CB Macpherson in India: the revival of possessive individualism

A few years ago I was thinking of C.B. Macpherson’s book, The Political theory of Possessive Individualism.  The fiftieth year anniversary was coming up in 2012, and I was thinking of the possibility of putting on a commemorative conference dealing with the legacy of the book. As it turns out, a number of post-graduates associated with the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University beat me to it. They were kind enough to invite me down to London to be part of a distinguished speakers panel with Professor Frank Cunningham — a former student of Macpherson, if I am not mistaken.  Cunningham mentioned that Macpherson’s work was enjoying a bit of a revival, and Possessive Individualism had just been reprinted for its fiftieth year anniversary.

I was honoured to be asked to speak about Macpherson’s legacy, but have to admit that, after initially accepting the possessive individualism thesis, I eventually became convinced of its weaknesses by its numerous critics. For those unfamiliar with Macpherson’s book, the argument is that liberalism is rooted in a seventeenth century ontology of ‘possessive individualism’ that makes it fundamentally anti-social. This ontology was expressed in the notion of self-propriety or self-ownership that entailed ownership in oneself as well as the fruits of one’s labour. A series of rights was then deduced from this notion of self-propriety that freed the individual from any sense of moral obligation to the larger community. ‘Political society’, or the state, was conceptualized merely as an instrument for the protection of these rights of property. This ‘possessive individualism’ resulted in the creation of a ‘thin’ bourgeois subject motivated by nothing other than rational self-interest who subsequently became the agent of capitalist accumulation.

Over the past few decades, Macpherson’s thesis has been subjected to heavy and sustained criticism. Perhaps the most substantive was J.G.A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment, that argued – pace Macpherson – that seventeenth century English political thought (as well as eighteenth century American political thought) was characterised not by possessive individualism, but rather the civic humanist notion of virtue that postponed the development of bourgeois society and bourgeois subjectivity until the nineteenth century.
While I generally agree with the criticisms of Macpherson’s treatment of seventeenth century English political thought, I think Macpherson may have been right about the development of post-war neo-liberal thought associated with the Mont Pelerin Society. Taking Hayek as representative of the neo-liberal position, we can see that neo-liberal political thought is firmly rooted in an anti-social ontology reminiscent of Macpherson’s possessive individualism. For example, Mises’ and Hayek’s notion of catallaxy is meant to substitute the idea of economy, because the latter term, stemming from the Greek term for household (oikos) was too ‘collectivist’ in its underpinnings and failed to adequately appreciate that the market order derives from the spontaneous actions of self-interested individuals. Indeed, the public choice school of economics associated with James Buchanan and the Virginia School seems to accord best with the kind of methodological individualism and instrumental rationality that Macpherson associated with possessive individualism (when asked once in an interview about the common good Buchanan stated that he didn’t understand the question).
The paper I ended up writing for the conference, called ‘Capitalism and Contextualisation in C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism,’ did not address this aspect of Macpherson’s legacy. In hindsight, I wish I had done something along these lines because I think Cunningham was right about a Macpherson revival. Out of all the papers I have posted on my academia.edu profile, the Macpherson piece has by far the most recent views. But what is most interesting is that the interest in Macpherson seems to be global in scope. Interest from the UK and the US was understandably high (although there have been few hits from Canada, Macpherson’s country of origin). But the analytics on academia indicate that scholars from outside the so-called advanced capitalist core are interested in the possessive individualist thesis. Numerous hits originated in India; and these were not just browsers who happened to come across the paper while looking for something else, they were hits that were the result of specific keyword searches that included the term ‘possessive individualism.’ Other countries included:  Morocco, Turkey, Argentina and Poland — not exactly hotbeds of Anglo-American liberalism. As the neoliberal model of capitalist development expands — either in the form of the failed austerity model in Europe and North America, or in the form of what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in the Global South — it appears that academic interest in Macpherson’s thesis has been rekindled. Despite it’s historical shortcomings, there is something to be said about relating it to our current era of neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps Macpherson’s thesis was ahead of its time.

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