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.