So here we find ourselves — in an allegedly free world that has been organized in such a way that the global 1% possesses nearly half of all the world’s wealth, while 99% of the world lives on less than $52,000 a year. Exacerbated by the dominant global economic model, defined by economist Branko Milanović as “production organized for profit using legally free wage labor and mostly privately owned capital, with decentralized coordination” and universally known as capitalism, this form of economic organization champions the idea of human freedom. One of its primary tenets is decentralization, which relegates the role of the central government to merely the protector of that freedom — of the right to private property.
Private property is central to every capitalistic economy, of which one’s ownership over a product privileges them with the right to use it, to extract income from it, to determine its future and to enforce these rights through legal jurisprudence. In a society where our bodies are our most private assets, it is critical to consider where they fit amid this discourse surrounding private property.
Upon initial examination, it may appear that our bodies are privately ours. We have autonomy over its everyday functions. We have the ability to enjoy income from them through legally permissible wage labor — and we can theoretically determine their future in an economy absent of coercion. That is to say, we choose to work, we choose where we work and we can very well choose to leave our spaces of work if we so desire.
A deeper analysis, however, reveals these liberties to be an illusion.
Once we enter into an employment contract, we aren’t entering into a consensual agreement as it may appear. We are legally prostituting our bodies to the market in exchange for a wage. We do this by suspending our bodily autonomy to those to whom we supply our labor. How is this any different from any other form of rental transaction, such as that of an apartment or a car? Both agreements are characterized by a temporary difference of ownership, in which an individual forgoes their private property to another in exchange for revenue — in this case a wage, though they are one and the same.
This idea of a legally abiding employment agreement as a darker human rental contract is not a novel idea. It was recognized by philosopher James Mill in his 1821 text Elements of Political Economy, in which he notes that “The labourer who receives wages sells his labour for a day, a week, a month, or a year, as the case may be,” while “the manufacturer, who pays these wages, buys the labour, for the day, the year, or whatever period it may be.”
Where income constitutes not just a monetary reward but a means to livelihood for many workers, the relationship between an employer and an employee becomes one not of mutual consent, but of dependency. When the wage is further set at an arbitrary equilibrium price by invisible market forces at play, when the employee has no means of bargaining for the true value of their labor and when every human’s capacity to survive is determined by their productive capability, the human becomes another product from which the economy merely extracts value.
“The facts are that all the people who work in an enterprise, employees and working employers, are jointly de facto responsible for using up the other inputs and producing the products,” writes economic philosopher David Ellerman. “But due to the human rental contract, which operates as if that human responsibility can be alienated and transferred, allows the employer to appropriate 100% of the positive and negative product, which means the employer owns all the assets produced and owes all the liabilities created in production.”
In such an economy — in our economy — such a dynamic is unavoidable. And participation is mandatory. If an individual revolts against the human rental contract or does not possess the characteristics an employer deems worthy of rental — or in embellished terms, if they have low human capital — their status is relegated to that of an undesired product on a vacant supermarket shelf. Untouched and abandoned, they are consigned to oblivion until they are removed from the market entirely. Like products left to decay, they are left to die. How is this freedom?
This is not freedom.
Founded in a deep irony, capitalism promotes the moral framework of autonomy while at the same time eroding the true freedom of the vast majority. Where the human body has become nothing more than a mere tool for production, we have lost our freedom over our emotions, over our bodies — and over our right to flourish as human beings.
This article is part two of Jeni Dhodary’s two-part Press series on the economy as a body. To read part one, click here.