My body is my own

David Miller

  • Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality by G.A. Cohen
    Cambridge, 277 pp, £40.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 521 47174 5

At the heart of 19th-century socialism lay a vision of a moral world in which men and women would co-operate freely with one another to meet their common needs, a world in which, therefore, neither vulgar material inducements nor orders from on high were needed to get the work of society done. In Fourier’s Phalanxes an elaborate system of co-operative production was to allow each Harmonian to take on seven or eight different types of attractive work in a single day; similarly, in Marx’s vision of communism, people moved freely between hunting, fishing and raising cattle, and served one another according to the principle, ‘to each according to his needs’; in William Morris’s land of Nowhere, Dick the boatman is puzzled when the narrator attempts to pay for his ride and explains that ‘this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody.’

G.A. Cohen is one of the few socialists left today who is still drawn to this vision of an egalitarian community governed by the principle of freely-given service, and Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality can be seen as an indirect attempt to reaffirm its relevance. On the surface its concerns may seem to be different: to establish which parts of Marxism are still defensible and which are not, and to scrutinise the idea of self-ownership that has played a central role in recent libertarian thought, especially in North America. To these tasks Cohen brings formidable analytical and forensic skills, and the book is an outstanding example of the intellectual gains to be won by clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by ideological fog. It is characteristic of Cohen that he will spend as much time, or even more, in exposing the mistakes of those who are essentially on his side as in attacking the enemy. Self-ownership is given a very fair run for its money. By contrast, Cohen’s own political ideals are sketched only briefly and in passing. The Fourier-Marx-Morris vision which provides the book’s ultimate inspiration remains in the background.

Cohen’s verdict on Marxism can be quickly summarised. The failure of Marx’s predictions about the development of capitalism – especially his prediction of a widening economic gap between an enlarging proletariat and a shrinking bourgeoisie – means that we can no longer hope to find a majority class with a compelling material interest in overthrowing that system. We can therefore no longer believe in the historical inevitability of socialism, but must instead regard it as a moral ideal which, if it is to be realised at all, will be so only if a sufficient number of people come to believe in it for its own sake and apart from material considerations. Moreover, Marx was equally wrong when he made the achievement of his communist utopia depend on an expansion of the forces of production and the overcoming of material scarcity. The ecological crisis, Cohen claims, means that we must now think of socialism as an ideal for a world of finite and scarce resources. Taken together, these two arguments imply that we now need a political philosophy of socialism, whereas Marxism as originally conceived sought to replace philosophy with a science of history.

This verdict is not in itself surprising. What may be found so is that a critical Marxist, even one who has jettisoned as much as Cohen has, should find the idea of self-ownership sufficiently challenging to be worth sustained critical attention. To enjoy self-ownership is to enjoy rights over one’s own body that are like the property rights standardly held in, say, a pocket calculator or garden spade: that is, we can decide how to use the thing, enjoy the fruits of using it, hire it out, sell it, give it away. It is an idea with a long history, invoked by early liberals like Richard Overton and John Locke as a way of asserting people’s rights to freedom against governments which sought to conscript them militarily or force them to practise the state religion. The reason for its recent resurrection by libertarians of the New Right, and especially Robert Nozick, is not far to seek. We have strong moral intuitions about the importance of bodily integrity: rape and torture are perhaps the worst evils that humans can experience. These intuitions can be framed in the language of self-ownership: it is because we are the rightful owners of our own bodies that such violations stand condemned. But if we are indeed self-owners, must it not follow that we have the right to use our bodies as we wish, which will entail having the freedom to make whatever contracts we choose, the right to retain whatever we work to produce, die right to kill or injure ourselves etc? In this way a whole political philosophy – essentially, a defence of laissez-faire capitalism – can be spun out of a single concept.

We may think, however, that self-ownership is a pretty bad idea all the way down. Suppose there is a large-scale natural disaster, as a consequence of which many victims need blood transfusions if they are to survive. Unfortunately, there are not enough volunteers willing to give (or sell) blood to meet the need. Would it be justifiable in these circumstances for the government to require some people, chosen perhaps by lot, to provide on pain of legal penalty a pint of blood each to the transfusion service? This would be a clear violation of the very core of self-ownership, so if you think (as I do) that the government would indeed be justified in taking this action, then you should reject the idea that we have inviolable rights of property in our bodies. There are other, and better, ways of expressing our abhorrence of rape and torture.

Cohen’s aim is not to defend self-ownership; indeed, he eventually gets round to offering an indirect critique of the idea, by carefully disentangling it from some of its near neighbours – the idea that people should enjoy personal autonomy, the Kantian idea that we must respect people by not treating them simply as means to our own ends – in the hope that this will serve to dispel its attractiveness. Why does he not attack self-ownership sooner, and more directly? He suggests that many Marxists have been drawn to the idea, consciously or unconsciously, in a way that modern liberals have not, because something very like it underpins the Marxist critique of capitalist exploitation. Marx thought that the capitalist exploited the worker by paying him less than the value of his product. Why is this unjust, if not because the worker is entitled to the whole of what he produces? So we seem to need self-ownership to explain capitalist exploitation, which is a central element in the critique of capitalism itself. Moreover, Marx’s vision of communism does not require any retrenchment on self-ownership, precisely because he depicts it as a society of abundance in which each finds his or her self-realisation in work that benefits others, and people’s rights to do as they wish with their bodies and the products of their labour can remain sacrosanct.

I do not find this diagnosis wholly convincing. When Cohen says that ‘the Marxist contention that the capitalist exploits the worker depends on the proposition that people are the rightful owners of their own powers’ he overstates his case, because a Marxist may understand exploitation more holistically, as a relationship between a class of producers and a class of non-producers, where the non-producers collectively receive some part of what the producers create. Nevertheless, he is right to say that there is nothing in classical Marxism that directly challenges self-ownership, and that this makes Marxists vulnerable to the libertarian riposte which claims, for instance, that compulsory welfare payments to the unemployed are exploitative of productive workers in just the way capitalist receipts are for Marxists.

In the early chapters, Cohen challenges Nozick’s derivation of property rights in external objects from personal self-ownership. He goes on to explore the possibility of a social constitution that retains full self-ownership, but couples this with an equal initial entitlement to external resources. Everyone would start out with an equal share of land, capital, commodities etc, but would then have the full panoply of rights over those resources, including the right to use their skills and talents to transform them into things of greater value. Large inequalities, Cohen argues, would quickly reappear under such a regime; indeed, capitalist employment relations would in all probability be re-created within a single generation. The effects of self-ownership cannot be curbed simply by varying the conditions on initial acquisition.

We must, Cohen thinks, imagine a society which protects individual freedom but repudiates self-ownership. What might this look like? It would be a society in which people choose how and when to work, but do so in a spirit of service to others, and freely agree to an equal distribution of the fruits of their labours – we might imagine an Israeli kibbutz enlarged many times over. The members of this society believe that they are bound as a matter of justice to use their talents to serve their fellows, and in believing that they must simultaneously reject self-ownership.

Cohen does little to show that such a vision is realistic. In his semi-autobiographical last chapter he reflects on the vicissitudes of Marxism as a political movement since his early encounters with it in Quebec. While fully acknowledging the disastrous legacy of Soviet Communism, he argues that those like myself who have tried to develop principles for a feasible form of market socialism are misguided – not in thinking about alternatives to contemporary capitalism, but in presenting these as anything more than pragmatic, second-best solutions. The issues that divide us can be summed up in two questions. Provided everyone’s basic needs are met, is it fair that those whose talents allow them to be more productive than others should reap higher rewards? Is it intrinsically repugnant for people’s productive activities to be motivated by self-interest rather than a direct concern for the welfare of others?

Cohen’s answers to these questions are no and yes. Market socialists, who answer yes and no, do not do so simply on the grounds that markets are a practically indispensable means of organising an efficient economy, though they do believe that. They also think that the Marxian vision of communism, which Cohen aims to reinstate, albeit in modified form, is untrue to human experience. We are not just parts of a community, bearers of social obligations; we are also distinct persons who crave recognition for the (unequal) contributions we make to social welfare, and who want to be given a free choice between enriching ourselves through hard work and loafing around and earning less, without feeling guilty if we choose the latter. Markets cater to these deep-rooted desires; kibbutzim, for all their virtues, do not.

Although I dissent from Cohen’s peroration, I know of no more searching critique than this of the foundations of libertarianism or a more telling diagnosis of the political collapse of Marxism in the West. Having liberated himself from both self-ownership and historical materialism, Cohen should now turn his attention to the socialist vision itself.