DOI: 10.30443/POI2019-0016

Labour unveiled. Identity, Type of Work, and (In)Dependence in 16th-17th England and Locke’s Political Theory

di Fabio Mengali


My research aims to investigate the multi-layered concept of work in John Locke’s philosophy, with regard to subjective freedom, political agency, and citizenship rights, so as to draw a framework of interpretation which may foster a new reading of contemporary quandaries. Considering previous discussions on work and servitude by prominent authors of Early Modern England (More, Thomas Smith, Hobbes, Milton, Harrington, Tyrrell, Sidney), this study first focuses on the two-fold meaning of the concept of work in Locke’s economic and political reflections. On one hand, it relates to the capacity to mould nature with arts and knowledge (in Arendt’s words, the production of homo faber); on the other hand, it encompasses the unfree and strenuous human activity apt to meet natural needs with no poietical aim (the reproduction of animal laborans). Second, by investigating Locke’s stance on citizenship, this paper shows how only the ‘productive’ kind of work (performed by landlords and artisans) grants property, independence, and full membership to the English society, whereas the other condemns subjects (i.e., waged labourers, servants, and women) to dependence on salary, subjection, and social inferiority. Finally, in the wake of this interpretation, this study aims to cast new light on the current configuration of work in Western capitalistic societies. Although nowadays work is consistent with market freedom and citizenship from a judicial point of view, material repercussions on personal autonomy cannot be underestimated. According to job type and social status (i.e., the possession of in-dividual resources), a worker may be dependent on their salary – and thus on their employer – to outlive. The result is an increase in subjection to unfree and unpaid work as well as in the number of working hours. From this stand-point, it is hard to assert that every worker is as free and equal as another. Even in post-Fordist society and in 4.0 form work, dependence still seems to affect political agency.

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