John Locke and the Roots of White Supremacy in the US

Photograph Source: Stephencdickson – CC BY-SA 4.0

Ideas count — sometimes, they are even stronger than material interests. This is the case with the legacy of 17th century philosopher John Locke in the United States, which is central to explaining why class solidarity is so weak while white racial solidarity is so strong.

Recent events have confirmed the unfortunate fact that there is now in the United States a state of undeclared civil war. Joe Biden’s assumption of the presidency has not changed the uncomfortable reality that the elections of 2020 may well be the equivalent of those of 1860, which triggered the secession of the South. Of course, that’s not to say that a civil conflict today would take the form of a sectional secession as in 1860. But whatever form it takes, it could involve widespread if not systemic violence.

The economist John Maynard Keynes observed that the “ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

What Keynes was saying is that ideas count. Received ideas that may initially be rationally articulated can congeal into deep, subliminally held cultural beliefs as they are transmitted across generations. Ideas inherited from the past may, in fact, be so strong that they push people to act against their material interests.

When it comes to the United States, what Keynes says is particularly relevant in relation to the 17th century English thinker John Locke, who cannot be divorced from any consideration of the origins and continuing hold of the ideology of capitalism and the sanctity of the property regime.

Locke was influential in the development of capitalist ideology in France and England. But he was of foundational importance in America.

Lockeanism and Fragile Class Solidarity

Locke is best known as the inspiration of the American Revolution, with his justification of the right to rebel if the sovereign or government violated the terms of the “social contract,” particularly by failing to protect the person and property of his subjects.

But equally influential on the settlers of America was Locke’s related theory of the origins of private property. Locke said that what transformed a person’s relationship to land from non-ownership to ownership was his mixing his labor with it. This is the foundational relation, one that is created in the “state of nature” before the creation of political society via the famous “social contract.” Indeed, the defense of this primordial relationship is the centerpiece of the contract between the sovereign and society.

Escaping from the agrarian class structures of Europe, the settler’s desire was that of a small peasant seeking to carve out some land in what was regarded as “virgin land.” As the famous scholar of liberalism Louis Hartz noted, the settler had a petit bourgeois mentality, one that was anxious to make ownership of land secure rather than to accumulate it. As he put it, “living in the world’s closest approximation to a Lockean state of nature,” the petit bourgeois settler “economically…fears loss more than he cherishes gain.”

This attachment to individual ownership of small property is deeply embedded in the collective cultural psyche of America — so much that Hartz asserted that the ideology of Americans could be described as “irrational Lockeanism.”

In the United States, Lockeanism “swallowed up both the peasantry and proletariat into the ‘petty bourgeois’ scheme,” he wrote, derailing workers from the vision of socialism and channeling reformist energies to the illusion of democratic capitalism.

Lockean Liberalism and White Solidarity

But Locke’s influence went beyond serving as foundational for capitalism and the property regime. The Lockean notion of labor creating private property rights is intertwined with another equally deeply embedded Lockean legacy: the unequal racial access to property and liberty.

In this way, Locke’s liberalism was also of foundational importance when it came to racism, to white supremacy.

“In the beginning, all the world was America,” Locke famously wrote, imagining what he called the “state of nature” before the creation of political society. In advancing his theory that it was the mixing of one’s labor with land that created private property, Locke saw the Native Americans as creatures who could not be considered property owners since they merely inhabited the land and forests but did not cultivate the soil.

To Locke, in fact, the Native American could be equated with “one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security” and who “therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tiger.” Locke thus provided a most potent ethical justification for racial genocide.

Likewise, slavery had Lockean moorings, in the English philosopher’s theologically reasoned distinction between the relationship that a master had with a servant and that with a slave: he saw the first as a contract between between the master and the indentured servant from Europe while the relationship of the slave from Africa and the master was one of the former being subject to the “absolute dominion” of the latter.

Moreover, the slave question lay at the very heart of the American Revolution, for key leaders like Washington and Jefferson championed the Lockean right to rebel against tyranny and the “rights of man” for white people even as they denied these rights to their Black slaves (and women) — a contradiction that the British did not fail to notice, as when the famous man of letters Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”

As an eminent contemporary philosopher of intersectionality, Charles Mills, writes, “[I]nsofar as the modern world is shaped by European expansionism (colonialism, imperialism, white-settler states, racial slavery),” Locke’s social contract “could…be regarded as founded on an exclusionary intrawhite ‘racial contract’ that denies equal moral, legal, and political standing to people of color.”

Varieties of Master Race Democracy

The success of the American Revolution of 1776 ushered in a period where “the self-government of civil society triumphed, waving the flag of liberty and the struggle against despotism,” even as “it stimulated the development of racial chattel slavery and created an unprecedented, unbridgeable gulf between whites and peoples of color.”

As the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo put it, “Between these two elements, which emerged together during a twin birth, a relationship full of tensions and contradictions was established.”

Transmitted across generations, foundational Lockean ideas had a twofold effect: liberal individualism weakened solidarity based on class even as its unstated but very real racial exclusivity strengthened solidarity based on race. The conflict between weak class solidarity and strong racial solidarity would provide the two poles between which the tortured history of the United States would unfold.

Class tensions were rife in 19th century America, and initial attempts to restrict the right to vote to property holders of substance slowly gave way to universal suffrage, but at the price of consolidating a cross-class racial solidarity against giving Blacks the same right. Slavery of course, was the central political divide between North and South, but the denial of the franchise to Blacks was, with few exceptions, common to both.

Thus, as the preeminent historian of the rise of American democracy, Sidney Wilentz, saw it, the basic difference between the South and the North in the lead-up to the Civil War was between “the South, largely committed to racist democracy with slavery as its foundation, and the North, committed to white male democracy and divided over Black male participation but hostile to slavery.” Both were variants of what Pierre van den Berghe called “master race democracy.”

Master race democracy of the second type came to reign after the Civil War, but though shorn of slavery, it was one that was thoroughly suffused with racism — where informal denial of political rights and state-cum-civil society terrorism directed at Blacks was the norm in the Post-Reconstruction South and fragile tolerance of the franchise for Blacks in the North was accompanied by systemic social and economic discrimination.

With the Civil Rights mobilization in the 1960s, master race democracy did not end but it did go into retreat for a brief period before rebounding to dispute the evolution of American politics in the form of the infamous “Southern Strategy,” whereby the Republican Party, using both overt racism and “dog-whistle politics,” eventually became the party of white supremacy. Mills contends that the structures and institutions of the U.S. continue to be so racialized so that there is an “ongoing system of white domination in the absence of an overtly white-supremacist ideology and overt rules of de jure subordination.”

Master Race Democracy and White Supremacy

A key thrust of this covert white supremacist ideology has been to deflect contemporary class antagonisms generated by neoliberalism from class confrontation to racial conflict, causing most whites from the middle class and working class to go against their class interests.

“The thousand-pound gorilla in American politics is that race convinces many whites to vote against their interests. How does it do so?” asks Berkeley’s Ian Haney Lopez. It is worth quoting his answer in full because it elucidates the cultural and psychological dimension of working and middle class racist ideology:

“Whites learn about race through social learning in a white-dominated society, and integral to this education by osmosis is a massive political effort to subliminally convince whites that they are in peril.

The environment reflects centuries of white privilege, and this too increases race’s subterranean power, making race a ready way to explain the position of one’s group and indeed one’s own fate.

As with all of us, the minds of whites conspire against them: they think along racial lines categorically and automatically in ways very difficult to control, and to tend to resent as losses any diminution in their status and privilege. Meanwhile, far from learning to counteract their biased judgments, color blindness constantly tells whites that the way to get beyond race is to not consciously consider race.

Finally, even if not motivated in a strategic way, whites are trapped by the desire to protect their self-image as well as the seeming legitimacy of their group position, and thus tend to adopt ideas about race and racism that provide absolution—ideas often crafted by dog whistle entrepreneurs to insinuate minority inferiority and to foster a sense of white victimization.”

Ideology, White Supremacy, and January 6, 2021

Much space has been devoted to discussing the role of Lockean ideology in legitimizing inequality because it is critical to explaining such dramatic events as the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

To repeat, weak class solidarity in the United States stems from the deep cultural and psychological — indeed, non-rational — roots of Lockeanism, whose historical evolution was marked by a synergy between the consolidation of class inequality and its philosophical justification. This leads to a fatal underestimation of the mass attachment to the institutions that serve as the foundations of capitalism and the private property regime like banks and corporations.

Equally problematic is the failure to take into consideration the related historically explosive intertwining of class and race that has made whites “vote against their interests,” as Lopez puts it.

Working class whites have deserted progressive politics not only because the political leadership of the Democratic Party has “partly accepted” the neoliberal narrative. It is not only because of the increasingly greater weight of the interests of well educated professionals in the party. It is also, if not largely, because the party is seen as becoming the vehicle of the interests of Blacks and other minorities, owing to the ability of Republican dog-whistle politics to trigger culturally inherited subliminal racial responses.

As capitalism creates more and deeper inequality, as the attachment to irrational Lockeanism is threatened and class conflict intensifies, the more racial solidarity has been stoked to prop up the proprietarian regime and check progressive alternatives. It was the tortured relationship between racial solidarity and class solidarity, with the former winning out, that was on display in the January 6, 2021, when a large mob that clearly belonged to the white middle and working classes assaulted the U.S. Capitol.

Then President Donald Trump certainly incited the mob, but it was a mob that white supremacist thinking had conditioned to be receptive to his words. The deeper meaning of what is now widely termed the “insurrection” was captured by Charles Mills:

The psyche of white citizens is foundationally shaped not merely by rational expectations of differential social and material advantage, but also by their status positioning above Blacks. For a significant percentage of white Trump supporters (I don’t want to say all), I think the hope was that Trumpism — tapping into their “white racial resentment” — would address and eliminate both of these dangers, the ending of differential white material advantage and also the threatened equalization of racial status… What we saw on January 6 was in significant measure the acting out of the rage at this prospect.

Challenging Lockeanism and White Supremacy

Breaking the irrational Lockeanism that serves a barrier to class solidarity and destroying white racial solidarity are mutually reinforcing tasks. Indeed, one of the keys to weakening the former is through a direct assault on white supremacy. The main task of progressive politics today is how to bring together a critical mass around an ideology and program based on class solidarity that has as its priority task overcoming the centrifugal force of white supremacy.

This is not the place to articulate such a program, for it is one that needs very serious, substantial thinking. But at least articulate the key principles that should guide this process can be articulated.

One is that the white supremacy must be placed at the same level as class domination and gender discrimination as a central problem for progressive unity.

Second, it must be centrally, explicitly, and aggressively addressed in any coalition-building effort. “Color blindness,” an option preferred by many liberals, is not an option.

Third, a broad alternative program must be built around the “intersectionality” of the struggles around class, race, gender, and the environment that form the key fronts of the overarching conflict between the forces of progress and those of reaction today.

This may seem like a tall order, but there is a historical precedent for success in placing race front and center in an alliance based on common interest: the U.S. Civil War. Only when Lincoln joined the emancipating of slaves to saving the Union was the moral, political, and military stalemate broken and the road to victory opened up. The war, Lincoln asserted, “will be carried on so long as I am president for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.”

Finally, while appeal to common interest is important in creating progressive coalitions, the ultimate appeal must be to common values of equality, justice, and freedom. An appeal to values is an appeal to people’s better selves, one which can bring them out of their imprisonment in immediate interests.

Again, the American Civil War furnishes an example of success. Despite their suffering from lack of cotton from the South to feed their mills and employ them owing to the Northern blockade, the white textile workers of Lancashire in England supported the North out of their belief in the injustice of slavery. As one veteran Chartist leader explained it, “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton…it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

To put things in a contemporary context, most white voters supported Trump, but that does not mean that more cannot be won over by an impassioned appeal to their values over their wrongly perceived interests.

In conclusion, the United States now faces its deepest crisis since the civil war, a crisis brought about by unresolved issues from that war that go back to the European settlement of the Americas. The worst thing one can do is to underestimate what it will take to head off the descent into violence that would accompany the deepening social and racial polarization.

Walden Bello, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus,  is the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which are Capitalism’s Last Stand? (London: Zed, 2013) and State of Fragmentation: the Philippines in Transition (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South and FES, 2014).