For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality

by Cohen, G A; Cohen, Gerald Allan (1995)


In this book G. A. Cohen examines the libertarian principle of self-ownership, which says that each person belongs to himself and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else. This principle is used to defend capitalist inequality, which is said to reflect each person's freedom to do as as he wishes with himself. The author argues that self-ownership cannot deliver the freedom it promises to secure, thereby undermining the idea that lovers of freedom should embrace capitalism and the inequality that comes with it. He goes on to show that the standard Marxist condemnation of exploitation implies an endorsement of self-ownership, since, in the Marxist conception, the employer steals from the worker what should belong to her, because she produced it. Thereby a deeply inegalitarian notion has penetrated what is in aspiration an egalitarian theory. Purging that notion from socialist thought, he argues, enables construction of a more consistent egalitarianism.

Key Passage

One difference between a modern capitalist state and a slave state is that the natural right not to be subordinate in the manner of a slave is a civil right in modern capitalism. The law excludes formation of a set of persons who are legally obliged to work for other persons. That status being forbidden, everyone is entitled to work for no one. But the power matching this right is differentially enjoyed. Some can live without subordinating themselves, but most cannot. The latter face a structure generated by a history of market transactions in which, it is reasonable to say, they are forced to work for some or other person or group. Their natural rights are not matched by corresponding effective powers. This division between the powerful and the powerless with respect to the alienation of labour power is the heart of the socialist objection to claims on behalf of the justice and freedom of capitalist arrangements.  (p.34)


Marx, Socialism, Egalitarianism, Equality, Freedom, Social Theory, Critical Theory


On Locke, Cohen, Marx

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