- Possessive Individualism at 50:Retrieving Macpherson's Lost Legacy
I went to the University of Toronto in the fall of 1983 to pursue a Master's Degree in what was then called Political Economy. I chose Toronto largely because C.B. Macpherson taught there. Or so I thought. In those pre-internet days, news traveled slowly, and while the brochure I had received in the mail clearly listed him as a member of the faculty, I discovered when I arrived that he had in fact retired.
As it happens, his physical absence hardly seemed to matter, as his ideas—along with those of Allan Bloom, who was also no longer there— permeated the air. It was easy to think about and find discussions of not just Possessive Individualism, but also of his many essays on democratic theory. When, after a four year absence in the mid-80s, I returned for doctoral work, I found no small amount of faculty support for a dissertation on Macpherson's democratic vision.
I mention this history because it is of a time that now seems quite remote. Good old-fashion Marxist inspired leftism has almost a quaint air about it, as the names of those whose works we debated endlessly—Miliband, Poulantzas, Althusser, Marcuse (a friend of Macpherson's), Fromm—now create more nostalgia than they do internecine graduate student fighting. So too does the name Macpherson, and, I would argue, we need, in marking the 50th anniversary of Possessive Individualism, to acknowledge that fact. The book is fifty years old, but it was really only alive for about half of that time. Part of the explanation for its decline is no doubt found in the critiques—by Dunn, Skinner and others—of Macpherson's interpretations [End Page 132] of Hobbes, Locke et al.1 Of at least equal significance, however, are the forces that have undermined enthusiasm for much of the socialist left. Put simply: Macpherson was too forceful a critic of capitalism for his work to remain unscathed by that system's perceived triumph over communism.
Or so I shall argue. When I say "too forceful" I do not mean to imply that Macpherson's critique of capitalism was where he went wrong. Actually, I intend to make precisely the opposite point. To be more specific, my argument here is that while the central ethical commitment of the theory of possessive individualism was anti-capitalist in nature—and for that reason a difficult sell in today's political climate—a close inspection of the manner in which Macpherson employed that commitment reveals a critical perspective that renders his work every bit as vital now as it was thirty, forty or fifty years ago.2
Macpherson explained in the opening pages of Possessive Individualism that the book's central concept is a form of individualism arising in the seventeenth-century in which the individual is "seen as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them."3 This image was, Macpherson argued, brought to life in the writings of liberal thinkers who took their cues about the nature of individuals from the nascent capitalist relations around them.4 In imbuing their theories with this image, they managed, as have their successors—and in Macpherson's hands, there is no shortage of possessive individualists—to in turn justify those relations, for capitalism as an ideal made sense only as long as humans were conceived in the possessive individualist mode (which, as he later commented, was "a fairly realistic conclusion at the time"5).
The logic of these justifications made them unassailable to anyone unwilling to question the basic "postulates of human nature," as Macpherson was fond of calling them. And for those who did question them—J.S. Mill and T.H. Green through to twentieth century liberals such as A. D. Lindsay and Ernest Barker—the results were various forms of contradiction [End Page 133] "involving the thinkers' concealing from themselves the fundamental nature of the problem."6 As the possessive individualism postulates could not be jettisoned "while market relations prevail,"7 critics of the possessive model simply tacked on to them...