Why is Liberal Democracy in Crisis?

[A shorter version of this talk was carried in The Conversation]

Ian McKay

All around the world, the alarm bells are deafening for democrats. Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Orbán’s Hungary. Netanyahu’s Israel. Salvini’s Italy. Duterte’s Philippines.

Maybe something’s even happening in the United States…

Everywhere we find strongmen in charge and peoples enraged. And everywhere we find a desperate search for explanations and remedies.

In 1992 political theorist Francis Fukuyama declared that we had reached the “end of history,” with liberal democracy the final answer to the riddle: “Who should rule, and why?” Three decades earlier, a very different analysis of liberal democracy appeared: a densely-packed historical study called Possessive Individualism by a University of imageToronto professor named Crawford Brough Macpherson (1911-1987). Macpherson spotted a structural flaw in liberal democracy. It was, in essence, a contradiction in terms.

From the sixteenth century to the twentieth, liberals in the British tradition had argued for the rights of the ‘individual’—but in their theory and practice, they had reserved that status for holders of property.

As we near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Fukuyama’s feel-good story about liberal democracy’s triumph has not worn well. Macpherson’s big books, on the other hand, painting a portrait of a liberal order with an entrenched tendency to put property ahead of people, seem more topical than ever. They are reaching a growing audience.

Engaging with Macpherson takes time and patience. Much of his writing, especially that focused on political theory, is dry as a lemon and as heart-stopping as a geometry
textbook. His clear, sparse expositions made very few concessions to readers looking for a good anecdote or a catchy slogan. Some student radicals considered their spiffily-dressed and soft-spoken professor a sheep in sheep’s clothing. They were missing something – that Macpherson, labouring away for years on the texts of Hobbes, Locke, Burke, and J.S. Mill, had patiently excavated a core contradiction in the political theory and practice shaping their own lives.

On Macpherson’s reading, the classical liberal tradition judged a person (almost always male) to be an individual if he had command over himself and his possessions, including human ones. For all the inspiring words he wrote about government being created by and necessarily responsive to ‘the people,’ John Locke, investor in the slave trade, had a narrow view of who got to be considered a rights-bearing individual.

The key to such individualism was property — property in oneself, property in things, property in the labour-power of other people. If you were a proprietor, you counted. You didn’t owe society anything for your ability to prosper, because that society was seen to be little more than an agreement among contracting individuals to respect each other’s property rights.

These liberals were not democrats—in fact, until about the First World War, “democracy” was for many of them a dirty word. But, especially after the rise of industrial capitalism, they did have to respond to the emergence of vast populations of working people with

John Stuart Mill

their own, often democratic ideas. So generations of such liberals, with John Stuart Mill at their head, struggled to find a way to reconcile their intricate network of assumptions and ideas upholding the free-standing propertied individual—Macpherson called it “possessive individualism”—with the democratic demands of the exploited and the excluded.

And for the first six decades of the twentieth century, their softer, gentler liberalism seemed to be gaining ground. The privileges of propertied individuals were preserved, but at a price: welfare programs, trade unions, comprehensive state planning and a good measure of state ownership, public education and housing and health — all meant that those individuals (and corporations treated as though they were individuals) no longer enjoyed the unfettered right to rule. Indeed, the propertied might even have to surrender some of their property—in the form of taxes—to the state.

Yet, even with this compromise in place, said Macpherson, these liberals needed to face up to the contradiction baked right into their system. They had to choose either democracy or capitalism.  They could not logically do both. If they tried to do so, they would find themselves caught up in endless moral and political contradictions. They might, for example, find themselves defending both the rights of workers freely to associate in unions and the rights of mine and factory owners to do with their properties what they would, including firing all those bothersome workers. Or, to take a more up-to-date example, they might find themselves defending the collective rights of Indigenous peoples (along with the environmental health of the earth) and the property rights of corporations to build pipelines.  Which principle should prevail? Macpherson suspected the fall-back answer for liberals, whatever their democratic professions, would almost always be: the principle of property.

At its core, then, liberalism had an built-in tendency to put the interests of the propertied minority ahead of the interests of the working-class majority. And it also ignored all the ways – Macpherson called them the “net transfer of powers” – that enabled that privileged minority to deprive ordinary people of the energy, time, and power to develop their own capacities and follow their own dreams.

These were pretty shocking things for an ardent liberal, especially an immaculately-addressed, soft-spoken and calmly rational academic at the generally staid University of Toronto, to announce in 1962. Three years later, Macpherson advised CBC listeners that western democracies had better face squarely up to these contradictions, at least if they wanted to best Third World and Soviet rivals also claiming the mantle of “democracy.” In order to defend the liberal ideals Macpherson valued—freedoms of thought and conscience and association—they had move beyond a narrow, property-oriented liberalism towards developmental democracy, a political order in which people were free to develop their capacities. Some alarmed liberals cried, “Communist!”

Over time, Macpherson’s many critics succeeded in painting him as “yesterday’s thinker.” However logical and coherent his critiques of Locke & Co. might be, and some disputed even those, Macpherson was simply out of touch. Didn’t he realize, they said, that liberals had found a sweet spot — states that harmonized the public and the private, the people and the propertied, the many and the few? When 85-year-old Macpherson died in 1987 in Toronto, he was often patronized as a relic of the past. And five years later, Fukuyama could declare liberal democracy to be humanity’s final answer to the riddle of political and social life. There was no deep-seated conflict between liberal democracy and possessive individualism, it seemed: the problems Macpherson had spent his life addressing were no longer all that pressing.


But today, more than three decades after his death, Macpherson’s diagnosis—that the acquisitive drive of unfettered capitalism poses a stark challenge to liberty and democracy—does not seem so very dated after all.

Liberal democracy has fallen into a world crisis – its “Macphersonian” moment, so to speak—for four big, inter-related reasons.

While the liberal democrats were implementing their schemes to square the circle and make democracy safe for property, on the right were hard-nosed businessmen, economists and politicians, all working out how all such threats to property might be resisted.  They came up with a totalizing vision we might call the “extreme makeover” of liberal democracy.

As historian Nancy MacLean has brilliantly demonstrated in the U.S. case, such imageadvocates of unfettered freedom for business argued, with jaw-dropping candour, that majority rule should take second place to the rule of the propertied. Outraged by infringements on capital, determined to roll back socialism around the globe, seeing the Market as providing near-infallible messages to humankind, this determined cadre of conservative intellectuals created a movement of reactionary resistance. Step by careful step, taking over institution after institution, operating on both national and global scales, they engineered the extreme market makeover of liberal democracy.

Thanks in large measure to their spade-work, much of the liberal democratic compromise was undone. Regulations impeding the free flow of capital were demolished, leaving holders of property with maximum leverage to threaten capital flight if their will was impeded. Once-powerful labour movements were eviscerated. Liberated from effective regulation, the institutions of global finance developed global chains of indebtedness and speculation which, even after they plunged into crisis in 2007, have attained pervasive influence. After three decades of pious liberal hand-wringing, the world is set to warm up by three to five degrees Celsius, a catastrophe directly attributable to the aggregate consequences of unregulated capitalism, in large part because the propertied patterns underlying this civilization-threatening development cannot be grasped, let alone resisted, using a liberal tool-box.

In the possessive individualism and transfer of powers that Macpherson discerned in classical liberalism, we find the seed-bed of the contemporary crisis of democracy. Property unbound is democracy chained and a planet imperilled.

Total precariousness is the way countless people experience this extreme makeover. A neoliberal world is, by design, one that offers its inhabitants minimal security—in employment, in stable communities, in the ability to come to reasoned understandings about the world in the company of one’s fellow citizens. In today’s world, many under-35s face lifetimes of short-term contracts in non-unionized settings offering few of the securities and solidarities achieved by earlier generations of industrial workers. In today’s dog-eat-dog Uber economy, attaining access to the means of life is basically just your business. There is, by design, no refuge from the driving force of market-based accumulation. Your freedom to develop who you are depends on your ability to compete with everybody else. A world of possessive individualism run amok is one in which people longing for some sense of security confront, instead, an unintelligible turbulent world that seems on the verge of destroying any prospect of it.   Insecurity breeds an atmosphere of acute, often angry, anxiety. And it also prompts a desperate search for sanctuary in anti-depressants and opioids and alcohol.A deliberately starved and undermined state sector means that only a few short steps separate you from social and economic ruin. In many cities, the freestanding family home, even that traditional old age insurance policy, is a luxury strictly reserved for the privileged.

As historian Geoff Eley explains, a fully neoliberal world is rife with anxiety about boundaries – “globally, nationally, socially, personally” – that broken polities seem unable

Geoff Eley

to address. Even the possibility of a reasoned consideration of factual evidence recedes in a neoliberal world in which every institution—newspapers, universities, the state itself—is rethinking itself on neoliberal lines. This very precariousness is represented, not as a culturally and psychologically damaging problem, but as freedom itself.

Precarity breeds distrust. Everybody is trying to sell you something, activated by their own self-regarding motives: so why trust them? Almost all existing institutions — churches, educational institutions, local and national governments, political parties — have been reshaped according to totalizing market criteria. Their spokespersons can hardly be counted on to be speaking in the general interest. And if some critical voices do attain their 15 minutes of renown, they are promptly submerged in a vast sea of fact-free opinion.  Any such counterbalancing efforts confront what one might call the “neoliberalization of time.” The old adage ‘time is money’ is taken to its extreme conclusion, and even well-written books like Possessive Individualism, while it will find some academic readers, will be difficult to fit into schedules encompassing 50-hour work weeks and maybe two or three jobs at once.

In such a climate of angry ignorance and ambient dread, a pervasive culture of militarism offers beleaguered individuals at least the solace of an imagined national community. One’s daily work may be regimented and pointless and insecure, but at least one can imagine, beyond it, a world of collective noble endeavour and selfless courage in defence of the nation. By suppling these ideological sanctuaries, militarism functions as the non-pharmacological analogue of opioids.

True, in some respects the marriage of market fanaticism and militarism seems a curious one. Militarism requires the state investments and bureaucracies neoliberals usually denounce: U.S. defence budget is now likely northwards of $1 trillion U.S., all to feed a machine that has been singularly incapable of orchestrating a straightforward military victory. (The one exception of Iraq 1990-91 is rather qualified by the quagmire of Iraq 2003-2011).

So, how do we explain the anomaly of neoliberals, yearning save the market from all state interference, so often endorsing lavish military budgets?

An orthodox Marxist would rightly point out that the extreme makeover of economic and social life has been pioneered within the American Empire and pushed aggressively by people with very direct and indirect economic interests in the outward projection of that Empire’s global power. In fact, she might well add, for all their Ayn Rand-like pronouncements about starving the monster of the state, neoliberals rather like that monster when it serves their interests. A somewhat less orthodox approach would, in addition, underline the political and cultural benefits of neoliberal militarism. If they are to govern with a modicum of consent, and not just through forcing people to obey them, states must secure their active buy-in to important elements of their worldview. In the neo-liberal case, in which governments are delegitimized by design, as they are withdrawn from constructive engagement with the lives of the governed, the grounds upon which they can secure such consent are shaky. Why believe in a government that is doing so little for you? Well, comes the reply, at least it is standing up for the nation, united against a vast hostile world. To dissent from this vision, delusional as it is in a globalized capitalist world, is to court the charge of treason. Everywhere we find neoliberalism reshaping the political order, we also find a resurgent nationalism, often encouraged by those implementing the market makeover of the state and civil society, and providing an outlet for all the fears and frustrations of people left behind by the propertied global elite. That nationalism often draws upon old strategies of demonizing Others—throughout much of the world, people of colour; but in some places, in addition to them, LGBTQ people, feminists, environmentalists, minority religious and language groups: all easily if delusively scapegoated for underlying structural contradictions.

In 1962, Macpherson, a firm advocate of a more peaceful world, optimistically thought that humankind might imagine new forms of the state and civil society in a thermonuclear world. What has happened, instead, is that the very boundaries of peace and war have been blurred. Are we presently at war or at peace? Neither: we are in the midst of an ambiguous “War on Terror” that, almost by definition, can never end. We are always already at war, living in a constant, carefully-curated state of ambient dread. What was once called a “military-industrial complex,” an easily identified nexus of profit-seeking arms manufacturers and salesmen collaborating with states, has morphed into something much more all-embracing. A pervasive culture of violence, offering up a pantheon of stalwart male heroes, provides its adepts with a military-industrial universe, one that seamlessly unites the video game in the morning, the chest-thumping history lesson in the afternoon, and the martial blockbuster in the evening.

In this militarized culture, the stalwart male hero standing up for the people is making a comeback. Around the world, many people are plainly looking for the political analogue of this imaginary figure: strongmen like Bolsinaro or Netanyahu or Trump who can stand up for the nation and face down its many enemies.  Today’s burgeoning extreme right promises people alienated from politics, often personally adrift in a cold calculating world and immersed in a roiling social-media maelstrom of innuendo and invective, that at least some clear boundaries separating ‘the people’ from its enemies can be defended in this otherwise unintelligible world.

Yet even this description of today’s climate of violence underestimates the cultural power of neoliberal militarism. It has, in effect, redefined the very nature of war as an event with a particular causation and a definite beginning and end. Rather, in a neoliberal world, we are never at peace and always at war—with each other as well as with the rest of the world. In this hyper-individualized Hobbesian world, everyone you meet is a competitor or, particularly if they look and sound unfamiliar, a menace to your very existence. Everyone and everything becomes an object of suspicion, subject to intense surveillance. State security certificates mean people who might commit a crime in the future can be detained more or less indefinitely with minimal fuss and bother.  Practices normally condemned by the good liberals of yesteryear—the torture of suspects, say—now find elegant and eloquent neoliberal defenders.  Public spaces liberals once thought were appropriate places in which to voice opinions now become recurrently war zones invaded by police forces that resemble, in their high-tech equipment and surveillance apparatus, fully-fledged armies invading enemy countries.  By some estimates, the population of the profitable prison-industrial complex in North America rivals—some say exceeds—that of Stalin’s Gulag in its heyday.

These three factors — or “force-fields”— are interconnected. Together provide the preconditions of the fourth: the ‘third temptation’ of authoritarian liberalism, the theory and practice of a political order undergoing what the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci called an “organic crisis.” By this he meant not the garden-variety crises to which all rulers must respond—the constant cut-and-thrust of debate, the “who’s up” and “who’s down” of the run-of-the-mill political world —  but the far more wrenching crisis that shakes people out of their normal ideological grooves and catapults them, like it or not, into new conceptual territory. Since the 1970s, with ever-accelerating speed and ever-graver consequences, liberal democracy has been experiencing such an organic crisis.

Macpherson also achieved adulthood in a liberal world undergoing such an organic crisis, one that was convulsed by totalizing doctrines of Fascism and Stalinism, both of which guaranteed followers that history was reaching a triumphant conclusion (the triumph of the Master Race in the first instance and of the Master Class in the second). Both Fascists and Stalinists were in the grip of visions of time and history to which, in their eyes, there was no alternative: they offered their followers the temptation of believing they stood at the apex of millennia of human development. In the 1970s, when Macpherson engaged with the thought of such fashionable neoliberals as Milton Friedman and F.A.Hayek, he sensed in them something of the same authoritarian political temptation, the same drive to absolutes, that had characterized earlier totalizing thinkers. With no less rigidity and certitude, they offered up the triumph of the Master Market as the logical culmination of millennia of human evolution.

With some exceptions – Bolsonaro and Netanyahu come readily to mind, as do a number of fringe groups closer to home – we do not yet see an open rehabilitation of Fascism (if, following Eley, we reserve that term for movements that use political violence to enforce narrowly-defined nationalisms in times of “government paralysis and democratic impasse.”) Yet we surely have arrived at a kind of “fascism-generating crisis.” Many people are frightened, angry, afraid for their futures — and are now force-fed, in the misnamed world of social media, a steady stream of conspiracies and visible enemies as targets for their anger. They are both victims and agents of the extreme makeover of public life: victims, in that their powers to develop a sophisticated understanding of the world around them have been so obviously transferred from them, and agents, in that the cacophony of unreason to which they contribute undermines the very concept of the public sphere upon which any hope of a full, deliberative democracy must depend. The sovereign political paradox of our time is that a global army of people—precarious, harried, anxious, angry, disenfranchised, and above all divested of all social rights to reasonably secure and prosperous livelihoods—is responding avidly to nationalist movements that, on closer inspection, offer them little more than more extreme versions of the hardships they are already enduring.

The next left, with the transformation of property relations at its heart, will succeed only to the extent that it offers the working majority a believable and workable alterative. With all due respect to conventional Marxist class analysis and all the strong and necessary identity leftisms—feminist, Indigenous, anti-racist, postcolonial, LGBTQ to name but a few—that eloquently voiced the grievances of the disempowered and disrespected over the past four decades, an effective response to today’s crisis of liberal democracy cannot remain within their borders. It must go beyond them, to critique the pervasive culture of acquisitive individualism that has the terrain upon which any resurrection of democracy can occur.

Of course, Macpherson was no flawless guru from the past century who bested every critic and answers all our questions. He was far more adept as as a diagnostician than as a clinician. Not all roads lead to property, to the dead white European guys of liberal theory, to certain canonical texts in the western tradition. He himself wrote from the security of a U of T ivory tower, sometimes without much of a grasp of the people beneath it. He had an calm optimism about life and his fellow citizens that impelled him to imagine that, once they realized traditional liberalism was illogical, they would move on to something a more rational model of political life. We might be tempted to consider him too sunny by half—and too deferential to dead liberals.

Yet, if not all roads to property, a vast number do—and a revitalized left must explore them, if it seriously undertakes the democratic reconquest of the terrain lost to neoliberals since the 1970s. Say what you want about dead white liberals, as long as you don’t forget their ideas about property and citizenship have shaped, and are still shaping, the world’s predominant political and economic institutions. And maybe we also need to channel some of Macpherson’s calm optimism and his willingness to believe the best of his rational fellow citizens. An unbridled cynicism about everything feeds into today’s ambient atmosphere of atmosphere, cynicism and fear, all symptoms of the dying liberal order it is the task of a new cohort of democrats to transcend.

The Macpherson challenge — to liberate democracy from its neoliberal chains by rethinking property relations right down to their conceptual foundations — is a daunting, but not unprecedented, one. Past generations of activists contesting chattel slavery in 1700s and 1800s, and industrial wage slavery in the 1800s and 1900s, remind us of that.  Rising to this challenge will demand, both individually and collectively, the restoration of the powers of imagination and creativity that a neoliberal order has routinely transferred to a privileged few.

There will be conflict and pain and sacrifice in the long revolution to reclaim such powers. There will also be the excitement and energy. The twenty-first century is already echoing with the cries of dynamic, often youthful participants in such struggles, as they challenge the extreme makeover that has so convulsed contemporary life and placed liberal democracy in question.

They know that the hour is late. And the stakes could not be higher.

Ian McKay is the Director of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History. He is working on a book-length study of C.B. Macpherson. This piece is based on a talk he gave to the University of Windsor’s Humanities Research Group on 4 March 2019. Historian Geoff Eley spoke at the Wilson Institute on 21 March 2019 and Nancy MacLean addressed the Institute on 1 May 2019. “Revitalizing Twenty-First-Century Democracy” is one of the four pillars of the Wilson Institute’s long-range program.




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