The Dark Side of the Labour Theory of Value

Marxist labour theory of value advocates for the rights of the workers who are the ones producing value via their labour. But its predecessor, coming to us from Locke, may not have been so well-intentioned.

Here it’s important to understand a little of the legal basis for dispossessing people who had the misfortune already to be living in territories coveted by European settlers. This was, almost invariably, what nineteenth-century jurists came to call the ‘Agricultural Argument’, a principle which has played a major role in the displacement of untold thousands of indigenous peoples from ancestral lands in Australia, New Zealand, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas: processes typically accompanied by the rape, torture and mass murder of human beings, and often the destruction of entire civilizations.

Colonial appropriation of indigenous lands often began with some blanket assertion that foraging peoples really were living in a State of Nature – which meant that they were deemed to be part of the land but had no legal claims to own it. The entire basis for dispossession, in turn, was premised on the idea that the current inhabitants of those lands weren’t really working. The argument goes back to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690), in which he argued that property rights are necessarily derived from labour. In working the land, one ‘mixes one’s labour’ with it; in this way it becomes, in a sense, an extension of oneself. Lazy natives, according to Locke’s disciples, didn’t do that. [...]

As indigenous legal scholars have been pointing out for years, the ‘Agricultural Argument’ makes no sense, even on its own terms. There are many ways, other than European-style farming, in which to care for and improve the productivity of land.

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e.g. Amazonian "gardening" of the rainforest


dawn-of-everything Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Signal. ↩︎ 1