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Marx’s theory of property: Who owns me?

In his reply to my posting, Who are “WE”?: Toward the beginning of an answer to Mike, Daniel makes a completely logical point about the chain of assumptions that lead most of us to the commonsense acceptance of the concept of property:

I begin from the precept that one owns oneself. That is, you own your body.

Since, each of us own ourselves, much of the logic of property appears to flow directly from this self-ownership:

You have a right to engage in economic activity to attain ownership of those things which are necessary to maintain your body and your self. You are entitled to attain ownership of those things which edify you, things which you might desire but which [may] not be vital to the maintenance of your body.

According to Daniel, it is on the basis of self-ownership, that the entire world of things can become our property through our own economic activity. We are first cut off, or separated, from the world of things — those things which are not us — and only afterward attain ownership of those things by means of some economic activity. The economic activity unites our property in ourselves with the world of things which are not ourselves. And, these things which are not ourselves become our property as a result of this economic activity.

Murray Rothbard, in his ground-breaking libertarian manifesto, For A New Liberty, makes a similar argument:

The most viable method of elaborating the natural-rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the “right to self-ownership.” The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.

This view proposes that our property becomes our own as a result of our activity, which is our own as well: thinking, learning, valuing, each choosing our own ends and means without coercion. We can engage in these purely human activities because they are themselves necessary expressions of our humanity, i.e., of our self as human. They are inextricably and irreducibly bound up with the concept of the human self. In his book, Murray argues that this concept rested on natural law. Our self-ownership was a natural extension of our quality of being human. Obviously plants and animals don’t appear to have a concept of self-ownership, so far as we can tell. So, it is likely this concept of self-ownership emerges as we became human.

However, if actually pressed for dates when, and places where, we actually became aware of this human quality of self-ownership, we would be unable to provide any distant historical or anthropological evidence for this. We could look at the Constitution and other founding documents — but they only go back a couple of hundred years. And, if it still had to be established in these documents that we were, in fact, owners of ourselves, why was this necessary and not self-evident to society at the time?

The question is posed by these documents: If it was not generally accepted that we own ourselves at the time of the founding of the United States, who owned us before then? Rather than the argument standing as Murray posed it — that we own our property because we own ourselves — it is likely that the situation was the other way around: in order to be secure in our property, we had to declare that we owned ourselves — that our property “rights” against those who would injure them rested on the concept that WE were not THEIR property.

In our society, therefore, the fundamental form of property, ownership of self, thus rests on the idea that we are not slaves — we are not the property of someone else. It is not an argument founded on natural law at all, but a declaration of a new social order in the face of the old — a revolutionary manifesto of the way society was henceforth to be organized.

Which explains why, when Karl Marx examined the concept of property, he began not with the concept of self-ownership, but the concept of slavery:

With the division of labour … is given simultaneously the distribution, and indeed the unequal distribution, both quantitative and qualitative, of labour and its products, hence property: the nucleus, the first form, of which lies in the family, where wife and children are the slaves of the husband. This latent slavery in the family, though still very crude, is the first property, but even at this early stage it corresponds perfectly to the definition of modern economists who call it the power of disposing of the labour-power of others….

Marx argues that the idea of self ownership was only the latest step in a long development of society characterized by anything but self-ownership. Society has not been a history of the individual freely disposing his or her own labor-power — the right of the individual to “think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” — rather it has been a history of the systematic “violation” of these individual “rights”, so much so that the very concept of self-ownership really does not emerge in its present form until bourgeois society (capitalism) challenges the fundamental assumptions of the old society.

The concept of self-ownership, which appears for us to be a completely commonsense, and indeed an almost eternal, feature of what it means to be human, is, in fact, a thoroughly modern invention — a product of our contemporary society. It did not, and could not, exist before the economic conditions of our society had already been well established. This does not in any way invalidate it as a social fact — as real as the objects we refer to as our property — but it allows us to clear all of the mystical nonsense surrounding the idea of property and the illusion that it is somehow natural, or conforming to natural laws.

Not only does the fact that self-ownership is a modern invention, not invalidate it, we need to inquire why, after these past two centuries, it is still a matter of conflict — why do we still need to assert our “right” of self-ownership?

I will address this in the next post.

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