Though I’m a political philosopher, Marxism/Socialism is not my area of expertise. Still, I was surprised when, while teaching an essay by Kai Nielsen the other day, I discovered that I really don’t know what a means of production is supposed to be.
The claim that the means of production ought to be owned publicly, rather than privately, seems to be one of if not the defining characteristics of socialism. So it seems pretty important to be clear on what it refers to.
On the most natural reading, a “means of production” would be anything that’s used to produce. But that seems very, very broad. Sure, factories are means of production, but so are muffin trays. So is my brain, and my muscles.
Do socialists hold that even these things should be publicly owned? Does it depend on how we use them? Nielsen says that a socialist will allow for personal private property – and muffin trays seem about as personal as one could get. Does this mean that we’re allowed to bake muffins for ourselves? For our neighbors? For our neighbors in exchange for wine?
How, in other words, does a socialist (Marxist or otherwise) demarcate legitimate personal property from means of production? Or can the two be reconciled in a principled way? If public ownership of the means of production can be reconciled with private personal property, can it also be reconciled with some notion of self-ownership?