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Economics and Politics: Against Vulgar Marxism

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

The question whether the actual 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 but wonder, which particular liberal institutions and values does Macpherson have in mind here that would require maintenance because they’re in dire need of preserving? It’s clear enough from the context they must have to do with promoting and reinforcing the “concept of fundamental equality” among men. Never mind the fact 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 true measure of the relative well-being of a human society. No mention whatever is made of the economic relations which happen to underpin the lot, no relationship of any kind between the two either established or argued for. All we’re told is that in the event that “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, to include 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 which 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 whereas nothing could be further from the truth.

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 strategic standpoint, to keeping the society’s economic forces and the resulting market relations under wraps, as it were. However much it may be the case that both shape and color the political and contribute to general social unrest in terms of both 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, which is 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 Hobbes’s project, the project of instilling the sense of political obligation on the part of the citizen to his or her respective sovereign by anchoring same in a set of duties the sovereign was supposed to discharge with respect to 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, that is, as regards the validity of the state to serve as an overarching institution overseeing the political community, provided of course it discharged all its contracted and reciprocal obligations in earnest and in good faith.

In effect, therefore, Macpherson here is merely being true to his master and his master’s grand plan. Seeing that the old-time sentiment, which typically expressed itself in a sense of political obligation of sorts, was on a decline, that we may be experiencing nowadays a crisis insofar as political obligation is concerned, 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 what it has always been 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 particularly disturbing, nor do I see why it should be particularly disturbing to a doctrinaire Marxist. If Macpherson can demonstrate that the state had run its natural course, that it’s no longer commanding 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, reasons unconnected to Marxism or whatever economic considerations, 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 the final nail into the heart of the beast, the more nails the merrier.

In the sequel, I’ll consider the Macpherson solution to no-state solution.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • troll

    …I not clear on what you call the strategic advantage gained by bracketing the dynamic interplay of politics and economics

    please elaborate a little so I can get an idea of what you’re talking about and where you’re going with this

  • troll

    …’m

  • Les Slater

    Roger,

    Not being a doctrinaire Marxist I don’t know how one would react to such a perspective. However, being a Marxist in the spirit of Marx, I do see a range of problems.

    On the whole Marx took the economic foundations, politics and the state as necessarily connected. He only abstracted separately to illuminate certain tendencies in their purest form but never posited that they did, or could, act independently of the whole.

    He was also a dialectician in the Hegelian sense. His broader thinking was never linear, static nor formalistic, nor was it idealist. This post has characteristics of all Marx was definitely not.

    The state here, and its subjects, are treated without any class perspective where the reality of the state we are actually dealing with is one of a certain class driven by the needs of capital.

    Les