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Locke-Out on Well-Being

by CHRIS GILBERT

One of the great moments in Spanish television last year was when Diego Cañamero appeared in the right-wing program El Gato al Agua. There, alone in enemy waters, Cañamero defended the actions of the Andalusian Workers Union (SAT) for which he is national spokesperson: actions such as the pacific occupation of landed estates and appropriation of food from multinational supermarkets.

As was to be expected, the question of private property came up early in the discussion. “It surprises me,” said the program’s slick but aggressive host in one of his initial sallies, “that at this point in the game you continue to think that private property is not legitimate.”

Cañamero: “If private property in the hands of a few, in this case property of Andalusia’s land, doesn’t give good results then we have to change our philosophy.” Then later on: “No one made the land. Let’s see, land is a gift of nature or of God – for Christians, that is… I am quite Christian in that sense. Since land isn’t created by anyone – it is not a pocketknife, highway, car, washing machine, or refrigerator – it should be in the service of people. We can’t ruin or prostitute the land, which belongs to humanity.”

Cañamero’s reference to land being given to humanity, especially his delving into a religious register to explain the idea, elicited an audible grunt from the discomfited program host. He and the rest of the panel, mostly Partido Popular stormtroopers, were surely experiencing a profound identity crisis. (One can imagine their interior Abbott and Costello routine: Who’s right here, who’s left?) In any case they quickly goose-stepped on to their favorite themes: the (falsely) alleged violence, criminality, and corruption of Cañamero’s union.

This initial interchange was just the first of many victories won by Diego Cañamero in the program. Though always with his back to the wall, the union leader, who was formed politically by Maoists and radical priests, would go on racking up points in the remaining half hour or so. But the private property question was his most interesting triumph: a result of the unexpected curveball he threw at them.

It is understandable that Cañamero – who is a day laborer in Andalusia when he is not in marches or speaking publicly – should be acutely aware of the problem of human ownership of the land. This is because human beings in Andalusia are generally not owners of the land, which is held instead by Castilian, Valencian or other absentee landlords. At best, its owners are expatriated Andalusian “señoritos” who live in Madrid.

The fruits of work?

Some three centuries ago a famous Englishman, often persecuted for his ideas, admitted that “it seems to some a very great difficulty how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing.” Yet these troubling doubts about ownership could be resolved, he thought, through the following reflexion: It is work, laborious appropriation of land and its fruits, that take them out of the public sphere and make them private.

That person was John Locke and he wrote: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.”

As is well known, this idea became the basis of modern private property, including property of the land. In fact it forms the most basic idea – or rather ideology – of Cañamero’s opponents. It is a surprising ideology indeed because, unless one uses an extremely relaxed reading of tills, plants and improves or invents fabulous stories about the origins of inherited wealth, the argument seems more like a send up of private property today than its defense.

Who’s right and who’s wrong here? Is Locke a mere apologist who, grabbing at straws to justify the property system, argues that “sacred work” can underpin “sacred property”? Or is Cañamero just a loopy antediluvian, his head twisted by an unusual political formation which makes him contend that what is given to humanity should be of collective benefit?

I don’t think either is simply right or wrong. Rather both are “right” if we take into account their respective historical contexts and the distance that separates them.

In fact, what mediates between the disparate moments of Locke and Cañamero is the result of a slow but practically inexorable process. At the beginning of this process, human work was crucial enough to production that its contribution seemed to make it master of everything. Now, at the end of that same historical process, work appears to be an almost superfluous handmaiden of abundance, which seems more given than produced.

The long-term process in question is nothing other than the growth in productive forces. Today’s increased productivity offers us the possibility (so far unrealized) of overcoming on the one hand the violent, “privative” nature of property, and on the other hand the scarcity of goods that makes the link between work and property a necessary myth in our society, a myth of the Lockean sort.

A green flag, a green planet

Think of green Andalusia, so rich in olives, oranges, tomatoes, almost seething with the sunflowers, cotton, and sugar cane produced by its extremely fertile soil! It is indeed a world of abundance… but not for the Andalusians. The same could be said of the planet earth today: it is potentially a world of abundance, a true cornucopia… but not for its inhabitants (as FAO statistics constantly remind us, telling how hunger is illogical, given that enough food is produced).

For that reason, one can say that in choosing between Locke’s and Cañamero’s ideas – and taking into account the three centuries of developments in science and technology that have elapsed – it is the latter’s position that offers more possibilities for the present. It is, as the union leader himself would say, the “philosophy” that we should adopt.

This is because Locke’s idea – though it has been shared by some socialists – says that making and consuming need to be linked to work. In this framework, the time of work invested in making a thing becomes the sacred passport or title – Marx calls it “value” – that will permit its transfer, circulation and (most important for capitalism) accumulation by a few in the world. It hardly needs mentioning that this system of sacred passports, like modern immigration control, has resulted in completely absurd situations, whatever its original reasons for existing.

A mere glance at today’s world shows that the “titles to work” (property titles) are distributed in a way that has nothing to do with real work. Some have a plethora of such titles who have never lifted a finger, while others who have lost fingers from overwork have nothing! On top of that, the original need for exclusive titling or privative property has disappeared in a world that can produce all that is needed with very little work.

That is why Cañamero’s idea, in either its secular or religious version, both of them arguing for the rational usufruct of what is given to humanity, is more obviously relevant to our moment. It is superior, if you will.

Distributing leisure

It should be remembered that in the boom years preceding the present economic crisis, many Andalusians lived in part on state stipends (the famous PERs – Rural Employment Plan). This was money that the tremendous productive apparatus of the European Union channeled into Andalusia in an effort to reorganize the whole continent’s economy. The gurus of the European economy had discovered that it was better to have a large sector of Andalusian workers simply “chill out” most of the time.

As the right wing would love to tell you, this was the Forbidden Fruit that, when Andalusians tasted it (offered by nothing less than the serpent of the PSOE), it caused the nation to fall into a sinful slothfulness (a laziness which has now erupted into the visible rebelliousness of Cañamero’s union).

But perhaps we should see it the other way around: the Forbidden Fruit gave Andalusians a taste of the new and wondrous possibilities of our historical moment. After all, if the modern productive apparatus can simply “decide” by centralized fiat that a whole labor sector should take it easy, working but a few months a year – while at the same time paying most politicians to do nothing but steal twelve months a year – what other wonders can it offer?

This marvelous (over)productive capacity is really the key to our era! There is no doubt that the world we live in, as Diego Cañamero implicitly affirmed, offers superhuman possibilities, at least insofar as the human is conceived as the merely scratch existence of work-enslaved people that has generally existed up to now.

It is sometimes said that modern industrial developments made the “no” in utopia’s “no-where” into a “not yet.” These days an earthy paradise – freedom from enslaved work and satisfaction of necessities without drudgery – is more than ever simply a “not-yet-where” in spite of the stingy voices of property who would, with their anachronistic beliefs and practices, make it into a never-never land.

Lockeanism three centuries out of place and time! That is the ideology that makes a few questioning references to the given these days seem like a revolution…. or a second coming.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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