The ownership concept, the defining characteristic of individuality, extended far beyond one’s entitlement to the fruits of his or her labors. It may have served at first as the initial hypothesis due to its self-evident quality, partaking of the view that since humans inherited the Earth, whatever they extracted from it by way of hard work and toil was naturally theirs to keep and to enjoy. In time, it had come to encompass such things as landed property and ownership of the self — self-ownership, for short.
The latter is of particular interest because it entailed ownership of one’s labor to do with it as one pleases, even if it meant selling it to the highest bidder. Just as importantly, it served as the precursor of the soon-to-emerge concept of unalienable (and other kinds of) rights. To this day, it remains the quintessential aspect of all liberal democracies the world over, but more on that later.
Whether they realized it or not, both Hobbes and Locke depicted conditions most appropriate to a fully functioning market society. And the relationships purported to ensue between individuals could well be reduced to relationships between bona fide members of that society, each of which full-well knew their place in it and acted accordingly. In so doing, both laid out the very foundations for such a society, past, present, and future — the necessary conditions.
Consequently, whether the society they were depicting was realistic enough is of secondary interest, and it needn’t concern us now. Suffice it to say — both were visionaries. I don’t doubt that their account sounds far more plausible today than it sounded to their contemporaries.
Hobbes, in particular, was a highly schematic thinker and the far more abstract of the two. The Hobbesian “state of nature,” a brand new construct whereby human life was presumed to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” was itself an abstraction of sorts from the already highly socialized society of men. And the express purpose was to demonstrate beyond any doubt how shallow our civilization would be without the sovereign.
Well, Hobbes’s schemata purporting to depict the human society of his day is of the same order: if not precisely an abstraction, it’s an accurate projection of a fully integrated market society functioning, as it were, on all four. And it’s uncanny.
We must remember that Hobbes’ wasn’t a sociological account; that came with Auguste Comte, the presumptive father of sociology. Consequently, alongside what Hobbes had envisaged as exclusive, market-directed relationships, there were relationships grounded in human sentiment, affinity, and loyalty above all. Indeed, even today, it’s unimaginable that any of us could get on in terms of “market relationships” alone, without any recourse or regard to all other things that make us human. But this wasn’t an omission on Hobbes’s part. It was, instead, his particular turn of mind, bent on focusing.
If anything, Locke was more of a sociologist than Hobbes was, forever trying to incorporate everyday life’s practical aspects into the Hobbesian schema; both, however (and Hobbes in particular), regarded such societies as somehow strained and artificial. A sentiment, moral or otherwise, wasn’t the proper basis for constructing a viable social theory. The market and market-related behavior were.
Consequently, we mustn’t reduce the bulk of Hobbes’ and Locke’s writings to ideology. I’m well aware of the temptation, especially in light of the infamous connection between ownership and universal franchise. But the tenuous nature of that connection and its severing – perhaps the singular triumph of modern-day democracies! — is, relatively speaking, recent in coming.
The founders couldn’t have anticipated this turn of events, and we shouldn’t fault them for that.