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Reading G.A. Cohen’s “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” (Pt.2)

           In the first post of this (hopefully three-part) series on G.A. Cohen’s article On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom I challenged a fairly typical, common-discourse, defense of capitalism against the Marxist claim that under capitalism the working class is forced to sell their labor to those who own the means of production (namely the defense that says they are not forced because they have other options, i.e., poverty, crime, starve to death etc.). This facile, but typical response of course rests on a simplistic misunderstanding of what it is to be forced to do something. I followed Cohen’s reasoning that in ordinary usage, when we say “one is forced to do A, because one has no choice,” this is meant as shorthand for, “one is forced to choose to do A, because one has no reasonable or acceptable alternative.”

           But how does this Marxist claim about working-class unfreedom stand against a more serious criticism: namely real-life examples of individuals whose objective position within the relations of production under capitalism is identical to that of the proletarian, who nevertheless manage to work their way out of the working class to become small business owners or capitalists? Since such cases show that the working class are not relevantly forced to sell their labor – i.e., they have at least one option other than wage labor, beggary, or starvation, which appears perfectly reasonable and acceptable – this seems to form a powerful counterexample to the Marxist thesis. Cohen recognizes this as a powerful case against the Marxist claim about proletarian unfreedom, and even attempts to show how two of the most common arguments against this powerful counterexample fail to recognize the argument’s strength, and thus, ultimately do not work. Read more…

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