“Individualism,” as Mr. Etienne Balibar reminds us in his seminal essay, “‘Possessive Individualism’ Reversed: From Locke to Derrida,” is a recent, early nineteenth-century term.
“It replaced such notions as self-love and selfishness, amour-propre and égoïsme in French, Eigenliebe or Selbstsucht in German, progressively shifting from a moral to an analytical discourse,” so says Mr. Balibar. And the essence of the idea, of what it came to mean to be an individual, emerged in the course of writings by political philosophers a century or two prior, starting with Thomas Hobbes and culminating with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
C. B. MacPherson had coined an apt phrase, “possessive individualism,” when he referred to the fruit of those labors, highlighting thus the essential element of the resulting definition: individualism was inextricably bound to the idea of property, ownership, or possession (of land, the fruits of one’s labor, and eventually the self).
Though mostly skeletal in form, mainly for its many omissions, MacPherson had succeeded in articulating a full-blown, state-of-the-art theory of modern-day liberalism. And it’s still in good standing.
“The political theory of possessive individualism,” he called it, its singular success deriving from having merged, almost seamlessly, the economic, market-related features of a modern-day society with the political ones. And, as for its many detractors, says Balibar,
those who took it as an index of all the negative characteristics of modernity which should be criticized and rejected — namely an absolute domination of utilitarian values, the logic of profit and commodification, a suppression of all collective or communitarian dimensions of human life – [there were also] those who saw it as a positive definition of the anthropological prerequisites of social and political theory, a counterpart to the descriptive category of “methodological individualism” and the normative category of “rational behavior” from a liberal point of view.
As an aside, “the anthropological prerequisites of social and political theory” come down to an argument from human nature, from the way we are.
So stated, the argument is meant to sound more credible and form thus a sounder basis for social and political theory. More plausible than the rather general idea that whatever transpires between individuals more or less determines the character of the social (methodological individualism), or the ever-inconclusive argument from “rational behavior” (coupled with freedom, I hasten to add), to accentuate the values and the presuppositions of a “liberal point of view.”
To ascertain we’re on the same page, the following is a list of MacPherson’s seven axioms, the basis of what he’d eventually call the “Western democratic [liberal] ontology”:
(i) What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the will of others.
(ii) Freedom from dependence on others means freedom from any relations with others except those relations into which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest.
(iii) The individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society.
(iv) Although the individual cannot alienate the whole of his property in his own person, he may alienate his capacity to labor.
(v) Human society consists of a series of market relations.
(vi) Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human, each individual’s freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedom for others.
(vii) Political society is a human contrivance for the protection of the individual’s property in his person and goods, and (therefore) for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as proprietors of themselves.
With these qualifications in mind, having to do more with the sin of omission than with anything else — a strategic oversight, if we want to be generous, to drive the point home — MacPherson’s postulates do appear to depict and circumscribe our everyday lives. To wit, in a superficial sense, at least, and sometimes more profound, that’s how we tend to behave, act, and think, if not always, then now and then.
Consequently, we shouldn’t dismiss the theory of possessive individualism as though some idiosyncratic, crackpot theory, but subject it instead to thoughtful and insightful criticism. That’s what I intend to do.
Let this article serve as a brief introduction to a series of essays on the foundations of modern liberal theory.