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Monday, April 8, 2013

C. B. Macpherson's critique of liberal democracy

A critical essay by Øyvind H. Henriksen
C. B. Macpherson (1911-87) was a very influential political writer during the Cold War. He wanted to understand liberal democracy with a historical view, so he linked it back in time and argued that our attitude could be traced back to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Much of his writings are concerned about how we can rescue liberal democracy from the distortion by possessive individualism. He meant that the emphasis in our society should be on human capacities instead of on the maximization of satisfaction.

Macpherson believed that our liberal democracy was built upon market assumptions of individuals as possessive orientated creatures always seeking to maximize satisfaction. He meant that this was fundamentally wrong since it distorted democratic ideals, true democracy should try "to provide the conditions for the full and free development of the essential human capacities of all the members of the society" (Macpherson 1966, 37). Instead liberal democracy had taken the attributes of possessive individualism; it was defined so it could fit into capitalist market, which produced a culture where even human capacities were treated as commodities. "It was the liberal state that was democratized, and in the process, democracy was liberalized" (Macpherson 1966, 5). This new system had more freedom and opportunities, and "so the new freedom was held to be a net gain" (Macpherson 1966, 7). It came to be a justification of the liberal democracy simply because it was seemed to be an improvement. But in fact the only form of power, or decision, liberal democracy seemed to give to the people was the "choosing and authorizing [of] governments" (Lindsay 1996, 86). It is clear that Macpherson put great emphasis on these matters, maybe too much, maybe he had "fallen under the spell of liberalism" (Wood 1978, 239). Almost everything he said was in relation to possessive individualism, which he meant had nothing to do with democracy, and therefore should be replaced with his thought of development of human capacities.

These human capacities "may be variously listed and assessed: they may be taken to include the capacity for rational understanding, for moral judgement and action, for aesthetic creation or contemplation, for the emotional activities of friendship and love, and, sometimes, for religious experience" (Macpherson 1973, 4). It is truly an impressing list, and it seems to be very thoughtfully considered. He added that the human capacities should be "a satisfaction in themselves, not simply a means to consumer satisfactions" (Macpherson 1973, 5). All of this seems to be quite positive, "it should not be too difficult to find consensus" (Cunningham 1994, 12) over it. There is one thing missing though, how can this be realised, where is the way for implementing all this? Macpherson seemingly suggested that a step towards socialism was necessary, but he was careful not to state it too harsh, after all he knew that there was huge opposition against it, in the way it was represented as an authoritarian rule in the socialistic states. However, he intended to approach socialism, so certain hints had to be made. He argued that the Soviet Union was increasingly competing, but he also admitted he knew to little about the conditions prevailing in these socialist countries to make accurate conclusions. And hence he did not explain sufficiently how these human capacities would be achieved in a state tending towards socialism, "there has been little said about how [...] all of this is to come about" (Lindsay 1996, 84). Macpherson was probably aware of this, and was therefore soft in his approach. Cunningham points out that many "contemporary democratic theorists would see this as an advantage [... because the notion of socialism] needs to be flexibly and imaginatively rethought" (Cunningham 1994, 7). But we cannot always leave it with thoughts, an ideal, or certainly something approaching it, must be put on paper before we can change, without a plan there can be no realisation of hopes.

If we go back to the justifying claims of liberal democracy, Macpherson suggested that the main elements was "to maximize individual utilities, and the claim to maximize individual powers" (Macpherson 1973, 4). But, he argued, it is not possible to show that it really is maximization, and at least not on some concept of equity. The first claim about utilities, he effectively stopped on the basis that satisfactions cannot be compared, and "[t]herefore it cannot be shown that the set of utilities which the market actually produces is greater than some other set that might have been produced by some other system" (Macpherson 1973, 7). This argument, and in fact the claim about utilities, Macpherson is putting too much emphasise on. Liberal democracy is yet the most productive system, and whether it maximizes the individual utilities cannot be too important, as long as it does it to a certain extent. The matter about equity is thus very important. Here Macpherson argued that if "equity is held to require rewards proportional to the individual energy and skill expended [...] the market model can be demonstrated to be inequitable" (Macpherson 1973, 7). This we all, hopefully, know, but a reminder of it, and a logical explanation is not unnecessary. Capitalism will never provide fair reward of output for input.

The other claim that liberal democracy maximizes individual powers, is in fact only another expression for what he described as the human capacities, which he obviously thinks should be included in a good society. We all know that the list he provided for these capacities is not fulfilled in liberal democracy to the extent it should be. But Macpherson was not content with this seemingly easy explanation. He included in a man's powers "not only his natural capacities [...] but also his ability to exert them" (Macpherson 1973, 9). And since it "in the nature of the capitalist society there must be some who own the capital on which others must work" (Macpherson 1966, 47-8). He now had come up with a logical explanation that liberal democracy does not maximize individual power, since a man must "pay for access [to what he needs in order to use his capacities] with part of his powers" (Macpherson 1973, 9). This loss of individual power Macpherson referred to as a transfer of power. It is a fact "that some men will have power over others, in the sense of being able to transfer some of the natural powers of others to themselves" (Macpherson 1966, 40). Man becomes less human when he is deprived of some of his powers.

But, you may say, in the modern welfare state the people get back most of this power through services provided by the state. Even though this may be the case for some, it is certainly not so for the majority. The welfare subsidies cannot be as large as the capitalist profit, so there will always be some transfer. "[T]he modern welfare state does still rely on capitalist incentives to get the main productive work of the society done, and that so long as this is so, any welfare state transfers from owners to non-owners cannot offset the original and continuing transfer in the other direction" (Macpherson 1973, 13). But if the welfare state can provide better facilities for maximization of the other human capacities, this must surely be appreciated. After all Macpherson admitted that "it is very doubtful whether the democratic end can ever be realized at all fully" (Macpherson, cited in Lindsay 1996, 85). So an approach with a large welfare system could maybe be the way to go. This element is missing in Macpherson's theory.

Macpherson used the power-transfer argument, again, for socialism. He argued that "it is now possible, as it was not possible in the heyday of capitalism, to conceive a system in which high productivity does not require the transfer of powers from non-owners [... he further argues that such a system] is being attempted, in the socialist third of the world" (Macpherson 1966, 44-5). But he admitted that to make it work it had "to sustain all its members at the material level which they have come to expect" (Macpherson 1973, 14). Which is indeed the largest problem socialism has to overcome to be a realistic alternative to liberal democracy. Macpherson further emphasised the uncertainty, for "we do not know and cannot demonstrate whether or not a socialist society necessarily contains some other diminution of each man's power" (Macpherson 1973, 12). Here we can clearly see the ambiguity in Macpherson's theory. It seems like "liberal democracy [has] an ethical commitment to individual self-development […] that issues logically in socialism" (Wood 1978, 231). But he does not seem to have a clue about whether it will work or not in socialism either.

Even though there has been a massive reduction in socialistic states since Macpherson wrote his theory, which tended towards socialism, "it might be argued that his predictions has yet not been proven false and that time will yet tell" (Cunningham 1994, 6). However, if his predictions turn out to fail, his critique about liberal democracy will still be important. It should be mentioned that he also saw that a great deal in liberal democracy was good, and should be preserved. He surely believed that "democracy was to provide for the equal maximization of human power" (Lindsay 1996, 85). The main problem is that he had no real theory of improving it, he only stated what should be changed, and briefly explored the issue about human capacities.


Cunningham, Frank (1994), The Real World of Democracy Revisited, (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press).
Lindsay, Peter (1996), Creative Individualism: The Democratic Vision of C. B. Macpherson, (Albany: State University of New York Press).
Macpherson, C. B. (1966), The Real World of Democracy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Macpherson, C. B. (1973), Democratic Theory, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1978), "C. B. Macpherson: Liberalism and the Task of Socialist Political Theory", in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds) The Socialist Register 1978, (London: The Merlin Press).

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