Dussel’s Critique of Locke’s Social Contract Theory: The Underside of Western Liberalism (1)

[See the endnotes for translations of Spanish into English]

Enrique Dussel’s critique of John Locke’s social contract theory exposes the moral duplicity and racism in the tradition of Western liberalism. Commenting on the political philosophy of Locke, Dussel writes: “Todos somos igualmente libres y propietarios… , pero, al final del argumento, ha justificado que se haya conquistado legítimamente a millones de indios, y que se hayan ocupado sus tierras, y se haya esclavizado justamente a millones de campesinos africanos” (2007, 275 [147]) (Note 2). Locke’s social contract theory continues the tradition of early modernity of blaming the victims of European conquest for their own victimization and absolving the perpetrators of culpability for mass murder, rape, and the exploitation and enslavement of Indigenous and African peoples. Locke, like Spanish Theologian Gines de Sepulveda (1494-1573) before him, justifies a state of exception that suspends the ethical treatment of the racialized victims of conquest and subjugation, or more precisely, the racialization is the act of suspension, that is, of dehumanization. Today Western liberalism continues to evolve without pretending to conceal its totalizing project.

The neoliberal political-economic model, the progeny of Lockean classical liberalism, portrays global corporate capitalism as consistent with human nature, political autonomy, and economic development. But as Istvan Meszaros points out, the inner logic of the capital system requires unlimited increase in the rate of profit, despite the reality of limited natural resources, and growing economic inequality (2015). In the process of pursuing its ethically impossible ends, the capital system generates social antagonisms that it cannot resolve. At its “extreme limits” writes Meszaros, it has to submit everything “including the supposedly autonomous power of political decision-making–to its own mechanism of strict control” (49). When the state is politically subordinated to Capital, the interests of constituents are subordinated to the interests of Capital, and this is a major cause of constituent alienation from constituted power. It is for this reason the prevailing system, which has fetishized the delegated power of the people, resorts to ever increasing violence and surveillance in the face of popular challenges to its hegemony not only in the global south, but in the north as well.

Francis Fukuyama’s much acclaimed announcement of the “end of history” with the collapse of real socialism in 1989 was trumpeted by neoconservatives in the United States as the harbinger of a New American Century. The vehicle for this new century was to be US-NATO led globalization of the neoliberal economic model. Far from bringing peace and prosperity, the project has imposed a period of continuous war and an ever expanding state of exception. The totalizing system takes itself to be the standard bearer of democracy and human rights, while tramping on those nations which dare to exercise democratic procedures for ends that to not conform to the Washington Consensus.

In the face of growing public dissent, the US-NATO alliance denies the de facto multipolar world, politicizes human rights, dehumanizes migrants, devastates the biosphere, and threatens the survival of the human species. It is no surprise then, that in linking Locke to contemporary Western liberalism, Dussel refers to Emmanuel Levinas’s comment on war: “The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.” (1969/1961, 21). Today the state of exception, which claims a facade of legality, gives license to police to murder people of color with impunity and intern refugees from Central America in concentration camps. We return to Locke to see one of the philosophical political roots of this suspension of the ethical in Locke’s social contract theory.

En Política de la liberación, historia mundial y crítica, Dussel argues that in  Locke’s (1632-1704) Second Treatise on Government (1952/1690), Locke offers a justification of the first bourgeois revolution and the regime established in England in 1688. Locke’s defense of this new social compact includes an apologetic for nascent capitalism. It pretends to uphold the equality and liberty of all humankind, yet ends up defending conquest, slavery and gross economic inequality. For Locke, Dussel writes:

“El ‘estado civil’ garantizará el cumplimiento de las exigencias de la ley natural (y divina) por medio de la institución de la ley positiva y de un juez que pueda dirimir equitativamente los conflictos y defender los derechos. Esta finalidad, y la argumentación que la justifica, se invierte al ir desarrollando el tratamiento del tema, y oculta un contenido semántico inconfesable estructural: el capitalismo naciente. Por ello Locke se convertirá en el gran filósofo del liberalismo occidental, hoy en crisis.” (2007, 271) (Note 3)

Here I will focus on Dussel’s critique of Locke’s defense of the morality of private property and of war against the African and Amerindian peoples. Dussel takes issue with the arguments by means of which Locke inverts and conceals the unethical core of nascent capitalism. In the Second Treatise, Locke claims both that all humankind is equal and free in the state of nature, and that unequal possession of private property and slavery is justified. How are these inconsistencies resolved? I will briefly rehearse the arguments in each case as well as discuss Dussel’s critical response.

The law of nature, asserts Locke, “teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (1952, 5). Locke elaborates that in the state of nature we ought to preserve our own lives, and “will the peace and preservation of all mankind” (1952, 6). Without the deterrence of a sovereign, however, humankind tends to succumb to passion and transgress the natural law, and this leads to general insecurity. In order to preserve life and protect private property rights, individuals in the state of nature are motivated to enter into a social compact to form a government that will safeguard these rights.

Locke argued that there are two forms of private property in the state of nature established prior to the social contract. For Locke, “every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (17 [27]). By mixing his labor, or the labor of “servants”, with a natural resource, the individual makes that resource his property to the extent that he can make use of it without causing waste (see Locke 1952, 17 [26-27], 19 [31]). This is the origin of the private right to remove resources from the commons, a right Locke insists does not require the assent of others (18 [28]). Since presumably there are enough resources for everyone, this right is consistent with the claims of equality and liberty. Of course this presumption is not borne out in practice.

But now comes the inversion. Locke also argues that there is tacit agreement individuals should be able to use money to accumulate more property than is needed for their own consumption. In this way one can become a large property owner. Large property owners, according to the argument, do not necessarily create waste because commodities that may perish can be sold to others besides themselves in exchange for money; since money is durable and a universal means of exchange, it facilitates accumulation. Again, this means of exchange, says Locke, garners tacit consent within the state of nature (Locke, 1952, 22 [36]) (Note 4). Philosopher Richard Ashcraft maintains that for Locke “any successive development or notion of property . . . presupposes this fundamental right to subsistence, which all individuals can claim as natural right” (1994, 242). It is not clear, however, how this natural right of subsistence can be made consistent with the right of private accumulation, especially if such accumulation deprives others of their “natural right of subsistence.”

Locke, argues Dussel, employs the distinction between the state of nature and the post compact civic state in a way that ends up concealing the naturalization of social domination and economic inequality of a nascent capitalist system (see Dussel, 2007, 275 [147]). Dussel maintains that Locke’s premise that one’s person and labor are forms of property is false based on the integral mind-body constitution of the human subject. In this view, one does not possess or have one’s personhood or body as one possesses a tool or instrument. One is a person existing as an undivided lived body (Dussel 2007, 276 [148]). For example, I have a hammer and take the hammer to hand to drive a nail into the wood, but I do have my hand as something I take to hand as I would a possession. I interact with the world through my body. I am, in the Heideggerian sense, a being-in-the-world.

By defining persons and their bodies as property, Locke is able to justify their objectification and instrumentalization. In Politica de la liberación, historia mundial y crítica, Dussel identifies this reification of persons and living labor as the key to the anthropology that informs early modernity: “Toda cosificación alienante es negación de la dignidad ética de la subjetividad . . . . Esa ‘reificación’ de la persona, del cuerpo o del trabajo es, exactamente, el momento defectivo central de la antropología, de la ética, y por ello de la economía, de la Modernidad de Locke” (Dussel, 2009, 276-77 [147]; see also Dussel, 2014, 61-62 [4.41-4.43]) (Note 5). By naturalizing a right to private property on an ever expanding scale, Locke’s Second Treatise implicitly justifies the role of government as defender of accumulation of wealth by a minority at the expense of the exploitation of the large majority of dispossessed humanity (2014, 61-62 [4.41-4.43]).

The Second Treatise also provides an implicit defense of European subjugation of African and Amerindian peoples. On the one hand, Locke argues that in a state of nature all humankind is free and equal. On the other hand, he argues that it is justified to subjugate and wage war on others if they fall under certain categories. For Locke, says Dussel, “se entra en el estado de guerra cuando hay alguien que se opone a la ley natural o nos odia sin motivo justo ” (Dussel 2007, 237 [125]; see Locke 1952, 6 [8]) (Note 6). In chapter III of the Second Treatise, ‘on the state of war’, Locke declares: “by the fundamental law of nature . . . one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion, because such men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey . . .” (1952, 11 [16]). Who identifies the wolves? In the state of nature anyone can be the judge of what qualifies as being an act of hostility; all who believe someone is an enemy “have a right to punish the offender and be executioner of the law of nature” (7 [8]). Since judgements on these matters may conflict, one of the motivations of forming a pact and instituting political society is to gain the benefit of an impartial judge to determine who is an enemy of the body politic and who is not (Locke, 1952, 14 [21]).

Having established a civic state, in the absence of an international judicial authority, there is once again a state of nature, but in this case it is between states and each state must decide the issue of war. The key point here is that once it is determined that a person or nation hates the offended party or is considered an aggressor, that enemy is marked for annihilation or servitude. In the chapter IV on slavery, Locke argued that if someone deserves death, such as one with whom we are at war or who hates us [referring by ‘us’ to the English bourgeoisie] the victor can delay putting him to death and “make use of him to his own service; and does him no injury by it” (15 [23]). The reason there is no injury is that the one who is enslaved can end his or her bondage by being disobedient to the master, who then has a right to kill him. The political philosopher often identified as a major champion of individual liberty and property rights, it appears, extends the charitable option to the “offender” (who is in reality a victim) to die instead of suffering servitude.

Dussel argues that Locke justifies a war against the innocent Amerindian and African who are viewed as either violating the rules of the state of nature, as hostile, or as hating us (again, “us” refers to the rising European bourgeoisie). Not only does “just” war invert the reality of victim versus perpetrator, it creates a state of exception that suspends the application of ethical standards and laws to the victims and justifies the use of despotic powers against them.

“El estado de guerra es así como un estado de excepción . . . en la que el Otro, la dignidad de la Alteridad, es aniquilado. Esta negación de todo derecho del Otro, que, como veremos, queda nuevamente reafirmada en el concepto de “poder despótico”, es lo que Locke debía probar, pero al darlo como un supuesto, torna tautológico todo su argumento. ” (Dussel 2007, 238 [126]) (Note 7)

Dussel insists here that Locke has assumed what he ought to prove, namely, that it is ethically possible to deny the Alterity and dignity of the Other. In the state of war, as a state of exception, the dignity of the Other is negated as a condition of the expansion and domination of capital. Political liberalism has sought to cover over the historic disenfranchisement of subjugated and colonized peoples by professing formal equality of “all” people while naturalizing material inequality based on race, gender, and location. The principle of consent of the governed, however, which affords democratic legitimacy to constituted power, is severely compromised even prior to the civic compact, for the people who “expressly” consent to the commonwealth are generally male, European property owners. The others, those who are landless or non-European, but live in the midst of full members of the compact, are, by the “tacit consent” of their mere presence, expected to comply with the rule of law (see Dussel, 2007, 277-82 [149-151]).

Locke’s social contract theory offers an account of the transfer of power from property owners in a “state of nature” to a political society that defends their right, by force, to capital accumulation and the domination of Other people’s land and labor. This idea of the social contract pretends to naturalize the contradiction between the professed political autonomy of all humankind on the one hand and the domination of government and civil society by the interests of the rising bourgeoisie.

For Dussel, the hypothesized state of nature already carries the seed of exclusion and domination of the Other. The social contract is intended to codify and defend the instrumentalization of living labor (in the form of labor power subsumed by capital) and private accumulation already posited in the state of nature.

The racialized, subjugated, exploited Other, is not inevitably the passive victim of the state of exception. It is from within ethical communitarian intersubjectivity that the myth of modernity is exposed and the ethical principles that guide a liberatory practice are developed. After 500 years of resistance, millions of colonized peoples have reclaimed their sovereignty and will not be turned back by the ongoing attempts by neoliberal capital at recolonizing their minds, labor, and land.

Dussel rejects the notion that there is a state of nature or natural disposition of human subjects to be at war with each other. He maintains that, on the contrary, human beings are social animals and have communal instincts that can be awakened and cultivated. In his ethical theory, Dussel argues that what is good is what advances all human life and the growth of human life in community, according to democratic procedures and within the parameters of what is feasible. There is no a priori or state of nature that would exclude any human subject from this community. The delegation of constituent power by the community of human life in the act of institution or constitution is conditioned by the continuing obedience of constituted power to the norms derived from the ethical principles and consultation with constituents. Constituted power becomes fetishized when its protagonists are disobedient, corrupt, and take themselves as the point of reference against the interests of constituents. In such an inevitable case, it is the responsibility of constituent power to recuperate its sovereignty by building a new consensus that calls into question the legitimacy of the fetishized constituent power. This political responsibility of the pueblo does not evaporate in the social contract. Dussel insists potentia or constituent power “is not an initial empirical moment in time but rather a foundational moment that always remains in force beneath institutions and actions (that is, beneath potestas)” (2008, 21 [3.2.2]; see also 2011, 203-204). The philosophy of liberation accompanies this foundational moment in the struggle of social movements, Indigenous peoples, and progressive governments to overcome the state of exception and create a new pluriversal world, a world in which many worlds can fit.

Ashcraft, R. (1994). Locke’s political philosophy. In The cambridge companion to Locke. Vere Chappell, Ed. Vere Chappell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dussel, E. (2007). Política de la liberación. Historia mundial y crítica. Madrid: Editorial Trotta.
Dussel, E. (2008). Twenty theses on politics. (G. Ciccariello-Maher, Trans.). Forward by E. Mendieta. Durham: Duke University Press.
Dussel, E. (2009). Política de la Liberación. Volumen II, arquitectónica. Madrid: Editorial Trotta. Selections translated into English by Frederick B. Mills.
Dussel, E. (2011). Carta a los indignados. México: La Jornada Ediciones. Selections translated into English by Frederick Mills.
Dussel, E. (2013). Ethics of liberation in the age of globalization and exclusion. (E. Mendieta, C. P. Bustillo, Y. Angulo, and N. Maldonado-Torres, Trans.). A. A. Vallega (Ed.). Durham: Duke University Press. (The original Spanish version was published in 1998 by Editorial Trotta)
Dussel, E. (2014). 16 tesis de economía política: Interpretación filosófica. DF, Mexico: XXI Editores. Selections translated into English by Frederick B. Mills.
Dussel, E. (2016). 14 Tesis de ética: Hacia la esencia del pensamiento crítico. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, S.A. Selections translated into English by Frederick B. Mills.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority. (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Locke, J. (1952). The second treatise of government. T. P. Peardon (Ed.). New York: The Liberal Arts Press. (Original work published 1690).
Locke, J. (1952). The second treatise of government. T. P. Peardon (Ed.). New York: The Liberal Arts Press. (Original work published 1690).
Meszaros, I. (2015). The necessity of social control. New York: Monthly Review.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the I Congreso Internacional “Posglobalizacion, Descolonizacion y Transmodernidad”, La Asociación de Filosofía y Liberación, Universidad Autónomo, Ciudad Juárez, September 28, 2017.
  2. Translation: We are all equally free and owners…, but at the end of the argument, the legitimate conquest of millions of Indians, the occupation of their lands, and the just enslavement of millions of African peasants has been justified.”
  3. Translation: The “civil state” will ensure compliance with the requirements of the natural (and divine) law through the institution of positive law and a judge who can settle disputes equitably and defend rights. This purpose, and the argumentation that justifies it, is inverted in developing the treatment of the theme, and it hides a structural unavowable semantic content: nascent capitalism. That is why Locke will become the great philosopher of Western liberalism, now in crisis.”
  4. The political community of male property owners that enters into a pact seeks to preserve these property rights in the civic state. It is notable that Locke frequently insists that one of the worst transgressions is for government to confiscate property. Yet he appears to justify the appropriation of Amerindian land when he suggests that what the European considers uncultivated land is part of the commons and therefore could justifiably be privatized to produce “many conveniences of life” (Locke, 1952, 23 [37]; see also 27 [45]; Dussel, 2007, 273 [145]).
  5. Translation: All alienating reification is a denial of the ethical dignity of subjectivity. . . . This ‘reification’ of the person, of the body or of work is, exactly, the central defective moment of anthropology, of ethics, and therefore of economics, of Locke’s Modernity.
  6. Translation: one enters into a state of war when there is someone that opposes the natural law or hates us without just motive.
  7. Translation: The state of war is like a state of exception . . . in which the Other, the dignity of Alterity, is annihilated. This negation of all rights of the Other, which, as we shall see, is again reaffirmed in the concept of “despotic power”, is what Locke had to prove, but by giving it as an assumption, his whole argument becomes tautological.

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