Critical Notice of G.A. Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality [Book Review]

Canadian Journal of Philosophy 28:609-626 (1998)
G.A. Cohen’s book brings together and elaborates on articles that he has written on selfownership, on Marx’s theory of exploitation, and on the future of socialism. Although seven of the eleven chapters have been previously published (1977-1992), this is not merely a collection of articles. There is a superb introduction that gives an overview of how the chapters fit together and of their historical relation to each other. Most chapters have a new introduction and often a postscript or addendum that connect them with other chapters. And the four new chapters (on justice and market transactions, exploitation in Marx, the concept of self-ownership, and the plausibility of the thesis of self-ownership) are important contributions that round out and bring closure to many of the central issues. As always with Cohen, the writing is crystal clear, and full of compelling examples, deep insights, and powerful arguments. Cohen has long been recognized as one of the most important exponents of analytic Marxism. His innovative, rigorous, and exciting interpretations of Marx’s theories of history and of exploitation have had a major impact on Marxist scholarship. Starting in the mid-1970s he has increasingly turned his attention to normative political philosophy. As Cohen describes it, he was awakened from his “dogmatic socialist slumbers” by Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example in which people starting from a position of equality (or other favored patterned distribution) freely choose to pay to watch Wilt Chamberlain play, and the net result is inequality (or other unfavored pattern). During the subsequent twenty years, political 1 philosophy has benefited from his thinking about the nature and plausibility of the thesis of selfownership, and about the scope and demands of equality. In what follows I will focus solely on the material dealing with self-ownership, but first I shall mention some of the interesting material on Marxism and socialism that I will be ignoring. First, at various points Cohen discusses how something like a principle of self-ownership is latent in the standard Marxist condemnation of capitalist exploitation (e.g., the capitalist steals labor time from the laborer)..
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