Vancouver Sun


In the individual­ism at the heart of classical liberalism, we find the roots of the democratic crisis, Ian McKay writes.


All over the world, alarm bells are ringing for democracy. Everywhere we find strongmen in charge, enraged citizens and a desperate search for explanatio­ns and remedies. Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippine­s. Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel. Maybe something’s even going wrong in the United States.

In 1992, political theorist Francis Fukuyama declared there was finally a solution to the riddle: “Who should rule, and why?” The answer: liberal democracy.

A generation later, Fukuyama’s declaratio­n is not wearing well.

As it turns out, the structural flaw that would hobble liberal democracy had actually been identified 30 years earlier, in a study called Possessive Individual­ism by University of Toronto political scientist Crawford Brough Macpherson.

He pointed out that liberal democracy was a contradict­ion in terms. From the 16th century to the 20th, classical liberals of the British tradition had argued for the rights of the “individual.” In theory and practice, though, they only counted a person as an individual (almost always male) who had command over himself and his possession­s, including human ones.

For all his inspiring words about government created by and responsive to “the people,” supposedly liberal philosophe­r John Locke, investor in the slave trade, had a narrow view of who got to be considered a rights-bearing individual.

The key was property. Society was little more than an agreement among the privileged to respect each other’s property rights.


These liberals were not democrats, but after the rise of industrial capitalism, they had to respond to growing population­s of working people with their own, often democratic, ideas.

Generation­s of liberals, with John Stuart Mill at the helm, struggled to reconcile their assumption­s about free-standing individual­s who owned property with the democratic demands of the exploited and excluded.

Until the 1960s, a softer, gentler liberalism seemed to gain ground. The privileges of propertied individual­s were preserved, but at a price: welfare programs, unions, public education, housing and health and, worst of all, taxes.

Still, liberals ultimately had to choose between democracy and capitalism. They might find themselves defending both the rights of workers to unionize and of factory owners to fire them, for example. Which should prevail? Macpherson feared the fallback answer for liberals, whatever their democratic posturing, would often be the owners.

Macpherson’s critics painted him as “yesterday’s thinker.” Didn’t he realize, they asked, that liberals had found a sweet spot: harmonizin­g the public and the private, the people and the propertied, the many and the few?


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 — seems very prescient.

Liberal democracy has fallen into a world crisis.

Liberal democrats were working to make democracy safe for property, but to their right were hard-nosed businessme­n, economists and politician­s working on an extreme makeover of liberal democracy that came to be called “neo-liberalism.”

Outraged by infringeme­nts on capital, determined to roll back socialism and seeing the market as near-infallible, this determined cadre of conservati­ve intellectu­als created a movement of reactionar­y resistance.

Regulation­s impeding the free flow of capital were demolished. Once-powerful labour movements were eviscerate­d.

Liberated from effective regulation, financial institutio­ns developed global chains of indebtedne­ss and speculatio­n that, even after the crisis that started in 2007, have attained pervasive influence.

After three decades of pious liberal hand-wringing, the world is set to warm by three to five degrees Celsius by 2100, a catastroph­e attributab­le to unregulate­d capitalism.


The propertied patterns underlying these civilizati­on-threatenin­g developmen­ts cannot be grasped, let alone resisted, using a liberal toolbox.

In the possessive individual­ism of classical liberalism, we find the seeds of today’s democracy crisis. A devotion to property over people is democracy in chains and a planet in peril.

Countless people experience the precarious­ness wrought by this extreme makeover of the world’s liberal order.

A neo-liberal world, by design, offers minimal security — in employment, social stability, even in reliable networks of knowledge helping us reach reasoned understand­ings about the world in the company of our fellow citizens.

People longing for security confront, instead, an unintellig­ible, turbulent world seemingly bent on destroying any prospect of it. Insecurity breeds acute and often angry anxiety.

It prompts a search for sanctuary in antidepres­sants, opioids and alcohol.

Even the reasoned considerat­ion of factual evidence recedes in a neo-liberal world where every institutio­n — newspapers, universiti­es, the state itself — is rethinking itself in neo-liberal terms.

This very precarious­ness is represente­d, not as culturally and psychologi­cally damaging, but as freedom itself.

In this climate, a pervasive culture of militarism offers beleaguere­d individual­s at least the solace of an imagined national community.

In this militarize­d culture, many people are plainly looking for strongmen who can stand up for the nation. And around the world, including our corner of it, they’re finding them.


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, are likely to offer them more extreme versions of the hardships they are already enduring.

The Macpherson challenge — to liberate democracy from its neo-liberal chains by rethinking property relations right down to their foundation­s — is daunting, but not unpreceden­ted.

There will be conflict, pain and sacrifice in the long revolution to retrieve democracy and the liberties once sincerely defended by liberals.

There will also be excitement and energy.

The 21st century is already echoing with 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 the hour is late. The stakes could not be higher. Ian McKay is director of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. This article is part of The Democracy Project series, a joint initiative between The Conversati­on and CPAC designed to help Canadians access thought-provoking, original takes on democracy and the issues that will shape the next federal election in October 2019.

A devotion to property over people is democracy in chains and a planet in peril. Countless people experience the precarious­ness wrought by this extreme makeover of the world’s liberal order. Ian McKay, McMaster University

 ?? MANUEL BALCE CENETA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? The rise of U.S. President Donald Trump is in line with liberal democracy’s decline.
MANUEL BALCE CENETA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS The rise of U.S. President Donald Trump is in line with liberal democracy’s decline.

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