonialist contempt, is that unimproved land is waste, so that any man who takes it out of common ownership and appropriates it to himself – he who removes land from the common and encloses it – in order to improve it has given something to humanity, not taken it away.

"There is, of course, something attractive about Locke’s idea that labour is the source of value and the basis of property, but soon becomes clear that there is something odd about it too. For one thing, it turns out that there is no direct correspondence between labour and property, because one man can appropriate the labour of another. He can acquire a right of property in something by ‘mixing’ with it not his own labour but the labour of someone else whom he employs. It appears that the issue for Locke has less to do with the activity of labour as such than with its profitable use. In calculating the value of the acre in America, for instance, he talks not about the Indian’s expenditure of effort, labour, but about the Indian’s failure to realize a profit. The issue, in other words, is not the labour of a human being but the productivity of property, its exchange value and its application to commercial profit.

"This emphasis on the creation of exchange value as the basis of property is a critical move in the theorization of capitalist property. Locke certainly was not the first to claim that people have a right to take possession of unoccupied and unused land, if they are able and willing to render it fruitful. His idea that property derives from labour is not so distant from that traditional notion. What makes his thesis truly distinctive is the association of ‘labour’ with the creation of exchange value, and the derivation of property from the creation of exchange value. This had implications not only for domestic property relations but also, as we shall see, for the justification of colonial expropriation. It could be used to defend the enclosure of ‘unprofitable’ land at home, as well as territory in the colonies that was not being put to commercially profitable use by indigenous populations.

"In a famous and much debated passage, Locke writes that ‘the Grass my Horse has bit; the Turs my Servant has cut; and the Ore I have digg’d in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my Property …’ (II.28). Much ink has been spilled on this passage and what it tells us about, for example, Locke’s views on wage labour (the labour of the servant who cuts the turfs). But what is truly striking about the passage is that Locke treats ‘the Turfs my Servant has cut’ as equivalent to ‘the Ore I have digg’d’. This means not only that I, the master, have appropriated the labour of my servant, but also that this appropriation is in principle no different from the servant’s labouring activity itself. My own digging is, for all intents and purposes, the same as my appropriating the fruits of my servant’s cutting. But Locke is not interested in simply passive appropriation. The point is rather that the landlord who puts his land to productive use, who improves it, even if it is by means of someone else’s labour, is being industrious, no less – and perhaps more – than the labouring servant.

"That’s a point worth dwelling on. One way of understanding what Locke is driving at is to consider common usage today. When the financial pages of the daily newspaper speak of ‘producers’, they do not normally mean workers. In fact, they are likely to talk about conflicts, for example, between automobile ‘producer’s and auto workers or their unions. The employers of labour, in other words, are being credited with ‘production’. We have become so accustomed to this usage that we fail to see tis implications, but it is important to keep in mind that certain very specific historical conditions were required to make it possible.

"Traditional ruling classes in pre-capitalist society, passively appropriating rents from dependent peasants, would never think for themselves as ‘producers’. The kind of appropriation that can be called ‘productive’ is distinctively capitalist. It implies that property is used actively, not for conspicuous consumption but for investment and increasing profit. Wealth is acquired not simply by using coercive force to extract more surplus labour from direct producers, in the manner of rentier aristocrats, nor by buying cheap and selling dear like pre-capitalist merchants, but by increasing labour-productivity (output per unity of work).

"By conflating labour with the production of profit, Locke becomes perhaps the first thinker to construct a systematic theory of property based on something like these capitalist principles. He is certainly not a theorist of a mature, industrial capitalism. But his view of property, with its emphasis on productivity and exchange value created in production, already sets him apart from his predecessors. His idea that value is actively created in production is already vastly different from traditional views that focus simply on the process of exchange, the ‘sphere of circulation’. Only William Petty, often called the founder of political economy, had suggested anything like a ‘labour theory of value’ in the seventeenth century, and that too in the context of agrarian capitalism – a theory he tested as a colonial agent in Ireland, where he served as Cromwell’s Surveyor General, just as Locke and his mentor, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, looked upon the American colonies as a laboratory of improvement.

"Locke in his economic works is critical of those landed aristocrats who sit back and collect rents without improving their land, and he is equally critical of merchants who simply act as middlemen, buying cheap in one market and selling at a higher price in another, or hoarding goods to raise their price, or cornering a market to increase the profits of sale. Both types of proprietor are, in his view, parasitic. Yet his attack on proprietors of this kind should not be misread as a defence of working people against the dominant classes. He certainly has good things to say about industrious artisans and tradesmen, but his idea seems to be the great improving landlord, whom he regards as the ultimate source of wealth in the community, what he calls, significantly, the ‘first producer’ – a man like Shaftesbury, capitalist landlord and investor in colonial trade, a man who is not only ‘industrious’ but whose vast property contributes greatly to the wealth of the community.

"Locke’s view of property is very well suited to the conditions of England in the early days of agrarian capitalism. It clearly reflects a condition in which highly concentrated landownership and large holdings were associated with a highly productive agriculture (again, productive in the sense not just of total output but also of output per unit of work). His language of improvement echoes the scientific literature devoted to the techniques of agriculture that flourished uniquely in England at this time – especially emanating from the Royal Society and the groups of learned men with whom Locke and Shaftesbury were closely connected. More particularly, his constant references to common land as waste and his praise for the removal of land from the common, and indeed for enclosure, had very powerful resonances in that time and place.

"We need to be reminded that the definition of property was in Locke’s day not just a philosophical issue but a very immediate practical one. As we have seen, a new, capitalist definition of property was in the process of establishing itself, challenging traditional forms not just in theory but also in practice. The idea of overlapping use rights to the same piece of land was giving way in England to exclusive ownership. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, there were constant disputes over common and customary rights. Increasingly, the principle of improvement for profitable exchange was taking precedence over other principles and other claims to property, whether those claims were based on custom or on some fundamental right of subsistence. Enhancing productivity itself became a reason for excluding other rights.

"What better argument than Locke’s could be found to support the landlord seeking to extinguish the customary rights of commoners, to exclude them from common land, and to turn common land into exclusive private property by means of enclosure? What better argument than that enclosure, exclusion, and improvement enhanced the wealth of the community and added more to the ‘common stock’ than it subtracted? And indeed, there were in the seventeenth century already examples of legal decisions in conflicts over land where judges invoked principles very much like those outlined by Locke, in order to give exclusive property precedence over common and customary rights. In the eighteenth century, when enclosure would accelerate rapidly with the active involvement of Parliament, reasons of ‘improvement’ would be cited systematically as the basis of title to property and as grounds for extinguishing traditional rights.

"This is not the only way in which Locke’s theory of property supported the interests of landlords like Shaftesbury. Against the background of his emphatic pronouncement that all men were free and equal in the state of nature, he nevertheless, like others before him, justified slavery. More particularly, as we shall see in Chapter 7, his views on improvement could easily be mobilized to justify colonial expansion and the expropriation of indigenous peoples, as his remark on the American Indian makes painfully obvious. If the unimproved lands of the Americas represented nothing but ‘waste’, it was a divinely ordained duty for Europeans to enclose and improve them, just as ‘industrious’ and ‘rational’ men had done in the original state of nature."

For any student of capitalism, Wood has produced a key book.


Hi Sheila,

Great Post.

May I respectfully suggest for those readers interested, the following link in relation:

The Reproduction of Daily Life by Fredy Perlman.

Contents include: Daily Life in Capitalist Society, Alienation of Living Activity, The Fetishism of Commodities, Transformation of Living Activity into Capital, Storage and Accumulation of Human Activity.

Kindest Regards