While the need for a history of liberalism that goes beyond its conventional European limits is well recognized, the agrarian backwaters of the British Empire might seem an unlikely place to start. Yet specifically liberal preoccupations with property and freedom evolved as central to agrarian policy and politics in colonial Bengal. Liberalism in Empire explores the generative crisis in understanding property’s role in the constitution of a liberal polity, which intersected in Bengal with a new politics of peasant independence based on practices of commodity exchange. Thus the conditions for a new kind of vernacular liberalism were created.
Andrew Sartori’s examination shows the workings of a section of liberal policy makers and agrarian leaders who insisted that norms governing agrarian social relations be premised on the property-constituting powers of labor, which opened a new conceptual space for appeals to both political economy and the normative significance of property. It is conventional to see liberalism as traveling through the space of empire with the extension of colonial institutions and intellectual networks. Sartori’s focus on the Lockeanism of agrarian discourses of property, however, allows readers to grasp how liberalism could serve as a normative framework for both a triumphant colonial capitalism and a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of peasant property.
Liberalism in Empire An Alternative History
How to Write a History of Liberalism?
One of the more recent developments of the neoliberal era is a new international "land grab." In 2009, the International Food Policy Research Institute was estimating that in the period from 2006 through the middle of 2009 foreign investors had sought or secured between 37 and 49 million acres of farmland in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, concentrated in areas that combined poor integration into international markets with weak land tenure security, easy accessibility, and relatively dense populations. By early 2011, estimates suggested that 115 million acres of farmland and forestland-85 million acres in Africa alone-had been bought or leased by investors. As of 2012, although the rate of acquisition was slowing, the Land Matrix database had registered reports of negotiations and/or agreements for around 500 million acres, 175 million of which had been confirmed through triangulation or cross-referencing. The biggest surge in acquisitions occurred in response to a spike in food prices in 2007-08, but the general trend has been sustained in response to rising demand for food, timber, biofuels and water, as well as concerns about food security. The rationale for capital-starved nations or regions to accept such investments is that the influx of capital will promote development. But setting aside the fundamental issues of rent-seeking and corruption, there remains the fraught question of how this rush to make huge swathes of land available to industrially organized agriculture is going to impact various groups, including smallholders, that already stake claims to a complex skein of legal and prescriptive rights (however unenforceable) over such lands.1
Given large concentrations of capital, expanding levels of consumption, and regional concerns about food security, it is not surprising that Indian investors have participated prominently in the land grab. But South Asian nations have long been familiar with the issues surrounding the confrontation between major capital investments and tribal and smallholder claims to control land. The Narmada Dam in western India is perhaps the best-known instance of such a confrontation. More recently, in 2007 and 2008, in the Indian state of West Bengal, the long-regnant Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, used eminent domain powers to take possession of farmland for large industrial developments in new Special Economic Zones (SEZs) located in Nandigram and Singur. These efforts led to violent clashes between villagers and the police and party cadres. They also led to a most peculiar alignment (though in no sense alliance) between disaffected leftist intellectuals and the aggressively populist and anticommunist leader of the Trinamul Congress, Mamata Banerjee. Both condemned the expropriation of peasant property that the Left Front government (previously responsible for substantial land reform legislation) was effecting in the name of an aggressive policy of state-sponsored developmentalist capitalism. There is a strong case to be made that the CPM's development policy was precisely the wedge that in 2011 led to their electoral loss, after 34 years in government, to the Trinamul Congress.2
In all of these cases, questions about process, implementation and compensation, about environmental costs, about the conflict between the general utility of developmental policies and their disutility to particular groups and individuals (especially the poor and socially marginal), about the desirability of large-scale capitalist production, about the peculiar attachments of smallholders and tribal groups to local environmental resources and the particular challenges of displacement and transition for such groups, and about neoliberal developmental regimes and the future of leftist political visions, have understandably proliferated.
Of course, the battle over the control of land, whether waged legally, politically or violently, has as long a history in South Asia as elsewhere. It is not in its most general features a peculiarly modern struggle. Controlling land and its product has long been of enormous importance to producers as well as to dominant lineages, local gentries, states and state-agents. But that should not preclude the recognition that such struggles assume historically specific contours and historically specific stakes. Modern capital's impulse to directly control production processes, the privilege it accords to the productive capacities of labor, and the fundamental role that labor assumes as a social relation under conditions of its predominance, together generate quite particular kinds of political and economic projects and quite particular possibilities of normative judgment.
From this perspective, what is so striking about the conflicts in Bengal, as in so many other cases where smallholding agriculturists have been displaced in the name of large-scale capital investments, is that the critique of capitalism as a property regime has been undertaken in the name of property. Sure enough, many leftist intellectuals, deeply critical of the neoliberal developmental policies in which the CPM had been dabbling, lined up alongside the populist Trinamul Congress to denounce capital in the name of property rights. What normative assumptions undergird this defense of property across otherwise quite disparate political impulses? What conception of property made possible the convergence of right and left around a defense of petty proprietorship? I believe that there is a longer history to this possibility. It is to be found in a history of arguments about the rights of smallholders that turned on appeals to claims about the property-constituting powers of labor. These arguments emerged in colonial debates in the middle of the nineteenth century and proliferated in Bengali agrarian society itself in the course of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seen in the light of this history, the key to these questions lies in the contradictory impulses buried at the heart of liberalism, and especially in the ambivalent place that claims about the property-constituting powers of labor have held in liberal political and political-economic thought.
In the face of what appears to be a global resource crunch, the question of how to frame claims to property has become ever more urgent. In such a context, it is worth recognizing that there is a history to the debates over how to frame claims to control environmental resources and how to specify the legitimate bases on which such property has been and should be constituted. Such debates have never been reducible to pro- and anti-property arguments; nor have they been confined to the modern West. This book is a history of the process by which property became available as the standpoint for a specifically liberal critique of capitalism and colonialism. I do not primarily mean by this a history of why some groups of people ("petty bourgeois" and "kulaks" in classical Marxist terminology) might have found it convenient or useful to assume the standpoint of property for a critique of capitalism. I mean rather a history of the kinds of arguments that were available for identifying property as a plausible standpoint for a critique of domination and exploitation; a history of the conditions of possibility for the emergence of those kinds of arguments; and a history of what kind of dynamics their embrace set in play once they had been adopted as the basis for articulating the claims of diverse social interests. We are thoroughly familiar, thanks to the rich historiography on classical republicanism, with arguments that pitch (landed) property against commerce and credit.3 But the anticapitalist potentialities of republican ideology should not blind us to the generative ambivalences that have characterized liberalism's relationship to capitalism. We cannot afford to forget that the history of liberalism is much more than the prehistory of neoliberalism.
In some ways, other dimensions of liberal ambivalence have assumed striking prominence in recent scholarship. Thinking about the history of liberalism in empire has been one way of approaching questions about the status of universal norms in a world characterized by cultural differences. Such questions have assumed ever greater attention at a historical conjuncture when neoliberal thought and policy have intersected with a partial redistribution of global economic and political power as a result of the rise of the BRIC nations. The terms in which this conjuncture has been conceived have roots in an earlier period when developmentalist imaginations intersected with processes of decolonization. Fueled by a critical insistence on the deep roots of neoliberal politics in a longer history of European imperial preeminence, the historiography of liberalism's ideological trajectories in relation to Britain's imperial projects and territories has flourished in recent years. This literature has developed a refined sensitivity both to liberalism's alignments with the history of European imperial political and economic power, and to the subtle exclusions buried in the apparent universalism of its commitments. Such emphases have generated some exemplary analyses of the conceptualization of empire in classics of liberal political thought. They have also renewed attention to the politics of liberalism in colonial contexts and to the effects of such contexts on liberal political thought in turn. Liberalism has been plausibly implicated, with enormously varying degrees of necessity and contingency, in the conceptualization, institutionalization and legitimization of hierarchical practices of subordination on the basis of race, gender and other categories of difference; in the exploitative reordering of colonial economies, along with the political institutions that had previously organized them; in the constitution of new regimes of colonial governmentality; in the annihilationist violence against the nomadic aboriginal populations of the settler colonies; and in a vast assault on indigenous epistemological and ethical norms.4
This interest in the history of liberalism in empire has also generated new insights into the process by which liberal ideas came to be embraced and debated by non-Europeans in the colonies. Histories of liberalism in India, whether celebratory or condemnatory, have often turned on accounts of the development of political projects that bound the indigenous embrace of liberal norms and commitments to engagement with imperial institutions of governance and education. The most straightforward way to tell a history of liberalism in colonial South Asia is in terms of the diffusion of ideas and texts-the very story that was at the heart of Macaulay's famous Minute on Education. A familiarity with liberal arguments was of course most quickly and readily available to those best positioned to encounter them-that is, among those literate in English. Just as political theorists and intellectual historians have attended so carefully to the complex textual evidence represented by major liberal intellectuals in Britain, so too can the intellectual history of South Asia be construed through readings both close and wide of the most articulate sections of that region's populations. An emphasis on intellectual diffusion has much to be said for it. Liberalism did, in some sense, come from Britain to South Asia as a set of already elaborated arguments. To concede that is not necessarily to imply that South Asians could only be passive recipients of those ideas: as C. A. Bayly has recently demonstrated, South Asians showed considerable creativity in reworking such arguments in terms of their own different intellectual traditions and in relation to their own different local circumstances, thereby giving South Asian liberalism its own history, with its own trajectories and its own dynamics, even as it participated in a global conversation about "the Good Life."5 It is not, therefore, the case that a diffusionist history has to be a Macaulayan history of derivativeness.
It has not only been intellectual historians who have embraced this kind of diffusionist approach. The history of liberalism can be thought about in terms of a top-down dissemination that tracks the intrusion of colonial institutions into indigenous cultural worlds.6 Some important studies that we might cluster as broadly Foucauldian in inspiration have pursued the institutionalist approach in imaginative new ways, in order to reach more deeply into the domain of the social in colonial South Asia than an older literature had. These studies seek to grasp the deeper purchase of liberal concepts on the organization of everyday life and the justification of political and social norms, while maintaining an eye to the circumstances of their reception. From this perspective, colonial liberals articulated their legal and political projects of colonial governance in complex circumstances where the transparency of the universal concepts that liberalism assumed was radically compromised or complicated. This interruption of liberal thought generated unanticipatable and original responses to liberal arguments on the part of colonial administrators and intellectuals, as well as on the part of South Asians themselves. Crucial to this approach has typically been an emphasis on the role of law as a mediation between colonial discourses of rule and governance and indigenous social and political norms and practices. Insofar as it impacted everyday practices more powerfully than any other colonial institution, it was law that best accounted for the power of liberal ideas to affect the normative assumptions of a wide range of indigenous agents.7
These arguments serve in many ways as the point of departure of this book. I too think that the deeper impact of liberal concepts on colonial society needs to be better understood. I too think that the law has been a crucial mediating institution. And I too think that the elaboration of colonial liberalism was impacted by its interaction with the complexities of colonial contexts. Yet the story my book tells is substantially different in emphasis. It suggests that the role of colonial contexts in shaping colonial liberalisms was not only one of interrupting liberal universalisms and of demarcating spaces of exclusion and exception. It suggests that colonial contexts could, under some circumstances, resonate with projects of radicalizing and extending liberal commitments as easily as with circumscribing them. As such, colonial contexts should be understood as potentially the basis for an account of the embrace of liberal norms, not only of their strategic deployment, refraction, transformation, displacement, compromise and delimitation.8 This in turn implies the need for an account of how practices in indigenous society constituted the conditions for a reception of liberal ideas in social spaces in which one might not readily expect to find them-without thereby succumbing to a naïve conception of the transparent universality of the appeal of liberal norms.
This book is therefore fugal in conception, if not in presentation. It juxtaposes a narrative about the elaboration of a liberal argument about property in legal debates in colonial Bengal to a narrative about the development of claims to proprietary rights in Bengali agrarian society. It argues that from the middle of the nineteenth century, under circumstances of the deepening commercialization of social relations in the countryside, one trajectory of political argument in rural Bengal came to be premised on what we might think of as specifically liberal norms articulated through a discourse of property. It was precisely at a moment when a new Toryism was in ascension in British imperial thought and policy, and when racial-cum-civilizational difference and hierarchical authority assumed renewed emphasis, that some liberals began to identify agrarian Bengal as historically organized around liberal norms.9 This, I argue, must be understood in relation to the generativeness of a crisis in later Victorian liberal thought. This generativeness pointed not only towards the retrenchment of liberal universalisms, but also towards the radicalization of liberal aspirations. But it must also be understood in relation to demands emerging from the Bengali agrarian context itself. This book insists that an adequate conceptualization of the liberal arguments that some colonial officials espoused must therefore be matched by an adequate conceptualization of the circumstances under which liberal arguments could be endorsed by some people in the rural hinterland. This latter conceptualization should be mounted with the same degree of ambition and rigor as the former; and it should aim to grasp the fit between the two histories, not just their episodic moments of intersection.
How did it become possible to conceive of the smallholding society that predominated in agrarian Bengal as having developed historically in response to the binding authority of liberal norms? How did this become possible for educated liberals in colonial civil society, and how did it become possible among rural Bengalis? I focus this inquiry on the history of the concept of property. Property is by no means a necessarily liberal idea or institution. But arguments about what property is, what ought to count as property, and who is entitled to make claims to various kinds or degrees of ownership, were central to the process by which actors on both sides of the colonial divide began to appeal to liberal norms when they attributed specific rights and obligations to different kinds of people. Such arguments were specifically embraced in nineteenth-century Bengal to vindicate smallholding property as the cornerstone of an agrarian society based on the recognition of labor's property-constituting capacity. They were correlatively invoked to challenge the economic preferability of large estates, the power of the state to create proprietary rights, and the rationality of the market as a distributive mechanism. At the very core of such claims were "Lockean" arguments about the normative force of the property-constituting capacities of labor. To the extent that they embraced the crucial Lockean claim that legitimate property was constituted by labor, agrarian political movements in Bengal criticized existing social and political institutions without appealing to normative frameworks radically alien to the normative universe in reference to which those institutions had been constructed.10 The invocation of the property-constituting powers of labor defined a new kind of political movement in the countryside. While deeply hostile towards the political agendas of certain self-consciously liberal voices, this new kind of politics nonetheless itself relied on certain radically liberal normative presuppositions. We need to be able to understand how this kind of agrarian politics became possible and why it was compelling.
By focusing on the particular constellation of the concepts of labor, wealth and property that I am calling "Lockean," I believe it is possible to make better sense of the broader and deeper processes that led to the increasing power of liberal norms in colonial Bengal. In the process, I seek to broaden the framework within which the history of liberalism in empire has been seen. In focusing on Bengal, I do not intend to suggest that this is an exceptional history. On the contrary, I assume that, for all its specificity, similar kinds of processes were most likely at work in many other places in the subcontinent and elsewhere.11 Beyond the history of elite figures that intellectual history has emphasized and the history of the institutional mechanisms that Foucauldians have focused on, there is a social history of the movement of liberal concepts through the empire. That is what this book is about.
Ultimately, the history of liberal thought can only be adequately understood if it takes into account what we might call "vernacular" histories of liberalism. By "vernacular" here I mean less the question of language (though I shall indeed turn to Bengali sources in the final chapter of this book) than the histories of the movement of liberal concepts beyond the rarified domains of self-conscious political theory or jurisprudence into wider worlds of normative social and political discourse. Michael Freeden argued long ago that an adequate history of liberalism would have to proceed from a recognition that "political thought is to be found at any level of political action, on different levels of sophistication." The "formulation of politically significant ideas" therefore emerges out of wider circles of engagement and debate, not merely "the coherent speculation of isolated men."12 But vernacular histories cannot be limited to the narrow social domains of the metropolitan and colonial literati-or even of politically articulate metropolitan plebeians.13 Agrarian Bengal is, I suspect, the last place most historians and political theorists would think to look for the history of liberalism, unless in the form of projects of colonial and capitalist domination. Yet recognizing the vernacular history of liberalism in a place like agrarian Bengal radically challenges our understanding of the history of liberal thought by forcing us to rethink both its political trajectories and its social location.
Debate rages among political theorists and intellectual historians about the degree to which liberal thought has been structurally implicated in the history of European racial, colonial and capitalist violence, and about the possibilities of redeeming it from whatever degree of implication in such histories it might have had. Yet the debate as it has unfolded has been largely contained within a world of reference defined by intellectuals occupying a remarkably narrow range of social spaces (even when such spaces defy the division of metropole and colony). My argument is that we cannot understand the liberalism of elites without understanding the plebeian liberalisms that have haunted it, and that we have not properly understood liberalism anywhere if we cannot grasp how it was possible for it to ground the political aspirations of agrarian Bengalis. I argue that we cannot even recognize, let alone understand, the embrace of liberal normative commitments by agrarian Bengalis until we grasp liberalism as a form of political argument that is capable of generating a critique of domination and exploitation from the standpoint of property.
Finally, I argue that we cannot understand the appeal of liberal claims as the basis for construing and articulating determinate agrarian interests in Bengal in these terms without recognizing the ways in which liberal norms were constitutively bound to practices of commodity exchange. There can be no adequate conceptualization of the history of forms of liberalism anywhere until the reality of those forms' capacity to travel-not just horizontally across geographical space, but vertically through social space-has been taken into account. Such an account requires a form of conceptual history that recognizes the entailments that link concepts to each other and to historically specific social practices. In this sense, the history of liberalism must be thought of as part of a global intellectual history, not because liberalism's movements track the secondary elaborations or transformations of an already constituted ideological framework, but because liberalism's capacity to travel tells us something about what it always must have been, and must always have entailed, as a set of normative commitments. In this sense, to write a history of "Lockeanism" as I do in the following chapters is not to depart unproblematically from a parochially "Western" origin. It is rather to transform retroflexively our understanding of liberalism's conditions of possibility.
Locke and Property
When I call the idea that property is constituted by labor "Lockean," I do not primarily mean that it is a set of theoretical arguments and problems bequeathed to theoretical posterity by John Locke's writings. There is of course a real tradition of Lockeanism in this provenantial sense, but it is not the Lockeanism that matters to the history with which this book is concerned. Rather, this book is about a Lockeanism that is "Lockean" only in the sense that it happened to be John Locke who, in the process of elaborating a theory of property as part of a radical intervention in the extended exclusion crisis of the late 1670s or early 1680s, grasped something profound about the new forms of social interdependence that were beginning to assume fundamental significance in seventeenth-century England.14 I work from the supposition that Locke's theory involved serious reflection on his contemporary social realities. Consequently, the history of Lockeanism necessarily exceeds the comparatively minor question of intellectual provenance. We might expect to find Lockean conceptions of property even where Locke himself was unknown, insofar as reflective historical subjects confronted the opaque forms of practice to which Locke's theory had spoken; that is to say, insofar as they had confronted questions about the normative significance of newly emergent practices that were coming to organize social interdependence.
To the extent that Locke developed fundamental insights into the possible normative implications of such practices, attending to the specifics of his arguments is a way of thinking about how the idea of the property-constituting powers of labor relates to other dimensions of liberal thought. This is a set of relationships on which hangs the answer to the not insignificant question of why we should consider this theory of property a particularly "liberal" argument at all, let alone an especially significant one. If my supposition that the coherence of this argument is bound to particular practices of social interdependence is correct, then it should further follow that the sets of relationships that Locke establishes between the argument about property and other dimensions of liberal argumentation should tell us something important about the practical ecology within which liberal norms have come to assume their power, their coherence, and their persuasive force. Crucial here is the fact that Locke's identification of labor's property-constituting capacity made visible the basic conceptual space out of which both liberal political theory and political economy would be elaborated.15
Locke had set his sights on the theory of Sir Robert Filmer that Adam, who had been given unlimited authority over his family and over the earth itself, was the first king. Kingship was therefore a form of authority inherited from Adam. In Filmer's account, the king was endowed with a form of political authority that was indistinguishable from paternal authority, and therefore absolute in its rights over both his subjects and the lands in his kingdom. The king therefore possessed both imperium (political authority) and dominion (possession of the soil).16 In contrast, Locke argued that Adam's succession was broken, or in effect that all men were the heirs to Adam. Government was therefore better conceived in terms of the relationship between brothers, each the master of his own (patriarchal) household, rather than one between fathers and their dependents.17 Men were thus originally juridical equals in the state of nature, each with rights of mutual recognition. Upon what practical basis did this mutual recognition stand, and what cause would such individual householders have to unite under the superordinate authority of government? Locke's answer to both these questions in the fifth chapter of the second treatise was property.18
God had given the earth to mankind in common. Having withdrawn from Adam the spontaneous bounty of Eden, God had also condemned him and all his progeny to labor, as the means to sustenance and in the service of God's providential purposes. The necessity of labor, however, was evident to natural reason even in the absence of biblical authority. In laboring, Locke argued, man mixed a part of himself, in which he had an indisputable natural property, with the earth, thereby rendering that element of nature on which his labor had been expended into a compound of nature and himself. By natural right, no other man could partake of this portion of nature without unavoidably partaking also of the labor of another, so that that portion of nature was effectively removed from the common stock and became the property of the one who had first appropriated it. This right was not unlimited. The individual was entitled to withdraw from the common stock only such resources as he was able to make use of before spoilage. That limit applied not only to the fruits of the earth, but to the land itself. Legitimate withdrawal from the common stock did not represent any real infringement of the rights of others to appropriate nature for their own purposes, so long as there was more land to appropriate, as in America. And since ten acres of land brought under cultivation was at least as productive as one hundred uncultivated, "he that incloses [ten acres of] land . . . may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind."19
But what was to prevent a man from infringing through theft or violence or fraud on another's property once established? Under natural law, it was only conscience and the capacity of each to defend their own. So it suited the convenience of all such property holders to come together and form a contract according to which they would be bound together in a civil society. In civil society, all men were subject to a common rule of law whose purpose was to defend the rights of property in general. Civil society was thus, as John Dunn puts it, "the state liked: the non-pathological state."20 It was the state insofar as the state was properly performing the functions that were normatively defined for it by the conditions of its coming into existence, that is, the universal protection of the natural rights of property. Where the law failed to provide this, or where the magistrate ceased to serve as a neutral arbiter, civil society could no longer be said to exist, and men were released from their obligations to political authority. They returned in fact to the pre-contractual condition of the state of nature, in which only natural law, rather than the positive law of human legislation, remained authoritative.
I think there are good reasons to describe this Lockean argument about property as "liberal," even if Locke could not possibly have conceived of himself in such terms. What made Locke's argument about property "liberal" most fundamentally, for my purposes, was his insistence that the grounding of property in natural law rendered its normative claims prior to those of constituted political authority. Property therefore provided the fundamental regulatory norms that governed the legitimate exercise of political authority. It provided grounds for positing freedom itself as a principal norm organizing political life. If we understand liberalism to be premised on a political commitment to the extension of personal liberties, there is no reason to think that the primordial sanctity of property is a necessary element of every liberal political theory. Seen from this perspective, Locke's theory of property was never necessarily the center of gravity of liberal argument, which could traverse a wide range of problems including the consent of the governed, the rule of law and constitutionalism, the role of representation in government, the right to freedom of conscience and of expression, and a whole range of projects of social reform and social intervention. Each of these concerns can be linked to the theory of property, but liberal arguments did not always, or even often, concern themselves with that particular vector of justification. Nonetheless, Locke's attribution of a fundamental normative priority to property, and hence his insistence that liberal norms preceded political authority, was something more than merely one more variant in a long list of liberal family resemblances. The Lockean theory of property could never be said to be the essence of so nebulous and hyperplastic a tradition of political thought as liberalism. But it is nonetheless something more than an optional add-on.
The refusal to derive rights from the structure of constituted political authority characterized liberal arguments long after many of the constitutive elements of Locke's intellectual universe had ceased to be plausible. For example, Locke's nonhistoricizing imagination, in which the state of nature and civil society were eternally present as normative frameworks, would be superseded in later liberal thinking by an assertively developmental historical imagination, to which even a more historicized conception of the transition from a state of nature to civil society would come to appear naïve. Yet when it came to normative judgments about the state, it was precisely the kind of normative framework that Locke had articulated that later liberals also brought to bear. Adam Smith still wrote as if the normative foundation of government was the preservation of property in general. In the absence of that implicit normative reference to a social contract for the preservation of property, it is hard to make sense of his critiques of monopoly, his pro-commercial suspicion of the role of merchants in government, his emphasis on the commensurability of private interests with the common good, or his defense of the state's public functions. Locke's appeal to indisputably theological conceptions of natural law and natural right would be the object of dismissive contempt from utilitarians. Yet James Mill found himself citing Locke's authority approvingly on the key dictum that "it is for the sake of property that government exists."21 Mill clearly understood himself to be denying the possibility of grounding rights in any kind of pre-political space; but his capacity to justify the regime of legal rights he advocated relied on the pre-political logic of political economy, which itself represented an elaboration, as I shall suggest below, of the implications of Locke's theory of property. Mill effectively replaced Locke's theological notion of natural law with the science of political economy, a new kind of natural law to which the state remained normatively answerable and that reformulated the state's function of universally protecting proprietary rights. Given, as we shall see, that Locke's theory of property already was at its core a theory of political economy, this was much less of a leap than it might at first appear. John Stuart Mill would further highlight the link between Locke and his father's commitment to political economy when he specified that political economy only justified the state's role in preserving rights of property when property was the fruit of labor. He thereby brought the right to own land into the realm of legitimate political intervention precisely to the degree that the earth's product was partly the result of natural fertility-a disaggregating move in turn made possible by the calculation of proportionality using political economic principles.22 The "new liberals" of the late nineteenth century might seem to be a more intransigent exception to the Lockean impulse. They argued that rights, including property rights, were constituted within the collective life of a community. They therefore treated property relations as subject to intervention whenever it was deemed that such intervention would promote broader conditions of personal liberty. Yet they were nonetheless "liberals" because they took personal liberty to be a fundamental normative principle governing the ethical life of the state. Seen in these terms, the intervention into property rights could itself be premised on Lockean first principles, including the premise that political norms ultimately derived from the property-constituting powers of labor-as I shall suggest in chapter 3.23
None of this is to deny, then, that liberals placed an enormous amount of importance on, and maintained a primary interest in, systems of positive law, whether legislative or customary, as the practical vehicles of liberty. Nor is it to suggest that liberals were necessarily committed to democratic political forms as the best means to preserve a liberal state. Thomas Paine famously developed Lockean premises in a radically republican direction. John Locke himself, however, would end up a defender of the post-1688 constitution.24 Smith shared Locke's embrace of mixed regal government.25 James Mill advocated a male franchise limited by a property qualification.26 John Stuart Mill offset his commitment to representative government with deep anxieties about the pathological dynamics of democracy, Coleridgean appeals to a cultural clerisy, and a frank disavowal of representative government in relation to civilizations whose backwardness disqualified them from release from British quasi-paternal authority. From this perspective, a republican or democratic form of polity was a much less important liberal commitment than was the normative priority of property over the state.
Recognizing this, C. B. Macpherson argued that Locke stood alongside Hobbes, the Levelers and Harrington at the head of an English tradition of political thought that he called "possessive individualism." According to this tradition, the individual was understood to be "essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. . . . The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society consists of relations of exchange between proprietors. Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of this property and for the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange."27 Macpherson's Locke was a champion of capitalist market relations, affirming the individual right to open-ended accumulation outside any overarching moral or ethical framework provided by social norms, and naturalizing "a class differential in rights and in rationality" in such a way as to provide "a moral basis for capitalist society."28 This critical reading was in turn mirrored on the libertarian right, albeit with a view to endorsing Locke as the font of a free-enterprise culture.29 Crucial to these readings was the fact that Locke had argued that the limitation to the right to accumulate posed by the threat of spoilage had been effectively abolished by the invention of money, a social convention that allowed people to store the value of their labor in the form of a more durable substitute.
Locke's approach linked rights of property to a labor theory of wealth, according to which the property constituted by labor readily overbalanced claims to the primordial collective interest in land because "it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing."30 The same activity that created property, Locke argued, also generated wealth. And so from the beginning Locke's liberal political theory was closely bound to an emergent discourse of political economy. Locke's argument that wealth derived from labor might have always been controversial, but it was in no sense new.31 What was new in his theory, though, was the way in which the claim that "ninety-nine hundredths" of the "products of the earth useful to the life of man" are "the effects of labour" was set in apposition to a claim that laboring activity produced a natural right to property.32 There is no more reason to believe that Locke himself thought that labor determined quantities of exchange than that Smith thought that property was necessarily bound to labor. But when Locke brought together a labor theory of property with a labor theory of wealth, he opened up the conceptual space within which a new formulation could emerge: when people exchanged the products of their labor, what was being exchanged was for the most part quantities of materialized labor over which the agent of appropriation could claim an absolute juridical right.
"Bread, wine and cloth, are things of daily use, and great plenty; yet notwithstanding acorns, water and leaves, or skins, must be our bread, drink and cloathing, did not labour furnish us with these more useful commodities: for whatever bread is worth more than acorns, wine than water, and cloth of silk than leaves, skins or moss, that is wholly owing to labour and industry."33 This was precisely the conceptual space within which a further argument (that Locke himself never went on to make) would ultimately be elaborated: that wealth could be measured in terms of such commensurable quantities of labor, and that there could therefore be a science of exchange and production based on them. When Locke went on to identify money as an enduring, nonperishable proxy for wealth, he was on the brink of announcing a science of political economy that went far beyond his own more hesitant but nonetheless pioneering efforts in the field. Labor was both the basis of property and the (quantifiably) predominant source of wealth. It was also fungible and preservable in the quantifying form of money. From here it was only a very small step to the further argument that, when the products of labor are exchanged, labor is the most radical basis of the determination of the proportionality of those exchanges.
It is no surprise then that Locke has commonly been taken to be Smith's forebear as both a political theorist and a political economist, despite the many substantial intentional, theoretical and conceptual differences between them. If Locke's labor theory of wealth was not new, its connection to a labor theory of property was. It was the novelty of this connection that laid the groundwork for the classical theory of value. Locke's discussion of property, John Ramsay McCulloch would observe in the early nineteenth century, "contains a far more distinct and comprehensive statement of the fundamental doctrine, that labour is the constituent principle of value, than is to be found in any other writer previous to Dr. Smith, or than is found even in the Wealth of Nations. But Mr. Locke does not seem to have been sufficiently aware of the real value of the principle he had elucidated."34
There is little historical reason to doubt Locke's credentials as a champion of the vibrant commercial society that had developed in seventeenth-century England. Even his criticisms of the unproductive activities of "brokers" were undertaken from the standpoint of a firm commitment to productive activity as a basis for commerce.35 Locke was a founder of the Bank of England; he was deeply entrenched in the Atlantic colonial world, employed first by the new American colony of Carolina and the English Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations, and two decades later again by the English Board of Trade; he was an articulate advocate of agricultural improvement; and in the chapter on property itself, he had argued that the invention of money represented an implicit collective acceptance of inequality of property since it made possible the open-ended accumulation of fortunes.36
Nonetheless, there are good reasons to think that that commitment should not be taken to imply that he was therefore an unambiguous champion of unfettered capitalist development on the model of the Macpherson thesis. A host of revisionist scholarship has argued that Locke's entire argument about property was deeply rooted in premises that, far from representing a radical shift into the amoral world of unlimited accumulation, remained fundamentally oriented by Protestant theology and natural law jurisprudence. Consequently, far from exploding the moral coordinates governing the creation of wealth, Locke elaborated a theory whose fundamental starting point was God's gift of the earth to mankind in common as the basis for subsistence through the calling to labor. Such a theory was intrinsically ill equipped to justify a society based on an open-ended process of capital accumulation fundamentally indifferent to such human (or divine) purposes.37 The revisionist point is well taken. Indeed, the significance of such skepticism about the characterization of Locke as a champion of capitalism only increases when we recognize that his impulse to analyze the rights of property within a larger framework of natural justice could ultimately subsist independently of the narrower theological and jurisprudential worlds within whose terms his theory was elaborated.
I am not myself staking any very strong claims about the status of these themes in Locke's own writings. I do, however, want to argue that the history in which this dimension of Lockean thought was preserved and rearticulated through the subsequent several centuries is one that is most intelligible in relation to the practices organizing interdependence in capitalist society. Revisionists have used a displacement of the problematic of capitalism very effectively as the means for redirecting our attention to aspects of Locke's thought that were obscured by Macpherson's account. A more complex understanding of the contradictions of capitalist society might make it possible to grasp the specifically anticapitalist trajectories of Locke's thought in terms of ethical norms whose force was nonetheless bound to practices constitutive of capitalist society. To inhabit a capitalist society and to participate in its practices might, in other words, generate the possibility of subscribing to norms that were critical of capitalist accumulation while remaining fundamentally premised on capitalist social forms for their normative power. I have little investment in the question of whether Locke's normative presuppositions were proximately grounded in Protestant theology and natural law jurisprudence. Much more important for my purposes is the argument that the history of Lockean thought, which quickly left the radical contingencies of late seventeenth-century English political and economic debates behind without losing any of its vibrancy, was deeply engaged with these larger normative dimensions, and normative contradictions, that capitalist society itself generated.
From the standpoint of classical political economy, Locke's theory of property could be restated more or less in these terms: first, that the relationship between man and man is normatively constituted prior to political relationships; and second, that those normative relationships are determined by the action of man upon nature. Locke's theory of property effectively identified human labor not merely as the activity of nature appropriation, but also as a medium of social relationships. Locke assumed that land was plentiful and that it was bountiful once subjected to labor. From that perspective there was little obvious reason for human beings to exchange other than their own natural cupidity.38 Nonetheless, Locke's central concern in his discussion of property was with the question of the normative relationships existing between property holders. The fact that people were engaged in relationships of exchange was a fundamental premise of his analysis.
That the basic relationship that should pertain among property holders was in fact exchange was implicit in the category of property. The parting of individual and property could only happen legitimately on the basis of free volition, so (except for a benevolence to which Locke only considered men bound in extremity39) the relationships between such individuals were necessarily ones of exchange. Exchange then becomes the basis of a prosperity-generating interdependence.
[F]or it is not barely the plough-man's pains, the reaper's and the thresher's toil, and the baker's sweat, is to be counted in the bread we eat; the labour of those who broke the oxen, who digged and wrought the iron and stones, who felled and framed the timber employed about the plough, mill, oven, or any other utensils, which are a vast number, requisite to this corn, from its being seed to its being made bread, must all be charged on account of labour, and received as an effect of that: nature and the earth furnished only the almost worthless materials, as in themselves. It would be a strange catalogue of things, that industry provided and made use of, about every loaf of bread, before it came to our use, if we would trace them; iron, wood, leather bark, timber, stone, bricks, coals, lime, cloth, dying drugs, pitch, tar, masts, ropes, and all the materials made use of in the ship, that brought any of the commodities made use of by any of the workmen, to any part of the work; all which it would be almost impossible, at least too long to reckon up.40
The human capacity for labor constituted a society based on relationships of free exchange. It was the remarkable social potency that Locke ascribed to labor that in turn brought into existence civil society, or government. And government was then normatively dependent for its legitimacy on the kinds of social relationships that labor had set in motion. Locke thus ascribed a remarkable role to labor. Labor was an activity that normatively regulated social relationships at a much more fundamental level than social relationships normatively regulated labor. Whatever role Protestantism may have had as the proximate cause of Locke's own preoccupation with labor, the resonance of his claims in subsequent centuries turned on the plausibility of his attribution of such remarkable social agency to it. Lockeanism mattered because its normative framework was construed in reference to practices organizing social interdependence.
It was precisely the peculiarity of the way in which laboring activity functioned as a social mediation that the concept of "value" in classical political economy was used to grasp. Central to Karl Marx's mature critique of the tradition of classical political economy, however, was the attempt to show that labor did not possess this socially mediating role intrinsically, as a function of an unalterable human nature. For Marx, what Locke and the tradition of classical political economy that followed him understood to be natural law was in fact a socially specific form of collective life. In all societies, something we would call labor had been necessary. But such labor processes and the distribution of their product were organized by social and cultural norms. There was therefore little reason to think that specific labor processes in those societies were, in any real practical sense, particular instances of "labor in general."41 Labor, in other words, was socially mediated more fundamentally than it was socially mediating. Of course, in capitalism too labor would always remain in various ways socially mediated. But the radical transformation of laboring activity into a fundamental social mediation was an epochal characteristic of modern capitalism. This was the cornerstone of Marx's analysis of the constellation of social practices that organized capitalist society and of its dynamic tendencies.42
Marx had argued that when labor was generally undertaken as a means to acquire the goods of others, qualitatively different kinds of laboring activity were in practice treated as a qualitatively uniform expenditure of socially necessary labor time-what Marx called "abstract labor." As a result, the commodity effectively became a bearer of value. As a bearer of value, a commodity was exactly the combination of property and wealth that Locke was intuiting. That is, it mediated social relationships precisely insofar as it was the product of human action on nature. Outside of this transformation of the role of labor in collective life, there was little basis for a science of political economy to develop.43 But Marx also argued that the tendency of capitalist development was to abolish the property-constituting capacity of labor, insofar as capitalist development turned on the separation of labor from its product through the subordination of labor to capital in the production process. For Marx, famously, the relationships of exchange in capitalist society generated the normative conception of "a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham."44 But the practices through which such norms were lived necessarily entailed other practices, as for example in the sphere of production, that were incompatible with those norms, and that appeared to render them anachronistic. Thus liberalism could be a celebration of capitalist development as the practical foundation of freedom. But it could also become a critique of capitalist development as the abolition of the conditions of freedom. This dialectical contradiction at the heart of the relationship between liberal thought and capitalist society was fully self-evident at the beginning of liberal political thought in the ambiguities of Locke's theory of property.
The historical resonance of Locke's theory of property thus turned on the way in which his characterization of labor as simultaneously property-constituting and wealth-creating served as a way to grasp a specific form of social organization in which the practice of labor was coming to possess peculiar properties as a social mediation. Locke's political purposes are less important here than the theoretical categories out of which he built such arguments. It is very hard to understand the long afterlife of Lockean theory, absent its capacity to function as a mode of self-conscious reflection on the part of historically specific social agents trying to make sense of a historically specific form of life and its normative implications. From this perspective, Locke's argument begins to assume two different aspects-one directed towards the affirmation of development premised on capital formation, the other directed towards the affirmation of right premised on lateral relations among self-owning property holders. There is as little reason to think that these two aspects can be coherently resolved with each other as there is to think that they can be thought of separately. This condition of antinomic theoretical vectors was not an idiosyncrasy of Locke's thought. It was a reflection of the seriousness of his attempts to grapple with the form of life of which he was trying to make sense.
On the one hand, Locke's theory was a strong defense of the claims of individual proprietorship against any redistributive ambitions grounded in the common ownership of nature before its appropriation. It radically undid landed property's claims to special political status by grounding its existence in the same property-constituting powers of labor as determined property in movables. It allowed for the hiring of labor by the property holder, and treated such labor not as itself property-constituting but as an instrument of the property holder's agency. It recognized money as a legitimate means for the abolition of natural limitations on accumulation, and invoked money's invention as the basis for affirming an implicit common consent to inequality of property among men. It thus suggested that the unequal distribution of property, although built on social convention, was nonetheless fully consonant with natural justice. Furthermore, it aligned itself in implicit practical terms with an agenda of agricultural improvement that pointed towards the desirability of unequal property and the separation of labor and land as the foundation of increasing levels of productivity. In other words, even outside of the patriarchal family, Locke still condoned relationships of vertical subordination; and he condoned these on principles internal to commercial society, rather than by reversion to the kinds of paternalistic political authority against which his argument was primarily directed.45
On the other hand, Locke's defense of individual property against the claims of community seemed to rest at least in part on the continued availability of unappropriated wasteland (i.e. America) capable of sustaining subsistence. It was only if nature was bountiful that individuals could emerge as property owners before political relations had come into being. Otherwise, under conditions of scarcity, the apportioning of nature would have had to have happened as part and parcel of the constitution of property. People would have been brought into political relationships with each other by the necessary struggle to acquire the means to subsistence. This in turn would have compromised the core liberal commitment to the normative privileging of free social relations among individuals over political ones.46 Furthermore, since the state of nature was not merely a temporal origin but a perpetual default possibility whenever the state failed to meet its normative requirements for legitimacy, the capacity of property to maintain its status as a normative standard for political life depended on the continued possibility of creating property.
Labor did not always have to constitute property, for labor could be done by servants on behalf of a master. It did, however, have to continue to be capable of constituting property. If it no longer could, the inauguration of civil society would effectively have abolished the law of nature, and political life would have come to determine its own normative standards of legitimacy, including the determination of property itself. The liberal impulse of Locke's argument depended on the fundamentally lateral nature of social relationships. These were relationships of exchange among property owners. That fundamental impulse was ill fitted to a society of open-ended capital accumulation, in which labor had precisely to be separated from its property-constituting capacities in order to become productive. (Adam Smith would imply much the same point when he argued that the development of capital and landed property rendered real price anachronistic as a measure of wealth.47) That same impulse was also one, however, most immediately intelligible within capitalist society. It was in capitalist society, after all, that people labored primarily as a means to acquire the goods of others. It was in capitalist society that horizontal relations of exchange among primordially free and equal individuals could be most readily imagined as normatively binding. Liberal norms could thus become the standpoint for a critique of capitalism as being inimical to free commerce among productive, property-constituting individuals.
I am not concerned here with the question of Locke's "influence" on subsequent liberal thought. The relevance of Locke as a political theorist lies in the way that he rendered visible certain normative dilemmas attendant to liberal thought. These dilemmas are inescapable insofar as liberalism's conceptual framework is bound to a set of practices that turns on the role of labor as a form of social mediation. However right C. B. Macpherson and Neal Wood might have been to characterize Locke as a thinker of early-modern capitalism, John Dunn and James Tully were equally right to emphasize that his thought was resistant to the unqualified endorsement of capitalist accumulation. This ambiguity haunted the history of liberal thought. Richard Ashcraft was surely right to conclude that "liberalism as a theoretical expression of social life supplied the values, assumptions, and arguments for both a defense and a radical critique of the existing social order."48 This book will attempt to elaborate that characterization by reference to the social practices in which liberal norms assume their significance.
Twentieth-century libertarian sought to read Locke as a champion of free enterprise. Yet the specter of Lockeanism that has haunted the liberal tradition has more forcefully manifested itself historically in the form of invocations of the property-constituting capacity of labor; and such invocations were symptomatic of liberalism's enduring discomfort with the dynamic implications of large-scale and open-ended capital accumulation. These were discomforts that, as I argue in chapter 3, assumed a pervasive force in later nineteenth-century Britain, when dynamic capitalist development intersected with processes of political democratization. Such a reading does not turn on the intentional status of Locke's writings as advocacy or repudiation of "capitalism." He could neither advocate nor repudiate something that had not yet been conceived as an object of thought.49 Rather this reading turns on an account of the continued power of Locke's understanding of property (even among people who could not possibly have read him or even heard of him) as an articulation of specific normative possibilities that were internal to liberal thought. Here liberal thought is understood to be premised on a set of norms whose coherence and force have been bound to practices of capitalist social interdependence, yet that have been in complex tension with the trajectories of capitalist development.
Liberalism and Empire
Empire has provided a key thematic for some of the most sophisticated analyses of the practical entailments of liberal thought in recent political theory. The most rigorous representative of this approach remains Uday Singh Mehta's Liberalism and Empire.50 Mehta's work targeted the peculiarly abstract conception of individuality that has been fundamental to liberal argument since Locke. He took a close reading of Locke's writings as his point of departure for much larger claims about liberalism's deep implication in the violence of empire more generally.
In Locke's account of the social contract, the individuals who come together to form a civil society are devoid of any specifying characteristics beyond self-ownership. As such, their rights are apparently constituted outside of any determinate political status or qualifications beyond answerability to natural law. That is as much as to say, individuals had simply to possess a capacity for natural reason. Mehta argued, though, that Locke's conception of "reason" was necessarily bound to "a thicker set of social credentials that constitute the real basis of political inclusion." Those social credentials rested on "social structures and social conventions" that "delimit, stabilize, and legitimize, without explicitly restricting, the universal referent of his foundational commitments."51 This covert reliance on a thicker ecology of particular cultural norms becomes clearest in a domain of life that Locke went to some lengths to juxtapose to the contractual domain of civil authority; namely, the patriarchal family, where authority is directly constituted by natural law. Complementing Carole Pateman's argument that equality in civil society was premised in Locke's writings on an affirmation of patriarchal authority in the family, Mehta noted that the individual only assumes his natural rights in civil society upon the achievement of his majority. Only then can he be said to have acquired the capacities for reason necessary to render him capable of holding himself answerable to the requirements of natural law. Switching his attention then to Locke's writings on education, Mehta noted that the acquisition of adult reason was actually bound to remarkably parochial practical and affective qualifications. These qualifications were nonetheless rendered invisible in Locke's political theory, so that liberal abstraction seemed to possess its own independent normative force despite its real concrete entailments in the form of child-rearing practices.
It follows that when liberal thinkers, blithely blind to these entailments, encountered forms of life that did not share familiar norms of personhood and sociability, they were intrinsically predisposed to regard such unfamiliarity as a sign of political disqualification. As a result, cultural difference was dismissed as the immature unreason of an incomplete humanity.52 "Liberalism . . . was self-consciously universal as a political, ethical, and epistemological creed. Yet, it had fashioned this creed from an intellectual tradition and experiences that were substantially European, if not almost exclusively national."53 Mehta thus construed the abstractness of liberal individuality as obscuring the actual social or affective densities that constituted its real conditions of possibility. He argued that the "psychological aspects of experience," including reason itself, "always derive their meaning, their passionate and pained intensity, from within the bounded, even if porous, spheres of familial, national, or other narratives."54 Nineteenth-century British liberals (his analysis focused on the Mills) found themselves confronted forcefully by the hidden parochialism and exclusionary underpinnings of their political abstractions in colonies like India, where social relations were characterized by dense relations of sentiment, hierarchy and dependence that differed radically from those of contemporary Britain. Cushioned by the asymmetry of power at the heart of the colonial encounter, however, they were able to foreclose this implicit challenge through an intellectual sleight of hand that transposed the conception of immaturity that organized Locke's discussion of readying children for full social responsibility onto the concepts of "history" and "civilization." These concepts reorganized the difference between European and non-European societies into a hierarchy of readiness for adult self-government. Thus emerged the liberal conception of Britain's imperial civilizing mission.
Mehta's analysis of the institutional entailments of liberal norms is brilliant and lucid. Nonetheless, it must be observed that his notion of practical entailment remains narrow. It is possible to see how the liberal idea of the free subject presumed an indoctrination into conventions that limited that subject's freedom. It is much less clear how the abstract idea of the free subject or of the self-interested individual per se partook of the same mode of contextual contingency. That is to say, it is easy to see how the viability of a liberal conception of personhood depended on a penumbra of cultural practices, but it is less easy to understand in these same terms the conditions for the emergence of a liberal conception of personhood in the first place. Mehta's interest, like Pateman's, is in how liberal abstractions entail the kinds of overt, normative relationships that one finds in social institutions where people are bound to each other by concrete social statuses: father, husband, wife, mother, son, daughter, teacher, student, lord, servant. These are statuses that can be readily recognized as practices of social power insofar as they represent forms of unequal authority. They can also be recognized as practices that involve very particular skeins of affective attachment that do not lend themselves easily to the kind of abstract social and political concepts that liberalism turns on.
My purpose here is not to question the existence of those entailments, or their importance. Rather, I question whether the tracing of these specific kinds of entailments is capable of explaining the impulse to abstraction that liberal political thought manifests. "The efficacy of these structures and conventions in moderating the potentially exorbitant and unlimited claims of an individual who is naturally free," Mehta notes, "is proportional to the degree to which these structures and conventions are taken for granted." Their effectiveness derives "from a tacit allegiance to a particular ordering of society" operating "below the threshold of consciousness and theoretical discourse."55 This, however, only explains why a political theory committed to abstract concepts needs to repress its practical reliance on concrete social statuses and institutions. It does not explain the impulse to abstraction in the first place, nor the practical conditions of its plausibility, nor the specific forms of abstraction from which liberal theory proceeds.
To approach this larger problem of liberal abstraction differently, we might instead consider the long and complex relationship that liberal political thought has maintained with political economy. This is an intimacy that Locke's theory of property classically articulates. Like much political theory, Mehta's account radically marginalizes political economy as an element of liberal thought. To the extent that political economy could feature in an analysis such as his, it would presumably have to share the same status in relation to concrete institutional entailments as political-theoretical abstractions. Indeed, political economy most certainly does entail such concrete institutions. It is far from clear, however, that political economy can be adequately understood as a displaced expression of such institutions.
Smith famously argued that in "civilized society [man] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons." It is therefore "vain for him to expect [that cooperation and assistance] from their benevolence only." Rather he must appeal to mutual self-interest to make an advantageous exchange. "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of."56 In what amounted to a direct reference back to Locke's discussion of the loaf of bread, Smith identified as the ultimate symbol of civilized prosperity neither gold nor silver, but rather the common day-laborer's woolen coat. This was a commodity that embodied the "joint labour of a great multitude of workmen" whom the laborer rarely considers and never could feasibly meet.57 This kind of "civilized" or "commercial" society is a network of objective interdependencies. Those interdependencies fundamentally condition the individual's capacity to acquire the goods individuals need to live, without in any sense being dependent on their conscious intentions or their instinctive sociability. It is a society of essentially abstract relationships, in which the points of direct exchange between individuals are based only on the contingent confluence of individual self-interest. They form only moments in much longer chains of interdependence constituted out of such contingent confluences, and are determined in their quantities, proportions and possibilities by the larger context of all other such exchanges. Each of these other exchanges in turn is undertaken in reliance on, but not necessarily with conscious regard to, those longer chains of interdependence.
We can begin to see why it might make sense to locate Locke's theory of property within the context of the emergence of the first "truly self-conscious commercial society" in 1650s England. This was a context where protoliberals developed specifically political-economic arguments that were radically incompatible with the core postulates and ultimate social aims of neo-Roman republicanism. Most defenders of the Commonwealth in the 1650s, Steve Pincus has argued, began to distance themselves from the hostility of Harrington and Milton towards commercial society. That hostility was grounded in the republican assumption that "the only proper basis of political power lay in landed wealth." Instead, these protoliberals saw in the "massive expansion of English trade, domestic and foreign, in the early modern period" the basis for a new theory that "valued human choice [and] the human capacity to produce wealth" as the most powerful forces that could be harnessed and deployed to promote both the public good and the strength of a newly emerging state.58 By the 1680s, this radical Whig espousal of human labor as a potentially infinite source of wealth underpinned the embrace of both the anti-absolutism of the Glorious Revolution and the radical embrace of credit and commerce represented by the creation of the Bank of England immediately thereafter.59 Here liberal abstraction most fundamentally entails the practical abstraction of a commercial society based on commodity production and exchange.
In fact, we can go one step further than Smith did in specifying the conditions of possibility under which abstract personhood could have emerged as a fundamental presupposition of liberal political theory. "When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man's wants which the produce of his own labour can supply," observed Smith in the first book of the Wealth of Nations. "He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society."60 Yet in a developed commercial society as Smith described it, where land, capital and labor have assumed distinct functions in organizing production, the laborer works only in order to acquire the means to the means to life, the wage. Labor has no property in the products of labor. It follows that it is no longer merely the "surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption," that the laborer must use to supply himself with the majority of his wants. It is now rather his entire laboring activity (as a means to the acquisition of a wage) that becomes a means to exchange (i.e. to commanding the labor of others). This in turn radicalizes the condition of commercial society that originated, according to Smith's own conjectural history, in the exchange of bows and arrows for meat in the forest.
It is only at this moment of the separation of labor and capital that social abstraction becomes a pervasive condition of social dependence in general. The abstractions of political economy apply in some conditional sense to any form of commercial society. But they really only assume coherence as a way of describing social dependency more generally when this radical process of commercializing social relations began taking place. That was precisely why Marx insisted that the commercial society Smith described represented a qualitative discontinuity from the forms of exchange that his conjectural history projected as origin (where exchange occurred among independent producers each engaged in a trade); but at the same time that the origin Smith projected (the exchange of bows and arrows for meat as a self-interested exchange of labor) was really itself a one-sided projective fantasy from the standpoint of the actuality of a capitalist form of social dependence based on commodity exchange.61 From this perspective, liberal political economy and liberal political theory both entailed the constellation of social practices that I follow Marx in calling capitalist society.62
What difference does recognizing this make to the kind of argument that Mehta and Pateman elaborated? It certainly does not vitiate the significance of the kinds of institutional entailments on which they focused. It does, however, transform the range of questions we can ask about their significance. For Mehta, the practical projects implied by liberal commitments were ones primarily shaped by liberalism's necessary denial of its constitutive institutional or relational entailments. Liberal abstraction is essentially a denial of institutional or relational concreteness. But liberal abstractions entail forms of sociality that are themselves abstract, and the determinateness of liberal abstraction is itself in some sense bound to the determinateness of those practical forms of social abstraction. It necessarily follows that the relationship between abstraction and concreteness becomes bidirectional. That is, it can no longer be a question of only treating liberal abstractions in terms of their dependence on concrete institutional or relational forms (of domination, of affect, etc.). Concrete institutional or relational practices might themselves depend, for both their practical significance and their conditions of possibility, on abstract forms of social dependence. If conceptual and normative abstractions are grounded in practices of social abstraction, then their relationship to concrete institutions cannot be reduced to complicity or hostility as necessary correlatives of familiarity and unfamiliarity. James Mill's infamous hostility to Indian society and culture was only different in degree, rather than in kind, from his hostility to the forms of aristocracy, priestcraft, custom, poverty and ignorance that he considered prevalent in Britain itself. Indeed, as Javed Majeed has argued, the attack on Indian culture in his History of British India had primarily metropolitan political aims.63 Mill's was not, in other words, primarily a hostility towards what Mehta termed the "unfamiliar." Mill's hostility to the unfamiliar in India would appear to have turned on prior negative judgments about deeply familiar institutional forms, and we need to grasp the conditions of possibility for those negative judgments in order to make any sense of his judgments about India.
Mehta's critique of liberal abstraction was undertaken from the standpoint of what he called the "liberalism of sentiment," which he identified above all with Edmund Burke. Mehta's Burke sustained a deep reluctance towards the empire that Britain had been building for itself in Ireland, India and the Americas. Importantly for Mehta, this reluctance was not just based on political prudence, but on a sense that empire was providing the occasion for the corruption of British liberties into vehicles of unchecked power. In Mehta's account, Burke recognized that for liberty to be sustained as a practical reality, it had to be rooted in the thick lifeworld of experience, affect and everyday practice-the domain of custom, habit and prejudice. From this standpoint, Burke critiqued abstract commitments to liberty, which he associated with philosophes, moneyed men, and Jacobins, as tending to the production of license, irresponsible adventurism, demagoguery and despotism. Burke thought that liberty had to be rooted in prescriptive practices and positive laws that could never be derived from or reduced to abstract principles (even if they had nonetheless to remain always consonant with natural law). He was therefore resistant to the tendency in the liberalism of reason to treat the unfamiliar forms of life that the British encountered in the colonies as forms of disqualifying unreason. On the contrary, hermeneutically alert both to the inevitably local and finite nature of experience and to the impossibility of justifying Britain's own constitutional forms by reference to abstract reason, Burke demanded that Britain recognize that its relationship with India was not of the kind that pertained between a rational adult and an irrational child, but rather of the kind that pertained in the meeting of two strangers-with all the obligations of cautious patience and mutual respect that such a meeting required. If Britain's own institutions could not and should not be reduced to abstract rational principles, then the prescriptive force of India's institutional and affective forms correlatively demanded a default respect. Burke's liberalism of sentiment was, according to Mehta, one that respected diversity.64
I freely admit that I do not find the sympathetic interpretation of Burke that Mehta offers persuasive. Burke portrayed the commercial aggression of the East India Company's exploits in South Asia as a grubby free-for-all that unleashed the animal passions of greedy parvenus against legitimate authority. His respect for Indian difference and Indian sovereignty turned most fundamentally on deference to a gentry whose landed, aristocratic status (as in a famous comparison of India to the Holy Roman Empire) he invoked as a check on the corrupting agency of money.65 His juxtaposition of the youth of the British adventurers and the age of Indian civilization was not an inversion of the ideology of imperial pedagogical responsibility, as Mehta suggested. It was a juxtaposition of the dangers of money against the orderliness secured by the ancient inherited estates of great families. As with James Mill, so too with Burke: where he spoke of India, he as often spoke of Britain itself. Any reluctance Burke did have towards empire certainly did not extend to the "gangs of savages," whose (alleged) failure to constitute stable structures of authority left them outside the framework of Burke's sympathies entirely. Indeed, it seemed to render them in his view much closer to the radicals against whom he inveighed.66 Burke is surely as important for upholding a vision of the British Empire as a vehicle of providential moral governance as he was for his critique of the abuses of the East India Company.67 Finally, despite his reputation, Burke was no advocate of a Smithian political economy. Smith critiqued the East India Company as a monitory example of what happens when political power intrudes inappropriately into the domain of free commerce, and his critique was articulated from the standpoint of commerce; Burke critiqued the East India Company as the manifestation of commerce ungoverned, and his critique was from the quite different standpoint of political-constitutional order.68
Regardless of such differences of historical interpretation, however, the fundamental issue runs deeper. Mehta affirmed the concreteness of experience as the standpoint for a critique of liberal abstractions, and thereby treated such abstractions as means of mischaracterization. Insofar as the advocates of liberal abstraction purported to use abstractions as a means to make sense of social relations, they failed to understand that social relations could never be properly grasped through abstractions. The question inevitably arises, however, as to how we are to assign normative value (positively or negatively) to such forms of concrete immediacy. The issue is not whether there is an outside to liberal abstractions, but rather why we should normatively or ontologically privilege that outside over liberal abstractions. As soon as we further accept that liberal abstractions are not derived, either mistakenly or distortively, from concrete institutional forms, but are also premised on social practices that are themselves radically abstract, then the prioritizing of the concrete ceases to be adequate as a standpoint of social or political critique. To the extent that concrete social forms are truly outside of forms of social abstraction (as in the conception of "subalternity," for example), it is not clear how they would carry normative significance in relation to liberal abstractions. To the extent that they are themselves implicated in forms of social abstraction (as, for example, the modern household is in its relationship to the wage and to commodity consumption), it is not clear that they can serve as an adequate standpoint for the critique of such abstractions. Minimally: if we were to adopt the immediacy of concrete affective and institutional complexes as the standpoint for a critique of liberal abstraction, it would have to be on the basis of a careful analysis of their relationship with such abstractions rather than on the basis on a straightforward opposition to them. The force of Mehta and Pateman's critique of liberalism in terms of concrete institutional entailments needs to be complemented by a critique of liberalism in terms of its abstract entailments. This is what this book attempts.
The problem with Mehta's argument is not that it identifies a certain kind of Eurocentrism in liberal political and political-economic thought. It is rather that it conceptualizes the relationship between abstraction and cultural concretion in an overly schematic manner. It implicitly maintains that that relationship, once constituted by the violence of empire, must necessarily remain static. It suggests that the relationship between the West and the non-West is permanently that between (pretended and violent) abstraction and (actual and normative) concretion-between liberal and nonliberal, capitalist and noncapitalist. In Marxian terms, we might call this a relationship of perpetually arrested "primitive accumulation." The history of liberalism in the context of the British Empire cannot be adequately treated in terms of a constant called "cultural difference." Cultural forms are not always discrete institutions free of abstract entailments implicit in the determination of lifeworlds. The history of liberalism must therefore rather be treated as a dynamic process bound in no small degree to transformations in the role of commodity exchange in social relations on both sides of the colonial relationship. Such transformations, on the side of the colonized in India, must be taken to involve long-term processes of the commercialization and de-commercialization of social relations both before and under the impact of modern capitalism. The transformations in the epistemological and political status of liberalism in colonial society can only be grasped in terms of a history in which the relationship of liberal concepts to the social practices of the colonized varies in relation to the modes in which, and degree to which, such social practices were themselves implicated in practices of social abstraction.
It is only by maintaining an eye to these kinds of relational complexities that a history of liberalism that looks beyond the narrower realm of elites in South Asia can be written. For if, as I shall argue, liberal norms came to play a crucial role in the development of political claims in the commercialized agrarian society of later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal, it is surely because the forms of life that agrarian Bengalis maintained were ones that admitted the plausibility and purchase of liberal concepts, starting most radically with the plausibility and purchase of the abstractions of political economy. There is no reason to assume that these concepts will find such plausibility and purchase in every historical context to which they travel. That means we must inquire carefully into the circumstances of their reception when they do. The role of colonial institutions in making available liberal concepts and of rendering them unavoidable in the negotiation of legality in colonial society has now been definitively established, and I have no intention of questioning that account. But the process by which these norms came to achieve a dynamic of their own in agrarian Bengal, such that agrarian Bengalis themselves recognized liberal concepts as possessing normative force, is one that requires further analytical consideration.
My account of Lockeanism in Bengal takes for its point of departure, in the following chapter, mid-nineteenth-century debates over the principles on which hung the determination of a "fair and equitable" rent. The "Great Rent Case" of 1865 (as it was known at the time) is conventionally seen as a watershed moment in the reversal of Bengal tenancy policy, which had tended to uphold and gradually extend the privileges of landlords in levying, wherever possible, market-level rents from their tenants. The new impulse was to confirm tenants' interests in the soil, and to ground those interests in the authority of custom. The customary system of rent collection in India turned on the idea of a division of the gross product of the soil between the state and the agriculturist. From this perspective, the zamindar's proprietary interest in the soil was derived out of the state's portion. That division had left the agriculturist with a default interest in the rental value of the land. It therefore implied that the agriculturist was customarily endowed with a separate and independent interest in the soil. Such rights could not be derived from the landlord. But alongside arguments from prescription, another more specific argument about the origins of the agriculturist's independent interest in the soil haunted the decisions in, and debates around, the Great Rent Case. That argument held that custom upheld the agriculturist's claims to an interest in the soil because the agriculturist, or his ancestors, had reclaimed the property from waste. From this perspective, native custom around land instituted a system of social relations premised on the role of labor mediating forms of political rights and political-economic interdependencies. On this basis, it elaborated a critique of the colonial state for its failure to maintain its legitimate function in protecting property.
In chapter 3, I then elaborate the broader trajectories of this Lockean impulse in colonial policy in Bengal in the context of wider imperial circuits and metropolitan-centered concerns about capitalist development. Discussions of land reform in Ireland concatenated with such discussions in India, and together they formed a crucial field in which metropolitan intellectuals could work out their own anxieties about the status of property as a normative foundation of liberal polity in an age when mature and dynamic capitalist development intersected with political democratization. The liberal discourse of custom was thus part of a wider liberal attempt to renew the social foundations of liberal polity in an age when political personality was ceasing to be bound to property qualifications. It was in the context of these larger liberal anxieties that we can understand the impulse on the part of colonial administrators and public intellectuals to endorse the claims of the smallholder to a proprietary or quasi-proprietary interest in his holding; and to do so specifically in the name of custom. This discourse of custom represented a radical departure in its identification of normative models of social obligation in native agrarian society as liberal in fundamental impulse.
In chapter 4, I then reverse gears to examine the object of liberal projection, and ask instead how it was that the smallholder was identified as an appropriate vehicle for liberal attempts to renew property as a political form. I argue that the "fit" lay in demands that had emerged from Bengali agrarian society itself in a period of the deepening commercialization of agrarian social relations. Agrarian society was not a passive object onto which these liberal anxieties were projected. It was rather an increasingly politicized subject that bore the burden of this liberal projection-a subject who staked a claim to the status of independent commodity producer in no small part on the grounds of an adverse interest in their tenancy holdings. Commercialization was not in itself new to the region in this period. But the nineteenth century saw a deepening of the role of commercial interdependence in mediating social relationships in agrarian society. At the same time it brought long-term processes of agrarian commercialization into deeper interaction with the dynamics of the mature capitalism that had come into fruition in the imperial metropole. Under these circumstances, concepts that had been generated in the context of capitalist social forms assumed ever greater plausibility in relation to forms of commercial interdependence in general. The aim of this chapter is not to show that the liberal discourse of custom was being adopted in agrarian Bengal as a political language. It is rather to argue that Lockean norms resonated with demands for the consolidation of peasant property that had emerged in the mofussil (the rural hinterland) specifically under circumstances where those demands expressed an aspiration to deeper participation in commodity production.
The concatenation of imperial discourses of property with agrarian political energies generated the condition of possibility for a strong embrace of Lockean discourses of property in agrarian Bengal in the early twentieth century. But this Lockeanism did not remain wedded to the vehicle of "custom." Rather, it tended to point either towards a radically secularized discourse of natural rights, or towards a discourse of Bengali Muslimness. The latter is the focus of the rest of the book. In chapter 5, I turn my attention to Muslim political discourse in eastern Bengal in the early twentieth century. I argue that appeals to Muslim piety as the foundation for individual and collective improvement are best understood in the context of the wider affirmation of Lockean conceptions of property. That is, Muslim piety represented a set of practices that were held up as means of securing and intensifying the connection between the smallholder and his land in a period of widespread peasant immiseration in eastern Bengal. The discourse of Muslim piety was less a gospel of Muslim prosperity than it was a vision of freedom grounded in property. The stereotypical Muslimness of the Bengal peasant was thus reinforced by an argument that identified the Muslim as the quintessential smallholder by virtue of the especially intense connection he maintained with his property through labor.
I then pursue the implications of this insight into the domain of late-colonial Bengali Muslim politics. Lockean claims about the nature of peasant property intersected with identitarian claims about Muslim self-determination that had emerged among Muslim gentry. I argue that the success of Muslim politicians in giving voice to the political aspirations expressed in the agrarian discourse of Muslim self-determination was crucial in shaping the larger political trajectories of the subcontinent, including Partition itself. I also argue, though, that the wider saturation of agrarian political discourse by claims about the property-constituting capacity of labor meant that, while the Lockean discourse of property provided a framework for formally commensurating agrarian interests, the substantial incommensurability of the interests of different strata of agrarian society narrowed the purchase of the politics of the Muslim cultivator to those strata of agrarian society who had been able to retain possession of their holdings through the difficult decades of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The emphasis on Muslimness in this final chapter is not intended to distract from the larger claim that Lockean conceptions of property were ubiquitous across the diverse terrain of agrarian political discourse. On the contrary, it is intended to show how even a discourse that seems very distant from the concerns of either liberal norms or political economy is in fact intelligible only within an ideological field defined by both. Late-colonial agrarian discourses of Muslim piety may not have been "liberal." Some kind of embrace of liberal norms under circumstances of the capitalist transformation of already highly commercialized social relations, however, was constitutive of their meaning in that context.
The sources for the second part of this book are by their nature limiting. Until the early twentieth century, very little vernacular literature that was substantially addressed to agrarian issues from the standpoint of the tenantry was published in the mofussil. Of course, members of the educated Hindu gentry, the famous Bengali bhadralok, wrote extensively on agrarian issues. But whether advocating reform or the status quo, and whether dependent on rentier income or on clerical labor for their livelihood, they did so in the context of a colonial public sphere that stood at a considerable distance from the kinds of agrarian political demands that are the focus of the discussion in the second part of this book. The colonial record therefore forms the inescapable archival foundation of the argument made in chapter 4. Only in the early twentieth century did a vernacular pamphlet literature emerge out of the peasant and Muslim political mobilizations of the period. It is therefore only in the final chapter of this book that I draw on vernacular sources to any significant degree. The recognition that the colonial archive is something less than transparent as a source of information about the colonized has been immensely productive.69 Yet an insistence on the opacity of colonial discourse risks becoming a dogmatism no less problematic than naivete about its transparency. Without granting the colonial archive the capacity to function as a source base, it is hard to see how we could recognize its refractive agency as a function of colonial power. I believe that the need to provide a plausible interpretation of the emergence of the kind of articulate peasant political organizations that we do find in twentieth-century Bengal-the kind of peasant politics that chapter 5 of this book discusses-outweighs the epistemological uncertainty to which these archival problems give rise. It is clear from the Bengali-language pamphlet literature that discourses about the property-constituting powers of labor were indeed available in the twentieth-century agrarian context. Giving an account of that availability is surely necessary.
Obviously, this is an intellectual history that departs sharply from the familiar terrain of intellectual-historical inquiry. It is a history of liberal and political-economic concepts in the vernacular. The result is, I hope, a kind of history of liberal thought that has not been written before. It proceeds from the social-theoretical attempt to understand liberalism in relation to the abstract social mediations that are constitutive of modern capitalist society. At the same time, however, it attempts to track liberalism's trajectories more deeply into social spaces that intellectual historians have generally avoided as the domain not of political thought, but of either "culture," or of its opposite, a denuded and naturalized conception of "interests." But interests need to be construed, and the act of construing belongs to the field of subjectivity as much as to the field of objectivity. What I argue in this book is that the construal of agrarian interests in Bengal came to be built to some degree on specifically Lockean claims about the nature of property. To that extent, agrarian political demands can be understood as internal to the history of liberalism. I do not mean to suggest, at any point, that the history of Lockeanism exhausts the history of defending small property in Bengal (let alone anywhere else). My aim is simply to show that it was possible, in the context of later colonial Bengal, to articulate agrarian interests in these terms; that that possibility was indeed widely taken up; and that, once that had happened, liberal norms could no longer be treated (whether in the name of the imperialism of a Henry Maine or the revolutionary subalternism of a Ranajit Guha) as straightforwardly alien to Bengali agrarian society.
It is probably clear that my aim in constructing this account is not redemptive. I am not trying to "recover" a liberal tradition in India in the way that Bayly is, though certainly I have no qualms about embracing liberal norms when the alternative proffered is a romantic projection of precolonial or decolonial otherness. But liberal thought has always been shot through with profound ambivalences that render liberal thought both unstable and contradictory in relation to its practical entailments. To recover the anticapitalist Lockean impulse in liberal thought is inevitably to drag along its broader capitalist entailments with it. Yet in this sense we can say that liberalism has always pointed beyond itself. The approach that I undertake in this book suggests that we must recognize, in the kinds of struggles between property and capital that have become endemic in the age of the global land grab, the persistent dilemmas of what it means to inhabit capitalist society as a conscious subject of political thought; and what is at stake in the effort to move beyond those dilemmas while nonetheless remaining committed to liberalism's universalistic aspirations for human freedom.