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John Locke, the Fall, and the Origin Myth of Capitalism

The Man with the Hoe, by Jean-Francois Millet

At the beginning of the fifth chapter of the second treatise of his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke writes:

It is very clear, that God, as king David says, Psal. cvx. 16, “has given the earth to the children of men;” given it to mankind in common. But this being supposed, it seems to some a very great difficulty how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing … I shall endeavour to show how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.[1]

So begins one of the most significant stages in the development of the origin myth of capitalism. Locke inherited the myth from Hugo Grotius before him and would pass it onto to none other than Adam Smith and a host of later economists, so much so that it would become one of the most important stories ever told under capitalism. Refined and developed in each hand, that myth has become a vital underpinning for the capitalism itself, an ideological justification for a certain view of human nature that is ‘naturally’ predisposed to engage in commercial activity.

Less known is the fact that Locke constructs his own version of the myth through a close and intense struggle with the Bible (a text he knew and loved intimately), particularly with the narratives of Genesis 1-3. We would like to trace the key moments of that struggle, as he tries to reshape the text in light of the new myth.

As the text we quoted earlier indicates, Locke set himself a specific problem: how does the common ownership of creation become the private property of his own day? In his attempt to find an answer, he tells a story, one that moves from common property, through use as the basis of private property, to the spread of private property and then the growth of government that is needed to protect private property (Locke defines such property as everything pertaining to life, including that life itself). It is worth noting that Locke shared, and justified through the Bible, the widespread assumption of communal property at creation.[2]

So we have property in common, but not yet private property. In order to account for that step in his myth, Locke resorts to the idea of use: “God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.”[3] More specifically, it is use for sustenance, for food. Now he asks:

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he ate? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could.[4]

When exactly does an item of food become private property? That initial movement of picking a piece of fruit removes it from the common pool and makes it one’s own property. That is, use has a prerequisite, namely, the initial moment of appropriation.[5] Who does so? Eve, Adam? Not explicitly in Locke’s text, for that would introduce the problems he seeks to avoid, particularly those of the curse which entails labor and toil. Instead, the “wild Indian” – a code for Adam – takes his fruit and venison from the common pool before it can be of any benefit to him.[6]

This move – private property begins with appropriation from the commons – is actually a sleight of interpretation, for it locates the first act that marks private property in the garden itself, before the Fall. Private property has, in other words, been smuggled into the garden. The importance of this furtive act becomes clear in the next moment of the myth:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.[7]

Not everything is held in common at the moment of creation! A man’s person is already his own property, which means that his labor is also his own. Thus, if he acts to pick a piece of fruit or perhaps a wild vegetable, he has engaged in labor. And once he has done so, the item picked mysteriously attains the same status as that labor, without requiring consent from anyone else. Locke struggles to find the terminology to express this transformation: it may be like a magical potion or an infection (“mixed with”), or perhaps arithmetic, in which private property is “added to” the piece of fruit, or perhaps it is “annexed” or “joined to,” like a piece of territory conquered.[8] In all this, the somewhat mystifying nature of labor as private property is clearly the stronger of the two; everything labor touches turns to private property. For such an important point, Locke provides no coherent reasons, apart from asserting that labor is “unquestionable property.” Why is labor private property? Why can it too not be common? And if it is private, why does labor not become common when it comes into contact with the piece of fruit or meat? The reason seems to be (as Macpherson notes in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, p. 221) that labor now becomes something for which no debt is owed to society. Even so, it is also highly questionable that reaching out and picking a piece of fruit constitutes labor. If so, then any movement of the human body is also labor – walking, sitting, snoring, defecating … Does the earth walked upon, the log sat upon, the air snored in, or even hole into which feces drop, become private property?

These problems conceal the most significant feature of Locke’s proposal: he has smuggled yet another item into the garden. In the story of Genesis 3, labor is clearly the result of the curse given to the man: “cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” In the garden there was no toil, no labor, for all was provided; outside the garden, life is full of hard labor. Yet Locke neatly sidesteps that curse, seeking to slip labor surreptitiously into the garden, perhaps while the angel at the gate is distracted, lighting a cigarette with his flaming sword. As if to justify his dabbling in the black market, Locke strenuously asserts – especially in the first treatise – that all this was divinely ordained. God had created human beings with the natural desire to care for themselves, and in order to do so they needed to appropriate and use what God had created. It follows then that God too had ordained private property: by the “will and grant of God … man’s property in the creatures was founded upon the right he had to make use of those things that were necessary or useful to his being.”[9] It would not be the first time someone has called upon God to justify a rather dubious position. The advantage for Locke’s own myth is that it means labor is of the created order, but the disadvantage is that he has not as yet faced up to the Fall. It will continue to trip him up.

Once Locke has told his story of the paradigmatic process of private property, he can extend it just about everything. It may be “the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place;”[10] it may be the pitcher of water I have drawn from the fountain;[11] or it may be the fish from the ocean, the ambergris from a whale’s digestive system (once used for perfume), or the deer or hare caught in the hunt.[12] No consent from others is required, for this is both a supposedly obvious process, and – as if to shore up what may not be so obvious after all – one ordained by God when he created human beings and gave them the nature they have.

With this point established (shakily), Locke can now tackle the more contentious issue of tilling the earth:

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in, and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common … God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, 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, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that, in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled, and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.[13]

Initially, he extends his earlier argument to include land, for it too becomes private property through labor, which then produces what can be used. However, the most significant moment in this text is the linking of Gen 1:28 and 3:17-19. While the former speaks of subduing the earth and having dominion over it, the latter concerns labor and the sweat of one’s brow in tilling a recalcitrant earth for crops and bread. By comparison, note Locke’s formulations, which proceed in three stages. Initially, the man “tills, plants, improves, cultivates.” He is in his post-lapsarian state, banished from the garden and working himself to the bone. Next, Locke suddenly realizes the implication of what he has written, for he mentions labor as the “penury of his condition.” Now he is in dangerous territory: according to Gen 3:17-19, labor and therefore private property must be the result of the Fall, a punishment for sin. But Locke catches himself, and immediately follows with a direct reference to Gen 1:28, in which God and his reason commanded man to “subdue the earth.” In case we should be in any doubt as to what subduing means, Locke explains: it means engaging in labor to improve the earth for one’s own property and benefit. This is a momentous move, for it makes the labor of tilling the ground a natural outflow of subduing the earth. In other words, Gen 3:17-19 is merely a logical outcome of Gen 1:28. The Fall has almost tripped Locke up at this point, but he regains his feet and skips past it yet again. Finally, with this connection, he can connect the two items in one list: the man has “subdued, tilled and sowed,” and any piece of earth so worked becomes his private property. Even more stunning is Locke’s assertion that this was “in obedience to this command of God.” Not disobedience that leads to agricultural labor, but obedience to the command to subdue – the Fall has been effaced once more.

Private property is therefore the will of God! Locke sums up: Although “God gave the world to men in common,” he cannot have meant it to remain so since it was for the benefit of “man.” So God “gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labour was to be his title to it).”[14] The remainder of the myth passes rather quickly through the gathering together of communities into territories, the development of industry, states and their positive laws for the protection of property, leagues of states, and then that great imperishable, money, which led to commerce and – benignly – greater expansion of property and the necessarily unequal distribution of the earth. A rousing finale, is it not, with which to end a grand myth such as this?

The catch is that Locke does not do so. He ends on a rather downcast note:

So that there could then be no reason of quarrelling about title, nor any doubt about the largeness of possession it gave. Right and conveniency went together; for as a man had a right to all he could employ his labour upon, so he had no temptation to labour for more than he could make use of. This left no room for controversy about the title, nor for encroachment on the right of others; what portion a man carved to himself was easily seen: and it was useless, as well as dishonest, to carve himself too much, or take more than he needed.

Dishonesty, greed, encroachment, excessive acquisition – these produce a sober and downcast tone at the close. A glorious, triumphant myth it is no longer. Traces of the banished Fall return with this curious end of the story, especially through the obsessive repetition of the concern over excessive appropriation.[15] How to prevent someone from taking too much from the original commons, beyond the needs of everyday subsistence? Locke’s answer alludes to the story of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16), where some of the people took more than they needed and so it rotted and bred worms. So also with fruit and grains and venison: if it spoils, you have taken too much. So too with land itself, for not that much is needed to provide for the necessities of life. Take only what you need, for this too is a law of nature (and a biblical command). Again and again he returns to this problem throughout the myth, nearly always mentioning the rotting and spoiling of the excess – fruit, meat, even the pasture on excess land can perish.[16] Why repeat this point? On one level, he is keen to block an obvious implication of his story. But at another, formal level, we would suggest that this pattern betrays the failed effort to resolve precisely what he wants to do with the Fall. Does it count at all in the untrammeled passage from Adam to all human beings? Does it actually mean a boon for the whole earth, giving rise to labor, property, value, states, money, and commerce? Or is there a darker note, the one on which the story ends? With that ending dwelling on rampant greed, on encroachment and dishonesty, the Fall seems to have had the last word.



[1] Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 [1691]): 2.25. Note: this an edited snippet from our forthcoming book: Roland Boer and Christina Petterson, Idols of Nations: Biblical Myth at the Origins of Capitalism (Fortress).

[2] He does so in the first treatise, which is an extended biblical debate with a certain Robert Filmer. See Two Treatises 1.24; 1.29; 1.84.

[3] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.26.

[4] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.28.

[5] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.26.

[6] This replacement of the Garden of Eden with “America” soon becomes a standard theme in Locke’s myth, so much so that at one point he exclaims, “Thus in the beginning all the world was America.” Locke, Two Treatises, 2.49.

[7] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.27.

[8] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.27; 2.28.

[9] Locke, Two Treatises, 1.86.

[10] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.28.

[11] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.29.

[12] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.30.

[13] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.33.

[14] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.34.

[15] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.31; 2.33; 2.37.

[16] Locke, Two Treatises, 2.36-38; 2.46; 2:51.

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Apart from voyages by freighter ship and riding my bicycle as far and as long as I can, I like to write. My recent work has focused on the engagements with theology by leading critics in the Marxist tradition (The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, 5 vols, 2007-14; Lenin, Religion, and Theology, 2013). I am currently working on Mao Zedong, pursuing another dimension of this tradition. In the last few years, I have focused on Eastern Europe and China, stumbling on a number of significant (and almost lost) texts relating to early engagements between Christianity and communism. As a result I am the Xin Ao International professor at Renmin University of China (Beijing), as well as being a research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia.