Alienation and Alienability

Marxists and such folk are always talking about ‘alienation’, and are usually against it. There’s also an idea you sometimes encounter that rights can be either ‘alienable’ or ‘inalienable’. But I’ve never come across the two themes being combined (though that might just be my ignorance).

Admittedly, there’s quite a big difference, in that ‘alienation’ usually seems to be a word for a phenomenological category, a way of experiencing things (what one might call an existential situations, if one was into that sort of thing), whereas ‘alienability’ of rights is a term from normative political philosophy.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that they substantially connect. Normative political philosophy should, at its best, articulate the claims already made implicitly at the level of phenomenology  – should explain why, and with what justification, one feels threatened, outraged, or ‘alienated’.

So one way to express an objection to capitalist alienation might be this: to claim that property rights, while real, are inalienable. So for instance, one influential version of capitalist justice-theory is that people have a right to the things that they produce, and that this entails a right to ‘alienate’ those things, to give or trade them away to whoever they wish.

If these rights were, in fact, inalienable, then they would be entirely unsuitable to support a capitalist property-system, to which trade and exchange are central. It would mean, moreover, that at people’s death, their property rights would simply dissolve, and everything produced by previous generations would belong to everyone and no-one. Similarly, things produced by no-one would not only (as capitalist philosophy often supposes) have been originally common property, later appropriated by particular people, but would have to remain common property.

But surely trade is, absent any particular deranging circumstances, a paradigm of just, consensual, mutually-beneficial interaction? Can a tenable theory of justice really deny the legitimacy of trade?

But here we must be careful about the term ‘inalienable’. Many rights, it’s commonly considered, cannot be alienated, but can be forfeited or waived. For instance, take my right to position my body more-or-less wherever I like. To alienate this right would be to give it away by a ‘slave contract’, so that someone else would be able to imprison me even against my will. To forfeit it would be to give it away by doing something that was itself a serious wrong, such as violently injuring someone else. And to waive it would be to permit someone to handle my body as long as I continued to permit them.

It is usually felt that this right to bodily liberty is inalienable (slave contracts are void) but can be forfeited (penal imprisonment and arrest) and waived (piggy-back rides, everyday friendly contact, etc).

So if property rights were inalienable, that might just mean that ‘trade’ is a matter of waiving, not alienating, rights – or more simply, a matter of consenting to a certain use of things over which you have a claim.

And this subtle difference has the following result: consent is to states of affairs, not simply to ownership, and so doesn’t necessarly extend to unintended consequences. In a lot of capitalist philosophy, the justice of particular trades is supposed to be automatically ‘inherited’ by their consequences, even years later – whoever gets the property can do what they like with it.

This connects with an important sort of alienation that Marx talks about: the alienation of society from its own collective creations. The idea is that in class societies, especially in capitalism, a set of arrangements that people have created effectively assume autonomous control over people, in ways that can be understood only in terms of ‘natural laws’ of economics. Part of the meaning of ‘rational economic planning’ is to reverse this.

Without going further into complicated stuff about collective action, unintended consequences, and issues of economics in which I’d be somewhat out of my depth, I’ll add a final note about possible connections between alienability and anarchism.

Mainstream political discourse commonly assumes that “a people’s” right to self-government is inalienable – it can’t be lost or traded away. Yet at the same time, what this right amounts to is largely the right to alienate it, by voting for one government or another. We have an inalienable right to alienate that right.

Anarchism could be expressed as the more consistent position that self-government is really inalienable, and can only ever be waived – meaning that it cannot be enforced on people if they no longer consent to it.

Of course these are only suggestive thoughts.

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