CB Macpherson wanted a socialism that does not lose sight of the individual
CB Macpherson was a legend in Canadian political theory circles, known for his careful reading of dense theoretical texts. He has succeeded in bringing to light hidden assumptions and tensions with a rare combination of scholarly insight and biting. But as an author of books with dry titles like Democratic theory: recovery trials and Democracy in Alberta: Social Credit and the Party System, Macpherson’s reputation mostly stopped at the university gates.
Fortunately, the excellent recent from Frank Cunningham delivered, CB Macpherson’s political thought, gives us a more complete and interesting view of both man and the democratic socialist core of his writing. In the skillful hands of Cunningham, Macpherson is revitalized as a figure who can not only teach us the limits and strengths of the classical liberal tradition, but offer us an inspiring vision for a democratic socialist future.
The work that made Macpherson’s name dates from 1962 The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Nominally a history of modern English political theory, the book had much greater ambitions.
Macpherson’s goal was to analyze the roots of what he called “possessive individualism” – the idea that in the state of nature each of us is an atomic individual, separate from all others, defined by a relentless pursuit of desire that compels us to develop our skills and work to acquire what we want. Natural human beings owe nothing to society or to others, neither to develop their capacities nor to profit from their goods.
Far from being natural, possessive individualism arose out of a contingent combination of historical events and shifting ideological notions, Macpherson shows. In particular, the epic clashes between aristocratic absolutism and capitalist parliamentarism in 17th-century Britain provided fertile ground for philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington and John Locke to redesign the nature of society according to principles. of the market.
According to these theorists, property emerges from the mixing of its work with matter, which creates a right to whatever is produced. A farmer who installs a fence around a piece of land and then plows the soil mixes his work with the soil, which consequently becomes his property, as well as the carrots and potatoes that grow from it.
This manufacturing ideal – we should be able to keep what we work for – has remained ideologically powerful. American Conservatives like Ben Shapiro still uses it to justify blatant inequalities.
But as Macpherson points out, the manufacturing ideal is impractical even as the moral basis of capitalist society. If it is true that we are entitled to the fruits of our labor, how is it that the workers make something while the capitalists are entitled to it as property? After all, it wasn’t Ray Kroc who flipped a million burgers or Donald Trump who built the Trump Tower. If we truly believe that people have a right to what they have worked to create, then it is impossible to defend the capitalist system.
Locke’s solution was to extend the notion of contract to the relationship between capitalist employers and workers. He argued that workers have no right to keep what they earn if they have contractually agreed to work for their employers.
Of course, workers could eventually refuse to hand over what they created and instead decide to profit from it for themselves. Or they could decide to come together and democratically demand changes in society. Possessive individualists therefore came to recognize the need for a powerful state that could guarantee the rights of employers to live off whatever the work of their employees produced.
The irony here was that possessive individualism shifted from seeing people as atoms owing nothing to anyone else, to demanding a Leviathan that would protect the interests of the privileged few. As Macpherson said towards the end of Possessive individualism: “It is not about more individualism, less collectivism; on the contrary, the more individualism is deepened, the more the collectivism is complete.
The critical story of Macpherson’s possessive individualism is the cornerstone of his legacy. But Cunningham reminds us that in addition to being a keen reader of classical liberal thought, Macpherson was also a democratic socialist who spent a great deal of time theorizing about the problems of contemporary capitalism and what might replace it.
Macpherson’s socialism arose out of his belief that capitalism prevented human beings from fully developing their “productive powers” and “capacities.” Capitalist markets generate stratification: the privileged few have the material luxury to develop their capacities while all the others limit themselves to improving the narrow range of capacities necessary to accomplish their work. In addition to this, possessive individualistic societies cultivate an atomistic and alienating sense of self that encourages individuals to compete for scarce goods and honors. Greed is both good and inevitable. The state’s job, on the other hand, is to encourage capitalist competition to the point where individuals begin to injure themselves physically – and even that line can be crossed if capital demands, say, imperialist intervention or imperialist intervention. suppression of radical movements.
Macpherson insisted that liberalism was right in emphasizing the value of individualism – berating authoritarian socialist states for trampling on individual freedom – but that it was wrong to assume that the only type of individuality was possessive. Better, in Macpherson’s eyes, was a “normative individualism” where we cooperate with each other to form meaningful, democratic communities that mutually empower members to express their individuality. This position resembles what I have called the “expressive” rather than the “possessive” individualism of John Stuart Mill. But Macpherson gives it a much more democratic tinge.
There is a lot to like about this argument. Atomistic and possessive individualism is both theoretically implausible and empirically unfounded. People build their sense of self not only by working and learning, but by forming meaningful relationships and developing and exercising their various abilities. The possessive individualistic society is undesirable precisely because its competitive mania erodes human relationships and, even worse, because its inequalities mean that many will never be able to develop more than a fraction of their abilities.
At the same time, Macpherson is right not to run in the opposite direction, subordinating individualism either to cultural traditionalism (as social-conservative critiques of liberalism would) or to political movements (as with some socialist experiments). Instead, our goal should be to create a more genuinely individualistic society that recognizes how able to bond deeply with others and empower each other in the pursuit of a good life is what enables us. to become truly autonomous and free.
Democratization is a necessary complement, because it makes it possible to deliberate on the shared world that we want to build. It is no coincidence that this is one of the reasons why hyper-possessive individualists like neoliberals are so wary of democracy.
Cunningham spends much of his book applying Macpherson’s thought to contemporary issues, from neoliberalism to feminist and racial justice struggles. He rightly blames Macpherson for supporting the goals of the civil rights and feminist movements without addressing the issues they raised – an unfortunate omission since both would have waived Macpherson’s analysis of possessive individualism.
For example, Domenic Losurdo points that Locke’s arguments for possessive individualism were not only essential to justify capitalist coercion at home (the argument is indeed abstract by my late friend Connor O’Callaghan); they animated his denigration of the work of indigenous peoples as ineffective and his argument that they had no rights to the land they had inhabited for centuries. Much better for them to be replaced by hardworking and industrious white settlers who would put them to good use.
One of the most interesting sections of Cunningham’s book is where he expands Macpherson’s analysis of neoliberalism. Many classical and egalitarian liberals still held to the humanistic ideals of fairness and moral equality which made them skeptical of extending the logic of possessive individualism to all areas of life. Some liberal thinkers like Mill even came to the conclusion that liberalism and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible. Neoliberal thinkers had no such apprehensions: they developed a “pure market” theory, argues Cunningham, which reduced the liberal ideal to what was required by capital. Macpherson died in 1987, during the heyday of the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolutions. He was deeply concerned about their attacks on the welfare state and democratic rule, arguing vigorously against figures like Milton Friedman that neoliberalism was neither justice nor human nature.
Here I think we should part ways with both Macpherson and Cunningham. Neoliberalism is intriguing precisely because this is the historic moment when defenders of capitalism realized that possessive individualism does not reflect human nature. Most of us don’t see ourselves (and don’t want to see ourselves) as disconnected, sybaritic machines jostling each other, eager to transform our very personalities into social capital.
Recognizing this reality and wanting to energize market colonization of all spheres of life, the neoliberals have tried both to isolate capitalism from democratic pressures and to build institutions that could reshape people in the image of possessive individualism. At the same time, they sought to graft their ideas onto the institutions of the international order led by the United States, forever banishing the specter of social democracy, let alone socialism.
Their project has been beautifully successful for a while, and it is only recently that we have seen a widespread revolt against the effort to cram the square peg of humanity into the round hole of hyper-possessive individualism. . Whether this ends with a revival of leftist politics or an even worse reactionary explosion remains an open question. But Macpherson’s democratic socialist vision may prompt us to think more holistically about the ideological zigzags of the defenders of capitalism – and the positive elements of liberalism that can be drawn from its contradictory heritage.