- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Possessive Individualism

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on November 04, 1999 at 19:05:20:

Possessive Individualism -- a philosophy to comfort the individual

The belief system that I have called individualism here is, arguably, a product of a particular culture, of (among others) American culture. On the other hand, there is a subfield called "economic anthropology," which does cross-cultural comparison to see whether the economic concepts that are considered "normal" in "our" culture (depending upon the particular culture of the economic anthropologist) also apply to "other cultures". An especially evocative text within this subfield is Hunters and Gatherers 2: Property, power and ideology. The question provoked by this book is one of whether and how the concept of "property" applies to other cultures. Property is the core concept of a philosophy we might call "possessive individualism." Possessive individualism is the philosophy of individualism that accompanied the 18th century beginnings of the culture of capitalism with England, with philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith. Possessive individualism is the idea of the world as a thing owned by individual people, and it defends the right of the individual to take part in the system of "capitalist free-enterprise," as C. B. MacPherson shows in his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Here in America, individuals own property, hire and manage employees, sell products, and buy shares in the stock market.
Based on the belief system of possessive individualism, that "the economy" is the "free market". Economic anthropologists, who study the economy of other cultures, have for this reason dithered over definitions of what counts as the "economy," because of their prior assumptions. Richard Wilk's Economics and Cultures shows the problem economic anthropologists economics as "exchange":

We know that when I sell you a horse, this is an economic exchange. Most people would have no problem calling it an economic exchange if I traded you the horse for the right ot cut some trees from your yard. But what if I traded you the horse for your sister's hand in marriage? Or if I gave you the horse because I loved you? Or traded you a kiss for a promise? Where does the economic end and something else begin? (Wilk 29)

Another introductory text, Spradley and McCurdy's Conformity and Culture, addresses the problem of exchange as one of distribution:

Another part of the economic system is distribution. There are three basic models of distribution: market exchange, reciprocal exchange, and redistribution... market exchange is the transfer of goods and services based on price, supply, and demand (i.e. the "free market") ...reciprocal exchange involves the transfer of goods and services based on role obligations. Birthday and holiday gift giving is a fine example of reciprocity... Finally, there is redistribution, the transfer of goods and services between a central collecting source and a group of individuals. Like reciprocity, redistribution is based on role obligation. Taxes typify this sort of exchange in the United States. We must pay our taxes because we are citizens, not because we are buying something. (Spradley and McCurdy 228-229)

Here we at least have an elaboration of the idea of the economy as distribution, an understanding that there are many different reasons for the movement of things between people. But what does it mean, when Spradley and McCurdy insist upon talking about such things as gifts and taxes as based on "role obligation"? If I gave you a horse because I loved you, does that mean that I felt that my role as someone who loves you obligated me to give you a horse? Or maybe I just happened to find a horse, and didn't feel obligated to give you anything at all until I had this horse? Either way, I gave you a horse. Does there have to be an obligation? Can't gifts be freely given?

Property rights aren't the same for all societies, as economic anthropologists have pointed out. In other societies, especially societies of hunters and gatherers, property rights mean something far different than what they mean in American society, so much so that it begs the question of why the idea of "property rights" is being used cross-culturally. For instance, Hunters and Gatherers 2 tells us at the beginning that "property rights exist, of course, in all societies" (13) but then stretches the definition of property rights to an extent to make it unrecognizable from a western definition of property rights. Of special note is Colin Scott's observance of Cree property rights. The Cree are a Native American group in Quebec, and their idea of "property rights," as Scott tells us, is all mixed in with Cree "ideology," meaning that people who believe what the Cree believe are allowed to use things in accordance with a presumed harmony among Cree peoples and within the local ecology as a whole. Scott admits that

To speak of Cree property, then -- even 'communal' property -- would be to gloss over the essential dynamic of the system. Customary rights in the land, living resources and products may be specified, but these relate to the technical and political relations of managing and sharing resources -- resources in which no one, in the last analysis, retains exclusive or absolute rights. (Scott, in Hunters and Gatherers 2, p. 40)

In America, the idea of property tends to follow the definition of John Locke's, that is, that property is some absolute power an owner has over something that is owned, with some exceptions. Eminent domain allows the government to collect taxes on property, and to require owners of property to sell it, if the state determines some overweening national interest in buying property (for instance, for the Nation's interstate highway system). Cree "property," on the other hand, appears to be something completely different.

The critical social theorist must examine the terms of individualism, or of any belief system. Critical social theorists are obligated to point out the limits to the explanatory capacity of any term or set of terms. If we want to understand how people behave, we have to use generalizations or abstractions, we have to use words that describe more than one behavior. But such words can only describe so many possible behaviors before they fail to tell us what is going on. The description of the economy as "exchange," for instance, failed to tell us about economies that weren't based on exchange. "Role obligation" failed to tell us everything about gift-giving. "Property" didn't tell us what the Cree of Quebec did with things. And so on. What economic anthropology seems to show is that the concept of "the individual" is culturally tied to certain values typically held by some members of societies that believe in "individuals".

An ethical examination of the idea of "individual freedom," as is made typically by professors of philosophy in universities (but which can be made in real life by anyone), will also reveal that the idea of "free individuals," when combined with possessive individualism, specifies certain freedoms ahead of others. Thus the defenders of "individual freedom" can be caught defending a particular set of cultural values as regards how freedom is exercised.

The idea of "self-ownership," for instance, as eviscerated in G. A. Cohen's book Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality, suggests that the defense of "self-ownership" is also the defense of an ideal of freedom that fails to defend other important freedoms which we can describe. "Self-ownership" is shown to be the marriage of the concept of "individual freedom," to the concept of possessive individualism, in other words to the philosophical idea that the world is a thing that is potentially to be owned by individual human beings. "Self-ownership" is thus a marriage of individualism and property. I will show, below, how Cohen defines the philosophy of "self-ownership" as asserting three main principles:

1) people "own themselves" -- people should be allowed to do as they please with their bodies so long as they do not interfere with the "self-ownership" rights of others (Cohen 68)
2) (the believer in self-ownership) believes not only that people own themselves, but that they can become, with equally strong moral right, sovereign owners of indefinitely unequal amounts of such raw external resources as they can gather to themselves as a result of proper exercises of their own/ and or other's self-owned personal powers." (Cohen 69)
3) "When, moreover, private property in external resources is rightly generated, its morally privileged origin insulates it against expropriation or limitation." (Cohen 69)

To simplify: 1) says people own themselves, 2) says people own things, and 3) is an indefinite claim against the taxation or limitation of property-owners. 1) and 2) may look unproblematic to many people in American culture, especially those who take the notion of "private property" for granted. 3), on the other hand, is a principle common to political programs which some Americans would call "libertarian," and thus is politically interesting. (We will see how politically interesting it is, shortly.) Commonly, libertarians will argue from 2), the moral rightness of the ownership of things, to the notion that the "free market" is a morally-good institution, and thus the argument presented above in 3) is the libertarian defense of the free-market against government interference. Cohen assumes, along with Nozick, that 1) and 2) can be taken as implying 3), if we assume that the exchange and contractual practices of the free-market are morally good. Cohen offers a moral critique of the exchange and contractual practices of free-market society, to be sure, but he readily admits that he can find nothing wrong with the abstract notion of the free market. Professors of philosophy such as G. A. Cohen, of course, deal in abstractions, so Cohen is not in the business of finding out if free market societies really are moral. Cohen does, however, reveal something about the specific line of thinking he explores.

Cohen takes his notion of self-ownership from Robert Nozick's book of political philosophy titled Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Cohen's argument is that self-ownership, defined as a principle militating against all claims that society might have against the property of "sovereign" individuals, also militates against the freedom of vast numbers of individuals to experience any freedom of all, for the sake of the freedom of the "individual property-owner." Cohen's concept of "self-ownership" thus promotes a certain type of freedom -- the freedom from social restraints upon one's right to possess or trade one's property. Cohen's argument bears elaboration:

Any but the most utopian socialist must be willing under certain conditions to restrict the liberty of a few for the sake of the liberty of many. But, so Nozick would charge, such a socialist would violate 'moral side constraints' that apply to all human action. For Nozick thinks that we may never restrict one person's freedom in order to enhance the welfare or the freedom of very many others, or even of everyone, that person included (where we know that the restriction will redound to his benefit).

If children are undernourished in our society, we are not allowed to tax millionaires in order to finance a subsidy on the price of milk to poor families, for we would be violating the rights, and the 'dignity' of the millionaires. We cannot appeal that the effective liberty of the children (and the adults they will become) would be greatly enhanced at little expense to the millionaires' freedom, for Nozick forbids any act which restricts freedom: he does not call for its maximization. (This means that if it were true that certain exercises of freedom would lead to totalitarianism, Nozick would still protect them. Market freedom itself would be sacrificed for Nozick if the only way to preserve it were by limiting it.) (Cohen 31-32)

The above long quote is the gist of the argument.that runs throughout Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. By abridging the version of "freedom" promoted by the philosophy of "self-ownership," people might be able to improve society, but, even so, the believers in "self-ownership" would object to such a move. The "moral side constraints" that Nozick mentions, are guarantees of self-ownership, they are the comfort offered to the individual believer in "self-ownership" that such a belief can be "guaranteed," i.e. that the believer's mind can be purged of doubt as to the fact that compromising self-ownership in any way is immoral. Self-ownership thus comforts the alleged "self" with certainty.

Cohen mounts other challenges to the idea of "self-ownership" in the book, most importantly in his assertion that there are "non-contractual obligations to serve other people," (230) -- that in other words, he (Cohen) thinks that people are morally required to preserve certain social bonds. Cohen therefore has to advocate a position of his own in order to attack the philosophy of "self-ownership," a philosophy that specifies a different set of obligations and a different set of freedoms. Critical social theorists should note, about all this, that one's belief in a certain version of "freedom" implies a certain set of values, values which are there to comfort the individual believing in them. Such values are thus part of possessive individualism as I have defined it above. Concepts of "property," "the individual," or "freedom" cannot therefore be detached from their cultural contexts and looked at "in abstract" without losing their real-life substance.

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