Against the Renting of Persons: A conversation with David Ellerman

From The Straddler:

EllermanDavid Ellerman, philosopher, mathematician, economist, and political theorist, is highly critical of the intellectual underpinnings of the current employment system, which he says institutionalize “the renting of persons” on dubious philosophical grounds. Describing his position as “neo-abolitionist,” he notes that modern liberal thought simplistically locates chattel’s slavery illegitimacy in its being a coercive institution. According to Ellerman, this wholly ignores a long and neglected tradition of liberal thought that viewed voluntary slavery as legitimate. This more sophisticated defense of slavery is itself illegitimate, but its tenets survive today and underlie the renting of persons in our own employment system. While working at Wal-Mart or Starbucks is a categorically different experience than chattel slavery, Ellerman’s efforts to recover the tradition of inalienable rights, which informed the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence as well as the abolitionists of the nineteenth century, seek to provide an analysis of the institutions of modern employment, which he claims structurally maintain an essential denial of human agency.

The key distinction, Ellerman argues, is not between consent and coercion, but between delegation and alienation—between decisions made representatively on one’s behalf by delegates and decisions made by unaccountable agents to whom decision-making power has been wholly transferred. An adult person who consents to a contract of alienation essentially agrees to something that is not possible: to partially turn him or herself into a thing. As Ellerman puts it, “I can voluntarily transfer the services of my shovel to another person so that the other person can employ the shovel and be solely de facto responsible for the results. I cannot voluntarily transfer my own actions in like manner.”[1] In short, “[a]n individual cannot in fact vacate and transfer that responsible agency which makes one a person.”[2]

More here.