Throughout political and philosophical history, the ideas of property, labour, and their inherent value both in isolation from each other and together have been discussed many times, with different outcomes according to each philosopher. Three political\philosophical thinkers are discussed in this paper, with reference to their individual views on property, labour, and their value to different levels of society. Locke, with his Second Treatise of Government, has his theories of the communal ownership of land looked at through the lenses provided by Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and the increasing urbanisation which would follow his time, while Marx is looked at in terms of being a successor of those thoughts, though obviously his times, being firmly industrial and also in his eyes exploitative in nature, encouraged Marx to develop this line of thinking and broaden it in order to include the changed circumstances which he saw. Naomi Klein, with the chapter on the discarded Factory in her book No Logo, takes the ideas of property and labour still further than her two predecessors: she (as we all do) lives in the time when labour is contracted out of the country into the hands of foreign workers, in order to save money. The property/labour/value trifecta which guided the works of both Locke and Marx is thereby utterly destroyed, leading Klein to adopt a new approach to the themes of property and the value of labour in a time of increased consumption.
Where the twinned topics of property and labour are involved, Locke seems to be caught between the prevailing ideas and conditions of his time; where aristocratic families owned land and allowed peasant farmers to work on it for a price, and the ideals of his philosophical peers who said that ‘peasant proprietorship would be the best system’ (Russell, 658) when it came to land ownership. During the first parts of his chapter on the property, Locke reiterates his theory that everyone owns the earth as such, because God himself gave it to Adam and his sons (Locke, 285-286). Of course, as Locke himself points out (286), this would make the whole idea of people owning property inherently invalid – who can own what was given to us communally by God? – but he resolves this by bringing in the surprisingly socialist idea of a man being the sole owner of whatever he produces, thereby shifting the value to the labour involved rather than the property itself.
As Russell points out (660), Locke focuses on the effects of labour in increasing the value of the property while ignoring (intentionally or otherwise) the possibilities of property increasing in value by itself. During his predominantly agricultural times, it would have made more sense to him to focus on the value of labour, but Locke himself says (292) that most lands was not held in common, to be claimed by men according to the principles he had laid out earlier, but was instead owned by the local parish or council and then loaned out as it was needed. This raises two points against Locke’s theory of labour: if labour is required to increase the value of someone’s property, then by owning the aforementioned property, does the parish not by extension own the method of production? For the second point, Russell points out (660) the idea that ‘a man has a right to the produce of his own labour is useless in an industrial society’ or really any society other than the predominantly agricultural world Locke was writing about. In the end, while Locke did have to seem to have some semi-socialist leanings in his work to do with communal ownership, and perhaps the beginnings of a “to each according to his need” philosophy as expressed through the concept of a man’s property being the result of what he has himself produced (Locke, 287-288), he never really challenged the norms of his time which allowed the upper classes to consume what was produced by the lower classes, which according to his own thought should have been their property.
Using the semi-socialist tendencies of Locke as a springboard, Marx continues his thoughts about labour having its own inherent value to their logical conclusion (at least according to Marx’s own thought). Marx was able to continue Locke’s thoughts on production and consumption because he lived in a more urbanised and industrialist time – it made sense for him to talk about needs and production, since
At that stage, the satisfaction of need began to require cooperation and the beginning of a division of labour. Forms of scarcity appeared and, as needs grew more diverse, more objects of consumption began to be socially produced.
As a whole, to Marx, the issue of production seemed to be that the people whose work produced ‘objects of consumption’ (169) were not themselves compensated enough, and did not receive the benefits of property and the proper value of their own labour – to him it was an inherently imbalanced system.
To call back to Locke for a moment, his theories of ‘use-value’ – where men (and presumably women) should be given the appropriate compensation for the labour inherent in production – is one that is of particular importance to Marx. As already mentioned, the idea that one person can own the results of their own labour is unworkable in an industrialised society (Russell, 660), and Marx clearly believes that, since according to him all cultural and creations of any particular human era, such as ‘politics, philosophy, religion and art’ (Russell, 812) just to name a few, and more than one person is generally involved in the making of these things, though this is perhaps said with the most justification when it comes to religion. Marx, however, takes a turn away from Locke in order to expand on his own theories of ‘use-value’ (Marx, 180) here, by using his ideas involving a free market in which need and inherent value as he saw it during his time would not exist:
Needs would be satisfied directly, and the qualitative differences between individuals would be restored, according [to] the principle, from each according to their ability to each according to their need.
Clearly, this was a slightly different version of ‘use value’ to the one Locke had begun to apply to his ideal world! Marx realised that cooperation was essential in the world he inhabited, and so came up with a theory which enabled not only property to be held in common, but also labour. The effects of holding the results of labour in common would result in a quid pro quo system whereby everyone was valued and rewarded as befitted their own requirements, and which would result in individual workers being recognised for their contributions.
In Klein’s world, the processes and ideas behind production and consumption mean that Marx’s ideal world of workers being recognised and rewarded individually for their work to uphold what was held in common is laughable. We are so far from Locke’s idea (287-288) of an individual’s labour resulting in an individual being able to claim property rights to make that seem like a dream.
When the actual manufacturing process is so devalued, it stands to reason that the people doing the work of production are likely to be treated like detritus – the stuff left behind. The idea has a certain symmetry: ever since mass production created the need for branding in the first place, its role has slowly been expanding in importance until, more than a century and a half after the Industrial Revolution, it occurred to these companies that may be branding could replace production entirely.
This is my theory: during both Locke and Marx’s times, labour was not only an involved process, but it was widely accepted as an involved process. In the main, most people knew the effort that went into farming land or producing clothing, because these things were much more visible to the people of the times. Nowadays, of course, mass production and increases in technology have taken much of the hard work out of labour, which has had the unfortunate side effect of taking away much of our respect for the labourer. With this in mind, take a look at the policies put in place at a factory in Cavite (Klein, 216-217) to do with money and contracts:
Many of the factory workers in Cavite are actually hired through an employment agency, inside the zone walls, that collects their checks and takes a cut – a temp agency for factory workers, in other words, and one more level in the multiple-level system that lives off their labour.
The gap between the worker and the end product which we wear, eat or use has widened so considerably as to make the labour\value system dreamed of by Locke and Marx essentially meaningless in practice. We are not accustomed to thinking of the labour which goes into making a computer system, for example – we know how much it costs to buy one, and we know how indispensable they now are to modern life. Yet somehow, this knowledge does not translate into a knowledge of how fundamental and skilled the worker who puts computers together at the beginning of the process must be in order to produce these. Since labour and production are not rewarded or valued in and of itself I believe Klein has shifted the meaning of property from things to people. Hence the quote above becomes significant – when there is no value in production the owners of companies can only gain that value back through the people they employ to do the labour.
In conclusion, these three writers necessarily have very different views on the bases of property in their respective societies. Locke, coming from a predominantly agricultural society, has theories which have sprouted from the idea of the communal ownership of the world by mankind since it was gifted by God. He suggests that property is what a man can work himself, and use himself, which thereby creates a system where it is actually labour rather than property which has inherent value, thus neatly encapsulating a view which allows for the owning of property (and therefore labour) by the upper classes, while also appearing as a precursor to socialism at the same time. His theories, however, would not work in an industrial society, which was realised by Karl Marx in his own work The Communist Manifesto. Marx realised that in the increasingly urbanised society around him, production had now become social in nature – the individual owning of property envisaged by Locke was no longer possible. So he moved property from individual leases to a communal lease and made every worker an individually important part of the common whole. Klein comes from an even more industrialised version of the world than Marx: she realises that, since we have completely devalued labour, it can offer no compensating property or benefits to the workers involved, whether individually or communally. She takes Locke’s labour as a value idea to the furthest extent possible. Since labour is no longer recognised for what it is, the workers have become property themselves, and the base of the property has shifted to the owners of the company that employs the workers.
Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Britain, Unwin Brothers Limited, 1946. Print.