Friday, November 26, 2010

Cohen, The Man Exposed

Eric Stockhausen
In "Capitalism, Freedom, and the Proletariat", G. A. Cohen analyses capitalism and various political positions in regards towards capitalism. He correctly claims that freedom and unfreedom are compatible and that in a capitalist society one is free to sell one’s labour but not free to not participate in the game of capital gain. He contends with the libertarians and Nagel-like liberals because he disagrees for the rights reasons that economic and individual freedom is not the only kind freedom and that there is inherent unfreedom in the capitalist system. Cohen disagrees with Marxists who ignore the fact that there is such a freedom as being able to sell one’s labour. As Cohen exposes these Marxists' underlying contradiction by asking: “If the worker is not free to sell his labour power, of what freedom is the foreigner whose work permit is removed deprived?” (Cohen 165). He then criticizes Anthony Flew’s definition of Libertarianism by explaining that libertarians are not “‘opposed to any social or legal constraints on individual freedom’” but are defenders of capitalism (Cohen 167).
To explain why libertarians, like Flew, and liberals, like Nagel, overlook the interference inherent in a system that protects private property, Cohen offers a two-part explanation. For the first part, Cohen reminds that private property is being seen as a necessary part of human existence, separate from social and legal constraints. Because of this “tendency to failure of perception”, liberals and libertarians do not see the “particular way of distributing freedom and unfreedom” inherent in protecting private property rights (Cohen 170).

Relation to Researching Gender Equality:
Within the masculinist tradition of economic and freedom theory, Cohen makes a convincing case, but from Nancy Hirschmann's feminist theory of freedom, Cohen fundamentally misses out what capitalism is and can be. For example, after World War Two in the United States, men replaced women in the workplace; anti-feminists claimed that women who had jobs were taking them from men who deserved them; and some women had to work because they had no male counterpart to support them, like after many wars. Using Cohen’s language, married women had the freedom not to sell their labour but not the freedom to sell their labour, some unmarried or widowed women had the freedom to sell their labour but not to marry, some unmarried women could get married or attempt to be in the workforce, competing with male privilege and reduced pay. Post-war United States was a capitalist society, but Cohen claims capitalism is a system in which ‘one’ has the freedom to sell their labour and private property is protected. Most libertarians would claim that housewifery is not something a libertarian society would ban, so how did Cohen miss this aspect of freedom-unfreedom in capitalism?
This tendency to failure of perception, to use Cohen’s words, stems from a masculinist theory of freedom, which ignores the plights of women and families and speaks only for the male privilege. This process of male theorist creating male concepts of freedom for men is an age-old tradition masculinist thought that still affects theorist to this day. Sexist capitalism is still capitalism. Marriage, housewifery, and childrearing are part of everyday life in capitalism too.
This gross failure to include the freedom-unfreedom that women still face today in capitalism means theorists should start progressing towards a feminist criticism of freedom in capitalism. Anti-feminists to this day make the call that women who work weaken the family by not spending their time raising their kids and take jobs from men who need them. The sexist social constructions that can and do exist in a capitalist society does affect the distribution of freedom and unfreedom, and by including the social constructions in Cohen's theory, a feminist version of Cohen's theory of freedom and unfreedom in capitalism is more penetrating.

Cohen, G. A. "Capitalism, Freedom and the Proletariat." The Liberty Reader. edt. by David Miller. Paradigm    Publishers; Boulder, Colorado: 2006.


  1. does cohen really "prove" anything, as you allege? I would argue that it is nearly impossible to establish "proof", depending on your definition of the term.

  2. Thank you for your comment, I agree somewhat with what you said,so I changed the language I use to emphasize how Cohen looks at the assumptions of the various positions in regards towards capitalism.