Libertarianism on a ventilator
Trump continues his fatwa against social distancing, firing up his cult of crackpots to divert attention from his falling approval numbers and his administration’s incoherent response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the heat of reaction for or against the stupidity of these astroturf protests around the country, we might miss the fact that this viral outbreak is driving a stake through the heart of libertarian ideology. Yes, of course, there is an aggressive resurgence at this point in time, like a deep last gasp before giving up the ghost. Libertarianism is dying, and liberalism is not far behind.
Most of us are passing familiar with the centrality of property in liberal philosophy and libertarian ideology. Property is a state-protected entitlement to use land and products as we see fit and to dispose of said property in any manner we see fit. Property is “alienable.” Liberals qualify this, whereas libertarians sanctify it.
This is basic social contract stuff. But hidden inside the more well- known“social contract” is a peculiarly modern idea of the self as property —the self as owner of a transferable body. One would think that in a society that prides itself on being grounded in empiricism, we would question the idea that there is some entity, apart from one’s embodied existence, that “owns” her or his body. Yet, the idea that one’s body is not alienable is almost incomprehensible to us.
We believe that each person has the right to dispose of her or his body as
she or he sees fit . . . to a point, of course. Suicide is still against the law in
most states, even though no one is left to prosecute for violation; and we are
prohibited from legally consuming certain kinds of drugs, a bureaucratic
legal limitation on freedom. But the commonsense belief among most of us
is that we can do as we wish with ourselves understood as alienable bodies. Herein is a contradiction.
If you sign an employment contract, as an employee, you are signing away yourself for a period of time; you are promising to obey, in exchange for a sum of money. You may be compelled by an economy of scarcity. When one looks at many of the most thankless and low-paid jobs, one quickly realizes that one can contract to live little better than a slave, even if one is a slave who can go home at night (unless you are a migrant worker, e.g.). Yet, as we sign the contract, me the big boss and you the tomato picker, both signatories are recognized by the law as equal. So, in a real sense, there could theoretically be a “slave contract.” I could theoretically sign a contract to obey you, day and night for a period of time, in exchange for nothing more than minimal food, clothing, and shelter, or for my whole life, as long as I enter into this slave-contract “voluntarily.”
In fact, a good case could be made that we have many slave contracts in operation right now, which does not differ in many respects from an early twentieth century marriage contract, exchanging obedience for protection. This system works because of another bit of post-Enlightenment creativity, the idea of a formal separation between two “domains” — public and private. Prior to the Enlightenment, no such separation was understood.
In contemporary contractarianism . . . the boundaries that separate one individual from another are so tightly drawn that an individual is pictured as existing without any relationship with others. The individual’s capacities and attributes owe nothing to any other individual or to any social relationship; they are his alone. . . . The individual owns his body and his capacities as pieces of property, just as he owns material property. According to this view, each individual can and must see the world and other individuals only from the perspective of his subjective assessment of how best to protect his property, or, as it is often put, from the perspective of his self-interest. (Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract, p. 55)
The proprietary, alienable body is accepted by most of us today. One refers to something called “my body” — subject-I verb-owns a body-object. As if the self is a ghost that carries around a physical body in a rucksack. (There is a lot written about an abstraction called “the body” in the academy, much of it little more than dense, masturbatory prose. My philosophical go-to on “the body,” for the record, is Simone De Beauvoir, who called one’s embodiment “a situation.”)
For liberals and libertarians, one’s body is the original property, and all other property is recognized as an extension of the body by law. The libertarian political formula is “I have a right to do as I please so long as I do not infringe upon the same right for others.” My rights and your rights, then, begin and end at the boundary of our skins, and the boundary of our property — seen legally as an extension of our embodied selves. The Libertarian symbol (above) is a porcupine, something you dare not touch. It’s all very flat-earther, but because it conforms to public school propaganda about the American Revolution and whatnot, it’s “sticky.”
COVID-19 is reminding us, however, that “the body” is not demarcated along an epidermal outline, any more than realities “external” to a property line can be truly external. A piece of land has things passing through it and out of it all the time — air, water, creatures, etc. Our embodied selves take in materials from outside and give off materials into the surround . . . constantly. Every moment of every day. When you and I inhabit the same room, we are sharing the air, swapping the same molecules, inhaling each other’s exhalations. Our embodied selves are maintained by a ceaseless flow of through-puts — air, food, water, products.
The clownish demonstrations responding to Trump’s latest nitwittery are manifestations of a philosophical crisis for liberalism and libertarianism — both with a common antecedent, but now at odds over the contradictions that were already nested inside classical liberalism.
To whom does your body actually “belong”?
One of the signs showing up at these “liberate” rallies is “My body, my choice.” Here are right-wingers — anti-abortion advocates — appropriating the language of pro-abortion advocates.
This is actually a classic example of Alasdair MacIntyre’s thesis that liberal modernity inevitably devolves into endless debates that can never be brought to a conclusion because each side of the debate begins with premises that are incommensurable with the other.
Both sides here accept the premise of a proprietary body; but on the question of abortion, there is a further debate about when a human being — en utero or ex utero — actually becomes a citizen who enjoys legal protection from the state. And this revolves around legalisms as well. No one is arguing about whether or not an unborn child is a human or not. “Human” is a species differentiation, not a legal one. Billions of humans around the world are not considered citizens eligible for protection by the state. And the unborn here are not dogs or cats, they have human DNA and morphology. On the other hand, we do prosecute citizens for the murder of non-citizens because they kill X — “a human being.” And this is the anti-abortionist’s syllogism — ignoring for the moment how this can be a cover for restoring patriarchal power — that (a) an unborn child is human, (b) killing defenseless humans is murder, therefore (c) abortion is murder.
Murder is a legal term. Their antagonists argue that until “the fetus” (this medical term differentiates itself from “human,” not as species but by developmental stage) reaches a certain stage of development that fetus is not entitled to legal protection from the state. The core of the pro-choice argument is that the “fetus” does not yet qualify for protection as a citizen. The argument is that while “the fetus” still relies exclusively on the mother, that is, while it can not survive outside the womb, this state of dependency brings it back into the realm of “my body” and an extension thereof — making “the fetus” disposable in the same way as any other property. This, of course, raises other questions, like can we then dispose of human beings, those who have been born already, who become entirely dependent? And so on and so on and so on.
The question of how much autonomy an embodied human being ought to have is removed from the storms of everyday life, where things are entirely too complicated to reduce to polemical categories like pro-choice and pro-life.
This is a failure of liberal law to come to grips with the complexity of our lives; and both sides in this argument are equally unconvincing with regard to “the body” as possessive object — the very philosophical premise upon which both sides rely and neither can abandon. But both sides are trapped inside the same liberal paradigm of the proprietary body.
(I don’t want readers to get twisted around the axle here about the abortion debate, but for the record I oppose the criminalization of abortion for reasons that do not fall neatly into the pro-life/pro-choice dipole.)
Let’s be clear here that liberal philosophy — the parent of both late capitalist liberalism and libertarianism — was developed by an emergent capitalist class for that class. The proprietary, alienable body is a core premise in this philosophical tradition. The question of who qualifies for liberal protection from state intervention has been contested constantly, on psuedo-scientific racial grounds, on gender grounds, and even on “developmental” grounds (colonies are like children — not yet prepared for autonomy). But even if applied universally, it still runs aground on “the body.” Because real bodies do not conform to legislative schemes, and real people are not abstractions — like the liberal abstract “individual,” a legal cipher that pretends (a) human beings are all exactly the same and (b) our historically-determined circumstances do not matter.
Anatole France once summed this up nicely: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor from begging in the streets, sleeping under bridges, and stealing bread.”
Libertarians are those who have tried to boil liberalism down to a simple question of property, based on a very strict interpretation of the public/private dichotomy which was itself a legal outgrowth of the possessive individual. The public realm is that which is visible to the law. That which is private must remain invisible to the law. “Castle doctrine,” the most pernicious legal (and patriarchal) concatenation of liberal philosophy, is a great example.
“A man’s home is his castle.”
This was used, for example, to allow men to beat their wives and children, because it was a “private matter,” in the realm of the Private (contra Public), and therefore invisible to the eyes of the law.
What COVID-19 has done is presented us with a circumstance that cannot be ignored in which the permeability of the body, the interdependence of all humans, and the kind of preventable chaos that can present when that dependent, permeable body (and bodies) are exposed to a common risk that fails to conform to libertarian shibboleths. Also exposed is the central idiocy of the proprietary, alienable body.
Will everyone see what has been exposed? Of course not. But over time, the dangerous foolishness of libertarians (and eventually liberals) will be attrited in the general semiosphere of debate, in the same way that alchemy and phrenology finally were. Philosophically, libertarianism was always a dead letter; but now the whole world is living through the same devastating rebuttal as we become watchfully conscious that we all breathe the same air.