Home > political-economy > Marx’s theory of property: self-ownership versus voluntary association

Marx’s theory of property: self-ownership versus voluntary association


In answer to Daniel’s reply to my post,Who are “WE”?: Toward the beginning of an answer to Mike…, I have argued here, here and here that self-ownership is not freedom, but the universalization of slavery. I have argued that precisely on the basis of this self-ownership society is able to reproduce all the incalculably horrific relations between human beings that were found in any earlier property form. Moreover, because self-ownership is fully compatible with these earlier forms of human social relations, I have argued that Hollywood can glamorize and romanticize the inhumanity of those earlier forms precisely because they appear to us as direct relations between human beings since they are not founded on market exchange.


But, I think, although I am entirely prepared to be convinced otherwise, the contrast between self-ownership and the earlier forms of property, can also allow us to understand why the argument of such scholars as Justice Antonin Scalia regarding the intent of the authors of the founding documents has such appeal to a large section of the population: it is precisely in those founding documents that the ideal of self-ownership is contrasted directly with the practice of slavery by the authors. Thomas Jefferson’s brutal, savage, and barbaric acts in the real world place the ideal of self-ownership in its sharpest possible relief. We adore the words penned by Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he was a slave-owner, but also because he was a slave-owner. Precisely because we can no longer be disposed of by others in the fashion of a slave on Monticello without our consent and an agreed upon remuneration, our own self-enslavement appears to us as the ideal form of freedom to the member of the Tea Party, and not as what it is: the freedom to consent to our own enslavement. For the progressive, it is an acknowledgment by Thomas Jefferson that, should he wish to employ Sally Hemming as before, he will have to pay her at least the minimum wage, deduct the proper amount of Social Security and other taxes, and observe OSHA regulations.

If proponents of self-ownership could confuse it with the expression of natural law within human society, this was only because, in relation to all other forms of property up to that time, it was more perfectly compatible with the new relations between members of society being established by the new economic forces than these older property forms, and only to the extent it was more compatible with these new relations. That we find it necessary to reassert our self-ownership against the existing state of society implies not a conflict with these older forms of property that are no longer compatible with the development of the economic forces of society, but a demand for the abolition of self-ownership as a form of property in ourselves, and, with it, every form of property.

This statement does not mean that the assertion of self-ownership, as a revolution against previous forms of property (insofar as we consider all of these the disposal by others over our individual labor powers) was not valid — only that it was limited by its very nature. Our individual labor power, which can be understood much as described by Murray Rothbard that, “…each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish…”, are not, and have never been, capacities existing apart from us in the form of some object external to us: they are who we are as individuals. When the bourgeois revolution against the old order demanded self-ownership, it was demanding the overthrow of the previously existing state of affairs wherein our human self, including these very capacities, were treated as the property of some feudal potentate.

However, never in any previous form of society was it possible to think of our individual capacities as something distinct from us; never did any feudal chief imagine that the capacities of his subjects existed apart from, and independent of, their physical self; never did Thomas Jefferson imagine that his ownership of slaves extended only to their sex organs, or their capacity as beasts in the field, or as a pair of hands in the kitchen. Nor did these slaves ever imagine that, apart from submitting to his periodic rape, or the time he demanded of them as draught animals, that they were otherwise free human beings.

This division between the individual and her capacities — in which her capacities not only can assume an independent object-like existence, but must assume this form — is also a thoroughly modern invention. And, it was not until this self-object — which Marx calls the “labor-power” of the individual, or, in its totality, “the productive forces of society” — emerged as the fundamental form of property in society, that the capacities of individuals were able to assume an independent existence standing apart from them, and, over against them as an independent social force with a life of its own.

Based on this argument Marx makes the startling assertion not that self-ownership must be replaced by state ownership of the individual — as was the case in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China — but that NO ONE controls these relations nor can anyone achieve control of these relations. The problem posed by self-ownership as a form of property is not the emergence of the State as a social Thomas Jefferson, but that with it human relations generally escape all control by society. Marx writes, “Never, in any earlier period, have the productive forces taken on a form so indifferent to the intercourse of individuals as individuals…”

Despite the demands by both Tea Partiers and progressives for the state to assume control over these human relations — and much to the chagrin of those like President Barack Obama and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke — no individual or group of individuals, no State or group of States, acting separately or in concert, can impose their control over the relations between human beings precisely because they exist in the form of the individual capacities of each of us in an objectified form.

These relations, Marx declares, can only be controlled by any of us, if they are controlled by all of us together and in a voluntary association which abolishes self-ownership as a form of property in ourselves:

It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown…

In order, Marx writes, not only to gain control over these relations — which are never at any point anything but our own collective capacities existing in the form of an independent social force standing over against us — but also merely to ensure our actual physical survival as living creatures, society will be compelled to establish a voluntary association, and make this voluntary association the exclusive mode of its activity.

  1. September 4, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Maybe I should also add photos of beautiful women onto my blog posts about philosophy.
    Just because nobody else owns me, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I own myself in a property sense of way. I can also be owned by nobody, including not by myself: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/the-self-ownership-thesis/

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