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Consent cannot justify human exploitation!

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
16th August 2012


An important argument, excerpted from David Ellerman:

A critique of the consent versus coercion framing

In many debates of a political or economic nature, I find myself again and again arguing with people on both the left and right who take the consent-vs.-coercion framing of political and economic issues as fundamental. Those on the right tend to take consent as the essentially sufficient condition for an institution to be morally acceptable. Somewhat surprisingly, those on the left accept the same framing of the issue, and just take the other side—arguing that certain institutions are “actually” coercive.

For instance, the basic economic institution of our society is the renting of human beings, the employment relation.

The consent versus coercion framingConsent vs coercion

This framing puts the employment system on the same side as political democracy as based on the consent of the governed. Those on the left who attack “wage labor” typically accept the consent/coercion framing but argue that employment is “actually” coercive in some special sense, and thus should be on the other side from the impermissible-permissible dichotomy along with slavery and feudalism.

The consent/coercion framing on the left

An excellent example of this was a recent dust-up between the Bleeding Heart Libertarian bloggers (on the right) and the Crooked Timber bloggers (on the left). The whole debate was spent on arguing about whether this or that practice was consensual or coercive since both sides accepted the framing: consent = permissible and coercion = impermissible.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that essentially the whole left—from American liberals to European social democrats and all the way leftward to the surviving endangered species of Marxists—use that framing. Liberals might just condemn “abuses” in the employment system that border on coercion while Marxists or “socialists” (whatever that means these days) might strike a more radical posture of condemning the system outright on the grounds of it being coercive in some special sense. Since the employment contract is obviously not coercive in the ordinary juridical sense, socialists of various stripes take it as a badge of red courage to use some rather elevated standard of “coercion” in their condemnations (a standard that historically was quickly relaxed when the employer was a socialist government).

For the use of the consent/coercion framing on the left, the generative metaphor is the historical enclosure movement where free peasant farmers were denied access to the “means of production.” Hence people were seen as being historically forced or coerced into wage labor. A person of the left might argue today that wage labor is “inherently coercive” unless everyone has a guaranteed basic income (GBI) that provides a feasible alternative. The guaranteed basic income would function as the modern version of access to the commons or more generally access to the “means of production.” Ironically, the historical result of this “access to the means of production” definition in the socialist countries was a guaranteed job as a state employee for the state owning the means of production, a rather curious fate for the left-wing notion of “non-coercive.”

But my point here is that if some such non-coercive argument is the ‘best shot’ the left has at the employment relation, then the left has no per se objection to the whole institution of renting people, so long as people have the desired specified alternative available (e.g., GBI) to make it a “really” free choice. Thus the whole left-wing posture of “condemning” wage labor turns out to have been just another way to draw the line between “really” voluntary and “actually” coercive.

Intellectual history of consent-vs.-coercion framing

Insight into the consent/coercion framing can be gained by looking at the intellectual history of three voluntary contracts:

- the voluntary slavery contract;

- the political pact of subjection (where citizens alienate their right of self-government to become subjects of some sovereign); and

- the coverture marriage contract (where the woman alienates her independent legal personality in favor of her husband).

All these voluntary contracts are now abolished in the advanced western democracies. But historically, slavery, autocracy, and the legal non-personhood of females were all seen by their sophisticated apologists as being based on an implicit or explicit version of these contracts.

The basic point here is that those of the left or right who analyze social issues using the consent-vs.-coercion framing can only disagree with those contractarian defenders of slavery, autocracy, and female oppression by quibbling about what is “really” voluntary or “actually” coercive. Putting it the other way around, if the coercion-critique is the ‘best shot’ at condemning slavery, autocracy, and female oppression, then the implication is that;

- slavery is OK if it is really voluntary;

- non-democratic government is OK if it is really voluntary; and

- female non-personhood is OK if it is really voluntary.

In contrast, if one does have a per se critique, then there is no reason to use the consent/coercion framing at all—since one has a case against those institutions even if they were fully voluntary and consensual.

The inalienable rights per se critique of those institutions of alienation

The case from the right or left against slavery, autocracy, or female oppression on the basis of those institutions not being “really voluntary” is thus a rather superficial case. Fortunately, the historical abolitionist, democratic, and feminist movements developed per se inalienable rights arguments against those institutions [Ellerman 1992], arguments that did not degenerate into quibbles with the apologists for those institutions about what was “really” voluntary or “actually” coercive.

The argument was that any rights one has qua person are inalienable, even by a really voluntary contract, since after the contract is signed and “validated” by the legal authorities, then person still qualifies for the same rights on the same grounds qua person. Hence the pretended legal alienation was inherently invalid, and those qua-person rights are inherently inalienable.

This sort of argument clearly has nothing to do with quibbles about what is really voluntary or actually coercive, i.e., it has nothing to do with the consent/coercion framing.

Of course, consent is a necessary condition for a permissible social institution. The real question is whether the consent is to:

- a contract to legally alienate some of the rights one has qua person, or

- a contract “to secure these [unalienable] rights.”

A democratic constitution does not alienate the right of self-government to a sovereign; it is a contract that secures that right by only delegating the exercise of that right to representatives who only govern in the name of those governed. In the Latin, the alienable/inalienable dichotomy was translatio versus concessio. Thus the real framing is that between voluntary contracts of alienation versus contracts of delegation.”

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2 Responses to “Consent cannot justify human exploitation!”

  1. Patrick S Says:

    This is indeed an interesting and important argument.

    One specific reflection relevant to P2P and the Commons:- these days, software devs are often asked to sign contracts that waive various rights to attribution of their creative work, and/or sign over rights to _all_ their creative software ideas to their employer, whether the software was developed on the job or off it. A clear illustration of where current systems can almost institutionalise ignoring rights that were won through the legal system.

    Also: taking Ellerman’s critique on board, I think the traditional left argument of what would represent non-exploitative conditions for making ‘genuinely’ non-coercive agreements about employment is useful. IE if we want to keep some sort of ideal of personal responsibility, isn’t the notion of informed consent under fair conditions still pretty important?

  2. Apostolis Xekoukoulotakis Says:

    (After reading a few of his material, please correct me if I am wrong.)

    David Ellerman’s arguments are quite rigorous and thus are quite refreshing. Anyone should read them and use them. I am, though, going to show that the workers alienation of their rights is not the only reason that exploitation exists.

    David seems to start from the axiom that everyone should own the products of their labor and be free to produce what one wants and that this human right is irrevocable. He ,then, goes to prove that the employment contract that is currently used is an alienation of the workers rights and that it is has no difference to that of a slave contract.

    Davids theory is correct and consistent. The question though remains: Will this society not have inequalities? Should we accept the initial axiom without checking the consequences to society?
    It is important to note that initial axiom is individualistic in nature. Society though consists of many people and their happiness is expressed by a societal welfare function. Since society is based on the cooperation of many people, it is wrong to create our axiomatic approach with individualistic axioms with no regard to the possible maximization of certain welfare functions. Individualism in a societal context has no ethical support if society at large “suffers”.

    Unfortunately, even if workers are not alienated form their rights, they will continue to be exploited because the owners of the means of production are able to exercise their right to control their assets arising from the first fundamental axiom. It is here that the battle of coercion vs consent can keep going on. But consent or coercion is nothing more than semantics that try to justify or not what is happening.
    The interesting part is to understand the outcome of this ability of the capitalists derived from the initial axiom. When a worker cooperative is given the choice of renting the assets or not, he checks the 2 possible outcomes. If the asset increases productivity by 10x, the capitalist has the ability to rent the asset so that he receives 8x of the production in rent while the workers double their production. The worker cooperative would be stupid not to accept the offer of the capitalist.

    In other words, accumulation of the value by the 1% continues to be possible. In other words, while Davids exposition is rigorous and correct, accepting the initial axiom leads to very bad results on the societal welfare function.

    Marx, in other words, was right in this. But putting all the means of production to the commons is only one way of solving this problem. One though is certain.
    The initial individualistic axiom should be revised. It should still hold when you live alone but it should be relaxed when you are part of society and you own means of production.

    My solution: All means of production should be sold (or rent) at a price lower or equal to the price that they were acquired. Of course that creates a problem of logistics, finding the initial price. This is still under research and has to do with the technologies that currently exist in computers, especially graph processing. I am referring to a digital representation of contracts and their use as currency.

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