The Political Economy of Personhood

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.[i]

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.[ii] 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.[iii]

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 the legacy of past discrimination. 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,[iv] 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.

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.


[i] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[ii] 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.

[iii] Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).

[iv] 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.

10 comments to The Political Economy of Personhood

  • Charles Mills points out that insofar as ‘person’ is a legal and moral term, not all persons are homo sapiens and not all homo sapiens are persons. Mills’s complaint is that it makes sense to us to call our fellow humans “persons,” so that the denial of personhood to men and women of color and white women after the Enlightenment proclaimed human equality requires a new political economy of both race and gender. This would be a critical political economy, capable of uncovering the slight of mind that can coherently restrict (legal and moral) personhood to white males, while at the same time declaring equality for all humans. Insofar as “human” already means “person” and Enlightenment ideals, in purporting to be universal, draw on this common meaning, then the Enlightenment declarations only make sense if not all humans are humans. Hence, the ideas in racist ideology that people of color are sub-human, animalistic, and so forth.

    What Enlightenment equality, thus critically examined, amounts to is an equality of humans as persons, with the proviso that not all homo sapiens are humans. But before lining this up with modern ideas of race, we should remember that the ancient Greeks called slaves andropoda or “man-footed beings,” which was meant to evoke the word tedtrapoda or “four-footed beings.” Similarly, the Romans dealt with legal matters concerning slaves in noxal law, which was also applied in matters concerning domestic animals. Slaves in the ancient world thus shared their species identities with non-human animals. However, we should also remember that neither the Greeks nor the Romans specifically enslaved people who they viewed through a lens of what later came to be race. That suggests the need for a critical political economy of social hierarchy that would be more general than a political economy of race, and possibly also gender. For example, a critical political economy of property might show that the dehumanization of some homo sapiens is a direct result of an over-valuation of property rights for other homo sapiens. The dehumanization of some that Mills believes is built into the political economy may be less specifically directed to concrete races as constructed during the modern period and more of a variable capable of being instantiated by certain groups, again, for the sake of property interests. Not only slavery but also certain kinds of labor that require controlling and spoiling the lives of workers has resulted from this overvaluation of the property rights of some. However, oppression of white women would appear to work differently, because women have not historically been part of the political economy that over-values property rights—they have not until recently been owners.

    Naomi Zack
    University of Oregon

  • Thanks to Charles Mills for his penetrating essay, and Naomi Zack for her insightful comments.

    Naomi Zack is right to point out that the ancient Greeks and Romans dehumanized their slaves. However, her comment that “neither the Greeks nor the Romans specifically enslaved people who they viewed through a lens of what later came to be race.” This is true if we limit ourselves to a certain historically contingent conception of race. However, as I have argued in my recent book Less Than Human (St. Martins Press, 2011), it is useful to conceive of the notion of race more broadly as the notion of natural human kinds, defined by putative essences. On this conception of race, many Greeks certainly viewed “barbarians” through a racial lens (Aristotle’s notion of barbarians as “natural slaves” — which was invoked by European colonists to justify the subjugation and enslavement of native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans — exemplifies this). Conceiving of a population as a natural kind set apart by their essence is necessary but not sufficient for their dehumanization. For the latter to occur, the racial essence must be identified with the essence of a nonhuman species positioned lower on the great chain of being than humans are. By the same token (in response to Charles Mills) it is important to recognize that the category “white” is coextensive with “human” only in a particular, historically contingent context. Historically, and cross-culturally, it is very common for ethnic groups to consider themselves as the only genuine human beings. “Human”, it seems, often functions as an indexical term — it means, roughly, “one of us” — with the value of “us” determined by the identity of the speaker. Finally, it is worth pointing out that the category “white” is an essentialized racial category, and as such cannot be adequately captured by a descriptivist semantics. In other words, being white is not the same as looking white. The Irish, Jews, Poles, Italians, Russians and other were all once regarded as non-white races, whereas many African-Americans have “passed as white”.

  • I am pleased to comment on Charles Mills’s excellent and provocative essay. Because of time constraints, my remarks will be brief, interrogatory, and, to some extent, suggestive—which is to say, not fully supported by careful argument.

    1) For purposes of clarification, and in order to eliminate ambiguity, I would like to characterize socially recognized personhood as the the social acknowledgment of what Mills takes to be actual “morally objective personhood” (here, and in what follows, I assume for the sake of argument Mill’s debatable moral realist thesis that moral personhood is an objective fact, independent of social recognition). Thus, where Mills speaks of “denying” the status of personhood, what I take him to a have in mind is a failure socially to acknowledge objective personhood through the establishment of practices and institutions called for by the fact of objective personhood.

    2) “Called for…” This phrase is my way of alluding to Mills’s claim that morally objective personhood is a robust moral status “implying” both formal juridical equality and substantive economic equality. A question: how are we to understand this “implying.” What sort or strategy of argumentation does Mills have in mind? Is the idea, e.g., that a full articulation of the concept of objective, moral personhood is impossible without practices and institutions that provide for formal juridical equality and substantive economic equality (here, I am put in mind of the sort of argument that Hegel seems to make in the “The Philosophy of Right.”) And if this is Mills’s claim, what justifies it? More exactly, on what grounds does he assert that the concept of moral personhood requires for its satisfaction precisely the social and political states-of-affairs (practices, institutions) that he thinks its requires.

    3) Mills account of the history he would have us face without “evasion” strikes me as a little one-sided. In particular, it seems to me to ignore or, at least, to slight those moments in US and World History wherein failures socially to acknowledge the moral personhood of blacks, women, and other alleged “subhumans” is strongly challenged and contested. One example of the sort of challenge I have in mind is evident during the American Revolution, when, according to James Campbell and James Oakes (see there essay “The Invention of Race: Rereading ‘White Over Black’,” in “Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror”), “the principle of human equality leaped beyond its traditional religious boundaries and became a secular ideal in American political culture.” Thus, “[a]ntislavery and humanitarian ideas sprouted rapidly in the soil of a moribund slave economy…Every northern state instituted some plan of emancipation. A wave of manumissions swept the upper South. In Delaware and certain parts of Maryland and Virginia the free black population increased tenfold, outstripping the population of slaves.” What Campbell and Oakes suggest, I take it, is that the history Mills sketches is more complicated than Mills suggests, precisely to the extent that it is not simply a history characterized by the persistent failure socially to acknowledge the moral personhood of blacks and others, but also by intermittent episodes of genuine efforts at social acknowledgment. The question to Mills, then, is whether and how his revised narrative of modernity would take account of such episodes?

    4) This brings me, finally, to theme of political economy. For I assume that, for Mills, any such account as I mention above would be in terms of “social structure and political economy.” I am sympathetic to Mills’s turn to political economy as a frame for explaining “the granting and denial of social status.” Here, it seems to me, the more fine-grained the explanation, the better. In addition, it seems to me that the analysis of white supremacy as a form of state sovereignty needs to be a part of the explanation. In the Afro-modern tradition of political thought, the writings of Martin Delany and Charles Chesnutt provide excellent points of reference for beginning to conceptualize the terms proper to this line of analysis.

    Robert Gooding-Williams
    The University of Chicago

  • Tyler Zimmer

    One of the more striking claims put forward by Charles Mills is that political philosophy has been prone to confusing the factual and the ideal, the descriptive and the normative. Why exactly is this a politically problematic mistake to make? Mills’s answer, which I endorse, is that the mistake obscures the (often quite large) distance between the ideals used to justify a societies, and the extent to which such ideals are actually embodied in those societies. That is, this mistake risks foreclosing even the possibility of discovering a sizable gap between actual societies and the ideals used to justify them. Mills offers good political-economic reasons to explain why we should think it no accident that this mistake is made so often. However, I’d like to explore a further reason why this mistake might be tempting to make.

    Often, materialist political theories that emphasize relations of power, domination, exploitation and so forth are accused of cynicism. It is sometimes remarked that such theories attribute implausibly malicious or self-interested motives to agents in a position to dominate or oppress others. Surely, the complaint runs, people don’t merely act for such unsavory power-seeking reasons. The thought is that by rejecting the claim that humans (and privileged ruling groups in particular) are essentially avaricious and power-seeking, we can thereby reject the allegedly cynical claims put forward by, say, Marxists and critical race theorists regarding group domination and oppression.

    The objection, then, assumes that the debate here is simply one between cynics and idealists. On the one hand, we’re to imagine those who think that morality is a mere facade which obscures exercises of power, and, on the other, those who think that there are valid moral principles that constitute genuine reasons for action. If the first camp claims that altruistic (or otherwise moral) acts are nothing but mere exercises of power for self-interested motives, the second camp holds that we are, in fact, capable of understanding the interests of others as genuine reasons for action.

    Now, I (like Mills) fall into the second camp. That is, I don’t think that morality as such merely serves to obscure our ability to see various conflicts and power struggles. But, importantly, this is a view about normative matters. Thus, accepting this normative view hardly entails that we can safely disregard descriptive claims alleging deep conflict, oppression and exploitation in actual societies. To suppose that descriptive claims about domination and power in actual societies undermine the very normativity of morality itself is just to make the mistake of conflating the factual and the ideal. It is to suppose, wrongly, that we can refute a descriptive claim about actual societies armed merely with normative premises about the validity of certain ideals. The ideals are one thing, but the extent to which they are actually instantiated in real societies is quite another. Thus it’s illegitimate to accuse materialist political theories of undermining normativity insofar as they include descriptive claims about power, group domination and exploitation. On the contrary, such theories direct the attention of moral and political philosophers toward something that should be of great concern to them, namely whether or not their cherished normative principles are, in fact, actually realized in existing states of affairs.

  • I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to Charles Mills’ contribution to this forum. In line with Robert Gooding-Williams, I intend my remarks to be brief, suggestive—and even a bit polemical.

    In his thought-provoking essay, “The Political Economy of Personhood,” Charles Mills concerns himself with the problem of non-person humans, or, more specifically, those humans whose personhood is tenuous because they are subject to social non-recognition by other humans who—because they are affiliated with the dominant group—hold or can more easily grasp the keys to economic and social power. In our society, as Mills indicates, the dominant group has emerged historically to be made up of heterosexual, propertied, and (for the most part) able-bodied European and European-American men. It is a group that, despite being a minority of the world’s population, has managed to materialize its own particular embodiment as the desired and putatively superior “norm” against which all other people in the world are measured.

    Although Mills includes a critical discussion of Marx in his essay, it seems that his real aim is to critique liberalism. Indeed, as Mills suggests at the end of the essay, a big part of the problem is the way contemporary political economists, and liberal philosophers and theorists more generally, have framed the issues of personhood and morality. For this reason, the achievement of gender and racial equality will require, says Mills, the “fundamental rethinking” of liberalism. He goes on to say that 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.” My own sense is that gender and race conflicts have too frequently been conceived in narrowly political terms, as merely an intermittent struggle for power between different groups. The more fundamental difficulty, I suggest—and as I think Mills himself would agree—is a long-simmering war that is being fought out on the conceptual and epistemological planes. After all, the fight is not for only for the destruction or diminishment of material economic barriers for people of color and women, although it is also that. The struggle is fundamentally for the recognition that ALL humans are embodied and situated persons, and that they ALL have equal claim to the basic necessities of life—regardless of how closely any one particular group’s designs for life mimic, diverge from, enable, or disturb the designs for life of those humans who are members of the dominant group.

    So what would a rethinking of liberalism look like? I will suggest just two related aspects that are ripe for rethinking: 1) the focus on the individual as the source of all thought, feeling, and action; and 2) a commitment to an abstract notion of equality.

    By taking the individual as the source of all thought, feeling, and action, liberalism obscures the real significance—for any specific individual’s identity, system of values, and social status—of his or her group-based affiliations. As much recent scholarship in the disciplines of social psychology and anthropology has shown, a person only becomes a person in the context of overlapping and intersecting human communities to which he or she belongs or with which he or she is affiliated, communities that provide him or her with a sense of belonging, a system of values, a motivational structure—that is, a design for life. (For more on how the focus on the individual as the source of all thought, feeling, and action affects common understandings of the concept of race, see mine and Hazel Markus’s co-authored essay, “Doing Race: An Introduction” in Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (New York: W. W. Norton, Inc., 2010.) It is precisely the focus on the individual that allows humans in the dominant group—who, at the present historical moment, are heterosexual, propertied, and able-bodied European and European-American men—to conceal (even from themselves!) their own particularity and materiality to the point where their interpretive perspectives can be considered to be “neutral,” and the privileges they have can be understood as “natural.” (For a brilliant send-up of white=neutral, see the Stephen Colbert segment “The Word—Neutral Man’s Burden—7/16/19” available at—neutral-man-s-burden.)

    Liberalism’s preference for procedural rather than substantive approaches to human equality and personhood obscures the materiality and the particularity of humans’ relationship to the world and each other. The result has been an overvaluing in our society of certain abstract rights (the right to a speedy trial, the right to own property, etc.) that end up reinforcing the privileges of humans in the dominant group for whom the right to a fair trial with competent representation or the ability to purchase property are realizable material goals.

    The problem with an abstract commitment to personhood and equality is that humans are not, never have been, and never will be, abstract individuals. For that reason, a serious commitment to equality and personhood, and to the achievement of a more just society (which is what I take Charles Mills to be ultimately concerned with), will need to take this basic empirical fact into account at the most fundamental conceptual level.

  • I’d also like to thank Charles Mills for the opportunity to respond to his essay and also everyone else who has posted for the very interesting commentaries so far.

    Some main claims of his text seem to be that: (a) moral personhood is a status that persons have independent of the recognition of that status but that (b) most human beings’ personhood goes unrecognized within the social order of modernity and (c) combating this non-recognition is one of the most (if not the most) central political struggles of modern life.

    Mills often talks as though moral personhood is an on-off switch. His language of non-persons suggests this interpretation. That is, personhood seems like a normative status (with “gender and racial prerequisites”) that humans can either have or not. On its face, this on-off interpretation of personhood doesn’t seem quite right. Non-adult human beings seem to be recognized as more than non-persons, but not fully as persons either. So why not understand the recognition of personhood in a scalar way?

    What Mills means is clarified somewhat by his point that he takes personhood to be a “robust moral status” and his mention of the idea of “full personhood.” That suggests that he is concerned with a quite demanding notion of personhood, a status that requires “substantive guaranteed equality,” presumably in the juridical, economic, social, and other senses. Only a very few have attained such a “robust” status. That suggests that Mills is working with an on-off conception of personhood, albeit a very demanding one, which leaves open the possibility that personhood might also be understood in a scalar way. If so, then the right spin to put on the empirical facts may not be that most humans are not recognized as persons at all, as his language of non-personhood suggests (though, sadly, the persistence of things like slavery means that human non-personhood is still a very real problem). Rather, I’d venture that most humans are more or less persons, falling somewhere on the scale of sub-personhood (to appropriate a term Mills uses elsewhere in the essay).

    There are a variety of dimensions along which the status of personhood can go unrecognized, which can occur to a greater or lesser extent. Given that, a complex and quite difficult theoretical project opens up where we can ask what kinds of sub-persons there are and how social structures shape their statuses. A focus on the person/non-person distinction threatens to lose track of the space in which many humans lead their live: between personhood and non-personhood. In order to map this vast middle terrain, we’ll need a better sense of what precisely recognizing personhood consists in normatively, as well as the varieties of misrecognition that pervade (and plague) modernity.

  • Rhea Muchalla

    Many thanks to Prof. Mills for his excellent essay, “The Political Economy of Personhood.” By bringing attention to the fact that being human has not been historically sufficient for the social recognition of personhood, this essay advances our obligation to remember the “ongoing struggle for equally socially-recognized personhood” to the forefront of the conversation. (Mills) Under such a rubric, if we are to engage in any kind of philosophic work that purports to be concerned with human persons and the social-political context they are operating in, this concern must also include the status of human-persons, non-human-persons, and human non-persons. Such considerations should prove of considerable importance in an era where corporations possess the legal status of personhood while remaining unburdened by the moral obligations that would otherwise be expected from human-persons; thereby implicitly licensing these non-human-persons to exploit human non-persons as they see fit. While, in my view, Mills’ move pushes the concerns of social/political philosophy forward productively, I would like to put forth two questions that I hope will add to Prof. Mills’ insights. First, concerning the category of personhood. An implicit assumption that arises from this separation of the categories of human and person is the usefulness of the category of person in and of itself. For, if the full category of person, as a category of moral and legal standing, exists alongside human non-persons, does this not demonstrate the inherently exclusionary basis that the category of personhood itself rests on? In other words, is person, in its very definition, an exclusionary category that is only able to revel in its importance through its limited application? If so, doesn’t this exclusionary nature of traditional notions of personhood require us to conceptualize a new ‘personhood’ altogether, a personhood that does not implicitly posit the existence of humans with non-person status in order to maintain its prestige? A second question that arises involves the epistemology behind determining how we can come to know who is demarcated human-person and who is regulated to human-non-person. For it seems that when speaking about socially recognized persons, the epistemological problem that allows for the simultaneous social existence of human persons and human non-persons requires us to scrutinize the structures that permit for this reality and the source of its perpetuation. What perverted realm of knowledge have we entered which allows certain powers to act on the unequal distributions of the category of person while continuously proclaiming doctrines of full equality? I believe that these two, related questions would prove useful in any additional exploration of this important project. Indeed, as we sit back and muse about the validity of the how personhood has been denied along racial and gendered lines, I cannot help but note that non-human persons are currently exploiting human non-persons in imperialisms’ newest guise.

  • Mills points out that being human is neither necessary nor sufficient for personhood. Even as the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes corporations as persons, women and people of color are de facto denied the same equal moral status. This has meant that despite liberal narratives of egalitarianism, it remains the case that ‘most persons are non-persons.’ Given their non-person status, it is worth asking what women and people of color are according to the patriarchal and white-supremacist social ontologies which refuse to acknowledge their personhood. The answer, it seems to me, is clear enough: they are objects rather than persons. The denial of personhood to women and people of color has thus been accomplished in part through their objectification. When people are treated as objects (I assume, with Mills, that actual personhood exists independently of social convention) they are treated as tools which can be used by the objectifier for his purposes and at his discretion. In the limiting case, people are treated as property which can be bought, sold, and thrown away (this is exactly the experience of women and people of color under chattel marriage and slavery respectively). Examining the phenomenon of objectification helps to highlight the ways in which our understanding of the social world has been distorted by oppression, and helps to explain the failure of social and political theory to reckon with the fact that the majority of humanity have been, and continue to be, denied personhood: If women and people of color are seen not just as non-persons, but as objects, then they will not be seen as the sorts of things which are even eligible for emancipation and moral equality. It is perhaps this consequence of objectification which explains the astonishing fact that many people fail to experience any cognitive dissonance arising from the official narrative of liberalism in conjunction with the domination and exploitation of women and people of color. This explanation is, of course, no comfort to the oppressed; however, it does serve to emphasize the role of mechanisms of objectification in sustaining the patriarchal and white-supremacist configuration of the political economy of personhood. Restructuring the latter cannot be achieved without the elimination of the former.

  • Charles W. Mills


    Charles W. Mills

    I will reply to my commentators in the sequence of their comments.

    Naomi Zack reminds us that in the ancient world, slaves were generally dehumanized, involving the use of language and legal concepts that often tied them to (non-human) animality. (In his Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, Orlando Patterson argued that the slaves were seen as “socially dead.”) So dehumanization is certainly not restricted to the modern period. What makes dehumanization in modernity particularly striking, though, is that it is set against a backdrop of nominal human equality. As George Fredrickson points out in his short history of racism, when hierarchy is the social norm—as was the case in pre-modernity—ethnic and racial (if they existed) hierarchies are unremarkable, since this is the general structuring principle of the social order. It is when hierarchy has supposedly been rejected for the equality of individual “persons” that continuing hierarchy becomes most salient, and raises questions about the peculiar deficiencies of those marked by gender and race as unequal.

    I agree that a general political economy of social subordination is desirable, but I focused on what I took to be the “big three” (class, gender, race) of the modern period. A political economy of gender would try to develop a framework that integrated what is currently seen (when it is seen at all) as reproductive labor into productive labor, thus interconnecting the private and public spheres. In such a framework white women, even when confined to domesticity, would be part of the political economy. So part of the whole point, obviously, is to rethink not just the scope but the content of what we think of as “political economy.” And I should clarify that I don’t think dehumanization is “built into” political economy if this is meant as a transhistorical claim. All societies, exploitative and non-exploitative, will have political economies, and the hope, of course, is that a non-exploitative society may one day be brought about in which genuine “cooperation for mutual advantage” (to use Rawlsian language) is the rule, and the norm of personhood is extended to everybody.

    David Livingstone Smith’s disagreement with Zack brings home the extent to which definitions and periodizations of race and racism remain contested. Fredrickson represents the current scholarly consensus in his linking the emergence of race as a social category and a social reality to the late medieval/early modern period. Prejudicial representations of “out” groups in the ancient and early medieval epochs are then standardly categorized as instances of ethnocentrism and/or color prejudice rather than racism. But there have always been dissenters from this judgment—see Thomas Gossett’s pioneering Race: The History of an Idea in America, originally published in 1963 but still very much worth reading today, and, more recently, Wulf Hund’s Negative Vergesellschaftung: Dimensionen der Rassismusanalyse and Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity—who have contended that racism, or “proto-racism” (Isaac), long predates modernity’s versions, and can be found in non-Western societies also.

    Similarly, “whiteness” and its borders has also been the subject of extensive debate, since once one agrees that race is constructed, the details of its construction may be disputed. Such influential works from the 1990s as Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White and Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America took the line, as their titles declare, that these European ethnic groups were originally nonwhite in the United States. But it is worth pointing out that their claims have been disputed by Thomas Guglielmo’s White on Arrival, a study of Italian immigrants to Chicago which argues that Italians and these other European ethnic groups were indeed white, but inferior whites. In what was a short essay, I simplified things by representing whiteness as a monolithic category and a unified moral status. It then follows that inferior treatment by race shows one is nonwhite. But in fact the situation is more complex than I depicted, and some scholars have argued that a non-differentiated white race is really a product of the postwar period. Previously, what was deemed to exist was a hierarchy of white races (plural), superior and inferior, though all lifted above the category of nonwhites. So one could be white but still morally inferior, though not as inferior as people of color.

    Finally, with respect to Smith’s point about the tendency of many ethnic groups to refer to themselves as “the humans”: yes, but the question is whether they have the power to enforce this categorization on a society-wide level. Native Americans thinking of themselves as the real humans means little if they are subjugated on reservations established by the white settler state of the United States. The question is whose categories rule.

    As Robert Gooding-Williams points out, I assume without argument that personhood is objective (though this need not imply a commitment to moral realism, since constructivism, construed as idealized intersubjectivist cognitivism, also counts—as least for some philosophers—as a morally objectivist meta-ethical position). I felt that this was too big an issue to tackle in an already overlong essay, and just assumed that, since moral objectivism has made a comeback in recent decades in professional analytic ethics, readers would know at least some of the literature, even if they were not persuaded by it.

    No, I didn’t mean that socially recognized personhood required substantive economic equality. Part of the point of my essay was to try to bring out the extent to which the race and gender challenge to liberalism is “orthogonal” to the traditional left-right debate. Both weak egalitarians (on the right) and strong egalitarians (on the left) should be able to agree, as good liberals (in the minimalist sense), that it is unfair that white women and nonwhites not get equal chances to compete in the capitalist economy. Correcting for, say, historic racial injustice would not, for a Nozickian, require the implementation of economic equality (strong egalitarianism); it would just (!) require the rectification of existing holdings to where they would have been absent such discrimination. (Assuming, say, we had a God’s-eye view of the pertinent counterfactuals.) The reformed society could still be highly unequal in property distribution, but it would no longer be racially unjust.

    Gooding-Williams is, of course, correct to say that both gender and racial subordination have often been challenged, in the U.S., and elsewhere. But my essay—a short essay—is painting epochal patterns in broad strokes. In the French Revolution, for example, there were some who demanded the abolition of the “aristocracy of skin” as well as the ancien régime. But, as of course we know, it took the Haitian Revolution for slavery in the colonies to be actually ended. And yes, there were people who wanted to extend the principles of the American Revolution (construed as race-inclusive) to blacks, and there was also the post-bellum attempt of Reconstruction to build a new United States that would no longer be a house divided. But ultimately these anti-racist forces were not strong enough, otherwise we would not still have the problems we have today. So my claim would be that as a tracking of overall patterns, of hegemonic tendencies, the picture I paint is correct, “intermittent episodes” aside. The fact that even in the ancient world some thinkers advocated for the general recognition of the equality of all human beings doesn’t negate the fact that they were a minority, that their views did not prevail, and that it is accordingly standard practice to represent this epoch as one of social hierarchy rather than egalitarianism.

    Tyler Zimmer raises the important question of the implications of materialism for the normative, an issue that I was able to touch on only briefly. I agree with him that those sympathetic to materialism should neither reject morality for realpolitik (as cynics do) nor ignore the huge gap between normative ideals and descriptive realities (as too many moral philosophers do). The problem with the latter, for example those political philosophers dwelling entirely in the roseate realm of Rawlsian “ideal theory,” is that without attention to how things actually work on the ground, it becomes all too easy to underestimate how deeply injustice structures the social order, how one’s material social privilege (and that of one’s fellow-philosophers) may be shaping dominant discourses on justice, and the extent to which ideal norms will need to be customized to address these material realities. As I have argued elsewhere, the virtually complete absence of a discourse on remedial racial justice in the Rawls literature—a literature which now extends to thousands of articles in more than 30 languages—is surely in part an artifact of the focus on “ideal theory,” principles of justice for a perfectly just society. Thus we get the absurd situation of a huge American philosophical industry on social justice in which racial subordination and its legacy—perhaps the most salient of all American social injustices—is never addressed. Could this have anything to do with the 98 percent whiteness of the profession and its “material” implications for the group interests, lifeworlds, Jim-Crowed intellectual universe, and theoretical priorities of most of its members? You think?

    Paula Moya is correct that my primary focus in the essay is the need to critique liberalism, and the battle on the “conceptual and epistemological planes” is indeed central to this enterprise. But what form should such a critique take? Should we conclude that liberalism is hopeless, and abandon it for some other political philosophy? Or should we regard it as salvageable and try to retrieve it? My own project in recent years has been to attempt a retrieval, starting from the foundational premise of liberalism as the anti-feudal ideology of modernity, but then (as indicated in my essay) insisting on the need to rethink the crucial assumptions and normative orientations of actual liberalism in the light of its historic complicity with patriarchy and white supremacy. As other philosophers have recently done, I would argue that we need to distinguish normative from descriptive individualism—the individual as the ultimate locus of value vs. the individual as an atomic entity severed from society and history. We can, and I think should, accept the first while rejecting the second. An atomic individualist ontology is really characteristic of contractarian liberalism, but as Derrick Darby reminds us, the liberal tradition also encompasses the Hegelian liberalism of T. H. Green et al., who advocated a socially-embedded conception of the individual. So one can draw on this alternative strain in the liberal tradition, and modify it to take account of the fact (as Green et al. did not) that the society in which these individuals are shaped is not a genuinely consensual community but structured by relations of domination and subordination. I believe that in this fashion one can still maintain the normative individualism defining of liberalism while recuperating the crucial insights on oppression of the progressive movements of recent decades—feminism, critical race theory, and so forth. And in this way, I believe Moya’s second point—the need to move away from an abstract concept of equality and to focus on the material relationships in which these individuals are embedded—can also be addressed.

    Seth Mayer makes the useful point that we need to distinguish between personhood as an on/off status (one has full personhood or zero personhood) and personhood as a scalar status in which degrees of personhood are possible. He then suggests that my language generally tends to imply the former, which is misleading, and that “sub-personhood,” which I use less frequently, works better. However, I did not mean the former. In my first book, The Racial Contract, and the opening essay of my second book, Blackness Visible, I consistently use “sub-persons” throughout, and gloss the term as referring to the diminished but non-zero moral status of nonwhites. Thus I write: “What is a (racial) subperson? …. What are its specific differentiae? A subperson is not an inanimate object like a stone, which has … zero moral status…. Rather, the peculiar status of a subperson is that it is an entity which, because of phenotype, seems (from, of course, the perspective of the categorizer) human in some respects but not in others. It is a human (or, if this word already seems normatively loaded, a humanoid) who, though adult, is not fully a person.” So when I used “non-person” in the essay, I really meant “not a full [socially recognized] person,” which can accommodate a range of statuses from zero to slightly less than full. I am grateful to Mayer for making me realize that unless I spell out more explicitly what I mean, such a misinterpretation is possible.

    I like Rhea Muchalla’s useful gloss of my claim as encapsulated in the trio of human-persons, non-human-persons, and human non-persons. With such a vocabulary, we are better equipped to understand the actual variegations in socially recognized personhood in a particular society than if we are restricted to simple “personhood,” understood (mistakenly) as coextensive with the human. In other words, given that terminology alerts us to realities in the world, we will be more sensitized to the workings of social oppression with such pre-existing distinctions in hand.

    Muchalla also asks whether “personhood” is an inherently exclusionary category. I would say it depends on what we mean by “exclusion” in this context. It is inherently exclusionary in the sense that—as with all concepts that have a specific denotation, as against being vague and ill-defined—it will exclude entities that do not meet the requisite criteria for inclusion. But such exclusion is not pernicious, but a necessary consequence of how language is used; we want a definition of “dog” that will exclude, say, whales. However, I think the sense Muchalla really means is invidiously morally exclusionary, that is that some entities that should count as persons will not do so. My own view is that exclusions of this kind (of gender, race, etc.) are the contingent consequence of social processes rather than ideationally determined (so I would give a “materialist” analyses here also). If “person” is so defined that women do not count as persons, this, in my opinion, is because of sexist social structures and extrinsic causation, not an intrinsic conceptual logic. And we do need some category like “person” because of the simple need to demarcate the moral standing of entities (i.e., the question of determining the population of the moral universe), and to draw appropriate distinctions within that population (so that, e.g., humans will generally be accorded at least some rights that dogs will not). Of course, the epistemological problems in objectively determining these demarcations and distinctions (Muchalla’s second question) will be greatly exacerbated by the power relations and vested group interests a left political economy approach takes as central.

    Rebecca Mason’s comments, like Mayer’s, raise the question of how in detail the concept of non- or sub-personhood should be understood. Certainly objectification is one historically important way of approaching the issue: one is regarded as an object rather than a subject in one’s own right. The complication, of course—and this ties up with Mayer’s concern about registering the complexities and “vast middle terrain” of qualified personhood—is being morally alert and conceptually sensitive to the different possible ways in which objectification may take place. The sexual objectification of women is not the same kind of objectification as the way in which slaves were regarded as “beasts of burden” or the white male working class treated as cogs instrumental to the end of profit maximization. So we need to be aware of both commonality and variation, and to draw nuanced normative lines of demarcation accordingly. Moreover—and here Mason and Muchalla display convergent concerns—these processes of objectification will have cognitive consequences for those in privileged groups, making it harder for them to see the subordinated as subordinated (a normative category) as against just naturally inferior. Which brings us back to Zimmer, and the importance for the normative enterprise of taking the factual into account, not merely for our assumptions about the states of affairs being theorized but, at the meta-level, for the categories with which we are theorizing them.

    In sum, the ultimate point of understanding the political economy of personhood is emancipatory—to assist us in bringing about a world where personhood is universally recognized by identifying the obstacles in that political economy that currently prevent such recognition.

    I wish to end by thanking Naomi Zack, David Livingstone Smith, Robert Gooding-Williams, Tyler Zimmer, Paula M.L. Moya, Seth Mayer, Rhea Muchalla, and Rebecca Mason for taking the time and trouble to come up with such useful and stimulating comments, and Sally Haslanger, Geoffrey Harpham, Gary Comstock, Jason King, and the National Humanities Center for the original invitation to participate.

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