Economics and Politics: Against Vulgar Marxism

Economics and Politics: Against Vulgar Marxism

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on December, 2012)


Macpherson concludes his argument in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes to Locke, with the following lament:

The question whether the true relations of a possessive market society can be abandoned or transcended, without abandoning liberal political institutions, bristles with difficulties. In the measure that market society could be abandoned, the problem of cohesion would be resolved, for the problem was defined as the need for a degree of cohesion which would counteract the centrifugal force of market relations. But there would still be the problem of finding a substitute for that recognition of a fundamental equality which had originally been provided by the supposed inevitable subordination of everyone to the market. Could any conceivable new concept of fundamental equality, which would be consistent with the maintenance of liberal institutions and values, possibly get the wide acknowledgment without which, as I have argued, no autonomous theory of political obligation could be valid? 


One can’t help here but wonder — which particular liberal institutions and values, according to Macpherson, would require maintenance because they’re in dire need of preserving? 

It’s clear enough from the context that somehow, they must promote and reinforce the “concept of fundamental equality” among men.  

Never mind that the kind of equality both he and Hobbes envisage is misdirected — reactive rather than pro-active (“constructive” is a better term), but more on that later. Also, never mind that Macpherson is unduly beholden here to the political, as though the only measure of the relative well-being of human society. 

There’s no mention whatever of the economic relations which happen to underpin the whole lot. No relationship of any kind between the two is either established or argued for. All Macpherson tells us is that if “the market society could be abandoned [my emphasis],” we could proceed thus and thus — towards socialism, I suppose!


It’s as clinical and sanitized a treatment as it gets, going nowhere and asking for nothing. No reference whatever is made to human suffering — the direct and immediate consequence of market relations trumping the political ones (including our so-called liberal institutions and values),

And indeed, what liberal institutions and values could Macpherson possibly have in mind here other than the celebrated rule of law, Anglo-Saxon edition, and the institutions charged with upholding it? 

Somehow, he appears deaf to the postmodernist critique of a democratic society that posits the rule of law and the attendant institutions as just another veneer, nothing but a charade whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the illusion that all’s well in the state of Denmark.


Again, never mind that it’s precisely those very institutions and values which must be uprooted, not maintained, for propagating untruths and promoting false consciousness. Macpherson may be excused on the first count since postmodernism was a latter-day development, but what about Marx?

Strange as it may seem, there may be merit, if only from a strategic standpoint, to keeping the society’s economic forces and the resulting market relations under wraps, as it were. However much both may shape and color the political and contribute to general social unrest in terms of detracting from social cohesion and undermining the sense of social equality – both fundamental aspects of Macpherson’s analysis and indices of social health, the health of a political community – there’s something to be said for addressing the economic and the political separately. And that’s to say, for treating both aspects, to the extent possible, as conceptually apart.


Lest we forget, Macpherson took it upon himself to be the modern-day spokesperson for the Hobbesian project. It was a project of instilling the sense of political obligation on the part of the citizen to their respective sovereign by anchoring it in a set of duties the sovereign was supposed to discharge concerning its subjects. From the get-go, the project was defined as through-and-through political, both in conception and possible ramifications. And the question of legitimacy was of uttermost importance — legitimacy as regards the validity of the state to serve as an overarching institution overseeing the political community, provided it discharged all its contracted and reciprocal obligations in earnest and good faith.

In effect, therefore, Macpherson is being true here to his master and his master’s grand plan. Seeing that the old-time sentiment, which typically expressed itself in the sense of political obligation of sorts, was on a decline, Macpherson asks the most natural of questions. Can the state be salvaged under the circumstances, and if not, what possibly could take its place? The overriding concern is, as it was always with Hobbes, the state and how to preserve it — its uncertain future in the sea of uncertainty!


I don’t see why this perspective should be alarming, nor do I see why it should be particularly alarming to a doctrinaire Marxist. 

If Macpherson can demonstrate that the state had run its natural course and no longer commands the kind of loyalty and sense of obligation necessary for its viability as an institution — if he can show it had lost its legitimacy for whatever reason or reasons — so much the better! 

A Marxist and an anarchist in me, I couldn’t have been happier. There’d be no better time to celebrate. After all, we can always pile on and drive in more nails into the coffin — the more, the merrier!

In the sequel, I’ll consider Macpherson’s solution to a “no-state” predicament.


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