Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: In his magnum opus, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (1962), C. B. Macpherson singles out two dimensions of a well-formed society. Both are prerequisites of a viable political community and culminate for him and Hobbes in the state as an institution. These are (i) social cohesion, and (ii) a shared recognition of fundamental equality spanning over the entire commonwealth to include everyone.
Both MacPherson regards as necessary ingredients of that quality of mind and spirit we call loyalty, a sentiment which typically expresses itself in a political obligation of sorts, be it an obligation to the sovereign, whatever the sovereign’s form, the state, etcetera. (It’s an obligation, besides, which must be shared by all, if not most, of the citizens to sustain the state as a viable political entity, an entity in which one could believe.)
If found wanting, each precondition spells out a potential disaster, the state’s fall from grace.
Much of this is on the right track, and I find no fault with Macpherson’s analysis on this score.
The problem of social cohesion arises for Macpherson as a direct consequence of a development which corresponds to extending the universal franchise to include nearly everyone: Negroes, freemen, women, and urban dwellers.
Before completing this democratization process, the agrarian, propertied-class held a virtual monopoly regarding political and economic decision-making. Naturally, the kind of cohesion associated with such a society was limited to cohesion that revolved mostly if not solely around the ruling class’s common interests: no other type mattered because those who were disenfranchised didn’t count as full-fledged members of the political community.
Of course, universal suffrage had changed all that: ever since, the problem of social cohesion had become the perennial problem for any mature, fully-developed liberal democracy, laboring, besides, under the auspices of market relations that routinely trumped all other forms, political relations included.
Macpherson’s ultimate solution to the problem of social cohesion is full-scale socialism. In the event “…that market society could be abandoned [my emphasis], the problem of cohesion would be resolved…” is the direct quote.
Let’s turn our attention now to how Macpherson proposes to deal with the problem of fundamental equality appertaining to every member of the commonwealth. On what grounds could a polity, whatever its form, survive, let alone prosper, against all manner of challenges and counterclaims?
For Hobbes, equality derived from insecurity: everyone was equally insecure and, therefore, subject to the impersonal vagaries and dictates of the marketplace. However, we’ve seen that with the commencement of the democratization process, by now well-nigh complete, its form being the granting of universal suffrage, another variable was introduced into the equation, a monkey wrench, as it were. I’m referring here to a deep-seated division along class lines: the division between the haves and the have-nots, or more succinctly perhaps, between the ruling class and the rest of the populace.
By way of reminder, let me state at the outset that the ruling class didn’t exactly disappear just because universal suffrage had become the law of the land. Nor does it matter that until now, the underclass had been docile, unable to mount any serious challenge to the existing social order, engaged thus in a dubious battle. The seeds were sown, that’s for sure, and sooner or later, they’re bound to bear fruit. That’s what matters from the conceptual and historical standpoint!
Meanwhile, it behooves us to expand our definition of fundamental equality since the parameters have all changed. Indeed, it’s no longer plausible to speak of social cohesion in any meaningful sense: the talk of divisiveness had replaced it. Consequently, the new definition must accommodate these changes because equality under market conditions no longer suffices.
Hence the move from a citizen of a nation-state to a citizen of the world. Since the first-mentioned political configuration can’t possibly satisfy the equality requirement, condemning all nation-states for reasons of illegitimacy, the second one must.
All that remains is to couch the principle of fundamental equality in more universal, human terms, which Macpherson proposes in the following excerpt:
We may take some comfort from the fact that the two problems, of cohesion and of equality, do not now have to be solved in that order. The question whether the actual possessive market relations of a given liberal-democratic state can be abandoned or transcended has now become of secondary importance. For a further change in the social facts has supervened. The very factor, namely, technical change in the methods of war, that has made war an impossible source of internal cohesion, has created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere. The destruction of every individual is now a more real and present possibility than Hobbes could have imagined.
“If the economic solution to the problem of social cohesion and the steadily eroding confidence in the legitimacy of statehood is unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future — a movement towards socialism of sorts — there’s always the political, a no-state solution. And that solution would consist of getting rid of nation-states altogether.”
We may disagree with Macpherson’s conviction about which event is more likely to occur first; it’s a judgment call. But we can’t disagree with the fact that the political solution happens to be the more radical of the two.
To wit, even with socialism firmly in place, there would still be the behemoth, namely, the state, to contend with, the source of all evil!
Let’s see now how Macpherson justifies his belief in the importance of the political over the economic, and I’m citing here from the conclusion:
From this, the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding which it has always been necessary to postulate for any moral theory of political obligation, an acceptable theory of obligation of the individual to a wider political authority should now be possible. Given that degree of rationality, the self-interested individual, whatever his possessions, and whatever his attachment to a possessive market society, can see that the relations of the market society must yield to the overriding requirement that, in Overton’s words, which now acquire a new significance, ‘humane society, cohabitation or being,…above all earthly things must be maintained’.
The new equality of insecurity has thus changed the terms of our problem. Twentieth-century technology has, so to speak, brought Hobbes and the Levelers together. The problems raised by possessive individualism have shrunk: they can perhaps now be brought to manageable proportions, but only if they are clearly identified and accurately related to the actual changes in the social facts. Those changes have driven us again to a Hobbesian insecurity, at a new level. The question now is whether, in the new setting, Hobbes can again be amended, this time more clearly than he was by Locke.
Macpherson wrote this in the early sixties, at the height of the Cold War era. And like many others of his generation, he was laboring here under the specter of a potential nuclear holocaust: total annihilation if worse came to worst.
That’s the hidden meaning behind his use of such phrases and turns of speech as “technical change in the methods of war” or “twentieth-century technology” (and of the resulting Hobbesian kind of insecurity among individuals brought to a whole new level).
However much for real and on the right track as far as trends go, such fears can’t help but strike an astute reader as somewhat naïve when compared to modern-day standards and sophistication in limited, strategic methods warfare. (A kind of conflict with a narrow, politically-driven objective, replete, besides, with the deployment of mechanical devices, such as drones, both at home and abroad, to track down and destroy the state’s potential enemies, real or imagined, with pinpoint accuracy, the stuff that only yesterday belonged to the realm of virtual reality and far-fetched sci-fi tales.)
It’s naïve when viewed in light of the state’s almost uncanny ability to fathom and transform itself after the image of a benevolent sovereign whose sole justification and purpose are to protect everyone from harm, whatever the cost. Yes, even if it means curtailing some of our rights by engaging in a politics of fear.
It’s also naïve once you consider the vast array of other, no less vital concerns and dangers facing us from all quarters at once: our inattention to the environment and climate change, the impending energy crisis, a worldwide hunger exacerbated by the population explosion, you name it.