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C. B. Macpherson and Liberal-Democratic Theory

From: The Good Society
Volume 21, Number 1, 2012
pp. 118-131 | 10.1353/gso.2012.0004

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It is no easy matter to define the legacy of C. B. Macpherson's work for the discipline of political theory. Macpherson's distinctive reading of the history of liberal thought has been criticized from a number of angles, yet encountering it remains a standard experience for students. His project of retrieving what is best in the liberal-democratic tradition as part of a reconstruction of democratic theory can seem dated, given that it seems to bear little immediate resemblance to the ideals and concerns of "deliberative democracy," the subject that is, descriptively speaking, at the heart of contemporary democratic theory that understands itself as critical of reality from the left perspective with which Macpherson identified. His concerns about and approach to political theory are even further removed from the tenor and tone of postmodern theorizing. For all the critical substance of Macpherson's views about capitalist liberal-democracies, there is no trace in his writings of the knowing cynicism that can characterize the postmodern sensibility. For all his criticisms of the tradition of liberal thought, he is fundamentally optimistic; irony is largely absent from his rhetorical repertoire and from his basic sensibility as a theorist.

I focus here on Macpherson's project of reconstructing liberal-democratic theory rather than upon his status as an interpreter of canonical early modern thinkers. The reconstruction project contains two key components. One is a structural portrayal of liberal-democratic theory as defined by a deep tension between two competing "ontologies," two competing accounts of the ends that define humanity, at least in the modern West. The second is a thesis about historical development that provides the lynchpin that structures and enables the narrative that Macpherson constructs about the two competing ontologies. Briefly describing these two components and their relation will serve as the prelude to an assessment of the prospects for the reconstructive project that Macpherson bequeathed to democratic theory.

The Two Ontologies

A representative formulation of the two ontologies idea is given in the following passage from, "Democratic Theory: Ontology and Technology":

I shall argue that the ontological assumptions of our Western democratic theory have been, for something like a hundred years, internally inconsistent, comprising as they do two concepts of the human essence which are in the circumstances incompatible. One of these is the liberal, individualist concept of man as essentially a consumer of utilities, an infinite desirer and infinite appropriator . . . . The other is the concept of man as an enjoyer and exerter of his uniquely human attributes or capacities.

Let's simply label these ontologies 1 and 2. Macpherson uses these categories to demarcate two traditions of liberal-democratic thought. "Protective" Democracy, the utilitarian model of Bentham and James Mill, later to emerge as the "equilibrium" democracy of twentieth-century social science, is portrayed as cut from the cloth of ontology 1. On the other hand, "developmental" democracy, championed by John Stuart Mill, T. H. Green and other "ethical" democrats, aims at the successful expression of ontology 2 and the transcendence of ontology 1. Macpherson's claim was that the developmental democratic theorists failed in this endeavor, primarily because, in effect, they were all fundamentally naïve about the way in which their acceptance of the capitalist market society (and its concomitant class division) committed them to an acceptance of ontology 1. Since the two ontologies are defined as incompatible, the ethical model of developmental democracy was bound to fail in various ways, because it tried to accommodate both ontologies.

The dynamics of this narrative are important in understanding Macpherson, and I will have more to say about them presently. For the moment, though, it is important to make three points about Macpherson's portrayal of the narrative. First, Macpherson ultimately described himself as a participant in the theoretical tradition of developmental liberalism. In "The Rise and Fall of Economic Justice," he describes this school of political thought as comprised of "those who accept and would promote the normative values that were read into the liberal-democratic society and state by J. S. Mill and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century idealist theorists, but who reject the present liberal-democratic society and state as having failed to live up to those...

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