Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion at Crooked Timber as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

30 thoughts on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  1. @BilB

    Modern internships illustrate your point as well. An intern earns nothing, gets no keep and obtains no binding promise of ever gaining employment. So an intern in one sense is in an even worse position than a slave. But in other ways, the intern is not in as bad a position as a slave. The intern has the freedom to leave this unequal setup. The intern is usually kept by family money so interns in fact have tended to come from priveleged families.

    What I suspect will happen is that internship, and jobs paying less than the subsistence rate of labour, will be pushed down and up the class pyramid (towards the middle). At the same time, welfare for under 30 year olds will be proegressively withdrawn. Soon we will see middle clasee families supporting offspring until age 30; even, in considerable proportion, offspring who have attained professional tertiary degrees. This is already happening in the US and is starting to happen here.

    The ultimate pressure behind this is the final stage globalisation of late stage capitalism. Manufacture is moving from high wage countries to low wage countries. Clerical work, computer and customer service work can also be moved to low wage countries with modern technology. The developed West will suffer a decline by capitalist osmosis, as it were, until all countries are low wage countries with tiny, super-rich elites.

    A classical capitalist crisis, as predicted by Marx, could occur and probably has to occur at some point. What will compound and complicate the crisis are the limits to growth. Capitalism has both internal contradictions and external contradictions which it cannot overcome. The external contradictions relate to capitalism’s conflict with the environment (the sustaining, healthy biosphere) which it is exhausting and destroying.

  2. Further to above;

    “Whereas at the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation “political economy treats the proletarian as a mere worker” who must recieve only the minimum necessary to guarantee his labor power, and never considers him “in his leisure, in his humanity,” their ideas of the ruling class are revised just as soon as so great an abundance of commodities begins to be produced that a surplus “collaboration” is required of the workers. All of a sudden the workers in question discover that they are no longer invariably subject to the total contempt so clearly built into every aspect of the organization and management of production; instead they find that every day, once work is over, they are treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness, in their new role as consumers. The humanity of the commodity finally attends to the workers (leisure and humanity) for the simple reason that political economy as such now can – and must bring these spheres under its sway. Thus is that the totality of human existence falls under the regime of the “perfected denial of man.”” – Guy Debord, Thesis 43., The Society of the Spectacle.

    This is all very well, while one is lulled by plenty and entertainment, but the Western generations born from about 1990 onwards will find consumer society collapsing beneath their feet. Goods will become scarcer and more expensive. Employment will be very hard to obtain. The “goodies” of late stage capitalism will still be on display for the rich and super-rich but the wastern middle-class via its post 1990 children will collapse into lifelong poverty. I cannot imagine this will have a peaceful outcome.

  3. Presumably Uncle Tom would have referred to “my master” or “my boss” – no ownership implied.

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