Since I started doing research for my blog posts on democracy and capitalism I’ve done a ton of reading and I could do a ton more. I’m scouring my own bookshelves. I’ve got a fair bit of material on the topic but I’m also mining the Gutenberg Project and the Internet Archives online. At the moment I’m reading C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke but I’m also glancing at many other books as I concentrate on Macpherson including another of his books, The Real World of Democracy (1965) based on the Massey Lectures. His work is superlative. What a critical mind! I have Hobbes’ The Leviathan and John Locke’s two political treatises, but I don’t have the time or inclination to wade through their work in the original, not when I’ve got Macpherson who’s done it for me already.
Macpherson’s notion of possessive individualism aims to tie together capitalism, democracy and liberalism during the 17th Century when Hobbes and Locke were active English philosophers. Capitalist industrialist production really took off in the middle of the 18th Century, but the slow breakdown of feudal social relations around reciprocity between feudal lords and their serfs started much earlier. As Macpherson notes, the possessive market society that was gaining power in the 17th Century was a model from which philosophers could derive theories and explanations of various sorts. The reality is that capitalist social relations are based on wage labour. A capitalist buys the labour power of the propertyless classes and uses it to create more capital. In order for the capitalist to be able to buy the labour power of anyone, all the anyones had to have control over themselves in order to be in a position to sell a part of themselves on the labour market. They could not sell all of themselves otherwise they would be slaves and they would not be free to enter into other relations as free individuals. Individualism is a necessary condition for participation in the capitalist market. Individual liberty is the crux of the liberal society. A worker in a capitalist society has only one thing to sell: labour power, the ability to work. That said, the freedom to enter a market must extend to everyone, capitalist and worker as well as others not necessarily bound directly by that relationship. So we’re all equal as individuals. Cool, right? Sure.
For capitalist social relations to gain ascendency in England in the 17th Century, equality was also a basic ingredient of capitalist relations because everyone had to enter the market as the owner and controller of what they had to sell. In an aristocratic or monarchical society, equality is patently unacceptable so something had to give. Seventeenth Century England saw the violent upheaval of the monarchy which was replaced by republican rule. Was Cromwell the catalyst for British democracy? Maybe. Whatever the answer to that question, it’s clear that at its most abstract, democracy is rule by the people. ‘The people’ is a highly difficult concept to pin down and the definition of who might qualify for being included in ‘The People’ has changed frequently over the centuries. In any case, democracy is not essential to capitalist society. Liberty is, however. Liberty meaning individuals free to sell themselves on the labour market is what’s important here. Once people are ‘free’ individuals, there is still the need for a sovereign to adjudicate disputes related to market behaviour and to pass laws and create mores that are required to keep society (which for Hobbes is just a collection of individuals bent on securing more power for themselves at the expense of others in the market) moving. The sovereign, in the case of liberal societies, is ‘The People’. The will of the people can be expressed representationally or directly. Note, however, that capitalist relations sit outside any definition of ‘The People’ (although business corporations have been considered legal individuals for some few decades now). So, where do contemporary countries or nation-states fit into the world of capitalist social relations? What are libertarians all about? Would they be upset if you referred to them as classical liberals? Those are questions for another blog post to answer.
For now, I need to let my brain deal with the fog that sometimes invades it making it hard for me to concentrate. Today, the symptoms of the pernicious anemia I have are a challenge. I hope tomorrow will be better.