Possessive Individualism

That’s what the political theorist C.B. Macpherson (1911-1987) saw emerging historically with the rise of capitalism. Frank Cunningham in his just published intellectual biography of Macpherson, The Political Thought of C.B. Macpherson: Contemporary Applications describes possessive individualism as “The individual is proprietor of his own person, for which he owes nothing to society”. That sounds like an apt description of what is true today in the time of neoliberalism. In Cunningham’s words: “possessive individualism now stares one in the face at every turn.” Pervasive marketization has turned amenities and social services into commodities: “university students become clients; homes become real estate investments; cities become global competitors; ideas become marketable possessions.”  This book ably demonstrates that and helps an economist of the progressive persuasion analyse our predicament.

Cunningham quite properly insists that possessive individualism is not an essential part of human nature – as is seriously argued by ascending cognitive science – but is historically constructed as political economy tells us.  Cunningham likewise tells us that, for Macpherson, the alternative to possessive individualism was “developmental democracy” which transcends market capitalism.  Economists can benefit from reading Cunningham’s analysis of what that means with respect to contemporary issues such as globalization, intellectual property, and inequality.

One comment

  • also of possible interest:

    Polanyi’s Great Transformation

    https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi/

    All societies face the economic task of producing and providing for all members of society. Modern market societies are unique in assigning this responsibility to the marketplace, thereby creating entitlements to production for those with wealth, and depriving the poor of entitlement to food. All traditional societies have used non-market mechanisms based on cooperation and social responsibility to provide for members who cannot take care of their own needs. It is only in a market society that education, health, housing, and social welfare services are only available to those who can pay for it.

    Market mechanisms for providing goods to members conflict with other social mechanisms and are harmful to society. They emerged to central prominence in Europe after a protracted battle, which was won by markets over society due to certain historical circumstances peculiar to Europe. The rise of markets caused tremendous damage to society, which continues to this day. The replacement of key mechanisms which govern social relations, with those compatible with market mechanisms, was traumatic to human values. Land, labour and money are crucial to the efficient functioning of a market economy. Market societies convert these into commodities causing tremendous damage. This involves (A) changing a nurturing and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth into a commercial one of exploiting nature, (B) Changing relationships based on trust, intimacy and lifetime commitments into short term impersonal commercial transactions, and (C) Turning human lives into saleable commodities in order to create a labor market.

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