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Community of oligarchs

Friday, 19 Oct 2018

John Locke on Dr John Dunn. Born in the same year as Spinoza (1632), John Locke came into the employ of Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who as a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political ideas.

John Locke

Shaftesbury was a prominent conspirator in the failed Rye House plot, an assassination attempt upon Charles II and the future James II, which aimed to sweep away the barriers to an oligarchical takeover of government. Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement. It is highly likely that from this point on at least, Locke was one of the leading collaborators with the Dutch backers of the 1688 invasion of England, later dubbed the Glorious Revolution by the victorious side.

During his exile in Amsterdam, Locke would have been receptive to the ‘counter-Renaissance’ ideas of Spinoza.

The philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein argues that during his five years in Holland, Locke chose his friends ‘from among the same freethinking members of dissenting Protestant groups as Spinoza's small group of loyal confidants’.1 Spinoza had died in 1677, but Locke almost certainly met men in Amsterdam who spoke of the ideas of the renegade Jew, whose ideas were compatible with the expansionist ambitions of a commercial oligarchy.

Locke accompanied William of Orange's wife back to England in 1688, a sure sign of his collaborationist role in the build-up to the invasion. The bulk of Locke's publishing took place upon his return from exile – the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Two Treatises of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration all appearing in quick succession.

Wim Klever has offered a torrent of textual evidence to demonstrated indisputably that Locke was not only much influenced by Spinoza's works, but that he also adopted and processed all the main items of his physics, epistemology, ethics and political theory. Klever goes so far as to call Spinoza the ‘philosophical master of Locke’.2

Klever argues that Spinoza’s ideas regarding affects directly influenced Locke’s ideas of perception arising from sensation and reflection. Ultimately, the human mind was presented by Locke as being fused to material reality, which allows human beings to adequately understand it and placed them on equal intellectual footing.

By identifying the human mind as an entity which is tied to the natural world and putting all people on the same natural footing, Spinoza and Locke proceeded towards republican political theory based on equal natural rights.

Given his association with Shaftsbury, Locke would have been highly susceptible to such a view: it is far preferable to have the state be led by the common will of the people than a singular person, as people will check themselves more effectively than an absolute ruler checks himself. The civil relationship is based upon mutual consent and ownership of civil affairs, which best determines what is good for the community as a whole.

To Spinoza and Locke, a sovereign with absolute rule was not effective. The alternative, which Spinoza proposed and Locke adopted, was a jurisdiction of common law, upheld by consensus of the community. In short, Spinoza thought that the best form of government was a republic.

However, we must not think of this as some Utopia of universal suffrage. What Spinoza, followed by Locke, had theorised was Sarpi’s 'Republick of Merchants'.

As in Sarpi’s Venice, the ‘consensus of the community’ was that of property-owning oligarchs. Their rejection of absolute monarchy was in fact a counter-Renaissance opposition to any form of sovereign national rule over the economic sphere.

Post-1688 Britain might have been nominally a kingdom, but in reality it became a 'Republick of Merchants' and its head of state was not a king but, as Disraeli pointed out, a doge.

The Liberal system of government, economy, and social philosophy was the offspring of the oligarchy-ruled Venice of Sarpi’s time. The Venetian model had transferred to the two maritime powers best placed to exploit the trading opportunities in America and Asia - the Netherlands of Spinoza and the England of John Locke. The crucial feature of the Anglo-Dutch liberal model was the independence from national government, elected or otherwise, enjoyed by a privately controlled central banking system. In effect, that central bank became the agent of the landholding, financier-oligarchic class.

1 R. Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, pp.259-60

2 W. Klever, Locke’s Disguised Spinozism, cited 8.6.18

© John Dunn.

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