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An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: a Footnote

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Throughout the text, Macpherson singles out two dimensions of a well-formed society, both prerequisites of a viable political community, both culminating for him and for Hobbes in the institution of the state: (I) social cohesion; and (II), a common enough recognition of a fundamental equality spanning over the entire commonwealth so as to include each and every one. Both are deemed necessary ingredients of that quality of mind and spirit we call loyalty, a sentiment which typically expresses itself in a political obligation of sorts, an obligation to the sovereign, the state, whatever the sovereign’s form; an obligation, besides, which must be shared by all, if not most, of the citizens in order to sustain the state as a viable political entity it was designed to be, an entity one could believe in. Each, if found wanting, spells out a potential disaster, the state’s fall from grace. This much, I’m certain, is on the right track; I find no fault whatever here with Macpherson’s reasoning.

The problem of social cohesion arises for Macpherson as a direct consequence of a development which corresponds to extending universal franchise to include most everybody: Negroes, freemen, women and urban dwellers. Prior to the completion of this democratization process, the agrarian, propertied class held a virtual monopoly when it came to political/economic decision-making. Naturally, the kind of cohesion associated with such a society was limited to cohesion which revolved mostly if not solely around the common interests of the ruling class: no other kind mattered because those who were disenfranchised didn’t count as full-fledged members of the political community. Since universal suffrage had changed all that, 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 which, routinely, trumped all other relations, political relations included. Hence Macpherson’s ultimate solution to the problem of social cohesion: 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 to be accorded to each and 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, it was equality based on insecurity: everyone was equally insecure and subject to the vagaries and dictates of the impersonal marketplace. We’ve seen, however, 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, of course, 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 us.

By way of reminder, let me state from 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 all that much that until now at least, the underclass has been docile for the most part, unable to mount any serious challenge to the existing social order, engaged in a dubious battle. The seeds have been sown and, sooner or later, they’re bound to bear fruit: that’s all that matters from the conceptual as well as historical standpoint! Meanwhile, it behooves us to expand on our definition of fundamental equality. Since the parameters have all changed and it’s no longer plausible to speak of social cohesion in any meaningful sense of the term, whereas talk of social division is rapidly becoming the norm, the new definition must accommodate these changes, since equality under the market 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 thus all nation-states to their eventual demise on the grounds of illegitimacy, the second one must. All that remains is to couch the principle of fundamental equality in more universal, human terms.

Well, that’s exactly what 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

Indeed! It is a good thing that the problems of cohesion and of equality do not have to be solved in that order. What Macpherson is in effect saying is that if the economic solution to the problem of social cohesion and the steadily eroding confidence in the legitimacy of statehood, namely, a movement towards socialism of sorts, is unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future, there’s always the political, a no-state solution, a solution that’d consist of getting rid of nation-states altogether. You may disagree now with Macpherson’s conviction as to which event is more likely to occur first (it’s a judgment call, in any case); but you can’t disagree with the fact that the political solution happens to be 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 primacy 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 Levelllers 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.

This was written in the early sixties, at the height of the Cold War era. Like many others of his generation, Macpherson 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 on the right track, though, as far as trends go, and for real, such fears can’t help but strike an astute reader as somewhat naïve; naïve when compared to modern-day standards and sophistication in the methods of limited, strategic warfare. Warfare with a limited, politically-driven objective, replete, besides, with the deployment of mechanical devices, 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. Naïve, when viewed in the 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 is to protect each and everyone from harm, even at the cost of curtailing some of our rights as persons, as citizens, by engaging in a politics of fear. Naïve, once you consider the vast array of other, no less vital concerns and dangers facing us from any and all quarters, all at once: our inattention to the environment, the impending energy crisis, a worldwide hunger exacerbated by the population explosion, you name it.

Much more prophetic, I contend, are the words of Robert L. Heilbroner to whom we must turn next before closing our chapter on Mr. Macpherson. An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect (1974) remains a text as relevant today as then, perhaps even more so.

Go and get it!

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • troll

    it remains unclear to me how the ‘no state solution’ can be conceptualized removed from its attending relations of production (and reproduction) and what the point might be of doing so…why does McP put state socialism up as the only ‘economic solution’?

    we live in a universe of chance these days => there’s no linear relationship between seed and fruit – pesky externalities – leaving homo rationalis and his models in a pretty tenuous position

  • troll

    nice work Roger

  • roger nowosielski


    U though that Macpherson closes, however indirectly, with this kinda point, that we’re more likely, as a species, to unite in response to a common external threat rather than be moved by a sense of, say, social justice. In fact, I don’t think it’d be too difficult to imagine if only a provisional “world government,” formed under dire circumstances, while the economic conditions among the member states would remain on hold. I think the whole idea of federalism needs revamping, to allow for a kind of unity amid diversity. Isn’t that what anarchistic thought is about?

    Further, it’s precisely because the economic and the political are, in some cases/localities, in the US, for instance, so hopelessly intertwined, that there may a real benefit to treat both dimensions, for the duration of analysis, as conceptually apart.

  • roger nowosielski

    unity in spite of diversity may sound better

  • Cindy


    I am reading your article at the moment. But my brain needed a break, so I thought I would share a little of the direction my interests have taken. I have begun with Quantum physics and I am now exploring the authors below.

    Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe

    Orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR)

    Fascinating, fascinating stuff!

    Okay, back to your article.

  • Dr Dreadful

    BC Writer of the Week, I see, Roger.


  • roger nowosielski

    Shoot, Dreadful. Caught me by surprise given the convoluted style.

  • Kudos Rog…

    When I agree with your articles they are well-thought out, well written and unbiasedly researched.


    When I don’t agree with your articles they are STILL well-thought out, well written and unbiasedly researched.

    …and that’s saying something!

  • roger nowosielski

    Thanks, Jet. I’m surely glad we’re not on a warpath. I just try to stay true to my thinking, going wherever it might lead.

  • Cindy

    I wrote you a comment yesterday, Roger. But my computer froze up (as it has taken to doing) and I lost it. I will be interested in the next one as I liked the link at the end.

  • clavos

    Props on the recognition, Rog! It’s well deserved.

  • Les Slater

    Roger, I believe your acceptance of the pessimism of Robert L. Heilbroner is blinding you.

    The world has changed greatly since 1974. The bourgeois optimism of the staying power of their system, reflected in Heilbroner’s outlook, has given way to bourgeois pessimism. There is very little besides blowing bubbles for the capitalist to hang their hook on. -Les

  • roger nowosielski

    I read Heilbroner differently, Les, as being equally critical of the human capacity to respond, regardless of whether capitalism or socialism is the system in place. I’m not referring to the shift in his thought during the declining years: E.g.,:

    though an outspoken socialist for nearly his entire career, Heilbroner famously wrote in a 1989 New Yorker article:
    Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won…Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism.[3]
    He further explained in Dissent in 1992 that “capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure”[3]and complimented Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises on their insistence of the free market’s superiority. He emphasized that “democratic liberties have not yet appeared, except fleetingly, in any nation that has declared itself to be fundamentally anticapitalist.”[3] However, Heilbroner’s preferred capitalist model was the highly redistributionist welfare states ofScandinavia; he stated that his model society was “a slightly idealized Sweden.”[4] Wiki. There, I believe he’s getting senile.

    BTW, Les, aren’t you contradicting yourself somewhat? Compare paragraphs one and two, for instance.

  • Les Slater

    “I read Heilbroner… as being equally critical of the human capacity to respond, regardless of whether capitalism or socialism is the system in place.” I definitely got the same impression, deep pessimism. His view of socialism, really Stalinism, was quite Utopian.

    Contradicting myself? I just pointed out that things weren’t going according to his pessimism about humanity. His ultimate prostration before capital just reinforces that.

  • roger nowosielski

    I’m vs. socialism but for a different reason: it requires the state. As to his genuflection on the altar of capitalism, I agree, but I relegate it to his “senile” phase.

    I still see your #12 as contradictory. Which Heilbrebner are you speaking of, the early or later phase. Certainly at the time of the initial publication of The Inquiry, the bourgeois optimism was not yet severely challenged, and Heilbroner’s voice at the time was a voice of dissent, no?

    As to his pessimism blinding me, I would disagree. A healthful dose is a good thing, but the anarchist in me calls for a stance of cautious optimism.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    But without the state, while we might all be living a quiet, pastoral, and perhaps happy life, we almost certainly wouldn’t have anything approaching the technology we have now, from electrical systems to highways to cell phones, much less computers and the internet and all the manifold advantages they bring.

  • Les Slater

    Glenn, at least in the short run, the lack of a state would be more than a lack of some of the modern infrastructure. It would be chaos and starvation for a good part of the population.

  • Les Slater

    Roger, #15. I responded to the Heilbrebner of 1974. I hadn’t read your follow up as of my #12.

    Rather than senility for his 1989 and 1992 writings, I would say all the logic and groundwork were in his 1974 pessimism.

    I saw pretty much the same thing happen starting in 1940 with James Burnham.

  • Cindy

    Something of interest in how others are handling the economic crisis.

    Euros discarded as impoverished Greeks resort to bartering

  • Cindy


    “It’s all about exchange and solidarity, helping one another out in these very hard times,” enthused Ioanitou, her hair tucked under a floppy felt cap. “You could say a lot of us have dreams of a utopia without the euro.”

  • roger nowosielski

    Experienced a slight setback, Cindy. Trying to quit smoking, besides, and my neurons aren’t firing for lack of nicotine stimulation.

    Yes, this is a positive development and provides an example of how we can wean ourselves off our dependence on global, all-comprehensive financial system on an as-need, case-by-case, basis.

    Which poses an interesting problem of how and when to centralize and to decentralize. We should be able to utilize both approaches to our best possible advantage. For example, we can’t just opt for the first, across-the-board, as it were, for that would mean going back to the Middle Ages in some sense (as per rather valid complaint by Glenn, #16), so we got to be judicious.

    The medical profession, and organization of work in terms of stated goals and objectives, offers I think a promising model of how we might want to proceed. The objectives seem to dictate the level of centralization or decentralization required. For example, objectives related to, say, preventative medicine, could be said to require a lesser level of centralization (and be more amenable therefore to greater local administration and handling) than those which deal with crisis, life-threatening situations. So yes, sociology of work, in particular, sociology of the medical profession, promises to be a potentially-fruitful field of study, with possible applications to other vital areas of common/social endeavors (such as education, for instance), when it comes to organizing work and human resources, capital included, and I plan to pick up on this theme later in the presentation.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    Concerning your quitting smoking, let me tell you a couple stories that might help. My uncle smoked since he was a teenager. He died in his 60’s from emphysema. He was strong for so many years, but the last time I talked to him, he had to hang up because he was too weak to hold the phone to his ear.

    My mother died last July at the age of 77. She had spent most of her last decade in a wheelchair – not because her legs couldn’t carry her, but because her lungs were black with cigarette smoke – she couldn’t catch her breath. In her last moments (in hospice care), I watched as her mouth filled with a brown liquid almost like gravy, and she essentially drowned in it, and she was alert as it happened. It’s hard to watch it happen to your mother.

    Cigarettes killed both of them, and they will kill you, too. Please, please try as hard as you can to quit – cold turkey’s the most effective way, I’m told, but you’ve got to find what works best for you. I wish you the very best of luck in your efforts.

  • roger nowosielski

    I’m sorry, Cindy, you didn’t find my comment provocative enough to merit a response.

    Next time, perhaps.

  • Cindy

    Sorry, Roger. I had read and have been thinking about your comment. I should have left a note that I had been by. I sometimes forget people don’t read minds. No harm intended.

    I shall return.

  • Igor

    Capitalism and communism are two sides of the same coin. They do not comprise all possibilities, nor are they exclusive. More alike than different.

  • Cindy


    Sorry about your mom.

  • Cindy


    I understand exactly what you mean about neurons firing. I always experienced depression when I would try to quit smoking. When I did finally quit, I found it extraordinarily helpful to place myself (and hubby, we quit together) in completely new, relaxing, and pampering circumstances. It worked very well for both of us.

  • Cindy


    That is interesting, your idea of the medical profession as a model. I would have to have more detail to understand it better.

    Can you elaborate on the role of education? I am fairly suspicious of the generalized term ‘education’. I find that its largest role in our culture is as a tool of indoctrination.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Thanks, Cindy. I figure she would have appreciated it if I used her experience as a lesson to others.

  • roger nowosielski


    It’s like this, Cindy. The medical profession is a model because of the necessary dedication involved, especially when it comes to life-threatening situations. It’s therefore a prime example of co-operative human activity and form of organization which overrides or, shall we say? functions in spite of the top-down organizational chart which may be said to circumscribe the day in, day out work that goes on in the emergency wards and the like. In fact, we can easily imagine that work going on uninterrupted, even if we were to remove the doctors, the administrators, all the higher-echelon people, without so much as a wrinkle.

  • Cindy

    Interesting idea. I will have to think about that in terms of an analogy to other relationships.

  • Cindy

    You know, organized work relationships.

    Reminds me of M.A.S.H.

  • Cindy

    You may appreciate Michael Parenti on Human Nature and Politics, Roger. He packs a whole lot into just the first 13 minute segment. Plato, Aristotle, etc. He nails down the way that the idea of human nature is used politically. The 1st of five videos.

  • troll

    Sorry to read of your setback Roger