Re-Membering Our Self:

'Organicism' as the Foundation of a New Political Economy

I argue that the Marxist ethical claim against capitalism as an exploitative system could be bolstered through: 1) a recognition of the inaccurate human ontology that capitalist theories of distributive justice presuppose, 2) a reconceptualization and replacement of that old paradigm of human ontology, and 3) a normative argument for why this new paradigm of human ontology necessitates a new political economy. I use the debate between Robert Nozick and G.A. Cohen as a launching point for my case.

In his book, “Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality”, G.A. Cohen argues that Robert Nozick’s “entitlement theory” is unable to produce the robust sense of freedom that libertarians and capitalist proponents aggrandize. According to Cohen, the reason for this is due to the limitations and consistency errors produced by the libertarian adherence to the “self-ownership principle.” (the natural right that a person is the sole proprietor of their own body and life). Namely, that the pale freedom that the self-owning proletariat enjoys is inconsistent with the Libertarian’s own standard for freedom. So Cohen rejects the self-ownership thesis as the site of error in that it leads neither to equality nor autonomy. My project picks up where Cohen’s leaves off, claiming that the consistency errors don’t lie in entitlement theory’s use of the self-ownership principle as such (it is important that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater). Rather, the errors lie in the principle’s metaphysics - specifically in the ontology of the human being. The self-ownership principle is only faulty because it presupposes an impossible self. I show that entitlement theory requires a self (or a human ontology) that features the properties of a “rational, autonomous, individual.” I then deconstruct each of these three features (rationality, autonomy, and individuality) to show that this picture of the human being is not necessarily incorrect, but it is incomplete. 

Although we are indeed rational, autonomous, and individuated creatures, these are only emergent characteristics that merely arise after the organic and socially interconnected aspects of our selves are nurtured. I encompass these latter features of our selves under the heading: “organicism”. So my contribution is to provide a different ontological foundation of the human being – “organicism” – to replace the Enlightenment grown: “rational, autonomous, individual”. Organicism emphasizes the embodiment of the human being, interconnectedness, symbiotic relationships, holism, community, and ecology as ontologically important and constitutive of the subject. It reminds us that we are inseparable from nature but have a consciousness that allows for a transcendence from the individual self, and a self-consciousness that allows one to see their place in the Whole. This theory is an extension of Karl Marx’s philosophical anthropology.

This organicist conception of the self has transformational effects on our notions of property and contracts, consequently requiring a replacement theory of distributive justice in lieu of entitlement theory. I go on to argue that organicist ontology then serves as the foundation for a normative theory of political economy that sees the “flourishing” or health (broadly speaking) of the human and the ecosystem as the primary ethical goal. This replacement theory of distributive justice ends up providing the robust sense of freedom that Nozick’s entitlement theory was lacking because it produces the conditions necessary for rationality, autonomy and individual dignity.