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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part I

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“Individualism,” as Ms Etienne Balibar reminds us in her penetrating essay, “‘Possessive Individualism’ Reversed: From Locke to Derrida” is a fairly 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,” says Ms 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 coined an apt phrase, “possessive individualism,” when he referred to the fruit of those labors, highlighting thus the key element of the ensuing definition: individualism was found to be inextricably bound to the idea of property, ownership or possession (of land, the fruits of one’s labor, the self).

Though mostly skeletal in form, mainly for its many omissions, MacPherson succeeded in articulating a full-blown, state of the art theory of modern day liberalism, a theory which hasn’t been refuted as yet: “the political theory of possessive individualism,” he called it (see the featured selection), its singular success derives from having merged, almost seamlessly, the economic, market-related features of a modern day society with the political ones.  And, says Balibar, for its many detractors:

…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.


Strictly as an aside,“the anthropological prerequisites of social and political theory” comes down to an argument from “human nature,” from the way things are, the way we are: it’s meant to sound more credible, and form thus a sounder basis for social and political theory, 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.” After all, isn’t it science that we’re all after?

To make certain we’re on the same page, the following is a list of MacPherson’s seven axioms, the basis of what he later called 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 the qualifications already cited, 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 come across as depicting and circumscribing our everyday lives. In the superficial sense at least, and sometimes not so superficial, that’s how we tend to behave, think and act, if not always then sometimes. Consequently, the theory of possessive individualism shouldn’t be dismissed therefore as some crackpot theory aiming at the idiosyncratic, caricature as it may well be, but subjected instead to thoughtful criticism. This is what I intend to do.

Let this article serve, then, as a brief introduction to this series of essays on the foundations of modern liberal theory.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Igor

    Can’t we start with something more recent than this(?):

    “Individualism,” as Ms Etienne Balibar reminds us in her penetrating essay, “‘Possessive Individualism’ Reversed: From Locke to Derrida” is a fairly recent, early nineteenth century term:…

    Good grief! As if re-hashing ancient bogus dichotomies such as realism and idealism could possibly be relevant in 2012, when they are neither exclusive nor exhaustive.

  • You’re a fool, Igor. You’re more beholden to these old concepts than you imagine yourself to be.

    Sorry for not being more encouraging, but you asked for it.

  • jamminsue

    This is most recent, as it is the re-stating of Plato, and other Greeks and early Romans

  • Igor

    Time has passed Locke and Hobbes by.

    And they’re both stuck in the puritanism of their times, anyhow.

  • troll

    based strictly on reading the postulates presented I don’t think that MacPherson adequately synthesizes the ‘ontologies’ of the individualism of Saint-Simone – Rousseau and that of Smith – Burke

  • That may be so. I take MacPherson as being a rigid reader of Hobbes, which has its advantages in that it presents the Hobbesian project in its extreme, albeit schematic version. And the advantage is didactic.

  • In any case, I’m coming up with Part III today. I foresee at least ten more installments, perhaps more. The only way to unravel the prevailing philosophy of the human subject is to take it step by step, one section at a time.

  • troll

    I appreciate the tack

  • You might want to check this thread on TD. where I argue for re-inventing a brand-new kind of discourse.