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Are Black Americans Living in Locke’s ‘State of Nature’?

Open Book with Glasses Black Americans

Roar writer Laura Maxwell on how John Locke’s “State of Nature” theory can help us understand the plight of Black Americans.

For centuries, philosophers and political thinkers have made attempt after attempt to navigate the world around us, investigating how we interact and relate to one another. More specifically, what does it mean to live in a civil society, and what exactly are the duties and expectations of leaders?

In the seventeenth century John Locke, among others, proposed the ideal conditions of a civil society against the backdrop of increasingly powerful monarchs such as Charles II. In so doing, Locke warned contemporaries of the dangers of absolute rule. With no enforceable rule of law to which even leaders must adhere to, citizens, along with their freedoms and liberties, are uncertain and unprotected, living in what Locke calls a “state of nature”. As a society, we like to think we are far from such mixed-constitutional dictatorships. However, what if this is not the case?

It could be argued that bestowing the majority of your faith and trust in the rule of law which governs our society is a privilege not everyone is afforded. And we don’t have to look far from home to recognise qualities of Locke’s pre-civil society in the relationship between African Americans and the law, including those who shape, frame, and enforce it. The events of the last decade are a testimony to what Black Americans knew all along: we do not live in an equal society whereby our local and national leaders are unquestionably trying to protect us. To be clear, I am not diminishing or undermining the discrimination and struggles that Black people outside of America or other minority groups certainly face. Instead, I wish to use Black Americans as a case study by which to examine whether Locke’s proposal of the existence of a state of nature can be recognised and observed in a 21st century context.

Locke presents the state of nature as man’s natural community prior to entering a political society; it is a pre-political condition characterised by absolute equality between all men and, devoid of a common authority and legal jurisdiction, the right to dispense one’s own justice, even going so far as to murder. In other words, in this somewhat idyllic state, man is his own boss, and because there is no politically mandated hierarchy, there is no higher being who can commit “injustice”. This might sound like a great ideal to some people initially; but, as you could probably imagine, and as Locke argues, that would almost inevitably result in chaos and perpetuated fear.

This behaviour devolves into what Locke describes as “a state of war”. It is precisely this concern for oneself and one’s property which incentivises man to sacrifice his “natural rights” in exchange for peace and security provided by the state and its leader – be they a king or, as in most modern contexts, an elected leader.

Locke categorises the state of nature as one where there is no security or safety; where there is no common authority protecting our civil liberties or freedoms supposedly guaranteed by civil society. This is precisely the reason why man would hand-over his natural liberties. Therefore, the purpose behind civil society is negated if such fears and securities are not there.

Returning to the present day, I, like many people before me, tried to situate the philosophy and “self-evident truths” of Lockean thought into my society. What would Locke have to say about the relationship between Black Americans and the police, the incarceration stats disproportionately representing Black Americans, the election of a man whose track record is tainted with the brutality and trauma of ethnic and sexual minorities? It’s not too difficult to envision Locke’s conceptualisation of a state of war come to life, characterised by economic and social disparities, distrust of law enforcement, and cultural erosion. Is the ongoing physical and mental torment of African Americans the modern-day equivalent to Locke’s “state of war”?

Of course, racism and prejudice existed before the era of Trumpism. In fact, there are those who argue that the election of Donald Trump only shined light onto eyes that have until recently been blind to the discrimination and inequality African Americans have known and experienced for centuries. However, it is a definitive element of the state of nature, as proposed by Locke, that man is catapulted into a state of war when there is no longer a “common judicator to appeal to”.

Despite the relieving success of now-President Biden’s victory, we cannot and should not fool ourselves into believing that the seed of hatred and ignorance Donald Trump and those before him planted has died. We cannot make the same blind mistakes which doomed us after Barack Obama’s election. To pretend that we are living in a post-racial world where the colour of your skin doesn’t have social, cultural, and economic consequences is to ignore the disparities and obstacles Black Americans continue to face every day. The presupposition that we lived in a world that has evolved beyond racial prejudice has, in my view, been complicit in the flourishing of alt-right ideology and demagogues, largely unnoticed and unchecked. Donald Trump didn’t appear out of nowhere and magically garner enough support to hold the most powerful office in the world; he was put there by like-minded politicians and populace, scapegoating their problems onto those less fortunate than themselves.

It is in moments such as these that referring back to the works of now-ancient political thinkers has its utility. What kind of testament is it to our society – one which we have characterised by progress, fairness, and enlightenment – that we have yet to see the error of our ways in regard to the structural racism operating before our very eyes? In other words, under the leadership of frivolous narcissists concerned only with their legacies and bank accounts, can Black Americans – as well as other ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, for that matter – be said to be living in a civil society at all? Or are they currently stuck in a perpetual state of nature?

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