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"Marxists" on self-ownership and capitalist exploitation.

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Feb 12 2013 20:42
"Marxists" on self-ownership and capitalist exploitation.

I'm reading Cohen's Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality and in chapter 6 he laid out an argument detailing how, in their criticism of capitalism, Marxists (I used quotation marks on the title because he didn't say who these Marxists were) have taken for granted the concept of self-ownership (something one would imagine to be antithetical to any left-wing ideology). In chapter 8 he re-affirms capitalist exploitation of workers, but, I thought I'd pitch his criticism here to see what you fellas think.

Before going straight to his argument, let me quote section which provides a foundation for his criticism (the footnotes have the same numbers as they do in the book, ergo the disparity between them).

G.A. Cohen wrote:
Why do Marxists think that the extraction in question is unjust? I believe that they think so largely because they think that the transfer of product from the worker to the capitalist involves what Marx called 'the theft of another person's labour time' [2]. (p.145)

Now on to the argument:

G.A. Cohen wrote:
Marxists say that capitalist steal labour time from working people. But you can steal from someone only that which properly belongs to him. The Marxist critique of capitalist injustice therefore implies that the worker is the proper owner of his own labour time: he, no one else, has the right to decide what will be done with it. But he could hardly have that right without having the right to decide what to do with his own capacity to work, his labour power. The claim that capitalists steal labour time from working people therefore implies that the worker is the proper owner of his own power...That proposition is the thesis of self-ownership, and I claim that (something like)[5] it undergirds the Marxist case for the proposition that the capitalist relationship is inherently exploitative. (p. 147)

Does anyone disagree with how he laid out the Marxist claim of exploitation? If not, how would you square this circle?

-------------------------------------------
2. The Grundrisse, p.705

5. The parenthesis is a gesture in the direction of a weaker claim: it is no doubt unnecessary to affirm an unrestricted version of the self-ownership principle in order to claim that the capitalist relationship is inherently exploitative. But Marxists have certainly not reflected on the possible restrictions, and they consequently have not distanced themselves from the unqualified self-ownership thesis. It is therefore a permissible simplification to attribute it to them in that form... [There's more to this footnote, but I don't think it was important; also, I'm tired of transcribing. -Ethos]

andy g
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Feb 12 2013 21:22

not read this one but it seems the argument rests on the conflation of analytical and normative senses of exploitation. The question of if Marx held a theory of distributive justice is a very contentious one - I seem to remember Norman Geras writing a good piece on it in NLR in the 80s. Not my strongest area and can see am teetering on the brink of the fact-value dichotomy but I guess it is possible to hold to a theory of exploitation as the appropriation of social surplus product without holding that this process is unjust. Ortho Marxism tried to do just that in fact, combining it with a relativist class morality. Whatever the merits of this it seems to cast doubt on the idea Marxism must endorse self-ownnership

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Feb 12 2013 21:36

Just out of interest - why would self ownership be a problematic concept from a marxist standpoint? Is it just its liberal-ness?

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Feb 12 2013 21:41
xslavearcx wrote:
Just out of interest - why would self ownership be a problematic concept from a marxist standpoint? Is it just its liberal-ness?

I can think of two reasons why it should be problematic (adopting Cohen's view):

1. It would allow Nozick, et al the basis for their arguments on property accumulation (to a certain extent).
2. It would undermine Marxists desire/claim for communism, e.g. theoretically Marxists should have no problem with the "Left-Libertarianism" (for those that are unfamiliar with this, it is a "Left" take on Locke) of Michael Otsuka.

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Feb 12 2013 21:44

yeah it doesn't seem like much of a step from self-ownership to private ownership and does stink of Locke a bit. Will have to look into some of this left lockean - seems interesting.

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Feb 12 2013 22:13
xslavearcx wrote:
yeah it doesn't seem like much of a step from self-ownership to private ownership and does stink of Locke a bit. Will have to look into some of this left lockean - seems interesting.

It's definitely interesting, much like (and I'm not being sarcastic here) when you see neo-Keynesians coming up with all these clever ways to fix the crisis. While at the end of the day Otsuka is still on the right (albeit as far left as he can get on the right-wing), it's worth a read if only for checking out what happens when someone wants both Lockean property relations and egalitarianism.

Dave B
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Feb 12 2013 23:08

I actually don’t think Karl ever boxed himself into a philosophical corner over the right to ownership to their own labour time and that surplus value was ‘theft’, predicated on the idea property rights et ; that was Proudhons idea.

And I think Karl had an intellectual pop at Proudhon over that somewhere.

The Grundrisse quote is an exception I think, probably from below;

Quote:
The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one,

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch14.htm

The right to one’s own labour time, and ownership thereof, was a ‘bourgeois limitation’ in the Gotha programme

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Feb 13 2013 00:05
Dave B wrote:
I actually don’t think Karl ever boxed himself into a philosophical corner over the right to ownership to their own labour time and that surplus value was ‘theft’, predicated on the idea property rights et ; that was Proudhons idea.

And I think Karl had an intellectual pop at Proudhon over that somewhere.

The Grundrisse quote is an exception I think, probably from below;

Quote:
The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one,

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch14.htm

The right to one’s own labour time, and ownership thereof, was a ‘bourgeois limitation’ in the Gotha programme

Perhaps he'd dropped the notion by the time he'd written CGP. I've never read it, so I'll have to look it up.

However, in page 148, footnote 8 Cohen quotes another instance of Marx expressing this notion this time Capital Vol. 1:

Marx wrote:
...so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, yet the transaction is for all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of.

(Capital, Vol. 1, p.720)

The full quote sort of makes his case even more:

Marx wrote:
But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of £2,000. How that originated we know perfectly well. There is not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour. The means of production, with which the additional labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which the labourers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the surplus-product, of the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class. Though the latter with a portion of that tribute purchases the additional labour-power even at its full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, yet the transaction is for all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of.

[emphasis mine]

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Feb 13 2013 07:58

First of all, I don't think Marx thought of exploitation as "unjust":

Marx wrote:
The owner of the money has paid the value of a day’s labour-power; his, therefore, is the use of it for a day; a day’s labour belongs to him. The circumstance, that on the one hand the daily sustenance of labour-power costs only half a day’s labour, while on the other hand the very same labour-power can work during a whole day, that consequently the value which its use during one day creates, is double what he pays for that use, this circumstance is, without doubt, a piece of good luck for the buyer, but by no means an injury (Unrecht, injustice) to the seller.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm

Marx wrote:
The fact that this particular commodity, labour-power, possesses the peculiar use value of supplying labour, and therefore of creating value, cannot affect the general law of commodity production. If, therefore, the magnitude of value advanced in wages is not merely found again in the product, but is found there augmented by a surplus-value, this is not because the seller has been defrauded, for he has really received the value of his commodity; it is due solely to the fact that this commodity has been used up by the buyer.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch24.htm

The point of Marx's analysis is precisely that the property of the worker (i.e., his labor-power, which is his "property" not due to some natural principle of self-ownership, but due to the way social labor is organized in capitalism) is fully respected and satisfied (at least in theory) – in spite of the fact that the relationship between the worker and the capitalist is based on the extraction of unpaid surplus labor. But since this does not take place through exchange, but only after the exchange, it is not a breach of the property laws of commodity production:

Marx wrote:
If, therefore, commodity production, or one of its associated processes, is to be judged according to its own economic laws, we must consider each act of exchange by itself, apart from any connexion with the act of exchange preceding it and that following it. And since sales and purchases are negotiated solely between particular individuals, it is not admissible to seek here for relations between whole social classes.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch24.htm

Marx wrote:
The surplus-value is his [the capitalist's] property; it, has never belonged to anyone else.

I think when Marx speaks of the "theft" of labor time etc., it is to emphasize the contradiction between the purported (and real) equality in exchange, and the implicit (and equally real) unequality in production; in fact, Marx shows that the former is only a necessary form of appearance of the latter.

As far as Cohen is concerned,

Cohen wrote:
But he could hardly have that right without having the right to decide what to do with his own capacity to work, his labour power. The claim that capitalists steal labour time from working people therefore implies that the worker is the proper owner of his own power...

Well of course the worker thas the right to decide what to do with his labor power. That is one of the defining characteristics of the capitalist mode of production (and not a result of some natural right or whatever).

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Feb 13 2013 13:49
Ethos wrote:
xslavearcx wrote:
yeah it doesn't seem like much of a step from self-ownership to private ownership and does stink of Locke a bit. Will have to look into some of this left lockean - seems interesting.

It's definitely interesting, much like (and I'm not being sarcastic here) when you see neo-Keynesians coming up with all these clever ways to fix the crisis. While at the end of the day Otsuka is still on the right (albeit as far left as he can get on the right-wing), it's worth a read if only for checking out what happens when someone wants both Lockean property relations and egalitarianism.

Definately gonna read that - going into last year of (analytical) philosophy/ religious studies degree and the people i would have wanted to have supervised my dissertation on religious studies have just left so it looks like im going to have to pick something from the philosophy department. I have avoided that because all the political philosophy modules are focussed around liberal presuppositions and only seem to be arguing about validity of those presuppositions within that domain, so not really been that inspiring hence not gone there. But now im gonna have to look into this again so have been thinking maybe of doing my dissertation on the development of lockes theory of property to marxes theory of value. But now this thread maybe will put me on the right track for something more concrete around these kinda themes.

Anyway, back to topic... Is this what happens when one starts to mix marxism alongwith the rather ahistorical outlook of analytical philosophy?

Also, although the quotes from Cohen seem to give textual justifications for "self ownership", "injustice" and what not perhaps the usage of the term 'marxists' could also apply to those who are motivated to the marxian discourse by virtue of a sense of injustice that happens through capitalist exploitation. I reckon a lot of the motivating factors that make people come to marx in the first place is through percieved violations of 'justice' taking place when they observe capitalism which probably assumes a rather uninterrogated bourgiouse conception of justice in the first place? If thats the case then it probably explains how readings of marx's texts like Cohens could happen?

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Feb 13 2013 17:06

Thanks for the thoughtful response, jura.

jura wrote:
First of all, I don't think Marx thought of exploitation as "unjust":

Yeah, I think Cohen was playing with the attention span of the reader on that one. Note he refers to "Marxists", so in that case he may be referring to "those Marxists who find exploitation unjust", i.e. Analytical Marxists.

jura wrote:

The point of Marx's analysis is precisely that the property of the worker (i.e., his labor-power, which is his "property" not due to some natural principle of self-ownership, but due to the way social labor is organized in capitalism) is fully respected and satisfied (at least in theory) – in spite of the fact that the relationship between the worker and the capitalist is based on the extraction of unpaid surplus labor. But since this does not take place through exchange, but only after the exchange, it is not a breach of the property laws of commodity production:

Right, but at that point Marx is still employing the concept of self-ownership (let's say within, and only within, the organization of social labor within capitalism), which is Cohen's point. He thinks that by doing this Marxists are giving the right-wingers exactly what they need to build up their arguments. It seems unsatisfactory to say, "No, no, it isn't self-ownership, it's capitalist organization", when, at least for Nozick, the latter is founded on the former.

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Feb 13 2013 17:32
xslavearcx wrote:
Definately gonna read that - going into last year of (analytical) philosophy/ religious studies degree and the people i would have wanted to have supervised my dissertation on religious studies have just left so it looks like im going to have to pick something from the philosophy department. I have avoided that because all the political philosophy modules are focussed around liberal presuppositions and only seem to be arguing about validity of those presuppositions within that domain, so not really been that inspiring hence not gone there. But now im gonna have to look into this again so have been thinking maybe of doing my dissertation on the development of lockes theory of property to marxes theory of value. But now this thread maybe will put me on the right track for something more concrete around these kinda themes.

Anyway, back to topic... Is this what happens when one starts to mix marxism alongwith the rather ahistorical outlook of analytical philosophy?

Also, although the quotes from Cohen seem to give textual justifications for "self ownership", "injustice" and what not perhaps the usage of the term 'marxists' could also apply to those who are motivated to the marxian discourse by virtue of a sense of injustice that happens through capitalist exploitation. I reckon a lot of the motivating factors that make people come to marx in the first place is through percieved violations of 'justice' taking place when they observe capitalism which probably assumes a rather uninterrogated bourgiouse conception of justice in the first place? If thats the case then it probably explains how readings of marx's texts like Cohens could happen?

Regarding the bit in bold: yes! And when you point this out everyone looks at you like you're out of your fucking mind. Coming from this side of the tradition makes it incredibly frustrating to engage them. What's even more frustrating is when you see political philosophers who have stumbled upon the idea that almost all libertarian-socialists have for years refered to as "direct-democracy" (consensus or majority) and, because they're completely ignorant of the tradition, they think they've discovered something new and proceed to re-invent the wheel in keeping with "liberal values" (e.g. deliberative democracy). There are some analytic philosophers (John Baker, Alan Carter) who cite and identify with anarchists, but they are few and far between. Anyway...yeah, it doesn't take much to get me started on these guys.

As for the last paragraph, I have no doubt that people like Cohen have already assumed a bourgeois notion of justice. He makes it quite clear that, while identifying as a Marxist, his conception of justice stems from (and finally against) Rawls'.

EDIT:

I want to clarify that I wasn't ignoring andy g's response, I just had a hard time getting my head around the post. [/thickheadedness]

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Feb 13 2013 18:32
Ethos wrote:
Right, but at that point Marx is still employing the concept of self-ownership (let's say within, and only within, the organization of social labor within capitalism), which is Cohen's point. He thinks that by doing this Marxists are giving the right-wingers exactly what they need to build up their arguments. It seems unsatisfactory to say, "No, no, it isn't self-ownership, it's capitalist organization", when, at least for Nozick, the latter is founded on the former.

Hmm... The way I see it is sort of "inverted". Marx says: "What's with all this self-ownership babble? It is only possible in a universalized form as no more than a veil that covers the extraction of surplus labor. And that's basically the same old thing that feudalism, which these proponents of self-ownership oppose so much, had been doing all along."

So on one hand, yes, Marx takes the position (so to speak) of self-ownership, because he does not want to critize the capitalist mode of production from an external position and impose some higher moral ground (i.e., take that, utopian socialism). But on the other hand he has no illusions about this self-ownership because it is basically a farce (i.e., take that, right-wingers).

Does this make sense?

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Feb 13 2013 18:58

Just to make myself a bit more clearer: What Marx does is to show that self-ownership is perfectly compatible with exploitation, immiseration etc. That is, even if this purported ideal state of affairs would be established – liberty, equality, property (at least of labor-power) and Bentham for everyone – there would necessarily still be all these horrible things.

Marx hints at this in a charming way in a letter:

Marx wrote:
In this sphere, appropriation by labour, the exchange of equivalents, appears as the law of appropriation so that exchange simply returns the same value in another material form. In short, while everything may be ‘lovely’ here, it will soon come to a sticky end and this as a result of the law of equivalence. For now we come to

3. Capital.

This is really the most important part of the first instalment and one on which I particularly need your opinion. But today I can’t go on writing. My bilious trouble makes it difficult for me to ply my pen, and keeping my head bent over the paper makes me dizzy. So for next time.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1858/letters/58_04_02.htm

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Feb 13 2013 21:00

Jura,

That was excellent. Thanks for the responses.

andy g
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Feb 14 2013 15:12
Quote:
I want to clarify that I wasn't ignoring andy g's response, I just had a hard time getting my head around the post. [/thickheadedness]

No apologies necessary - was entirely my bad. I don't think I really addressed your point anyway.

I suppose I was saying that it is possible to describe the appropriation of surplus value as exploitation without necessarily implying it is "unjust" by the standards of some a-historical morality.

As usual Jura has nailed the issue much better than I could!

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Feb 15 2013 18:10
Ethos wrote:
Regarding the bit in bold: yes! And when you point this out everyone looks at you like you're out of your fucking mind. Coming from this side of the tradition makes it incredibly frustrating to engage them. What's even more frustrating is when you see political philosophers who have stumbled upon the idea that almost all libertarian-socialists have for years refered to as "direct-democracy" (consensus or majority) and, because they're completely ignorant of the tradition, they think they've discovered something new and proceed to re-invent the wheel in keeping with "liberal values" (e.g. deliberative democracy). There are some analytic philosophers (John Baker, Alan Carter) who cite and identify with anarchists, but they are few and far between. Anyway...yeah, it doesn't take much to get me started on these guys.

As for the last paragraph, I have no doubt that people like Cohen have already assumed a bourgeois notion of justice. He makes it quite clear that, while identifying as a Marxist, his conception of justice stems from (and finally against) Rawls'.

Yeah, just from my personal experience studying philosophy, the students i have talked to doing that subject seem to be really uninformed to the point of depression.

Some of that stuff you have said is pretty relevant to my thoughts on what to do at uni, but what id say probably is of no use to this discussion so would it be ok if i sent you a pm?

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Feb 15 2013 20:40
xslavearcx wrote:
Ethos wrote:
Regarding the bit in bold: yes! And when you point this out everyone looks at you like you're out of your fucking mind. Coming from this side of the tradition makes it incredibly frustrating to engage them. What's even more frustrating is when you see political philosophers who have stumbled upon the idea that almost all libertarian-socialists have for years refered to as "direct-democracy" (consensus or majority) and, because they're completely ignorant of the tradition, they think they've discovered something new and proceed to re-invent the wheel in keeping with "liberal values" (e.g. deliberative democracy). There are some analytic philosophers (John Baker, Alan Carter) who cite and identify with anarchists, but they are few and far between. Anyway...yeah, it doesn't take much to get me started on these guys.

As for the last paragraph, I have no doubt that people like Cohen have already assumed a bourgeois notion of justice. He makes it quite clear that, while identifying as a Marxist, his conception of justice stems from (and finally against) Rawls'.

Yeah, just from my personal experience studying philosophy, the students i have talked to doing that subject seem to be really uninformed to the point of depression.

Some of that stuff you have said is pretty relevant to my thoughts on what to do at uni, but what id say probably is of no use to this discussion so would it be ok if i sent you a pm?

Not a problem at all. Shoot me a pm whenever you like.

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Feb 19 2013 18:05

brilliant- will do so when i get my rather garbled thoughts together in a more orderly fashion smile

Jeff Moniker
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Feb 20 2013 07:21

Not sure what Marx's philosophical stance was but it seems like labor is a very different concept than property because its a process of creation rather than someones chair or kidneys.

Also as a sidenote I've heard anarchists use the Fromm argument that 'self-ownership' essentially objecitivizes ones features (good hair, body weight etc.) and leads to authoritarian tendencies to prevent losing them (and obviously a stronger argument can be made for private property in that regard).

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Feb 21 2013 20:44

Cohen's argument implies that the worker does not have a legitimate claim to the product of his labor and everything derived therefrom because he agreed to work for a wage under a contract which essentially entitles the capitalist to continue to extract surplus.

First, the capitalist's claim to the product of the worker's labor is illegitimate because the worker only accepts to work for a wage under threat of starvation, and so it is not a voluntary contract in any real sense.

What's worse is that the worker is driven to accept the conditions of wage labor to begin with because the capitalist class has employed the use of the state apparatus in order to make capital artificially scarce through the various banking monopolies, and therefore inaccessible to working people.

When working people are left without the option of self-employment, they rent themselves for a wage in a distorted labor market because their remaining options are either dire poverty or starvation.

Secondly, the concept of self-ownership is a fairly ridiculous one that everybody should reject. Ownership necessarily makes a distinction between the owner and the thing owned, but this is not so in the case with regard to self-ownership because you ARE yourself. Logically speaking, self-ownership breaks down to "the body owns the body", and it is, therefore, a fallacious concept.

Lastly, even if self-ownership was true, I fail to see how it would be possible to derive any notion of universal property rights from it.

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Feb 21 2013 21:59
prettykewlguy wrote:
Cohen's argument implies that the worker does not have a legitimate claim to the product of his labor and everything derived therefrom because he agreed to work for a wage under a contract which essentially entitles the capitalist to continue to extract surplus.

I don't see where you're getting this from the quoted text, or even the book. The illegitimacy of the contract doesn't really play a part in his argument

Quote:
Secondly, the concept of self-ownership is a fairly ridiculous one that everybody should reject. Ownership necessarily makes a distinction between the owner and the thing owned, but this is not so in the case with regard to self-ownership because you ARE yourself. Logically speaking, self-ownership breaks down to "the body owns the body", and it is, therefore, a fallacious concept.

Preaching to the choir here. wink

Quote:
Lastly, even if self-ownership was true, I fail to see how it would be possible to derive any notion of universal property rights from it.

Using Locke:

1. A owns herself.
2. Her labor is part of herself/ is something that she does with herself ( or, as Cohen says above, she owns her labor time).
3. She creates things with her labor (using wood, metal, whatever)
:. She owns the things that have her labor. As they now, presumably, have a little of her in them (e.g. chair, house, etc).

There's problems with this, one of them was (ironically) pointed out by Nozick himself, but this is one way you could do it if self-ownership was true.

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Feb 22 2013 03:31
Quote:
I don't see where you're getting this from the quoted text, or even the book. The illegitimacy of the contract doesn't really play a part in his argument

I kind of assumed that's why he said that the worker's labor time was not being stole - because the worker did not have a legitimate claim to his labor time under the contract of employment to begin with. In my experience, that's usually where the argument goes.

Quote:
1. A owns herself.
2. Her labor is part of herself/ is something that she does with herself ( or, as Cohen says above, she owns her labor time).
3. She creates things with her labor (using wood, metal, whatever)
:. She owns the things that have her labor. As they now, presumably, have a little of her in them (e.g. chair, house, etc).

The connection from 1 to 2 is dubious at best. It's my understanding that self-ownership pertains to the physical body, so why would it also pertain to one's physical undertakings (e.g. one's labor) as well? Is the fact that they are derived from the supposed property in the body enough to make those undertakings property in and of themselves?

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Feb 22 2013 04:07
prettykewlguy wrote:

I kind of assumed that's why he said that the worker's labor time was not being stole - because the worker did not have a legitimate claim to his labor time under the contract of employment to begin with. In my experience, that's usually where the argument goes.

Ah, I'm afraid you're getting ahead of Cohen here. He's not concerned (in this argument) with proving or disproving the workers claim of unpaid surplus (addressed by jura above), rather he already assumes it and claims that, in doing so in that particular form he presented, Marxists assumed their opponents thesis.

Quote:
1. A owns herself.
2. Her labor is part of herself/ is something that she does with herself ( or, as Cohen says above, she owns her labor time).
3. She creates things with her labor (using wood, metal, whatever)
:. She owns the things that have her labor. As they now, presumably, have a little of her in them (e.g. chair, house, etc).

The connection from 1 to 2 is dubious at best. It's my understanding that self-ownership pertains to the physical body, so why would it also pertain to one's physical undertakings (e.g. one's labor) as well? Is the fact that they are derived from the supposed property in the body enough to make those undertakings property in and of themselves?

Yep, it's a shit concept and I can only present and defend it for so long before the bullshit starts to get to me. I guess one answer that could be given to your first question would be that the ownership pertains to undertakings as well because it isn't possible to separate "labor" from the body, i.e. the body has to be involved in it. This, however, exposes other problems (a) it shows that "labor" is some unexplained metaphysical b.s. and (b) it would make the use of "labor" in points 2 and 3 guilty of equivocation (See: Alan Carter).

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Feb 22 2013 06:54
Quote:
Ah, I'm afraid you're getting ahead of Cohen here. He's not concerned (in this argument) with proving or disproving the workers claim of unpaid surplus (addressed by jura above), rather he already assumes it and claims that, in doing so in that particular form he presented, Marxists assumed their opponents thesis.

Okay, I get what you mean now. I think I might've misread then.