Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The political economy of personhood

Most humans have not been, and still are not, recognised as persons: gender and race remain prerequisites for recognition as an individual.

Charles W. Mills
16 June 2015

takomabibelot/Flickr. Creative Commons.

To speak in the same breath of personhood and political economy sounds odd because of the seemingly obvious radical difference between the two worlds of their application. On the one hand, a straightforward moral term from everyday life referring to the status of our fellow humans; on the other hand, a technical theory with roots in 18th-century French and British philosophical thought about the interrelation between economic production, society, and the state. What could these two possibly have to do with each other?

Let’s start with personhood, a term far less straightforward than it seems. To begin with, we can’t use person and human interchangeably because, as science fiction reminds us, when the aliens do eventually arrive they will presumably expect to be treated with the respect due to self-legislating beings. Personhood is a moral status that is not limited to humans. For that matter, right here on our own planet, some animal rights advocates would want to extend it to great apes, or even more broadly. Nor is a biological incarnation necessarily even a prerequisite. Recent exponential advances in AI technology open up the future possibility of self-conscious computers and robots whose potential moral rights as self-aware entities have likewise long been a staple of science fiction. Personhood is a moral status that is not limited to organic life. Indeed, in a legal sense (if admittedly more fuzzily in a moral sense), personhood is independent of such considerations, as demonstrated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1886 decision to recognize corporations as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment and their more recent 2010 Citizens United decision removing, under the First Amendment, limits to corporate political spending. “Person,” as John Locke pointed out long ago, “is a forensic term,” though even he did not realize how liberated from the biological it would eventually come to be.

So “person” may extend far beyond the human. But my concern here is, so to speak, with movement in the other direction: not the speculations of novelists or the jurisprudential decisions of legislators about the non-, trans- or extra-human, but the restriction of who is counted as human within the borders of the human. Not, in other words, the demarcation and adjudication of the non-human person but rather the demarcation and adjudication of the human non-person.

It was, after all, that same U.S. Supreme Court so generous in its recognition of corporations that had earlier, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, judged that blacks were “beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” so that “the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit,” this being “an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing.” Clearly if these beings were human they did not reach the threshold of personhood. And though the Civil War and post-bellum Reconstruction swept away the decision, leading to the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the withdrawal of federal troops after the 1877 Hayes-Tilden Compromise would enable the re-subordination of blacks under the new regime of Jim Crow, to be given formal federal sanction in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. A case can be made that no conjunction of events more clearly summarizes the political economy of personhood in the racial capitalism of the United States than corporations’ being recognized as persons in the same post-bellum period when blacks’ personhood was being taken away. Or—to move to the present—that corporate political power has been given free rein through the Citizens decision at the very time that mass incarcerations from the War on Drugs are, in a “new Jim Crow,” disenfranchising and rendering politically impotent hugely disproportionate numbers of African Americans.1

In sum, “person” is not co-extensive with “human” because to be human is neither necessary nor sufficient for personhood. Non-human entities exist that count as persons while human entities exist that do not count as persons. Not all humans have been granted the moral status to which their presumptive personhood should have entitled them.

When I speak of the political economy of personhood, then, I really mean the political economy of socially recognized personhood. I am taking for granted that morality is objective, so that people’s actual personhood continues to exist independent of social convention.2 But I am drawing our attention to how serious an error it is to assume that one’s humanness guarantees that one’s humanness, and corresponding presumptively equal moral status, will actually be acknowledged. In fact, I would suggest that this elision, or slide between the two, is facilitated by the term “person” itself. We tend to use it to signify both a factual characterization (roughly, “human”) and an achieved moral status (roughly, “human recognized as equally human”). We conflate, in other words, the factual and the ideal, the descriptive and the normative. And what I am suggesting is that we need to peel these apart and face the reality that, historically and still currently, most humans were not and are not socially recognized persons, or, more neatly and epigrammatically put: most persons are non-persons.

Now this claim may seem extremist. But I would contend that if it does, it is only because our consciousness has been so colonized by the official narrative that white male normativity still unconsciously shapes our frameworks. The rethinking of social theory in the light of several decades of feminist and critical race theory scholarship—the rethinking that should have “placed in a new light” for us the hegemonic framings of the human—has not yet been sufficiently thoroughly carried out. We still think of personhood, at least for the modern period, as being the default mode, the norm, when in actuality non-personhood is the norm.

Even in the official narrative, this is more or less conceded for the pre-modern epoch. The periodization of the past few thousand years is standardly recounted as follows. In the ancient and medieval world, inequality and ascriptive hierarchy are the norm. People are divided into citizens and slaves, or lords and serfs. So the individual is not really a significant category. What is important is your estate membership, which largely determines, from birth to death, your status and your fate. Modernity represents a tectonic moral break with this world, since “people” (conceived of as generic) are now recognized as morally equal individuals. Thus we get the inspirational story of the American and French Revolutions, the famous declaration that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and the slogans of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In this new world, the individual becomes the central bearer of value, so that government can only be justified with respect to the consent of these individuals, and social justice is supposed to be determined by their needs and interests. Liberalism is then the normative vehicle of this emancipation of individuals, persons, from absolutism and moral inegalitarianism.

But what if there are gender and racial prerequisites to being an individual? The problem with the orthodox narrative is that it limits ascriptive hierarchy to estate membership, conceived of as classes. The formal abolition of class hierarchy is then taken to be equivalent to the formal abolition of ascriptive hierarchy simpliciter. Previously, as in the writings of Locke’s political adversary in the Second Treatise, Sir Robert Filmer, white males were deemed to be themselves hierarchically ordered. Whether through noble blood or divine dispensation or both, some white men were judged to be naturally superior to other white men. The overturning of this hierarchy is then supposed to sound the tocsin of the new egalitarian world order. But what it really does is signal the equalization, the ascent to personhood, of white males in general, who are then entitled to rule over naturally inferior white women and the new category of people of color, who are likewise deemed inferior.3

Persons: the minority of humans

Consider gender. As Catharine MacKinnon’s powerful essay “Are Women Human?” should bring home to us, women of all classes have been denied the status of full personhood for thousands of years, including the present, at least if we take personhood to be—as we should—a robust moral status implying not merely formal juridical equality, but substantively guaranteed equality, in the sense of the political will and allocation of material resources to actively enforce anti-discrimination measures and correct for their legacy. So that’s half the population to begin with. The dawn of the modern age is supposed to dissolve caste and social estate and usher in the epoch of the individual. But of course it does not do this for women, who remain imprisoned in a gender “caste,” a female “estate.” And crucially, the dissolving of caste hierarchy for white men coincides with the introduction of a new kind of caste—race—for what become people of color. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people are now categorized as belonging to a less-than-full-persons nonwhite category, whether as Amerindians on the two continents, native Australians, African slaves, or colonized Asians. From the 15th-century Catholic “Doctrine of Discovery”—through the rulings in international law, slave codes, and racial regulations of the colonial period—to the 1919 vetoing by the “Anglo-Saxon nations” (Britain, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) at the post-World War I Versailles conference of the Japanese delegation’s proposal to insert a racial equality clause in the League of Nations covenant,4 the ethico-juridical inequality of people of color was globally affirmed. A patriarchy that was already planetary was joined by a white supremacy that, by the start of the 20th century, would become planetary also.

Once we face this history without evasion, we should be able to see that the claim that, even under modernity, only a minority of humans are socially recognized persons is, far from being radical and extremist, obvious and undeniable. Women of all races and male people of color put together constitute the majority of the population. How could this not have implications for the “modal distribution” of personhood? Once gender and race are seriously taken into account rather than being theoretically bracketed, the official narrative of modernity, liberalism, and the individual is dramatically overturned. Liberalism must then be reconceptualized not as the normative vehicle of the emancipation of all individuals, but as the normative vehicle of the justifiable absolutist rule of equal white male persons over morally inferior, gender- and racially-demarcated sub-persons.

Political economy: determining personhood

And that brings us to political economy. For once we realize how contingent the connection is between actual (objective) personhood and socially recognized personhood, we should be moved to ask the question: what determines this granting and denial of social status? The mainstream response will cite individual bigotry and prejudice. But I think it is more illuminating to turn to social structure and political economy.

Political economy in the classic 18th-century sense tries to understand the overall dynamic of a social system, including the workings of the state, the legal system, and the moral economy, through a focus on economic production. In the specifically left tradition of Marxism, this becomes an analysis of the class structuring of the economy and of the class dynamic at work. Marx’s most famous text, Capital, is subtitled A Critique of Political Economy, not because Marx was against this project of understanding the social dynamic but because he thought the centrality of class conflict and class exploitation was being denied by his predecessors and contemporaries. Marx did not see economic production as a harmonious cooperative process but one in which conflicting class interests were at stake.

So one way of thinking of Marx’s project is as a challenge to liberalism and liberal representations of capitalism. Political economy in the left tradition rejects the atomic individualist ontology classically associated with liberalism for a social ontology of classes. It denies the reciprocally beneficial character of economic transactions for a diagnosis of exploitation. It points us to material group interests as a factor that needs to be taken into account in any realistic assessment of the possibilities for social change. And it suggests that people’s moral psychologies (their motivations, their beliefs about the world, their sense of right and wrong) are going to be significantly shaped by their locations in different classes.

Now the socialist dream associated with this project has, needless to say, fallen on hard times. But that prescriptive failure has not, to my mind, discredited the diagnostic value of a left political economy approach to understanding social dynamics, given its insights about the centrality to the social order of domination, exploitation, and conflicting group interests—in sum, its materialism. However, at least two key weaknesses in this tradition need to be addressed.

One is Marx’s one-dimensional focus on class. He did not appreciate that there needed to be a political economy of gender and race as well as class, one that looked in their specifics and their multi-dimensionality at the distinctive systems of patriarchy and white supremacy.

The second is his failure to take morality seriously, which he thought—in my opinion wrongly—was incompatible with materialism. Though much of his writing is marked by a sense of outrage that seems to imply a clear moral condemnation of capitalism, this judgment is undercut by the contemptuous and dismissive remarks he makes elsewhere about morality in general, and by a theoretical framework that renders it marginal. Marx seems to have thought that rights were a necessarily bourgeois concept, and that utilization of a moral discourse proved one endorsed the naïve belief that moral suasion of the privileged could on its own bring about radical social change. And the result of this dual failure is that nowhere in his work did he come to recognize and theorize the peculiar ramifications of the fact that—unlike the class ontology of white males—the social ontology of both gender and race is a moralized one, in which white women and people of color are constructed as morally inferior.  

Marx characterizes the 18th-century liberal revolutions as “bourgeois” revolutions. But his criticism is not that they have failed to abolish non-class ascriptive hierarchy, but that their abolition of class hierarchy has not eliminated the material domination of the privileged classes, the emergent bourgeoisie. The famous “atomic individuals” are actually asymmetrically located in economic power relations. But they are still individuals, persons, whose equal moral status is not under contestation, only the range of options liberalism unrealistically attributes to them. What he does not see is that white women and nonwhites do not even attain this status. So his critique of liberalism, and the left tradition in political theory this critique inaugurates, is focused on liberalism’s neglect of material class advantage and disadvantage. The “materiality” of non-personhood, and its radical implications for the theory, is not explored. This conceptual blindness generates a white-male political economy that, over the subsequent century and a half, would consistently fail to apprehend how patriarchy and white supremacy, as systems and sub-systems of domination, shape not merely the exploitative labor regimes under which women and people of color work, but their very moral status, their socially denied personhood.

What would a necessary rethinking mean? It would produce a revisionist narrative of modernity—and, more generally, of the periodization of the West—and a different perspective on liberalism and its “persons.” On the conventional narrative, we move from two epochs (antiquity, feudalism) characterized by social hierarchy, moral inequality, social estates, and the absence of the individual to a third epoch, modernity, characterized by social equality, moral egalitarianism, the disappearance of social estates, and the emergence of the individual. Liberalism in its different versions (right/laissez-faire and left/social-democratic) is then the ideology of this epoch, for which the person is central. Since equality is supposedly taken for granted by all sides, it is not an issue. Instead the crucial moral and political debate is the dispute between weak egalitarians (who only recognize moral, juridical, and political equality) and strong egalitarians (who want in addition a greater degree of material equality), the classic dispute between the right and the left.

But once we recognize the fictitiousness of this putative equalization of status, we will see that there is a moral and political debate arguably more foundational, whose centrality to the making of the modern world has been concealed by the seemingly innocuous—but actually hugely consequential and question-begging—assumption that all persons have in fact been recognized as persons. Liberalism has in reality been both patriarchal and white-supremacist, so that the achievement of gender and racial equality requires its fundamental rethinking—an enterprise not at all the same as the standard advancing of left-wing claims about class handicap. It is not just a matter of material economic barriers but materialized norms of the legitimately human that are embedded in the political economy itself. In the long historic struggle across the planet for women’s rights, in abolitionism, in the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist cause, in the fight against segregation and racial inequality, a political battle has been ongoing for centuries still not conceptualized as such because of the dominant white-male cartography of our ethico-political maps. This ongoing struggle for equally socially-recognized personhood, for the redefinition of the human, needs to be appropriately centrally located in our social and political theory. We need to formally acknowledge the political economy of personhood—and its deprivation of the majority of humanity of this status.

This essay was originally published 4 April 2011 by the National Humanities Center as part of its 'On the human' project.

  1. See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
  2. Here I differ from Derrick Darby, from whose challenging book, Rights, Race, and Recognition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), I have nonetheless greatly benefited. Darby contends that in the absence of social recognition, rights do not exist, so that those not socially recognized as persons are not in fact persons. I want to insist, by contrast, that personhood is a morally objective fact, independent of whether it is socially recognized or not.
  3. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
  4. For an illuminating account, see chapter 12 of Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.
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