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An Uneasy Affair: William Godwin and English Radicalism, 1793-1797

Chapter 4: Property and Accumulation

Godwin's economic thought, like his politics, is a branch of moral philosophy. He is not concerned with economic problems as such, but with the correlated problems of morals and politics. He ignores any discussion of exchange and takes no account of supply and demand. He introduces the labor theory of value, not as a factor in determining prices of commodities, but for its connection with the ethical problem of property rights. In the last section of Political Justice, "Of Property," Godwin examined the institution of private property and prevailing opinions on government, coercion, law, and punishment, in other words, the connection with those subjects he had treated earlier in Political Justice. His preoccupation throughout the section on property is with the moral consequences of private property and inequality, and in particular, the ruinous effects of inequality upon man's moral and intellectual development.

In short, Godwin's objection to inequality is a moral one. He is not concerned primarily with the political or economic consequences of inequality. He does, however, despise the system which produces and maintains material inequality because it means selfishness, servility, suppression of free thought, and the prevention of the free development essential to man's improvement. The system makes rich and poor alike something less than human. Hence, his theory of property is also inextricably connected to his conception of human perfectibility. Since nothing can be accomplished in society unless by "sober and tranquil reason," no violent change is to be encouraged in the institution of property. The only genuine and permanent revolution is one of opinion. This is necessary because property, according to Godwin, is founded in "the sacred and indefeasible right of private judgment" and as such is the "palladium of all that ought to be dear to us, and must never be approached but with awe and veneration."[1]

Property, according to Godwin, is the "keystone that completes the fabric of political justice."[2] As such, it occupies a peculiar place in Godwin's philosophy and is unexplainable without an understanding of his Rational Dissent. For it is Godwin, the secular Puritan, his Sandemanianism absorbed, who can proudly admit that the good things of the world are the common property of all men. Property ought, in all justice, to belong not to he that possesses it, but to he on whom it may confer the greatest benefit. Hence, Godwin's theory of property is based upon utility and not upon the mindless and wasteful accumulation of wealth. The criterion of utility, it might be added, was as much a result of his Sandemanianism as it was of his absorption of Lockian precepts of property. Moreover, wholly in accord with his notions of perfectibility and critique of government, Godwin insists that, "the period, that must put an end to the system of 'coercion' and 'punishment' is intimately connected with the circumstance of property's being placed upon an equitable basis."[3] But placing property upon an "equitable basis" is not synonymous with the general leveling of private property. This has specifically revolutionary implications, and as we have seen, deserves Godwin's censure because it produces vice, barbarism and tumult. Godwin rejects the contemporary radical solution to existent inequalities of wealth upon grounds fully consistent with his philosophy of perfectibility.

If by positive institution, the property of every man were equalized today, without a contemporary change in man's dispositions and sentiments, it would become unequal tomorrow. The same evils would spring up with a rapid growth; and we should have gained nothing, by a project, which, while it violated every man's habits, and many men's inclinations, would render thousands miserable.[4]

The transformation to a simple form of society is to proceed first upon a revolution in the mind of man. Political justice is the key from its precepts flow the true and equitable basis of property.

For Godwin, property is founded upon the right of private judgment and independence of spirit. Each man has his own private sphere of acquisition which is limited in extent by the sphere of another person. This sphere is inviolable and essential to the true nature of man's existence. It is also within each man's sphere that he can be said to create himself through his labor. All men ought to work -- the mathematician, the poet and the philosopher -- because it "makes them feel that they are men."[5] Yet, according to Godwin, "we have in reality nothing that is strictly speaking our own. We have nothing that has not a destination prescribed to it by the immutable voice of reason and justice. . . ."[6] Man is the mere steward of the common stock of the earth's bounty, given to him by God in order to satisfy his various wants and needs. Godwin, as previously mentioned, rejected any general theory of man in a state of nature; his own notion of property is inseparable from his Christian heritage.

The main exposition of property rights is contained in Godwin's definition of the "three degrees of property"-- subsistence, individual industry, and the present state of private property. The first degree, subsistence, is bound up with the notion that every man has a permanent right in that which he possesses. This right, which is connected to his personal sphere, is consistent with Godwin's claim that he who has the best use for particular things of the world shall possess them. The condition for this species of property is utility, or, as Godwin asserts, of what is of "superior usefulness to me."[7] This permanent right is calculated by the individual on the basis that the acquisition of property reveals a greater sum of benefits or pleasures than if they had been otherwise appropriated. Guiding this acquisition is the principle of forebearance. It must constantly be 'kept in mind that one may acquire the necessities of existence only as long as one does not infringe upon the contiguous sphere of another.

The second degree of property is that of individual industry. Man is, solely on the grounds that he must produce the means of his existence, entitled to the whole produce of his individual industry; it is "the empire to which every man is entitled, over the produce of his own industry, even of that part of it the use of which ought not to be appropriated to himself."[8] Yet for Godwin this species of property is "a sort of usurpation." It is what Godwin calls a passive right, whereby the possessor is the steward, but only the steward. Man is entitled to the whole produce of his labor, yet what is his by his labor it may be necessary to give to another who, by some misfortune is in need. So for Godwin, this type of property "vests in me the preservation and dispensing of that, which in point of complete and absolute right belongs to you."[9]

The third and final degree of property to which Godwin devotes his attention is the present state of property, that is, private property. It is a "system" whereby one man disposes of the product of another man's industry. This right is bestowed by law upon certain classes of society. It is, as to be expected, this species of property which occupies "the most vigilant attention in the civilized states of Europe" that earns Godwin's ultimate wrath and disdain.[10] The love of honor, dignity, distinction and worth compel man in the present state of society to acquire more objects than is absolutely necessary. This type of property cannot truly be said to exist without some body of laws and government sanction which guarantees its attendant rights and obligations. It is superfluous luxury, and is associated with the aristocracy whom Godwin specifically denounces. Such private property does not produce human virtue or perfectibility. On the contrary, it creates a situation in which no matter how diligently people apply themselves to their labor, they will still find themselves living in poverty. In the opening pages of Political Justice, Godwin deplores the fact that the "inequality of property has risen at an alarming rate." One out of seven laborers must resort to the poor rates, and society is in a "state of war." The system of private property, Godwin continues, is an "unjust combination" in which the rich "mistake opulence for felicity." More than this, the rich are "perpetually reducing oppression into a system," and "Godwin goes even further by stating that "the manners prevailing in many countries are accurately calculated to impress a conviction that integrity, virtue, understanding and industry are nothing, and that opulence is everything."[11] But Godwin's criticism takes on a new dimension in the section on property. No longer is he merely criticizing law, authority and government, but the very economic system upon which it is based, and upon which it ultimately draws its strength.

Every man may calculate, in every glass of wine he drinks, and every ornament he annexes to his person, how many individuals have been condemned to slavery and sweat, incessant drudgery, unwholesome food, continual hardships, deplorable ignorance, and brutal insensibility, that he may be supplied with these luxuries.[12]

In short, it was the capitalist system of production, and its attendant social relations, which was directly responsible for the moral and intellectual deficiencies of eighteenth century English society. Isaac Kramnick writes that "the great ally of the rich in this oppression and brutalization of the poor was, according to Godwin, modern technology."[13] With the accumulation of private  property, men begin to design methods through which they can reap more benefits than others. These new methods are, for Godwin, machines and factories. The agricultural laborer is also a part of this general scheme of things for his existence is governed by the price his labor can achieve on the labor market. The capitalist and the capital intensive farmer, who both operate according to the same principles of maximum productivity and profit, "do not long continue to buy commodities, before they begin to buy men."[14] It is the wage contract, sanctioned by law, which Godwin also identifies as indicative of 'the present state of society. Furthermore, the division of labor, supposedly an aid to the well-oiled mechanism of production, is in actual fact, the offspring of avarice. In reference to Adam Smith's important chapter on the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations, Godwin writes:

It has been found that ten persons can make two hundred and forty times as many pins in a day as one person. This refinement is the growth of monopoly. The object is, to see how vast a surface the industry of the lower classes may be beaten, the more completely to gild over the indolent and the proud.[15]

What, for Godwin, is the present state of the laboring population of England? The economic system produces and perpetuates a state of dependence in the laborer, it produces servility and ignorance in every house in the nation. The pauper is gratified by his benefactor; the servants are sycophants; the tradesman studies the passions and inclinations of his customer with the sole object of inducing him to buy; and in the state of popular elections, the great mass of people are bought off by obsequiousness. "Indeed," writes Godwin, '"the age of chivalry is' not 'gone!' The feudal spirit still survives, that reduced the great mass of mankind to the ranks of slave and cattle, for the service of a few."[16] But the tragedy of slavery involves something still more troublesome. For the worker and his labor have been transformed into something alien to him. In the factory, "a mechanic becomes a sort of machine; his limbs and articulations I are converted, as it were, into wood and wires. Tamed, lowered, torpified into this character, he may be said perhaps to be content."[17] The ultimate opulence of the rich perpetually forces those who are not rich to sanction the wealth accrued from capitalist enterprise. It causes the rich man to stand forward as the principal object of society's esteem and deference. But, Godwin asks,

Is it well that so large a part of the community should be kept in abject penury, rendered stupid with ignorance, and disgustful with vice, perpetuated in nakedness and hunger, goaded to the commission of crimes, and made victims to the merciless laws which the rich have instituted to oppress them? Is it sedition to enquire, whether this state of things may not be exchanged for a better? Or can there be anything more disgraceful to ourselves, than to exclaim that 'All is well,' merely because we are at our ease, regardless of the misery, degradation, and vice, that may be occasioned in others?[18]

Such is the sorry state of English society as Godwin had found it in the eighteenth century. It is a society characterized by man's indifference to his fellow man, a laboring population oppressed into slavery, living, on the whole, from hand to mouth. The laborer works hard every day, enjoys his drink and his sleep, his domestic life blissful, and, "this man is in a certain sense happy. He is happier than a stone."[19] But the system of private property, law and government have rendered the laborer insensitive and ignorant. Wealth has also made other men unable to see the justice of impartial treatment. They too have been made insensitive to and ignorant of virtue, and as long as wealth is the groundwork upon which society is built, perfection, both moral and intellectual, is but a distant dream. For the wealthy "have been accustomed to the sight of injustice, oppression and iniquity, till their feelings are made callous, and their understandings incapable of apprehending the principles of virtue."[20] All individuals in society lack the proper method by which to develop the principles of virtue and political justice. This is inextricably connected with Godwin's abstract and theoretical notions of moral and intellectual perfection. His predisposition to perfectibility is, as we have seen, informed by both his Dissenting conscience and the general optimism found in his circle of friends. Yet, in his analysis of property and property relations in Book VIII of Political Justice, Godwin is criticizing industry and commerce in the practical sphere. Hence, it is an error to assume, as the majority of historians have done, that Godwin was necessarily distanced from the practical world. It is clear that he most certainly was not.

What then would be the status of labor under the Godwinian philosophy? How ought society to be organized so that all men can obtain the necessities of life and still maintain the use of property on an equitable basis? In the Enquirer Godwin writes that

there is no alternative, but that men must either have their portion of labour assigned them by society at large, and the produce collected into a common stock; or that each man must be left to exert the portion of industry, and cultivate the habits of economy, to which his mind shall prompt him.[21]

Assigning each man his specific labor in society is, for Godwin the poorest solution. It provides no real incentive to labor while simultaneously promoting tyranny simply because all men can never agree on what will produce the most amount of pleasure for themselves. It is better to allow all men to pursue their own natural labor in a "just form of society" in which each would appropriate from nature what is according to his needs and abilities.[22] Yet, under the present state of affairs, this natural harmony of interests has led to the accumulation of superfluous wealth.

It is accumulation, that forms men into one common mass, and makes them fit to be played upon like a brute machine. Were this stumbling-block removed, each man would be united to his neighbor, in love and mutual kindness, a thousand times more than now: but each man would think and judge for himself.[23]

Godwin, true to his gradualist approach to social change and human perfectibility admits that this change will occur only with time. But he is certain that it will indeed occur. The revolution in society, as to be expected, is the product of the sober and tranquil progression of reason and sincerity

If, in any society, wealth be estimated at its true value, and accumulation and monopoly be regarded as the seals of mischief, injustice and dishonor, instead of being treated as titles to attention and deference, in that society the accommodations of human life will tend to their level, and the inequality of conditions will be destroyed. A revolution of opinions is the only means of attaining to this inestimable benefit.[24]

The end to be pursued is a society at once civilized, enlightened and equalitarian, in which no one would be the owner of the product either of his own or someone else's labor, but one would enjoy the product of his own labor, in proportion to his specific needs. When Godwin asks how this is to be accomplished, he is compelled, by his liberalism, to condemn all legislative interference, all revolutionary action, everything which by its very nature is a constraint upon human actions. It is useful that men ought to distribute the products of their labor to those who are in need of assistance. Yet it would be detrimental to man if society should impose its wishes on citizens, other than by persuasion. An economic system which purports to dispose of someone else's labor is bad enough, it is even worse when a system of legal constraints is devised as a substitute for this system.

The change to a "well-conceived form of society without government"[25] is thus to be brought about by the efforts of every individual in society voluntarily to give up what would produce more utility when possessed by his neighbor then when in his own possession. This new disposition will take place, albeit slowly and surely, because the state of society in which this spirit prevails is in conformity with reason, which by its very nature, tends to grow stronger with time. In short, Godwin lays down a new condition for the harmony of interests, that is, that men cease to become egoistic and become reasonable. The result, in time, will be a state where 

men lived in the midst of plenty, and where all shared alike the bounties of nature. . . . The narrow principle of selfishness, would vanish. No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide with anxiety and pain, for his restless wants, each would lose his  individual existence, in the thought of the general good. No man would be an enemy to his neighbor, for they would have no object of contention; and of consequence, philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her. Mind would be delivered from her perpetual anxiety about corporal support, and free to expatiate in the field of thought which is congenial to her. Each  would assist the enquiries of all.[26]

In addition, men are to be made more sincere in their relations with other men. Enquiry must be followed by sincerity and, according to Godwin, must be accompanied by impartial and dispassionate discourse. Godwin has something of the Socratic gadfly about him when he admits that each man ought to be the public censor of another man's behavior. Godwin's future society consists of small parish units in which there is no government or law, but only juries which meet from time to time to discuss matters of expediency. But the true and just society would be one in which sincerity and candor become the motive forces of utility and human happiness. "How great would be the benefit, if every man were sure of meeting in his neighbor the ingenuous censor, who would tell him in person, and publish to the world, his virtues, his good deeds, his meannesses and his follies?"[27]

In Godwin, we find a fundamental belief in the idea of indefinite progress, of the domination, growing constantly more perfect, of man over nature, an idea confirmed by the rapid progress made at the time by industrial machinery and the factory. Adam Smith, by contrast, had paid only slight attention to this development in The Wealth of Nations. But the 1790s are witness to a new England, a new economic world in which new problems needed to be solved. The French Revolution attenuated this development. While the European powers were spending their energies in revolutions and wars, England was winning the monopoly of commerce and industry. The manufacture of cotton was being perfected and was producing a society in the North of England, with its sufferings and joys, of which Smith had not dreamt in 1776. Godwin, Robert Owen and a host of other English thinkers were aware that with the progress of human industry, that is, machine technology and systematized labor, poverty would continue.

It is by no means enough to reassure Godwin as to socially beneficent nature of machines, that there will result from the progress of machinery an ever-increasing demand for labor. Machines, however, are not to be held solely accountable for poverty. The fault lies with the capitalist and with the wage contract between employer and laborer. The existing system of unnatural inequality between men must be abolished. Machines would enable men to do without industrial cooperation and the division of labor which enslaves and represses individual intelligence. At present it takes many men to lay a road or dig a canal, but look, Godwin asks his reader, at the complicated machines men have created. Is it not possible that one day in the future these machines may alleviate man's burden of manual labor? The laborers are alarmed at present by the introduction of new machines. Machines rob them of enjoyable work while reducing their wages and making many jobless. But in a state of equal labor, machines will always produce the greatest utility for they are the measure of man's liberation.

Hereafter it is by no means clear that the most extensive operations will not be within the reach of one man; or, to make use of a familiar instance, that a plough may not be turned into a field, and perform its office without the need of superintendence. It was in this sense that the celebrated Franklin conjectured that 'mind would one day become omnipotent over matter.'[28]

Thus, Godwin concludes, leisure will be increased and placed at the disposal of everyone. Human life would become a "situation of alternative labour and relaxation, labour that should not exhaust the frame, and relaxation that was in no danger of degenerating into indolence."[29]

In short, the conclusions of Godwin's analysis of property and accumulation are contrary to those of Adam Smith. For the latter, the progress of the division of labor and the improvement of machinery are part and parcel of the same industrial process. For Godwin, on the other hand, they are in inverse proportion to one another. In Smith's system, the natural distribution of different kinds of production allowed all individual egoisms to be at once satisfied without conflict. For Godwin, once the artificial, unnatural and rigid institutions which make men egotistical are abolished, and the sentiments of benevolence are introduced, men will no longer deem egoism essential to their lives. The products of labor are to be distributed according to the measure of their utility. They will find their own level and flow of their own accord from the place where they flourish to the place where they are lacking.

Godwin was to live nearly forty years into the nineteenth century. It was enough time for him to witness the extraordinary changes in society produced by England's rapid industrialization. Unfortunately, the naive optimism of the philosophy of Political Justice was outmoded nearly at the time of its conception. Yet Godwin's theory of property was significant because it pointed the way to much of what was to become the foundation of early nineteenth century socialist thought. The notion that the laborer deserves the whole product of his labor was his most important contribution to the development of a socialist critique of capitalist society. His theory of property exposed the inherent conflict between the right to subsistence and the right to the whole produce of one's labor, and all subsequent forms of socialism have had to choose between the two. Godwin's solution involved the ultimate supremacy of the right to subsistence, although he recognized that no individual has the positive right to violate by force the right of someone else's labor in order to secure the means of subsistence. Indeed, it was this principle which became central to British socialist thought in the early years of the nineteenth century.


[1] Godwin, Political Justice, 2:450.

[2] Ibid., 2:450.

[3] Ibid., 2:421.

[4] Ibid., 2:438.

[5] Ibid., 2:482.

[6] Ibid., 1:162.

[7] Ibid., 2:432

[8] Ibid., 2:433.

[9] Ibid., 2:434.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 1:15-6.

[12] Ibid., 2:435.

[13] Isaac Kramnick, "On Anarchism and the Real World: William Godwin and Radical England," American Political Science Review 66 (March 1972) : 119-20. Unfortunately Kramnick does not consider the plight of the rich. Godwin's theory is necessarily comprehensive.

[14] Godwin, Political Justice, 2:464-5.

[15] Ibid., 2:513-4.

[16] Ibid., 2:455. This notion, fully developed in Political Justice, is also restated in Godwin's book of essays, The Enquirer: "There is no wealth in the world except this, the labour of man. What is misnamed wealth, is merely a power invested in certain individuals by the institutions of society, to compel others to labor for their benefit." "Of Avarice and Profusion," p. 177. It was this essay which provoked Parson Malthus to write his First Essay on Population, published in 1798. Godwin's notion of perfectibility, as well as the theory expressed by Condorcet, was a glorious bubble, destined to burst because man's capacity to produce food could not keep pace with the growth of population. Godwin, it might be added, answered Malthus in 1820 with Of Population.

[17] William Godwin, Fleetwood: or, the New Man of Feeling, 3 vols. (London, 1805), 1:277.

[18] Godwin, Political Justice, 2:112.

[19] Ibid., 1:445.

[20] Ibid., 2:458.

[21] Godwin, "Of Avarice and Profusion," in The Enquirer, p. 168.

[22] Godwin, Political Justice, 2:417.

[23] Ibid., 2:466.

[24] Ibid., 2:441.

[25] Ibid., 2:366.

[26] Ibid., 2:464.

[27] Ibid., 1:329.

[28] Ibid., 2:503.

[29] Ibid., 2:110-1.

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