The Properties of Property Language: Proselytizing Locke by Accident?

By Carmen Melillo

 

In the current political struggle over abortion rights and access, debates around language are salient. A truly dizzying number of terms and framings zoom about the discourse- “pro-choice”, “pro-life”, “after 15 weeks”, “antis”, “partial birth”, “Hyde Amendment”, “bodily autonomy”, “forced birth”, “women’s rights”, “people who can get pregnant”…the list goes on. So much so, in fact, that many who have convictions that abortion is an essential right and should be safe, legal, and accessible may find themselves unsure of what to say in order to articulate where they stand. If I support the right to an abortion and affirm the group of people who can have abortions (and therefore require legal access to do so safely), how can I be sure I am not using the language of the “other side”?

The purpose of this essay is not to catalog each and every inflection point in the language of the abortion rights struggle, nor is it to suggest that the account that follows is a fully comprehensive  way to view that language. Rather, my aim here is to expose and examine the normative biases that laden a particular kind of language, one that is oft repeated uncritically in mainstream Liberal discourse but bears unpacking. This language is frequently used by some who support the legality, safety, and accessibility of abortion on principle, but the language itself is coded in a manner that betrays those very convictions and can even threaten bodily autonomy itself. In short, it is the language of possession and choice, which reveals a kind of Liberal normative bias that became prevalent after Roe, and remains pervasive today. The bias this language expresses is arguably the oldest of the modern era in the US and the West in general, and it is perhaps the most powerful Liberal bias of all: the bias towards property rights, and the nested assumption that they lead invariably towards individual freedom and bodily autonomy.

Property rights are a pervasive concern in Western societies and politics. Since it is in the US that the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and related abortion restrictions have occurred, it is in this context alone that my analysis will focus. This is not to say that the language in question is restricted to the United States, nor that abortion rights are not under attack in other parts of the world; a transnational analysis of the abortion rights struggle and its attendant language is a worthy and fruitful pursuit that others both have and will take up, and which I encourage.

Here in the US, this struggle has proceeded in the shadow of what some scholars call the “American Creed”, or what controversial McCarthy-Era writer Louis Hartz called an “Irrational Lockeanism”: the reflexive rhetorical bias of Americans (including those who are pro-abortion-rights) to adopt the logic of property rights and property relations in their language. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the popular slogan, “My Body, My Choice”, which many pro-abortion-rights activists have adopted since the late 1960’s. But the relationship between this kind of language and the logic of property rights is much older, dating back to the Enlightenment figure invoked by Hartz: philosopher John Locke.

Few can doubt the salience of property rights and relations in the United States. Locke’s philosophy is the paradigmatic example of an argument rooted in property, and so it is to him we shall turn our attention.[1] Locke makes clear in Chapter 5 of his Second Treatise (appropriately titled “Of Property”) that his view of property as a salient right stems from the connection between property (particularly land), labor, and individual prosperity. Locke sees property as the key to productive capacity, and therefore ownership of production begins, not in the land itself, but in the body; for the body must perform labor upon the land to make it produce more than what it is naturally capable of.

Since this labor flows from the human body, and the attendant produce is key to the subsistence of that body through food, nourishment, shelter, and biological reproduction, what makes an individual “own” the land as property is the very labor their body performs upon it. (This logic is one explanation for why settler colonists in the Americas, especially in the British colonies, viewed the land as essentially “virgin” or “untouched”; it was the apparent lack of a landed property system akin to the recognizable forms of Western European agrarian society amongst the Indigenous population that made them “uncivilized’ or “savage”, and therefore deserving of forced removal).[2] Thus it proceeds that the First of all property rights is Not to the Land, but to the Body itself. One’s own body is one’s first property, and it is through that body’s productive capacity to do labor that one cultivates all external properties and gains claim to them. Hence, “My Body” is a statement asserting this claim of ownership.

But what of the language of choice? Here, too, we can see the traces of property logic outlined in simple, positive-sounding words. If we adopt the Lockean frame that the body is the first of all properties, inherent to the ownership of that property is the decision-making power over how to use it and apply its labor. We call this decision making power “Choice”. Under this logic, one can choose to work and produce as much or as little as one sees fit. It is small wonder then that so many privatized political interests use the language of “choice” to describe their projects. Segregationists argue that dividing schools along race and class lines is not segregation- it is “school choice”. Union busters promoting “right to work” policies say they are not anti-union, they are “pro-worker-choice”. Christian moralists claim that queer people are not expressing a natural form of human attraction or self-expression, they are “choosing” an immoral lifestyle. And of course, anti-abortion activists say that people who become pregnant but do not wish to be are “choosing” the consequences of their sexual activity. The parallel with the language of choice and its deployment of property logic is clear: all actions of the bodily property are privately taken & electively chosen, and the owner therefore privately (individually) also owns the consequences, for good or for ill.

Here we see the potential dangers of reinforcing the logic of property rights within the language of the pro-abortion-rights movement. It is not an accident that the examples listed above are taken from those reactionaries on the Right who typically oppose abortion rights and wish to restrict autonomy. The Liberal response has been to double down on that language in defense of bodily autonomy. Yet the trouble is here compounded- for this language, so skillfully deployed by the Right, remains a language native to Liberalism itself! The Liberal condition is built upon these assumptions of equivalency between property rights and the body, and while these assumptions may lead liberals to assume this language supports autonomy, it has just as often led to terrible, nonautonomous ends in American history.

For once the human body has been established as property, and its value linked to its labor, that logic can be readily deployed to degrade and devalue the humanity of the body, and to strip away its autonomy. If the body is individual property, it must belong to someone; if the value of the human individual is degraded, it opens up space for stripping ownership and autonomy from that individual, and vesting it in another by feat of power. This logic has led quite readily to the enslavement of Black bodies to perform forced labor; to the subjugation of those who can give birth to do reproductive labor; and to the exploitation of workers’ bodies to produce more than they are compensated for by their employers. Most recently, Anti-Vaxxers have loudly appropriated the very slogan liberal abortion rights activists innovated: “My body, my choice!” now extends the ownership of the body to the license to make others sick.

These are just a few of the pervasive examples of the dark ends to which the logic of body-as-property can arrive. More often than not these ends overlap, collide, twist, and bend about each other in a macabre dance of exploitation, expropriation, and death.

The problems of this property-laden language do not stop there. Its tendency to individualize erects barriers to collective action. It purports a kind of freedom that theorists call “Negative Freedom”- the right to be left alone. This sentiment is understandable, and even attractive- few among us have not felt the impulse towards Negative Freedom even in our day-to-day interactions. (As great a thinker as Frederick Douglass invoked negative freedom in response to the rhetorical question “What Shall be Done with the Negro?”- “Let him alone!” Douglass declared.) Yet an activist politics that relies on an individual language of negative freedom runs the risk of demobilizing. Movements based on the perceived status of the individual may be abandoned the moment individual interests have been addressed, or if individuals feel that they are being sufficiently “left alone” while others remain at risk.

This language atomizes solutions to collective social and political problems down to the level of the individual, who can be further demobilized via stigma, oppression, even simple exhaustion. For how much “choice” do we have in this burdensome framework? How much autonomy can we even retain under this logic, when powerful political, social, and economic forces constrain us from birth until death? The framework of liberal civil rights, ensconced in the decisions of the mid-20th century Supreme Court, has been presumed to be the guarantor of bodily autonomy in the US. This framework has not only proved inadequate the task- it has revealed these institutions to be reactionary mechanisms of domination and control. The Dobbs decision was for many a rude awakening that the interests of power can supersede those assumptions of guaranteed rights and bodily autonomy inherited from a previous generation, as power now renders an entire class of people vulnerable to the whims of an unaccountable and arrogant elite. The logic of property has not protected us from power, it has made us subject to it.

This analysis is not to attack those who use this language outright, but to hold it up for critical examination, to peer into the logics and norms that underpin them so we may have a fuller view of the often unseen, unconscious forces at work in shaping our words. The dominant, mainstream Liberal discourse of property and choice has dampened the light of our moral imagination, and its shadow has circumscribed our political horizon. It is towards the possibility of a new language, one that rekindles our light and reopens those horizons, that we must strive.

Towards this end, we must ask: what ways can the body be valued beyond the logic of property? What language can rescue us from the Lockean creed? It is here that we must look to the language being pioneered by the socialist feminists and anti-capitalists of the Left, which has been on the front lines of the current movement for abortion rights and bodily autonomy.

This Leftist language has not only been generally Inclusive (a framework that can appeal to progressive liberals), but also Collective (which distinguishes it as politically Left). A simple illustration of this is the collective version of “My body my choice”: “Our bodies, our choices”. While this version can retain a strand of property logic, the framing of the claim is inverted: the property (“Our bodies”) in question is collective. It belongs not only to the individual, but is party to the success of the group, and it is there that it finds its security- a security impossible for the individual to achieve alone. “Our choices” pluralizes the decision-making power, allowing for the autonomy of plural difference within the framework of a collective whole, acting towards a common interest. This is a more sustainable form of movement language, as it removes the isolating effects of individual property logics, and binds people together in an alternative logic of collective struggle towards shared goals.

 

This alternative also runs counter to negative freedom with a positive, proactive modality. It encourages mobilization towards something, a project that is active and ongoing. It gestures fervently towards a new horizon. And this proactive, positive freedom imposes an implicit question: if we are working towards something, who and what is in our way? This opens up the space for language that goes even further afield from the sorted terrain of property-rights, and becomes directly contentious. Refrains such as “The People, United, will never be Defeated!”, “When abortion rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” (frequently paired by activists with continued chants in the same register that inserts “Black lives” and “Trans rights” alongside abortion rights), and “Fuck the Church, Fuck the State, the People must decide Their/Our Fate!” all adopt oppositional and contentious positions in relationship to power. Crucially, these repertoires of protest (as they are frequently called in the scholarship of social movements) continue to move beyond the individual to emphasize the collective nature of mass struggle.

In these alternative languages of the Left abortion rights movement, we can begin to imagine a sense of value in bodies and their autonomy that is not tied to the property logic. Ironically, the connection Locke makes between body, value, and labor was not so dissimilar to the one drawn by another great philosopher: Karl Marx. Marx viewed value as being extracted from the labor of the body and sold (at the body’s expense) for profit by capitalists in the form of the commodity.[3] In both of these accounts, the body is a site of value extraction. Thus, delinking the value of the body from its ability to produce is vital. The collective, socialist language of the Left paints this alternative picture. In this account, the body is valued because it is part of a group: when one suffers, all suffer; when one is healed, all are strengthened. The body is here valued because the importance of human social connectivity is prized above that of a debased, individual economy. And the body is valued because it is finally allowed to be something other than the work it does and the things it produces; it is allowed to rest, to play, to exercise, to sleep, to eat, to join in pleasure with other bodies, and yes, to reproduce (or not!), precisely because its future is being affirmed and secured collectively with other bodies in space and time. It’s the opposite of a site, or a commodity, or a use-value; it’s life itself- it’s free.

Yet it is still possible that even these Leftist languages of collective struggle may continue to evolve and expand beyond their current bounds. That is part of what makes them so exciting! It is almost always a matter of trial-by-experiment that activists and movements refine their language repertoires and adjust (both theoretically and practically) what language affects the most change. I do not claim to know or predict exactly what that language is. It may be beyond the ability of any of us to know from this historical position exactly what it will become. Yet one thing seems clear- the old language, laden by the Liberal norms of property rights, circumscribes our possible future artificially. It allows the interest of power to sneak itself into our conversations, uninvited, and make itself heard. In this way the old language becomes a trap for the body, even when what it desires is liberation. We have heard enough from power. It is time we hear ourselves.

___________________

[1] While scholars debate exactly how much direct influence Locke had on the United States, it is nonetheless remarkable the extent to which American politics has proceeded along Lockean terms, especially in the form of language; thus he remains a useful framing device for this line of inquiry.

[2] Few scholars now doubt that this view was sorely mistaken, as complex societies and systems of land use and distribution were present amongst the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and that it was the prejudicial normative biases of the Western European settlers themselves that obscured these facts and laid the grounds for conquest.

[3] He came to very different conclusions about what should be done about this than Locke did.

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