The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Wynford Books)

The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Wynford Books)
By C.B. Macpherson

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This seminal work by political philosopher C.B. Macpherson was first published by the Clarendon Press in 1962, and remains of key importance to the study of liberal-democratic theory half-a-century later. In it, Macpherson argues that the chief difficulty of the notion of individualism that underpins classical liberalism lies in what he calls its "possessive quality"--"its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them." Under such a conception, the essence of humanity becomes freedom from dependence on the wills of others; society is little more than a system of economic relations; and political society becomes a means of safeguarding private property and the system of economic relations rooted in property.

As the New Statesman declared: "It is rare for a book to change the intellectual landscape. It is even more unusual for this to happen when the subject is one that has been thoroughly investigated by generations of historians. . . Until the appearance of Professor Macpherson's book, it seemed unlikely that anything radically new could be said about so well-worn a topic. The unexpected has happened, and the shock waves are still being absorbed."

A new introduction by Frank Cunningham puts the work in a twenty-first-century context.

Product Details

  • Amazon Sales Rank: #335728 in Books
  • Published on: 2011-03-18
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Dimensions: 5.20" h x .70" w x 7.90" l, .55 pounds
  • Binding: Paperback
  • 328 pages

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About the Author

C.B. Macpherson (1911-1987) was Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Widely regarded as Canada's pre-eminent political theorist of the twentieth century, he was the author of numerous books, including The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy and The Real World of Democracy, and was named to the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honor.

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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful.
5Five Stars
By Esteban Paniagua Vega
Excellent Book!!!! Thanks!!!!

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful.
By Walter Stanley
This review is really a summary of Macpherson’s book, so it is quite long.

According to The New Statesman blurb on the back cover, this book has “changed the intellectual landscape” and that the shock waves produced by this radically new interpretation of liberalism are still being absorbed. Moreover, according to The Independent, Macpherson made the study of political ideas “less aridly academic.” As a scientist, I only occasionally study political ideas, but it’s hard to imagine a more academically arid presentation than this one. Macpherson tends to repeat the same idea over and over again. Perhaps this is to make sure the reader gets his point, but it strikes me as verbose overkill. However, in a book of philosophy, the ideas presented are of far greater importance than the writing style. This was published in 1962. I am not yet clear on how his ideas have affected society.

Though Hobbes is not usually considered a proponent of liberalism, Macpherson identifies him as an important root of the movement because he deduced political rights from the will and interests of dissociated individuals. Puritan political thinking emphasized the moral worth of every human being, and is generally considered the origin of liberalism. (So liberalism originates, perhaps, in the teaching of Christ and Paul)? The liberalism that developed in the seventeenth century contained what Macpherson identifies as its central difficulty, namely its possessive quality, that the individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and owes nothing to society for them. Freedom is a function of possession, free from the will of others. (This was certainly Ayn Rand’s conception of freedom; she saw no difficulty). These possessive assumptions correspond to the actual relations of a market society.

Macpherson next explains that one of the problems of interpreting the ideas of political theorists is that they often fail to state their assumptions clearly. They might fail to do this because people of the theorist’s time might have taken the assumption as second nature. For instance, in the seventeenth century the wealthy class did not consider the working class as part of civil society. Otherwise, the theorist might not clearly state his assumptions for fear of offending readers, or perhaps from fear of persecution, since proposing an unpopular political theory has always been dangerous. Or the theorist himself might not be conscious of his assumptions, as seems apparent when he assumes inconsistent positions.

Hobbes attempted to deduce political obligation from observed facts of man’s nature, facts which he held to be self-evident to anyone who engaged in thoughtful self-observation. (Of course, Hobbes was a materialist, and the self-observation of one who sees humans as “self-moving and self-directing appetitive machines” will be different from those who believe that consciousness has intrinsic existence, with its own innate attributes). Macpherson’s position was that Hobbes’s observation did not reveal innate human nature but merely provided insight into the acquired behavior of men towards each other in the specific society of his time. Therefore, certain social assumptions have to be made before it can be maintained, as Hobbes did, that “all men in society seek ever more power over others.” So the natural state of man would result in “an incessant struggle of every man with every man, a struggle for power.” (Nietzsche’s idea of Utopia). To guard against this anarchic state, every reasonable man was logically obliged to acknowledge an absolute sovereign. However, even Hobbes acknowledged that only some men covet power, the rest desire to continue at their present level. The vainglorious men compel the rest of us to enter the contest for power. Macpherson maintains that the model of society that is consistent with Hobbes’s assumptions when deducing man’s nature is, as he calls it, “the possessive market society.”

Macpherson constructs three models of society which are broad enough to cover all societies as have so far existed in order to demonstrate that the modern market society is the only one that could give rise to sort of “natural man” envisioned by Hobbes when stripped of law. In the status society, which includes ancient empires, feudal and tribal societies, the productive and regulative work is delegated to the various social strata by customary authority or tradition. The labor force is tied to the land so there is no market in labor, and there is no means by which the common people can alter their place in society. (Except by degenerating into brigands). In the simple market society everyone has land or materials to work with. This society is short-lived, if it every actually existed. (Perhaps in America’s frontier days)? In the modern, possessive market society there is no authoritative allocation of work so all individuals are free to maximize their utilities to attain greater power. Some individuals have greater skill, energy, and possessions than others, and some are more ruthless and rapacious than others. Therefore, some men have lost free access to the means of making their capacity to labor self-productive, and they are exploited by those with power. Those who would be content with what they have are compelled to enter the competition for more power, which is acquired by transferring the power of others to themselves.

The value of anything is simply the price as established by supply and demand. So the merit of a man is determined by his wealth and not by the useful contributions he makes to society. Justice itself is reduced to a market concept. The new religious doctrines of the time were well received because they “did not inveigh against the lucrative vices of men of trade” and “their new belief in unconditional property rights.” The modern market society must therefore “permit the continual peaceful invasion of each by each to acquire their power,” which compels the moderate men to participate in this invasion. Since the price of labor as determined by the market will often be at or below bare subsistence level, this invasion is likely to turn belligerent. For this society to remain peaceful, according to Hobbes, it must acknowledge an absolute sovereign.

What Hobbes claimed to have deduced a moral obligation from facts about the nature of man -- “what ought to be from what is.” Since he reduced man to a machine, “morality is what is conducive to continued motion.” Hence, since the motion of each man is necessarily opposed to the motion of every other (in a free market society), moral obligation is necessary to stop collisions. However, Macpherson points out that such a deduction is only possible assuming a significant equality of men. This means that all rational men are able to see themselves equal in some respect that overrides all the respects in which they are unequal. For Hobbes, men were all equal in their ability to kill each other. So, in his hypothetical state of nature, men had equal insecurity of life and possessions. In Hobbes model of society, all men are equally subordinate to the market. The morality of a market society is one which permits rapacious men to invade each other, as well as the non-rapacious men (whose existence he does not seem to consistently acknowledge) to procure their power “peaceably,” or at least non-lethally.

The obvious objection to Hobbes’s morality is that the market society requires a substantial inequality of command over resources, which necessarily entails inequality in the ability to kill one’s adversaries. The bloody labor disputes that have taken place all over the world testify to this inequality. Hobbes’s Ideal Sovereign to which all rational men must owe total allegiance is hereditary so he would not necessarily share all the interests of the wealthiest market men. Hobbes seemed to not be conscious of class solidarity. The acquisitive men with the greatest wealth would naturally want their own guy as sovereign. Since “freedom is a function of possession,” there is only “freedom” for the rapacious who possess a great deal. It is therefore reasonable for rational men to reject the whole market system.
The next section dealing with the Levellers is quite poorly written, especially for readers who have no idea who the Levellers were and had never heard of the Putney debate. One eventually gets this from the context, but a short explanatory paragraph would have made things a lot clearer, and his repetition of the same ideas over and over makes for tedious reading. Hobbes believed that the Sovereign should be heredity, but the new possessive market society wanted their own man in place, this chapter provides the history of which portion of society should have the franchise to elect the government has been determined. Cromwell and Ireton wanted only property holders to have that franchise, whereas the Levellers wanted it extended to everybody except servants (by which he means workers) and beggars. The latter were excluded because they were seen as mere extensions of the people they served or begged from. Cromwell and Ireton argued that this extension of the franchise would destroy all property rights. The Levellers maintained that labor itself was a commodity, so giving every Englishman the right to vote was the only way to preserve all property. “Natural right is derived from natural property in one’s own person.” Both sides agreed that since all men are naturally free they agreed to form some kind of government to preserve property. The Levellers demanded free enterprise, without monopolies or arbitrary taxation or regulation. That monopolies could not be prevented without regulation, and that excessive inequality of wealth necessarily led to inequality of freedom seems not to have been reasoned out. Macpherson writes: “If we can see now that a community of fully competing economic enterprisers is a contradiction in terms, we cannot expect [the Levellers] to have seen it then.” (Well, of course, this is not commonly seen now). To be human is to be free from the will of others, and freedom is a function of owning one’s person. So those who “voluntarily” alienate this property in their own labor have sacrificed their voting franchise.

In 1941 Professor Tawney claimed Harrington, someone else whom most people have never heard of, was “the first English thinker to find the cause of political upheaval in antecedent social change.” Incredible. What were thinkers thinking before that? Harrington accepted the morality of bourgeois society without trying to justify the view by tracing it back to human nature. “Political society is a contractual device for the protection of proprietors and the orderly regulation of their relations.” Since this was so, apparently those without property would follow the rules to maintain a stable society, even though those without property were treated as though they were apart from the commonwealth.

From remarks made about John Locke in Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Philosophy” I had been led to believe that Locke was the philosopher of democracy. I thought he thought that men were rational, social beings who “could live by the laws of nature without the imposition of rules by a sovereign.” Actually, Locke was not a philosopher at all but an apologist for the extant bourgeois society of his time. Locke concluded that all rational men had a right to own land, as long as they did not own so much land that they produced more than could be consumed without spoiling. However, the invention of money, which does not spoil, made it justifiable for one man to accumulate far more land than he needed to support himself comfortably. Through a truly Herculean effort of twisted reasoning, Locke concluded that although when there was enough land for everyone to own some, everyone was rational. However, once the excess land had been accumulated by just a few powerful individuals, the landless men were now no longer capable of rationality, and hence could not be permitted a say in how they were governed. Locke traced the invention of money to the time before the formation of civil society, so it existed in nature. Herculean reasoning indeed! Post-Locke economists “admitted, even insisted, that the laboring poor were the source of any nation’s wealth, but . . . only if compelled to continuous labor.” It was also taken for granted that they necessarily labor at a bare subsistence level. Not really people but a mere commodity. All of this was taken unquestioningly for granted in Locke’s day. Apparently, introspection was not merely abhorred, as it is by most wealthy people nowadays, it was essentially nonexistent. Even by people who thought they were lovers-of-wisdom. Capitalists typically assert that Capitalism is the economic system consistent with human nature. I suppose they get this from Locke. They even claim that Capitalism is consistent with Christianity. How does one reconcile Capitalism with the Sermon on the Mount? “Christian Capitalist” is every bit as self-contradictory as “People’s Dictator.” If Capitalists behaved like Christians, labor unions and Communism would never have arisen.

Macpherson concludes by pointing out that the conditions for a valid political theory without relying upon the supposed purposes of “human nature” or God, namely that individuals see themselves as equal in some fundamental way that outweighs overt inequality, and a cohesion of self-interest in those with the voting franchise, ceased to be met when workers developed class consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century. So the dilemma of modern liberal democracies is that they are obliged to continue using the assumptions of possessive individualism even though the conditions for a valid theory of political obligation have collapsed. We can see that the possessing class manages to keep power in its hands despite universal suffrage by deception, and by exploiting the labor force in undeveloped countries. However, these actions create resentment and therefore political instability. The fact that military technology has now created a new international equality of insecurity, even beyond what Hobbes had imagined. Macpherson concludes: “The question now is whether . . . Hobbes can again be amended, this time more clearly than he was by Locke.”

Is the question really whether or not we can amend Hobbes? We have to base a political system on the assumption that people are motion machines? Since I have made it a point to study philosophers more thoroughly, I have observed that they are not so much “lovers of wisdom” as fascinating crackpots. That is, people convinced that they are such geniuses that they see Truth beyond the ken of ordinary mortals -- which includes all other philosophers. Unfortunately, these crackpots acquire followers who dogmatically agree with them, who are then in militant confrontation with those who dogmatically follow different ones. Of course, this is also true of religious leaders. What’s really needed is that the powerful people of the world take a look into themselves and acknowledge that they are behaving like spoiled, sociopathic brats. We just need to hold our breaths and wait patiently.

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful.
4Provocative thesis
By Steven Peterson
An intriguing argument. The debate between ndividualism and communitarianism continues. Macpherson argues that (Page 3) ". . .the difficulties of modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century theory individualism contained the central difficulty, which lay in its possessive quality. Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them."

This, of course, is a central concern of American liberalism. Does it take a community to raise a child? Or not? Macpherson's argument is cogent, whether or not one agree with it, and calls for a dialogue bwteen advocateas and opponents. The result of that dialogue should advance discourse. . . .

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