Belonging in Locke: The Other Side of the Compact


I. A merchant in Venice, but not of it, in which it is argued that to understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions, by way of the social exclusions in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

II. The Other Side of Reason, in which a list of Locke’s exclusions is presented with reference to the text, then reduced to an argument apropos which exclusion is more fundamental, that of the slave or that of the madman

Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500)
Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500) (#)

I. A merchant in Venice, but not of it

But even during the kingdom of Christ those people who do not belong to the community of believers, who do not love him, and whom he does not love, stand outside this tie.

—Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (#)

What does it mean to belong to a community? Our theme for the semester seems to naturally invite a sort of utopian thinking about the question, a subtle rephrasing of the question in our head from What is belonging? to What would belonging look like in an ideal society? Luckily, we began our semester with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Why luckily? Because for all of its flaws, The Merchant of Venice will not let us come to any easy conclusions about what is at stake in the question of belonging. We have to remember, that for all its darkness, that the play is a comedy. As our introduction notes, many of the things we find deeply uncomfortable about the play would have been the crowd-pleasing punchlines for its original audience—and for centuries after is debut on the Elizabethan stage.

Even with critics’ most generous reading and even with great actors’ most sympathetic performances, that the play’s representations of Jewish people and Jewish life are antisemitic is difficult to argue, and very few scholars even try. Yet it is hard to imagine that even in Shakespeare’s day it was anything but a very dark comedy, unless the actor played Shylock as a complete and total buffoon. Even then, the comedy already has a clown, and the pathos in many of his lines is undeniable.

In the end, there is always a dark monster stalking this play, one crying out for a grizzly pound of flesh amidst the marriage plots, cross-dressing, role inversion, and daughters being stolen from under their fathers’ noses, living or dead. That the play still has much to teach a modern audience, at least if we are sufficiently inoculated against its racist tropes beforehand, is evinced by its continuing life on the modern stage. Indeed, many famous Jewish actors have played the role on the contemporary stage, and there is even a very interesting academic work on this topic, Wrestling with Shylock: Jewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice.

I think that this is because Shakespeare’s play not only deals with the world as it was, it still continues to reflect the world as it is today. For us, it can no longer be a dark comedy; after the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, the only way we can read The Merchant of Venice today is as a tragedy, with Shylock as it’s hidden protagonist and the minefield of its social divisions a challenge to our own society today.

Ultimately, Shylock simply does not belong. Shylock is a merchant in Venice, but he is not not a merchant of Venice. Indeed, we somewhat shockingly learn that he is literally an “alien” (IV.1.347), an outsider who is tolerated but not included. And it is this status as an alien that is the key to Portia’s counter-charge of murder against him: “It is enacted in the laws of Venice/If it be proved against an alien/That by direct or indirect attempts/He seek the life of any citizen,” etc, etc. (IV.1.346-349, emphasis added). In Shylock’s dispossession at the end of the play and his quiet, unceremonious exit, all of the exclusions of Shakespeare’s world are on display: men vs. women, Christians vs. heathens, citizens vs. foreigners, rich vs. poor, old vs. young, and so on all down the line. The play of these divisions defines who belongs in this society, and while some exclusions are renegotiated in the play (men/women and old/young, most notably), others are reinforced and define what makes the happy ending at the end of this comedy happy indeed, a vision of the (new) good life. Shylock, in the end, does not belong.

One thing that the Merchant of Venice can show us, at least obliquely, is how exclusions can nevertheless serve an important social function. In short, the rise of capitalism in the Italian city-states of the early Renaissance would not have been possible without Shylock, or at least the service he provides. Over the next few centuries, the class represented by Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia would change the entire political and economic structure of the continent, and ultimately the world. The rise of the capitalist class would go on to overthrow the aristocratic political structures of Europe, and the lending of money at interest that is so repugnant to Antonio—and the economy of debt, risk, and reward that it enables—is indeed a necessary prerequisite. Since Roman antiquity, this kind of market activity was looked on with aversion by aristocrats—Senators were notably prohibited from engaging in the merchant trade, but did so by proxy and with gusto in any case—much as Antonio does. While members of the diasporic Jewish communities scattered across Europe often concentrated in banking, trade, and portable luxury goods (diamonds, etc) out of necessity, i.e., because they were often prohibited from owning property/land outright, denied citizenship (Shylock’s status as an alien), and were subjected to periodic pogroms and expulsions (during which it helps if you can pack up all your valuables in a relatively small space, something you cannot do with a landed estate but you can do with money, diamonds, etc). In other words, Shylock is excluded at least partially for his role in the community (lending money at interest), even though that very activity is the driver of the wealth that citizens such as Antonio are thriving upon.

So, then, if we are going to take the lesson of The Merchant of Venice, we must ask ourselves: where can we see these exclusions in Locke’s Second Treatise, and what do they tell us about the type of society he is trying to form. There are two points we need to keep in mind while doing so: First, is this exclusion necessary or contingent? If we removed it, would Locke’s argument still follow? Second, that the primary movement of Locke is a movement of radical inclusion; what does this mean for the very question of the social compact? Do all groups depend on some exclusion, as Freud, a Jew already concerned about the stirrings of proto-fascism in Germany at the end of The Great War, would have it in our epigraph above?

Let’s treat the second of these first. Locke’s call for equality is radical. Full stop. Locke was writing in, about, and for a society so structured by aristocratic rule that even after cutting off the head of their king, they ended up inviting another king to return because they they couldn’t figure out what to do with themselves (a gross oversimplification, but with a grain of real truth).

The execution of King Charles I, contemporary German print from the National Portrait Gallery (London), “The most abhorrent outrageous execution, performed on the most serene and most grandly powerful Carl Stuart, king in Great Britain, France and Ireland etc. in London before Whitehall Palace, Tuesday 30 January [Julian] / 9 February [Gregorian] in the year 1649, between 2 and 3 pm,”

With regard to arguing for the political empowerment of all men, he professed not just a radical equality, but a right to seize that equality via revolution if it was denied. While we will not be reading the final chapter of the treatise, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” it is perhaps the most important political writing of the modern world, after which revolution after revolution will follow its blueprint, more often than not explicitly invoking it; Locke’s words echo, literally, throughout the writings of the American Revolution, as just the one instance most pertinent to us.

His critique of paternal power (chapter six), is another example of this. His insistence on the separation of powers is not just for branches of government; it is more fundamental, and extends to the most intimate social relations: “these two Powers, Political and Paternal, are so perfectly distinct and separate” (§71). While probably women and definitely children are excluded from full political equality, Locke’s rationalization of the bases of paternal power and separation of it from a vision of nested political power are, relative to Locke’s time, a massive increase in the power of both. For Locke, the father is not the king of his own castle; there are no tyrants in the home (but cf. Shylock and Jessica). Rights, grounded in natural law, extend to women and children. A notion that seems obvious to us now, but only because theorists such as Locke made it so. Even his theory of punishment, seemingly brutal to us insofar as he argues that it is justified to kill a mere thief, is enlightened for the time and holds the seed for the penal reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. In short, Locke lays the groundwork for the Enlightenment, universal human rights, and the democratic revolutions of the centuries to come. A heady achievement in the realm of political theory.

Which leads us back to our first point to keep in mind: whether the exclusions that Locke does deploy are necessary or contingent. This brings us to the heart of our argument in this essay, but we needed to emphasize Locke’s radically equalizing philosophy first, lest we be lead astray. It is necessary to recognize what and how Locke includes to see what is at stake in what he excludes. As a consequence, if his exclusion is contingent (the byproduct of someone writing 350 years ago), we could revise Locke and simply extend natural law to that excluded group. But if it is necessary, we would need to abandon Locke’s system and begin to think of new and more appropriate foundations for our social compact. Even then, though, Locke at least gives us the right to revolution, to choose our own path, unbeholden to a time immemorial.

II. The Other Side of Reason

Which brings us to our argument: what is the fundamental exclusion for Locke? Here are our candidates: animals, criminals, foreigners, native peoples, slaves, the earth, children, madmen, women, servants. Here is their order of appearance:

Madmen60“Tutor,” “Parents”
Wife (woman)82Husband

Now, let us go ahead and reduce this list from those who are partially excluded to those who are totally excluded from the social compact. Aliens (foreigners) and native peoples (Indians) can both enter into compacts, or have their own compacts; criminals can reenter the compact, children can age into the compact, the compact applies to women (even if their status is unclear at this point), and servants are definitely governed by it. “The Earth” is a strange edge case that we’re going to put aside along with animals, whose exclusion is important but whose inclusion is impossible, according to Locke’s standards. (Feel free to argue about any of these choices in your discussion section!) That leaves us with two categories of individuals structurally excluded from the social compact, the slave and the madman.

At first glance, it seems that the slave is the most fully excluded from the social compact. Indeed, the exclusion of the slave is explicitly framed in this fashion, not only in the chapter on slavery, but in chapter VII on Political Society: “These Men [slaves] having, as I say, forfeited their Lives, and with it their Liberties, and lost their Estates; and being in the State of Slavery, not capable of any Property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of Civil Society” (§85). The whole logic of the social compact is structured by slavery: the slave is the one who violates the law of nature, by planning to murder or enslave someone, and is the reason that men (yes, just men for now) join together and enter a compact in the first place. No need for slavery = no need to enter the social compact. It’s not that you cannot have one without the other, it’s that you do not need one without the other. And in fact, if we recognize that property, and the regulation thereof, is the fundamental tenet of Locke’s system, then it makes sense that slavery, an extreme from of property in humans, is the ultimately exclusion from a system based on property. This is the reason that a person “cannot, by Compact, or his own Consent, enslave himself to any one” (§23). Locke’s system seems to break without slavery.

Or so it seems. My more general argument is that to understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions. But my more specific argument here is that ultimately, it is the figure of Unreason that defines the outside of Locke’s social. It is the figure of the madman, and not the slave, that is more fundamental.

To understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions.

The central reason is that the border between slave and citizen is permeable, but the one between madness and citizenship is not. Locke explicitly tells us that “Slavery ceases, as long as the Compact endures” (§24), and the introduction of any compact ends slavery. While slavery might be structurally necessary, it is not permanently excluded. A slave may become a member of the community once again. This is not possible for anyone lacking reason: “And so Lunaticks and Ideots are never set free from from the Government of their Parents … Madmen, which for the present cannot possible have the use of right Reason to guide themselves, have for their Gude, the Reason that guideth other Men which are Tutors over them” (§60). Locke makes this equation between reason and freedom quite explicit: “But if through defects … any one comes not to such a degree of Reason … he is never capable of being a Free Man” (§60) and “Thus we are born Free, as we are born Rational” (§61). My emphasis here is, of course, on the word “never.”

Moreover, the logic of this exclusion runs throughout all the other exclusions. Children are only born “to” equality, not “in” it because their reason only develops as they age (§55). Animals are excluded because they have no capacity for it, servant’s contracts are limited (and they lose no rights therein) because they enter into them because of it. And if we look closely, we can see that slaves only become so because they are, in effect, momentarily without reason when they violate the natural law, which is structured by reason, and either violate the social compact if it already exists or cause it to be entered into if it does not yet exist. Choosing to make war is, structurally, a moment of madness for Locke, ephemeral like the moment of force in which a person may defend themselves from a criminal.

Thus, unreason is a necessary structuring principle for Locke’s society, whereas slavery is a contingent one. And if we excluded slavery from Locke’s social compact and replaced it with, say, the same punishment that a criminal receives, it would seem to work just as well (a close reading of the 13th Amendment to our constitution is instructive here). Indeed, even criminal punishment per se might be unnecessary, as long as we could achieve reparations and deterrence in some other way; in other words, if we could find another rational basis for the purpose of criminality.

But there is no alternative rationale for rationality. Now, none of this is to apologize for Locke’s inclusion of slavery in his system; he bears real responsibility for that atrocity, not just as a government minister, but as the person who wrote the first constitution for the Carolinas based on slavery (see the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina). Nevertheless, the question of rationality—what reason means, how it functions, who has it, who doesn’t, when someone has it or doesn’t—is ultimately what seems to structure who belongs, and who can never belong to Locke’s social compact. Those who are excluded from reason, and the history of that exclusion, is still central to our political life today.