As Murray Rothbard explains in his Ethics of Liberty, complete self-ownership is absolutely essential to a propertarian ethics. This is precisely why I extend on my criticism against propertarian (specifically anti-state pro-capitalist) ethics on the point of self-ownership.
“If a man has the right to self-ownership, to the control of his life, then in the real world he must also have the right to sustain his life by grappling with and transforming resources; he must be able to own the ground and the resources on which he stands and which he must use. In short, to sustain his “human right.” – Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
“something, something, markets, something”
So from a Marxian perspective, what is troublesome about the concept of self-ownership? After all, isn’t it axiomatic, as Hoppe and other Austrian theorists would contend?
As with all things, context matters. If the concept of self-ownership is applied to argumentation then a more acceptable standard would be not an axiomatic condition of self-ownership, but rather a recognition of self. I cannot own my arm because my arm is me. It is one part in a unique composition of physical elements and properties that define my being.
The real problem with self-ownership lies in the word ownership. I cannot technically ‘own’ my arm or any other part of myself because it is myself. Even on the most basic level, there is no agent to hold the ownership. In addition to the logical inconsistencies of self-ownership, it opens up a realm of ethics where even the most obvious and detestable exploitation can be masked by ‘rational’ self-interest. The foundation of self-ownership allows Austrian theorists to construct a palace of socio-economic oppression and alienation and with a bit of moral ‘wiggle room’. Perhaps it is not the fact that Austrians seek to explain the nature of capitalism and all its strata that sparks my distaste for them. In this sense alone, their mission is not all that dissimilar from an individual who seeks to explain capitalism from a Marxian perspective (ignoring the completely different philosophical underpinnings). The threshold of my distaste is reached when Austrians try to justify the brutal nature of capitalism even to the point of moralizing the economic structure and its elements as ‘just’ and ‘natural’ (precluding naturalistic fallacy) or how they enshrine the entrepreneur as a hero among idlers. This twisted reasoning is why I have taken to describing all the branches of propertarian thought as suffering from the ‘poverty of ethics’. This attempt to understand human action divorced from context and material reality can only produce a blanket of petty moralization’s and lofty ideas.
It’s all smiles at self-ownership inc.
Let’s look at the self-owning folks over at Foxconn. Despite the brutal work conditions, terrible pay, and incredible alienation, it is still a sought after position to work in such a sweatshop. Why? Rational self-interest, of course. I say this in complete seriousness. It is clearly the most rational option (acting within the given framework) for the laborer at Foxconn to accept his meager existence day after day.
This does NOT mean there is not terrible exploitation afoot; there most definitely is. The obvious problem with my analysis above is that it ignores any contextual factors that produce this rationality. If we seek to understand why a person acts a way he/she does and what this means for ethics, we must first understand material conditions. The laborer seeks to better themselves, more importantly, to eat and help his/her family eat. To achieve this he/she must sell their labor-power to a capitalist in order to make a wage and reproduce their existence. They must do this due to a preexisting inequality of exchange rooted in capitalist property relations. Where the capitalist owns the means of production and thus the dominant social device by which an individual produces his/her existence. Thus, the most rational option is to sell ones labor-power to the highest bidder. On face value, however, this explains nothing. It only reaffirms what we already know. Reason is only a form of epistemology or in the realm of political economy, the most rational course of action. Rational self-interest can only determine a route of action given an existing framework, it does not at all explain the condition in which that decision exists let alone provide a moral justification for exploitation. Only a dialectical materialist understanding of human relations and material conditions can begin to describe, with accuracy, the course of socio-economic action and postulate on ethics.
In the Austrian realm, however, self-ownership displaces the nature of an action entirely within the agents acting. This a wholly reductionist methodology that ignores all the crucial context of that action. The concept of self-ownership only helps to “blame the victim”.
We all know this is just a depraved and awkward attempt to shame the toiler into accepting his/her conditions as inevitable. Material conditions are not defined by rational self-interest, rational self-interest is defined by material conditions. This important sequence is one that is not fully absorbed by the Austrian community.
Back onto meaning of ‘ownership’ in self-ownership, the clever usage of this word denotes something rather alienating. If it is possible for me to own my body, this means that my body may be treated like property: used and abused. If my body can be owned by myself, it does not take much time before institutions such as slavery are developed, where persons can be owned by other persons; or in relation to capitalism, wage slavery. This means that labor-power is not valued as an extension of ‘being’, but something that can be rented or sold. Effectively in self-ownership, humans become things, things to be owned by themselves, but in more cases, by others. Things that can be traded on the market, rented in the workplace, and sold to others. More importantly, humanity which produces ‘things’, becomes subjected to ‘things’. Thus begins the long history of capitalism and capitalist social relations. Where physical relations between people become social relations between things. Where a human life can be weighed, valued, or thrown away. Where dead labor decides the course of living labor. Where pieces of paper carry the weight of life and death.
Ultimately by owning oneself, oneself may be owned.
This is the dangerous path that Austrian ethics marches down. Perhaps it is not so much a danger as it is a justification for the brutality that already exists. Capitalism already subjects a vast majority of the world to toiling in alienation for no more than the minimal existence that can be afforded. Ideas such as ‘self-ownership’ only insult those exploited persons who have spent a life time being shuffled from one master to the next.
All of this begs the question, if one does not own oneself, who does?
At the risk of delving too far into humanist philosophy, I will say humans should not be owned by anyone. Ownership is a condition of privilege, extreme privilege. The privilege to use or abuse as one sees fit. In this sense, ownership of humans by themselves or other humans can only be an oppressive relationship. One that exploits existing inequalities or the intrinsic nature of one agent for the benefit of the other. Self-ownership really means that we can sell or rent our labor-power to others. It grants no benefit unto us. Even the light conception of ‘freedom’ or ‘individualism’ granted by Austrian ethics, founded upon self-ownership, is completely illusory. Thus, a possible Marxist antithesis to self-ownership might be a ‘free development of self’. So that humans might be able to associate and develop among each other but not own each other. The primary difference beyond the obvious antithesis would be that the ‘free development of self’ is inextricably tied to social production and material conditions in a dialectical manner; as are most things.
It is with this understanding that one might realize why Marxists favor cooperation over competition, democratic processes over private forms of unilateralism, mass participation over mass pacification.
All of these ideas help us formulate what a liberated humanity could look like, but more importantly, the path we take to arrive there. Bourgeois ideas like self-ownership can be of no use to a revolutionary. They only help to justify brutality, mask the chaos, and displace the fault. Self-ownership is useless bourgeois sophism that bears no weight to the vast majority of the planet’s population. This is, once again, the poverty of ethics. What is a phrase like ‘self-ownership’ to a man with nothing to eat? Empty words fall deaf on an empty stomach.