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C.B. Macpherson

(1911—1987)


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(1911–87)

Political theorist and analyst of political thought, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Probably his most influential work is The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962), an analysis of the ideas of seventeenth‐century English political philosophy. Amongst thinkers as apparently diverse as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the Levellers, Macpherson claimed to discern a common philosophy of ‘possessive individualism’ according to which individuals are essentially owners of their persons, capacities, and fruits of their capacities, free insofar as they own themselves; society is a system of exchange between self‐proprietors; and the state, merely an instrument for the protection of property and for securing orderly exchange. He claimed to show how tacit commitment to the assumptions of this philosophy undermined the democratic, egalitarian thrust of their work. According to Macpherson, the philosophy of possessive individualism reflected the circumstances of nascent market society, but came to look increasingly anachronistic as capitalist society developed. In later work, notably The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (1977), Macpherson developed a contrast between a ‘protective’ model of liberal democracy, based on the philosophy of possessive individualism, and an alternative ‘developmental’ model of liberal democracy based on a different conception of the individual as a potential developer and exerter of valuable capacities. John Stuart Mill is identified by Macpherson as the pioneer of this alternative developmental form of individualism and model of democracy. Macpherson argues that if the promise of the developmental model is to be realized, however, democrats will have at once to promote more participatory forms of democracy and entertain much more radical departures from capitalist economic organization than envisaged by Mill, or by developmental democrats of the early twentieth century (such as John Dewey, Ernest Barker, and L. T. Hobhouse). His work represents a sustained argument to the effect that democracy must be detached from capitalism if it is to achieve its promise of equality of self‐development.

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Subjects: Politics.


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