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Monday, June 3, 2013

John Locke and America's Empire for Liberty

The political theory of John Locke is generally credited with having provided both a philosophical justification for the American Revolution and a practical roadmap for the founding of the Republic.  It is in this sense, for instance, that historians often point to that celebrated phrase in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson, citing Locke, declares the People's right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".  On this view, the influence of Locke on American political culture was decisive, unproblematic, and "happy".  But such a celebratory view of Locke's influence on American political culture correlates less with historical truth than it does with the poetic half-truths of a national myth. This myth tells us that Locke was a champion of liberty, of civil rights, and equality.  The historical truth, while not completely debunking this myth, nevertheless unsettles the truths contained in it.

Locke was a champion of liberty; but he was also a champion of British imperialism.  He defended the right of individuals to enjoy negative liberty --that is, their right to be free from coercion and tyranny, but he also defended the positive liberty of "industrious" people i.e., the British, to conquer foreign lands: both those lands that were inhabited only by barbarians (which for Locke amounted more or less to the entirety of North America, where he had a claim to a significant tract of land in the Carolinas), or those lands that had been conquered by people who were not industrious and had therefore neglected to improve the land with their labor, (which for Locke essentially summed up vast areas of the Spanish colonies in the Americas).  This tension between negative and positive liberties, between autonomy and sovereignty, is the true inheritance that Locke bequeathed to America's Founding Fathers.  It is a tension or ambiguity that combines republican rights with imperial virtue.

Insofar as he was an enlightened thinker, Locke was not the first to formulate this ambiguity.  Some sixty years prior to the publication of Locke's Two Treatises on Government, Francis Bacon had already defined enlightenment as a combination of potentia and productio.  Locke, however, takes this double aspect of enlightenment thought and applies it, not merely to Man's dominance over Nature, but also to Man's ownership of the land.

For Jefferson, who dreamed of U.S. expansion in terms of an Empire of Liberty, the issue was not so much the right to property as the right to pursue happiness, which he conceived in the terms of an agrarian utopia of ever-expansive liberty.  Locke did not, however, mince his words after such a fashion.  For him, government was meant to secure the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property.

Locke's theory of property combines negative freedom and positive freedom.  Negative freedom is at work in what he calls the Law of Nature.  In the Second Treatise, he writes: "The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: And Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind ... that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions."  For its part, Positive Freedom is at work in what Locke refers to as a Biblical injunction to improve the land through labor.  In this sense, Locke writes elsewhere in the Second Treatise: "God, when he gave the World in common to all Mankind, commanded Man also to labor and the penury of his condition required it of him.  God and his Reason commanded him to subdue the Earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of Life."  Accordingly, Locke argues, God gave the land "to the use of the Industrious and Rational (And Labour was to be his Title to it;) not to the Fancy or Contentiousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious".  Locke's theory of property thus combines negative liberty, which protects individuals from invasion of their land, with the positive liberty to invade lands that have not been improved by the labor of others.

Now what is truly worthy of note about this theory is the extent to which it is intimately bound up with justifications for British incursions into the Spanish colonies in the Americas.  In this sense, Locke writes in his Second Treatise: "Nay, the extent of Ground is of little value, without labour, that I have heard it affirmed, that in Spain it self, a Man may be permitted to plough, sow, and reap, without being disturbed, upon Land he has no other Title to, but only his making use of it.  But, on the contrary, the Inhabitants think themselves beholden to him, who, by his Industry on neglected, and consequently waste Land, has increased the stock of Corn, which they wanted."  Here Locke speaks with philosophical admiration of the manner in which Spaniards in his time would recognize labor as the only title necessary to own common lands that would otherwise be left alone in a state of "wastelands". But Locke was not only an enlightened philosopher.  He was also a Landgrave of Carolina and the Secretary of the Council for Foreign Plantations appointed by King Charles II of England.  In this capacity, he ordered a study of the history of the Royal Society, in which the argument on wastelands is turned against Spain's colonies in the Americas.  In this work commissioned by Locke, we read: "how unfit the Spanish humor is, to improve Manufactures, in a Country so distant as the West-Indies; we may learn by their practice in Spain itself: where they commonly disdain to exercise any Manual Crafts, and permit the profit of them, to be carry'd away by strangers" (Quoted in Eva Botella-Rodinas' "Debating Empires, Inventing Empires: British Territorial Claims Against the Spaniards in America, 1670-1714" in The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010).

Locke and his contemporaries in England viewed the Spanish as "lazy" and "sinful", their empire already in decline and doomed inevitably to collapse.  The colonies in the Americas were, on this view, wastelands --lands that the Spanish, who were according to this logic interested only in silver and gold, had neglected to improve.  This prejudice, which in Locke is only in its nascent form, will with the passing of the centuries guide not only British imperial pursuits in the Americas but eventually also those of the United States of America: a Republic which expanded across the continent first and then across the globe in order, supposedly, to civilize the world and turn it, as Jefferson fondly dreamed, into an Empire for Liberty.

The Destruction of Enlightenment

Ours is an Age of Destruction.  The myriad crises that we face today --from global warming to global warring-- are a brutal but eloquent testimony to this destruction.  How are we to make sense of these forces of destruction and combat the nihilism, the intellectual apathy, and lack of creativity that drive them?
The trend in the humanities over the last several decades has been to identify these forces of destruction with the Enlightenment.  Enlightenment Reason, we are told, is not universal but Euro-centric; it is not a liberating force, but a dehumanizing, humiliating, and dominant force that is intimately tied up with colonialism, imperialism, and even fascism.  This post-modern critique of the Enlightenment points to internal flaws in Enlightenment thought, to its underlying contradictions and weaknesses.  Post-modern critics have reduced the Enlightenment --which was a transformative movement that helped modernize science, technology, politics, economics, and society-- to nothing more than a so-called “grand narrative” or “discourse” by means of which Enlightenment thinkers sought, not to liberate themselves and others from tyranny, ignorance, and superstition, but to place humanity under the tutelage of instrumental reason.
Although such post-modern critiques of Enlightenment point correctly to dogmatic features in Enlightenment thought, their caricature of this intellectual and political movement as strictly rationalist and the call that they make for a radical break with the universal moral and political values of Enlightenment, ignores the extent to which Enlightenment thought has failed to live up to its promise in large part because it has always and everywhere been opposed by very powerful enemies.  Think, for example, of the absolutist Spanish monarchy and of the Inquisition; or, if you prefer, of the Salem witch hunts, or for that matter, of aspiring politicians who claim that evolution is but a theory and that global warming is but a delusion.
The Enlightenment, for all its internal contradictions and historical failures, still provides a needed model for projects of cultural theory and social reconstruction in the Americas and the world.  Indeed, what post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment express, first and foremost, is the enlightened hope for a way to re-conceptualize progressive thought and practice.  But because post-modernists throw the Enlightenment’s baby of universal human values out with the proverbial bath water of modernity, the would-be progressive programs of thought and practice that they espouse are mired in the skeptical relativism and historical nihilism that characterize post-modern perspectivism.
What is needed to ward off this nihilism is an alternative view of the Enlightenment and the ambiguity of its legacy in our own age of destruction.  At its conception, the Enlightenment, with its new science based on inductive reasoning, promised to liberate men from superstition and ignorance and reveal to them the mysterious laws that govern nature.  Today, it is fair to say, the Enlightenment has failed to deliver on this liberating promise.  But this is because the Reason that was to set men free and help them understand nature has been reduced to its instrumental dimension: the scientific search for truth is no longer an end in and of itself, but a means to an end.  And what is that end?  Nothing short of the domination of nature by man and the creation of an all-too-human world that lords its technological power over the organic forces of nature.  The Enlightenment also promised to set men free politically.  When the colonists in New England fought against the tyranny of the English monarch, they justified their revolution for independence by appealing to Enlightenment ideals of democratic sovereignty and self-rule.  Today, many peoples around the world see the US as a bully and a tyrant.  Indeed, it would seem that as a people we Americans have regressed from our progressive political virtues of democratic self-government back toward more primitive forms of authoritarian rule.  In the name of freedom, we now torture our enemies or assassinate them with unmanned drones, while at home our age-old right to habeas corpus has been suspended by the bureaucrats in the world’s single largest bureaucracy: the Department of Homeland Security.
The technological elimination of Enlightenment’s liberating power and the accompanying regression toward primitive forms of political power are the two most salient features of our age of destruction.  Humanists would do well to keep this in mind when they venture their post-modern theories on modernity and its discontents.   

A Modern Translatio imperii

A Modern Translatio imperii

The idea that the executive branch of the U.S. government should have a legitimate power to wage an imperial war of conquest and colonization, and to do so with only a modicum of congressional approval and oversight, was first tested at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the U.S., taking full advantage of Spain’s definitive collapse as an empire, conquered and colonized Spain’s erstwhile colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific.  What occurred on a grand scale at this juncture was a translatio imperii or imperial transfer of power from Spain to the United States of America.  But if the medieval concept of the translatio imperii construed such transfers of power from one emperor or empire to the next as a linear continuum that was destined, according to the prophecies of Daniel, to reach the end of times, in the modern era this apocalyptic vision of imperial decline is turned back on itself.  Rather than a continuum of successive transfers of power destined for eventual collapse, the modern understanding of the translatio imperii is optimistic; it sees this transfer of power as a modernizing and enlightening advance.

According to the positivistic logic of this modern view, American imperialism is superior in kind and quality to Spanish imperialism because the American brand of imperialism, as conceived originally by the nation’s Founding Fathers, seeks to spread liberty and Enlightenment, while the tyranny inherent to the Spanish brand of imperialism only served as an impediment to Enlightenment.  It was in such cheerful terms that American imperialists of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would defend the expansion of U.S. dominion over Spain’s ex-colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific.  America, they claimed, was a liberating and civilizing empire.  There is, of course, a much less flattering interpretation of this imperial transition of power from Spain to the United States of America.  According to the anti-imperialists, this transition rather marked a regression of the American republic toward the unenlightened and tyrannical forms of a pre-modern Spanish imperium.  Instead of a modernizing advancement destined to spread enlightenment around the globe, anti-imperialists viewed U.S. imperial expansion as evidence of the republic’s decline into a sinister state of political and cultural decadence.

Considered in this darker light, the U.S. conquest and colonization of the Philippines was just as savage and cruel as Spain’s conquests in the Americas at the start of the sixteenth century.  But the similarities between U.S. and Spanish imperialism that this anti-imperialist perspective identifies were not limited to cruelty alone.  The connection, as both the apologists for U.S. imperial expansion and their critics made clear, ran much deeper.  U.S. imperialism was a continuation of Spanish imperialism in that, like the Spanish before them, U.S. imperialists, such as Josiah Strong, imagined and justified U.S. imperial expansion as an evangelical crusade; and much as the Spanish conquistadores had done, imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt glorified as heroic, acts of conquest and colonization that would have been more accurately depicted as acts of brutality.  By defending American imperialism in these terms, American imperialists in effect eliminated the liberating dimension of Enlightenment from their would-be civilizing mission and they essentially reverted to primitive forms of authority.  American anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and William James did not sit idly by; they rather attacked the imperialists and their ideas in open and public debate.  At issue in this debate was America’s legacy of Enlightenment: the legacy, that is, that ambiguously combines republican with imperial virtues.