Monday, June 16, 2014


150. Equality on the move

 There is renewed debate on rising inequality of income and wealth within countries, compared to a rising equality after WW1. This has been demonstrated with statistical data, but there is limited analysis of causes and of how developments may be turned around. I dedicate the following three items to those questions.

There are many forms of (in)equality between people. Pierre Rosanvallon identified two main dimensions.[1]

First, a difference between equality of substance and equality of relation. The first is equality in the form of identity, homogeneity; as having a shared essence, or as being absorbed in one indistinct mass. Examples are race, ethnic group, nation, cultural heritage, ‘blood and soil’, shared myths of history, and perceived destiny. The second entails equal access to relations between differentiated individuals, without exploitation, domination or exclusion.

Second, the difference between a static and a dynamic view. In the first equality is seen as already established, in a given institution of the social. According to the second, equality is under way, in construction and adjustment, in ongoing debate between different perspectives, under changing conditions. Imperfection on the move.

The substantial and static views are often combined, in equality of race or nation, as given and unalterable, to be defended against impurities and change.

Nationalsocialism, in particular Nazism, is a salient example. There, homogeneity was naturalized in terms of race, whereby it is taken out of the social and political, with the added advantage of yielding a clear, genetic boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

The substantial/static view is a-political in that there is no room for confrontation between different views to arrive at a consensus. No political debate is needed. A single visionary leader claims to embody the common social substance. There may be elections, but they are not intended to reach some compromise between different views, but to distil the essence of the nation, in an ‘expression’ of the common ‘will of the people’ in the choice of the leader. This is dictatorship dressed up as democracy.

Western democracy is a salient case of the relational, dynamic view. It is truly imperfection on the move. The present government undoes what the previous one did. Decisions avoid conflict or are compromises of mushrooming complexity. I discussed the imperfections of democracy earlier in this blog, in item 127.

Rosanvallon distinguished between de ‘nation-identity’ and the ‘nation-solidarity’. Solidarity entailed the recognition of differences in access to resources, and the will to redress them and to provide a cover of social risks.

He argued that the joint experience of war, in WW1 and WW2, engendered a sense of solidarity: ‘under bombs we are all equal’. A second impulse was the fear of communism, and the perceived political need for social reforms to prevent revolution.

A third impulse was intellectual, in the emergence of social science and the awareness of the individual as socially constituted, autonomous only in a limited sense, and subjected to social risks of birth, illness, and unemployment.

A fourth condition was trust, without suspicion that certain groups in society would misuse social arrangements.

Currently we are thrown back into the conservative-liberal ideology that ruled earlier, in the beginning of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. According to the logic proposed by Rosanvallon, this would be due to the following factors. The solidarity of war has subsided, the threat of communism has eclipsed, mistrust has arisen with respect to outsiders (non-Western immigrants) seen to be preying on social arrangements, and individualism has re-emerged in a new form.

In the face of current failures of capitalism, are we again in a pre-revolutionary period?

There is widespread anger and frustration, but wholesale, collective revolt does not arise easily from the new individualism. Old forms of solidarity no longer seem attractive. A new way needs to be found for bringing together self and other.



[1] Pierre Rosanvallon, La société des égaux, 2011, Paris: Editions Seuil.