Philosophy Political Philosophy

John Locke’s “Second Treatise,” Part V: The Myth of “Perpetual Revolution”

In the final installment of reading Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, we turn to the paradoxes of Locke’s theory of revolution.  Most people are woefully ignorant as to what Locke is actually saying since they’ve never read Locke – they’ve only ever been told lies about Locke’s view of revolution.  Locke’s revolution is not about breaking away, it is actually about restoration.  In Locke’s own words, “To conclude, The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it, can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community…and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or erect a new form, of under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good” (Sec. 243).

Chapter 14: Executive Prerogative

Following from the previous chapters Locke discussing the importance of the emergence of executive prerogative.  As he states at the very beginning of the chapter, “Where the legislative and executive power are in distinct hands, there the good of the society requires, that several things should be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power.”  Locke recognized in the prior chapters that there would be a convergence of federative powers for the sake of political efficiency and practicality (on account of his implicit utilitarianism).  The same holds here in Chapter 13 in which the efficiency of running the machinery of government will grow and emerge in the hands of the executive power.

Locke also lays out a primitive doctrine of “executive decision” within the first paragraph of the thirteenth chapter, “the executor of the laws having the power in his hands, has by the common law of nature a right to make use of it for the good of the society, in many cases, where the municipal law has given no direction, till the legislative can conveniently be assembled to provide it.”  Hence why executive power always seems to grow and takes on greater and greater responsibility.  It is in the hands of the executive that the common good has truly been placed and entrusted because the executive is the branch of power that must execute the laws of the sacred and unalterable legislature that is the core foundation of the commonwealth.

The prerogative of the executive is the right of self-preservation.  Whenever self-preservation is threatened executive prerogative takes precedence.  But is this self-preservation the preservation of individuals or of the commonwealth (or society)?  For Locke it is the society because society is the construct to the benefit of individuals to avoid the miserable state of nature.

There is also the unsettled question which Locke struggles through: How much prerogative power is too much?  Locke settles on experience and empiricism.  We don’t know until we fail or succeed from experiences.  That said Locke errs on the side of greater prerogative power than less prerogative power.  While we can never be sure if we have achieved that balance, or have fallen short and opted for too little, Locke is clear that greater is always better.  Thus, while we are at the mercy of historical experience to learn how much is too much and how much is too little, too much can never be a bad thing because the people can always push back if we realize it has gone too far,  “For as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good; so a weak and ill prince, who would claim that power which his predecessors exercised without the direction of the law, as a prerogative belonging to him by right of his office, which he may exercise at his pleasure, to make or promote an interest distinct from that of the public, gives the people an occasion to claim their right, and limit that power.”  If executive prerogative is too little we may very well all be killed off by an enemy because of it.

Yet again we see the so-called “father of limited government” not actually being in favor of such limited government.  Furthermore, it is important to remember this chapter in light of the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters which discuss the dissolution of government, tyranny, and the “right to revolution.”  Executive prerogative will return in a historical circumstance that Locke deliberately includes to justify the outcome of the Glorious Revolution against King Charles II in which William of Orange ascended to the throne.

Chapter 15: Paternal Power vs. Despotic Power

Chapter 15 is a short aside into the nature of paternal power (thus revisiting chapter six) and despotic power.  The only way to make sense of this chapter’s strange placement and brief discussion is in light of Locke’s anthropology and his understanding of why we form the commonwealth in the first place: To acquire property and to regulate said property.

The paradox of freedom, again, in the liberal tradition is that we are burdened by the “responsibility” in the state of nature to be judge, jury, and executioner – to be the one making all of the “tough decisions” for ourselves – hence we abdicate this true freedom and power to the commonwealth so as to enjoy a safer, securer, life of peaceable consumption and living (e.g. property acquisition and protection).  So if we give up freedom in the form of responsibility are we really free?  Yes, since Locke also understands freedom to be in the right to acquire and consume things which become difficult to do in the state of nature as he already established at the beginning of the book.  Responsibility, in other words, limits my freedom.  Thus, by getting rid of responsibility I am free.

The emergence of despotic power is in opposition to paternal power.  Where paternal (natural) power seeks to protect (like a father over his children), despotic power seeks to “take away his life whenever he pleases.”  Despotic power deprives one the right to life – which is the right to property.  Despotic power returns us to the state of nature.  It is a violation of the right to self-preservation that was agreed upon in the original social contract codified into the commonwealth’s constitution.

Despotism also occurs, says Locke, when the ability to freely acquire property vanishes.  This is why we understand the need to have some degree of regulation.  (And why regulatory liberalism is not some abnormality of classical liberalism like many ignorant “libertarians” claim.)  Regulation is actually a buttress against the slip into despotism.

Chapter 16: War and Conquest

The sixteenth chapter is one of Locke’s more famous – it concerns itself with the nature of war and conquest.  According to Locke, all war – and conquest is a form of war – aims at the acquisition of property.  But it aims not at the peaceful acquisition of property but the forceful acquisition of property.  It is, therefore, a negation of the law of nature (the right to self-preservation).  As he writes, “That the aggressor, who puts himself into the state of war with another, and unjustly invades another man’s right, can, by such an unjust war, never come to have a right over the conquered…”  Man has no right to own other men.  Slavery is unnatural and unjust, but a display of power.  Such ownership means a state of war exists whether the conquered are docile or otherwise.

The state of war is the forfeiting of the right to life on the account of the aggressor since the aggressor puts himself into the state of war with others.  Just war is only ever a war in defense of one’s property.  Just war is always defensive.  Just war is never aggressive, offensive, or preemptive.

Because aggressors harm the estates of others, those who are being harmed have the right to fight back precisely because the aggressor – through his actions – have entered into the state of war with others.  This permits the transgressed to protect their property, estates, and lives which are now in jeopardy.  All war is a return to the state of nature which is something undesirable ultimately.  Like in Hobbes’s theory, the logic of Locke means that war should technically be outlawed worldwide.  Yet, since war is the result of the attempt to acquire property, war seems natural to the human condition insofar that it is done out of the attempt to feed humanity’s consuming animus.  The problem, for Locke, is that this state of war is the result of the attempt to forcibly acquire someone else’s property.

If there is enough “open space” then there is not going to be war.  But when those frontiers vanish because they have been consumed or claimed, suddenly we’re in a bind.  With no more open space to take we bump into one another.  Power is then displayed in the attempt to acquire property for myself without regard for the other.  But this is a consequence of Locke’s anthropology of self-consuming and self-interested animal.  This is why we need a powerful legislature, commonwealth, or executive, “to keep the peace.”

Chapter 17-18: Usurpation and Dissolution of Governments

Returning to the logic of executive prerogative in Chapter 14, Locke discusses the road to revolution in Chapters 17 and 18 when he begins a lengthy and historical commentary on the nature of usurpation and dissolution of governments.  Usurpation occurs when there is break in “lawful government.”  Locke defines this as the removal of the designated ruler and force of rule (e.g. law or legislature).

Moving in Chapter 18 Locke, not unintentionally, highlights the historical example of King James I who helps to establish greater parliamentarian rule in England.  For Locke, James was the legitimate king and his decisions to use executive prerogative to enshrine greater power to the parliament was the legitimate action which was to the benefit of the English commonwealth.  Thus, he set precedence (via executive prerogative) to have the kingly-parliamentarian state which the English civil wars were eventually waged over.

For Locke, usurpation leads to dissolution of legitimate government.  He has King Charles II in mind here but never names him explicitly.  As Locke says, “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins…”  Because James had enshrined law to parliament, any king who attempted to take away that law and power given to parliament would be acting as a usurper.  It is not so much that Locke disagrees with the principle of strong government – it should be clear to any reader of the Two Treatises at this point that he is a celebratory cheerleader of powerful government – it is that such a move is illegitimate.  The question and principle at stake aren’t one of too much power, it is one of legitimate power.  It is about the legitimacy of the exercising of power – which is how he began Chapter 18 mentioning, “As usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hat a right to, so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right.”

Again, it is important to carefully note the seemingly and suddenly odd historical example of King James and his decision to grant greater power to parliament.  Until this point the book has largely been theoretical and exegetical.  It has not relied upon historical examples until now.  As a reader reads through Chapter 18 and 19, suddenly this very theoretical book on political philosophy becomes a treatise justifying the Glorious Revolution and discusses England a lot as if out of the blue.

This is because, as all Locke scholars know, the text of Two Treatises is really written in justification of the Glorious Revolution.  The opening preface of the work includes the famous statement, “Thou hast here the beginning and end of a discourse concerning government; what fate has otherwise disposed of the papers that should have filled up the middle, and were more than all the rest, it is not worth while to tell thee.  These which remain I hope are sufficient to establish the throne of our great restorer, our present king William.”

The use of the word restorer is also deliberate and should be read in light of Chapter 19 in which revolution really is about restoration more than creatio ex nihilo.  (As one finds in, say, Rousseau.)

Chapter 19: What is Locke’s Revolutionary Theory?

Besides Locke’s anthropology (in Chapter 5), his discussion of the nature of revolution (here in Chapter 19) is his most enduring legacy and hotly contested.  Locke’s anthropology and philosophy of revolution are probably his two most infamous contributions to political theory.  Here we set the record straight as to what Locke really intended vs. what many people thinkhe said.

Locke begins Chapter 19 by discussing how governments are dissolved from within.  Again, this is esoteric commentary talking about the “Restoration” under Charles.  As he states in Section 212: “First, When the legislative is altered.  Civil society being a state of peace, amongst those who are of it from whom the state of war is excluded by the umpirage, which they have provided in their legislative, for the ending all differences that may arise amongst any of them.”

This statement is very important.  First, Locke is saying that any alteration of the legislature not in accordance with the commonwealth’s constitution or prior legitimate decrees (such as James’ devolution of power to parliament) is grounds for the government’s dissolution.  Second, and sometimes missed, is the idea that the legislature is to eliminate all differences among people in society to prevent conflict.  Everyone has to be the same since difference may lead to conflict.  Therefore, revolution is really going to be about the restoration of the original constitution or the restoration of the grounds of what commonwealths are established for in the first place: peaceable consumption and preservation of property

Locke continues by discussing other ways that governments are dissolved that are fairly straightforward.  What is important is to understand what Locke is saying about how governments dissolve.  It is also important to realize that while he recognized how governments dissolve from outside invasion, most of this chapter deals with how governments dissolve domestically.  Again he is making not so subtle references to Charles II to the reader who is aware of what Locke is commenting on without explicitly saying so.

What does Locke say about the dissolution of government?  Dissolved government enters the people into the state of war by he who dissolved the government: Either through altering illegitimately the legislature or constitution, the abdication of the responsibility to uphold the laws of the commonwealth, or whereby the executive leadership (or legislature) abandons the public trust and becomes self-serving.  In all cases Locke claims such actions mean government is no longer legitimate and a state of war exists.  Since this state of war exists, “the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other ([the illegitimate one which is technically dissolved even if still standing]), by change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good.”

Locke does not endorse revolution as we understand that term today.  What he endorses is the restoration of commonwealth order which is lost by government dissolving itself into illegitimacy.  This is because that dissolution leads us into the state of war, which is the state of nature, which is untenable, which is what commonwealths exist in order to prevent relapse into.  When governments dissolve because of their own illegitimate actions, they establish the state of war between them and their subjects who are now former subjects and free to restore, or re-establish, a legitimate commonwealth “for their safety and good.”  As Locke writes, “Whosoever uses force without right, as everyone one does in society, who does it without law, puts himself into a state of war with those against whom he so uses it; and in that state all former ties are cancelled, all other rights cease, and everyone has a right to defend himself, and to resist the aggressor.”  This is why Locke discusses war and conquest in Chapter 16.  Dissolved governments are making war against the people to take their property is what Locke is implying.  And this means we must fight back and preserve our right to life (e.g. self-preservation in the form of maintaining and safeguarding one’s property).

Revolutionaries, then, don’t cause the dissolution of government.  Government has already done that through the various means Locke has described.  Anticipating opponents who would argue that Locke’s principles would lead to revolutions all the time, Locke responds with his famous passage that revolution is permitted only when there is a “long train of abuses” which shows itself to the people.  The tiniest mismanagement is not grounds for revolution Locke says.

Locke also states the rebellion or revolution is about law and government and not people.  It is not about making people’s lives better.  It is about ensuring the legitimate and proper exercise of government, “For rebellion being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is founded only in the constitutions and laws of the government…”

Thus, revolution is all about restoration of proper government.  As Locke himself writes in Section 229, “The end of government is the good of mankind”! Revolution, as reacting to the state of war brought forth by usurping and tyrannizing government which dissolves its own legitimacy, is about ensuring the establishing of good government which is beneficial to mankind.  Again, Locke’s statism is on full display here.  This good and proper and legitimate commonwealth is precisely what William restored in the Glorious Revolution.

Therefore we return to where we started, “To conclude, The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it, can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community…and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or erect a new form, of under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good.”  Locke’s right to revolution is not really a ‘right’ to overthrow government.  It is only a right to restore proper government when government has dissolved itself through the means by which Locke described in the chapter.  So contrary to what high school civic textbooks say, if you (actually) read Locke, Locke does not endorse the perpetual right to revolution.  What Locke does endorse is the right of the people to restore proper and legitimate government.   Revolution means returning in the Enlightenment; revolution back to the original course.  The only real revolution in the modern sense of creating something new is the revolution out of the state of nature and into society.  And once in society you cannot go back to the state of nature.  Hence why humans only get “one shot” at revolution in leaving the state of nature for something else.  After that, we are bound to whatever we entered into.

In sum, Locke’s liberalism is a thorough going statism.  Liberalism is a statist philosophy.  By statist this should not be read is intrinsically derogatory.  By statist what Locke and the liberals are saying is that the state is natural and has a right to exist.  In fact, as Locke himself says, it is for the “good of mankind.”  On other levels, one will also see, in contrast to the classical philosophers, or the German Romantics, there is no concern for culture, community (in the classical sense), and deontological teleology in Locke’s political treatise.  One questions, however, why has Locke been so thoroughly distorted to the public?


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