Tuesday , February 27 2024
"Humane society, cohabitation or being...above all earthly things must be maintained." Richard Overton

An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: a Footnote

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!

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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