Saturday 4 February 2017

On the difference between the theories of Locke and Rousseau

A few days back I put up a fb post asking the JNU 'geniuses' about the difference between the theories in political science of Locke and Rousseau. Not one of these 'specialists' in social sciences could give a satisfactory answer. So I will attempt it here.

1. When we study political science theories we must examine (1) the historical background in which these theories were propounded, and (2) the personalities and personal lives of the propounders.

In Locke's central work on political science ' The Second Treatise on Civil Government ', written in 1690, in which he propounded his theory of natural rights, his main emphasis is on the right to property, which he regarded as a natural right, and which even the king or parliament could not violate. Locke regards only life, liberty and property as natural rights. But there was no mention of any right to equality as a natural right, unlike in Rousseau's ' Discourse on Inequality ' ( written in 1754 ). While Locke never attacked inequality in wealth, and Voltaire obfuscated on the issue, Rousseau, in his ' Discourse on Inequality ', clearly said : " It is obviously contrary to the law of nature, however it be defined, for a handful of people to gorge themselves on superfluities, while the starving multitudes lack the basic necessities of life "

Thus Rousseau realized that the ' natural rights ' of which Locke and others had spoken, were all meaningless to a poor or hungry man, because poverty is destructive of all rights.

2. As mentioned above, ' Locke's ' Second Treatise on Civil Government ' was written in 1690. This was after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 followed a long struggle between the Stuart Kings and Parliament. It established the supremacy of the British Parliament even over the King. It established a precedent which was unique : that Parliament could transfer the Crown from one head to another.

The Bill of Rights of 1689 gave the power of the purse, which is the real power, to Parliament, and laid down that the King could not raise taxes or levy troops without Parliament's consent.

At that time the members of the House of Commons represented the British middle class i.e. the commercial class in London and some other cities, as well as the rural bourgeoisie. So the victory of Parliament against the King represented the victory of the rising bourgeoisie over the feudal class.

But the Bill of Rights of 1689 did not give any rights to the people ( unlike the Bill of Rights the U.S. Constitution of 1791, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French National Assembly in 1789 during the French Revolution ). It only gave rights to Parliament, which, as I mentioned above, did not represent the entire people but a small minority consisting of the commercial class and rural bourgeoisie.

This small minority were determined to defend their private properties, and it is in this historical context that we should study and examine Locke's theory.

3. Locke stated that private property is absolutely essential for liberty: “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” He continues: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.”

Locke believed people legitimately turned common property into private property by mixing their labor with it, improving it. Marxists liked to claim this meant Locke embraced the labor theory of value, but he was talking about the basis of ownership rather than value.

He insisted that people, not rulers, are sovereign. Government, Locke wrote, “can never have a Power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the Subjects Property, without their own consent. For this would be in effect to leave them no Property at all.” He makes his point even more explicit: rulers “must not raise Taxes on the Property of the People, without the Consent of the People, given by themselves, or their Deputies.”

Locke had enormous foresight to see beyond the struggles of his own day, which were directed against monarchy: “’Tis a Mistake to think this Fault [tyranny] is proper only to Monarchies; other Forms of Government are liable to it, as well as that. For where-ever the Power that is put in any hands for the Government of the People, and the Preservation of their Properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the Arbitrary and Irregular Commands of those that have it: There it presently becomes Tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many.”

Then Locke affirmed an explicit right to revolution: “whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty ".

4. We see from the above that Locke's emphasis is on the right to property, which was so fundamental according to him that even Parliament could not violate it, and if it did, the people had a right to revolution. But Locke does not regard equality as a natural right, obviously because the bourgeoisie which had come to power after the Glorious Revolution in England did not want economic equality.

5. Locke's theory of natural rights was thus directed not only against the King, but even against Parliament, though only if it tried to invade the citizens' property or liberty. But at that time Parliament was supreme, and so preaching a revolution against it was dangerous. It was for this reason that Locke kept his treatise anonymous, and only acknowledged it in his will.

6. Locke was a totally rational middle class man. On the other hand, Rousseau was very emotional ( see his 'Confessions' ), and he laid great emphasis on emotions. It was because of his passion and strong empathy for the sufferings of the poor people that he condemned gross economic inequality, something Locke never did.

7. Rousseau realized that the ' natural rights ' of which Locke and others had spoken, were all meaningless to a poor man, because poverty is destructive of all rights.

Rousseau would have found the Indian Constitution as an empty shell, because the socio-economic rights, without which the Fundamental Rights guaranteed in Part 3 ( freedom of speech, freedom of religion, liberty, equality, etc ) are meaningless, have been placed in the Directive Principles in Part 4, and have been specifically made non enforceable ( vide Article 37 ). Thus what has been given by one hand, has been taken away by the other.

The Indian Constitution, though no doubt doing some good for some time, by providing for civil liberties, secularism, etc has also , by not ensuring socio-economic justice to the poor masses in India ( see my articles ' Healthcare in India ', ' Malnutrition in India ', ' Unemployment in india ', ' Vikaas', etc on my facebook page and on my blog ), and rather permitting further widening the gulf between the handful of rich and the vast majority of poor, has now exhausted itself. It can now no longer serve the Indian people, and has to be replaced by a Constitution which ensures real justice, which includes socio-economic justice, to the people, and not a mere fig leaf.

This,however, will only be possible after a great and drastic historical change in the social system prevailing in India,i.e, through some kind of a French Revolution. Thereafter, a Second Bill of Rights, as envisaged by former U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt in his speech of 1944 ( see online and on Youtube ) will be necessary

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