For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Making of Homo Faber: John Locke between Ideology and History"

by Hundert, E J (1972)


The modern inquiry into the idea and value of work has its roots in the seventeenth-century English debate over "the employment of the poor"; a debate punctuated by a long series of state papers and Acts of Parliament proclaiming that labor problems were plaguing the nation.1 Workers appeared to be slothful, unreliable, and attached to irregular and dangerous habits.2 Their undisciplined behavior was found most alarming by those men interested in commercial expansion, since they discovered that "we cannot make our English cloth so cheap as they do in other countries because of the sharpe idleness and stubborness of our poor."3 Economists, merchants, and ministers encountered a population steadily being driven from its landed, feudal status into the untried conditions of increasing commercial competition. High unemployment and rising relief rolls were almost constant problems, and it was assumed that at least a significant minority of the population lived in conditions of chronic poverty and were a permanent threat to public.

Key Passage

 By treating labor as a commodity, Locke established as legitimate the premise that is at the heart of liberal social thought. Viewing human action and personality as things owned and thus alienable, he subsumed them under the category of commodities whose movement results from market operations. Seen in this way Locke's elevation of work to the distinctly human sphere takes on a double meaning. While human creation (both as activity and product) is raised to a supramundane significance, its operations (both in the sense of what one is doing and what one has done) are fully removed from the private sphere and brought into the public domain. The latter, viewed as an unrestricted market, confers social worth upon personal endeavor. Work is the activity which begins the appropriative process by producing value. It is the foundation of personal and social activity. Workers (their activity viewed as a commodity) have failed in the market and are thus an inferior order of men. This conception morally explains the value of industriousness, and at the same time accounts for the inferior position of working men. By merging human value and market value Locke raised work to a moral standard while reducing workers to an order of men whose humanity has proved deficient by their social failure.  (p.14)


Locke, Property, History Of Ideas, Theory Of Labor, Seventeenth Century


On Locke

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