The petty politics of the anti-inequality brigade

ESSAY: Don’t be fooled by their egalitarian rhetoric - today’s equality campaigners simply dislike both the super-rich and ‘trailer trash’.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

This essay was first published in the April edition of spiked plus.

It is easy to make the mistake of assuming there is a big drive towards equality in the world today. Politicians, pundits and even billionaire financiers rail against the dangers of inequality, excess and greed. A handful of Occupy protesters claiming to represent the ’99 per cent’ against the super-rich ‘one per cent’ are widely lauded in influential circles. Parallel campaigns slate the wealthy for failing to pay their fair share of tax. Officially sanctioned campaigns promote fairness, social justice, social equality, equal access to education and the like.

From this false premise it appears to follow that radical politics is alive and well. If equality was historically a core principle of the left then, so it is assumed, the current discussion must be enlightened and humanistic. Those who oppose the plethora of apparently pro-equality initiatives are therefore cast as reactionary souls who are probably in the pay of giant corporations.

The aim of this essay is to show that there is no dynamic towards equality at present. Instead there is a drive towards what could be called the therapeutic management of inequality. This is not a trivial distinction. On the contrary, the two sets of ideas embody fundamentally opposing conceptions of humanity.

Historically, support for equality was ultimately about trying to achieve the full human potential or what was often called the perfectibility of mankind. It meant advancing from a more backward society to a civilised one. In its most advanced forms it married a desire for social equality with support for economic progress.

In contrast, the discussion in recent years has shifted decisively against the idea of economic progress and towards a deep suspicion, even hatred, of humanity. It promotes initiatives to counter the dangers of social fragmentation in an unequal society. Indeed, this fear of a disintegrating society can be seen as the organising principle behind a wide range of measures to regulate supposedly dysfunctional behaviour. These range across all areas of personal life, including childrearing, drinking alcohol, eating, sex and smoking. Such initiatives assume that public behaviour must be subject to strict regulation or it could fragment an already broken society.

A distinct feature of the current discussion is that the rich are also seen as posing a threat to social cohesion. Their greed is viewed as generating unrealistic expectations among ordinary people. In this conception, inequality leads to status competition in which everyone competes for ever-more lavish consumer products. A culture of excess is seen to be undermining trust and a sense of community.

The contemporary consensus thus marries the fear of social fragmentation with anxiety about economic growth. It insists that the wealthy must learn to behave responsibly by maintaining a modest public face. It also follows that prosperity must be curbed. This is on top of fears about the damage that economic expansion is alleged to do to the environment.

This drive to curb inequality is informed by what could be called the outlook of the anxious middle. It is middle class in the literal sense of feeling itself being torn between the rich on one side and ordinary people on the other. Its aim is to curb what it regards as excesses at both the top and bottom of society. It sees itself as living in a nightmare world being ripped apart by greedy bankers at one extreme and ‘trailer trash’ at the other.

This essay will examine the significance of the contemporary fear of inequality. First, it will examine current criticisms of inequality made by politicians, the media and academics in more detail. Typically, they are keen to promote economic sacrifice, thus paving the way for austerity, while supporting intrusive measures to curb social fragmentation. Second, it will look at the historical support for equality from the Enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century onwards. Typically, egalitarians of this period linked their support for equality with notions of progress and the realisation of human potential. Economic advance was often seen as playing a central role in this process.

In conclusion, it will examine the damaging consequences of the current debate. It is harmful on both political and economic grounds. On the one hand, its therapeutic drive to regulate behaviour makes it a gross threat to individual freedom. On the other, through its populist rhetoric it paves the way for the popular acceptance of austerity. In this respect, what could be called ‘green egalitarianism’ is essentially about promoting equitable sacrifice. Its goal is to ensure that pain is ‘fairly’ distributed in society.

This essay focuses on the transformation of the discussion of economic and social equality. However, it should be noted in passing that there is also a parallel debate to be examined in relation to the redefinition of political and legal equality.

The contemporary crusade against inequality

From Barack Obama downwards, there is a heated discussion of inequality across the Western world. At his State of the Union address to Congress earlier this year, the president said inequality is ‘the defining issue of our time’. He described how his American grandparents, both from humble backgrounds, benefited from US success. For him, the most important discussion was how to keep this promise alive:

‘We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.’

This is a theme he has focused on for a while and will no doubt feature highly in the coming presidential election campaign. In a weekly presidential address in July 2011, Obama called for ‘shared sacrifice’. He argued that all Americans, including the rich, needed to be willing to accept spending cuts and higher taxes for the sake of the America’s fiscal future.

A month later, the demand for shared sacrifice was endorsed by Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, in a prominent opinion piece in the New York Times. It was not long before many of the richest individuals in Europe were making similar demands in their own countries.

Admittedly, Obama’s tax measures were blasted as ‘class warfare’ by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House of Representatives’ budget committee, on FoxNews. Such ripostes can partly be understood as a result of the resentment many rich people feel at the prospect of paying higher taxes. More importantly, though, the conservative critics miss the significance of Obama’s populist rhetoric. They mistakenly assume it represents a form of radical socialism because it complains about inequality. In that respect the Republicans and the Occupy activists are making the same error in seeing the demand to lessen inequality as necessarily radical.

More recently it has become clear that discussion of the ‘Buffett rule’, in which individuals who earn over $1million (£630,000) a year will be taxed more heavily, will feature prominently in Obama’s re-election campaign. The president will use the tactic to present his Republican opponent, almost certainly Mitt Romney, as only caring for the rich. But at the same time, it will promote the notion that everyone must be prepared to make do with less. Championing the argument as a populist appeal against the super-rich clearly makes it easier to sell to the electorate.

It would also be a mistake to assume that many conservative politicians have not embraced the therapeutic approach to inequality. Despite the common prejudice that they promote free market or ‘neo-liberal’ ideas this is seldom the case. David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, provides a characteristic example. The Tories are widely seen as imposing a harsh regime of austerity by international standards but their intellectual framework embodies many similar themes to Obama.

Take a speech made by Cameron in 2009, when he was still leader of the opposition, to the World Economic Forum in Davos. He identified three main reasons why capitalism had become so unpopular:

* Its apparent lack of a moral framework. Under this heading he argued: ‘the roots of the current crisis lie in recklessness and greed’.

* The disconnection between people’s lives at a local level and global business.

* What he called ‘the incredible inequality of the modern world’.

He has repeated such sentiments many times since and they have also informed official policy. For instance, his government has not hesitated to excoriate bankers or executives when their income is viewed as excessive. As in America, the message is that everyone, including bankers, should be prepared to make sacrifices. The coalition government has also, as often discussed on spiked, followed its Labour predecessor in its fanatical drive to regulate even the most intimate aspects of individual behaviour.

Politicians have also happily endorsed academic work that appears to confirm their fear of inequality. In Britain, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, have praised The Spirit Level, a best-selling work by two epidemiologists that explicitly argues that wide inequalities make societies dysfunctional.

The debate among politicians parallels that in the media and among academics. Stories about greedy bankers, high executive remuneration and anti-social behaviour by a supposedly out-of-control public fill the media. Generally the response is for the behaviour of both the super-rich and ordinary people to be more tightly regulated. Although the rich are not generally subject to the same micro-regulation, both sides, in their own ways, are seen as guilty of excess. Only the respectable middle class – with their attachment to such notions as ethics, fairness and sustainability – are seen as largely behaving in a responsible manner.

Reframing poverty as a moral problem

In academia the discussion of inequality has changed fundamentally over the years. It has shifted from a focus on the material dimensions of inequality to one emphasising moral breakdown. Behaviours that seem to indicate a possible social breakdown receive the most attention: crime, drug taking, illegitimacy, mental illness, obesity, poor educational performance, public drunkenness, teenage parenthood, violence and the like.

From this perspective, the solution is not a political one in the sense of involving democratic debate and engagement. It is instead what could be called an elite-led therapeutic approach. The idea is that the authorities must promote a wide range of interventions to treat social ills.

Although sociologists on both sides of the Atlantic often discuss social breakdown, the vocabulary varies. In Europe it is generally discussed in the language of social inclusion and exclusion. The contemporary use of the terminology of exclusion first emerged in France towards the end of les trente glorieuses (the glorious thirty), France’s version of the postwar boom. Social Catholics used the term in the 1960s while René Lenoir, a centrist French politician and minister for social action from 1974-78, wrote a book called Les Exclus (The Excluded). ‘Social exclusion’ was originally used to mean those individuals who were not covered by the social-security systems of the time although the meaning of the term has broadened enormously since then. The European Commission formally adopted the term in the 1990s and it was a central theme of the policies of Britain’s Labour government from 1997-2010.

The premise behind the discussion was that society was becoming more fragmented. As far back as the early 1980s, Ulrich Beck, one of Germany’s most prominent sociologists, was already discussing the trend:

‘During the past three decades, almost unnoticed by social stratification research, the social meaning of inequality has changed. In all wealthy Western and industrialised countries, a process of individualisation has taken place’ (original emphasis) (1).

In America, broadly the same discussion took place but it focused on the idea of the underclass. Despite the widespread use of this neologism, there was no agreed definition of it. However, the media and academic focus on inequality in the US fell overwhelmingly on deviant social norms and moral breakdown. The debate on inequality was not simply a discussion about the poorest section of society.

More recently, Charles Murray, one of the main proponents of the idea of an underclass, has started to also talk of a new ‘overclass’. In Coming Apart, his new book, he argues that the American elite has developed a culture distinct from the rest of society. This is in contrast to the past where, although the elite tended to be richer than average, it shared, in his view, a common culture with the rest of society.

It should be noted that both of these sets of couplets – inclusion/exclusion, underclass/overclass – are ways of talking about inequality rather than poverty. Even though there is some discussion of low incomes, the overwhelming focus is on social and moral breakdown. Both of these perspectives view those at the top of society as posing as much of a problem as the general public.

Influential political, media and academic critics of inequality therefore share common concerns. Although the vocabulary may differ, they are all fearful that what they see as a culture of excess could exacerbate social fragmentation. As a result, they are keen to talk down economic expectations while promoting extensive interventions to regulate what they regard as dysfunctional behaviour.

Equality and progress: an Enlightenment legacy

The current preoccupation with inequality is a world away from the discussion of equality that emerged in the Enlightenment of the late seventeenth century onwards. Although it is difficult to generalise between a wide range of different thinkers, the Enlightenment embodied three related themes central to this discussion: a universalist conception of equality, the idea of human perfectibility, and a notion of progress.

The modern idea of equality emerged in the early stages of the Enlightenment in the mid-seventeenth century. Jonathan Israel, a professor of modern European history at Princeton, goes so far as to specify the Netherlands in the 1660s, towards the end of what became known as the Dutch Golden Age, as the time when it first emerged (2).

Israel explores in encyclopedic detail the differences between the radical and moderate wings of the Enlightenment. In essence, the radicals were much bolder in their demands for equality, freedom and progress, while the moderates were more guarded.

The most prominent early proponents of the radical Enlightenment were Baruch Spinoza and Pierre Bayle in the Netherlands. Denis Diderot later went on to become the best-known exponent of the radical Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. According to Israel:

‘The principle of equality… was central to the radical Enlightenment from the outset. This was because in Spinoza, Bayle and the clandestine philosophical literature of the early Enlightenment, moral and social philosophy is grounded on the principle that every person’s happiness, and hence worldly interests, must be deemed equal.’ (3)

Moderate supporters of the Enlightenment advocated a more qualified notion of equality. John Locke, for example, upheld a spiritual equality but did not support an equal civil status. He endorsed equality up to a point while supporting a society of ranks and even slavery (4).

The notion of the perfectibility of man is closely linked to the idea of equality. It assumes that although humans may currently live in a degraded state they have the potential to achieve great things. As Condorcet, a leading French radical, wrote in his introduction to his Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795):

‘Such is the object of the work I have undertaken; the result of which will be to show, from reasoning and from facts, that no bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; that the progress of this perfectibility, henceforth above the control of every power that would impede it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us.’ (5)

This does not imply that the full human potential is easy to realise. On the contrary, it involves a determined struggle against backward ideas. But it is possible at least in principle for the whole of humanity to achieve great things.

The idea of progress, the third part of our triumvirate, is logically connected to the two others. If perfectibility is possible and equality desirable it follows that they can be achieved by progress. By the mid-eighteenth century such advancement was not just being conceived in moral and social terms but in relation to material prosperity, too. Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith in Britain and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in France emphasised the economic dimension as central to human progress.

Once again the radicals took the arguments much further than more moderate figures. By the late eighteenth century they were not just supporting prosperity but arguing that it was possible to abolish poverty entirely. This vision was painted by such thinkers as Condorcet and Britain’s Thomas Paine (6). They saw it as a practical possibility rather than an unrealisable vision of an idealised community.

Material equality: a Marxist revolution

Supporters of equality in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century can also be divided into two broad strands. The most consistent exponent of material equality was what could be called classical or revolutionary Marxism. Moderate socialists and other advocates of welfare provision were more guarded. But even those with more modest goals generally maintained some notion of economic progress.

Karl Marx took some of the key features of the radical Enlightenment and integrated them into his own thinking. He certainly embodied ideas of equality, human potential and economic progress. What distinguished Marx from Enlightenment thinkers was that he did not believe that material equality could be achieved within the framework of capitalism. Since inequality in capitalism took the form of a class society, equality could only be achieved through capitalism’s overthrow. Only in a classless society would it be possible to realise his famous goal of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (7).

Anyone who doubts Marx’s attachment to economic progress would do well to read the Communist Manifesto of 1848. He made clear that he welcomed capitalism to the extent that it had swept away feudalism and created the basis for vastly more prosperity. His concern was essentially that humanity could do even better. Although capitalism generated growth, it simultaneously created barriers to economic expansion. To abolish scarcity, it would be necessary to move to a more productive form of society.

These core premises were upheld by the Bolsheviks in the late 1910s and early 1920s. For example, Leon Trotsky outlined his optimistic notion of human potential in a socialist future: ‘The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.’ (8) This positive vision was swept away with the rise of Joseph Stalin as leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s onwards. Nevertheless, it is a salutary reminder of the huge distance between the historical discussion of equality and contemporary fears of inequality.

In contrast to the Marxists, the more moderate proponents of equality often advocated redistribution as a way of heading off a revolutionary threat. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries this often took the form of promoting welfare provision as a way of redistributing resources to the poor and needy. In the 1880s, Count Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, devised the model of a Sozialstaat (social state) that others later built on. In Britain, especially after the Second World War, the talk was often of the welfare state. In America, supporters of more extensive welfare provision were generally referred to as ‘liberals’.

But even the more moderate egalitarians generally had a more positive vision than today’s pessimistic critics of inequality. Antony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, first published in 1956, provides a graphic illustration of mainstream thinking at the time. The moderate Labour MP and later minister focused largely on the subject of equality. For Crosland, ‘This belief in social equality, which has been the strongest ethical inspiration of virtually every socialist doctrine, still remains the most characteristic feature of socialist thought today’ (9). At the same time he was unequivocal in his support for growth:

‘A rapid rate of growth, therefore at least for the next decade, so far from being inconsistent with socialist ideals, is a pre-condition for their attainment. And it is also a precondition of attaining office; for if the Labour Party were to neglect the goal of higher production, it would be accorded, and deserve, the clear disfavour of the British public.’ (10)

It is hard to imagine an equivalent contemporary figure making such an unqualified statement in favour of growth. Nowadays, support for material progress is almost invariably hedged with caveats about living within our means, climate change, the importance of happiness over GDP, sustainability and so on. Today, growth is typically seen as more of a problem than as a precondition for overcoming the challenges facing society.

Nor were old-fashioned egalitarians obsessed with individual behaviour in the manner of the current generation. This has been such a preoccupation in recent years that it is easy to assume it has always been so. But political debate in the earlier period instead focused on such questions as how best to organise society to generate more prosperity. In this context, conservatives would typically defend the necessity of social inequalities while their opponents would talk of the need to move to a better society.

For equality, against restraint

It is now possible to see the vast distance between the historical discussion of equality and the recent preoccupation with curbing inequality.

The proponents of equality, particularly the radical ones, typically married hostility to social hierarchy to a positive view of human potential. It followed that it was necessary to find ways to promote progress towards the ultimate goal of human perfection. Often the importance of economic advance towards the abolition of scarcity was central to this vision.

In contrast, contemporary critics of inequality have a completely degraded view of humanity. They view human beings in relation to their vulnerability to the temptations of excess rather than their potential. From this perspective it is necessary to impose a wide variety of restraints on behaviour to reduce the danger of social breakdown. People are expected to rein in their material aspirations and curb their other desires.

Often the current culture of limits is couched in language that may sound progressive to many. It favours ethics, fairness, morality, responsibility and sustainability. Occasionally it even uses the language of equality.

But although the language may sound appealing, it represents a trap. In the current debate it is all linked to the acceptance of restraint. Fairness, for instance, is used to promote the idea that everyone should accept their fair share of sacrifice. Morality and ethics are harnessed to support the notion that aspirations should be curbed. Sustainability is a way of arguing that economic growth should be limited for the sake of the environment.

If such restraints are not accepted voluntarily then it is assumed they will be imposed on us. Nation states across the developed world have drawn up a wide range of therapeutic interventions to curb behaviours they regard as undesirable. These represent a formidable attack on our liberty.

Equality in its historical sense of realising human potential through progress remains a desirable goal. It is a world away from the contemporary drive to curb inequality by inhibiting our aspirations and passions.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. This essay draws on the additional chapter on the inequality debate in the new paperback edition of Ferraris for All. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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