LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
For an equal share
More effort goes into rationalising inequalities than in discussing how equality might be achieved.
Photo: A. Roy Chowdhury
Divided world: The answer is to end insecurity and want.
Wherever there are inequalities, there will be no shortage of people rationalising or defending them. That’s easily explicable. Those who benefit from inequalities enjoy, by definition, greater resources and greater access to the public ear and
eye. What’s sad for me is that blunt defenders of equality — not equality before the law or equality of opportunity, but practical, material equality — are these days so few and so muted.
By equality I do not mean identity or sameness. Nor am I talking about a world without excellence (without Usain Bolt!), without the surprise of the individual. Just the opposite. My argument for equality is rooted in the reality of human diversity and complexity, which demands that each of us is treated as an irreducible entity, a compound of possibilities (positive and negative) that of right deserves an equal share in the world’s goods.
One of the reasons I became a socialist, years ago, was that I could see no justification for the inequalities I saw around me. In the decades since then, as socialism has fallen ever further out of fashion, my increasing awareness of the diversity and multi-dimensionality of human beings has made me more affronted than ever by the injustice of economic and social inequalities. They impose a hierarchy on what is inherently non-hierarchic. Inevitably, those on the wrong side of inequality are denied their full rights as human beings.
Inequalities are endlessly rationalised but at root they are irrational. Over the centuries, they have been seen as the judgement of God, nature, or the market, a measure of individual talent or drive, the product of the hard work of some and the laziness of others, but economic inequality is in fact, everywhere, overwhelmingly inherited; where you start from is the single most influential determinant of where you’ll end up.
I’m not aware of any society where there is a general correspondence between wealth and hard work, creativity, perspicacity, determination or contribution to others’ welfare. And I’m not aware of any civilised hierarchy of values which could not find offensive the current gulf in the rewards offered to nurses, teachers, train-drivers, farm-workers, street-cleaners, carers for the infirm, on the one hand and, say, financial speculators, arms dealers, management consultants and absentee landlords, on the other. That’s a hierarchy that needs to be turned upside down. But then what hierarchy of reward could reflect the necessary diversity and interdependence of human contributions to human welfare? Even under ideal conditions, meritocracy involves a judgement on each of us, on our relative value, which is at best artificial and one dimensional.
It’s more of a utopian illusion than the goal of practical material equality. And of course, one of the central drives of those who benefit from a meritocracy is to pass on their acquired advantages to their children.
As for equality of opportunity, vaunted by politicians and theorists as an alternative or means to material equality or what’s called “equality of outcomes”, it’s a chimaera. Outcomes can be measured with precision, opportunities cannot. When is equality of opportunity supposed to kick in? At age 18? A six-year-old with access to books, computers, travel, a room of their own, etc. is already way ahead of one who doesn’t. If you really want equality of opportunity then you have to have a starting point of material equality. Far from being a necessary accompaniment of democracy, economic inequality compromises it. Power follows wealth, and wealth seeks power to protect itself. In the electoral arena, in the courts, in dealings with the civil service, in the media, wealth gives privileged clout. It undermines formal or legal equality — valuable and necessary though they remain. The history of every democracy confirms this, though it also shows that great wealth can be constrained.
Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine — among other Enlightenment theorists — all regarded excessive disparities in wealth as incompatible with the stability of a rational, democratic society, and notably with a functioning “free market”. All would have found 21st century Britain, India or the U.S., permeated by inequalities, utterly alien to their vision of a just society.
Inequality is also environmentally unsustainable. Climate change affects us all, but the poor more than the rich. An unequal society, in which the rich have a massive investment in unsustainable industries and practices, has made it more difficult to address the urgent global crisis. It’s obvious that if we enjoyed a more equal economic order — globally as well as domestically — there would be much quicker and more concerted action on the threat, unimpeded by special interests.
We need rewards and incentives, but surely people should not be rewarded for anti-social behaviour, as are large corporations and speculators. And do rewards and incentives need to be solely economic? Isn’t that a presumptuous limiting of human nature, in which self interest and our awareness of it are shaped and reshaped by various ingredients, ideas and experiences? I don’t regard myself as inferior in any way to those who have more money than I do or superior in any way to those who have less. I regard myself as different, unique, and I try to regard others in the same light. To do or believe otherwise would be to subscribe to an illusion. I therefore want to see a social policy that disdains that illusion — rather than, as at present, one that deepens it.
Fear of losing
The fear of “levelling”, usually pictured as a levelling downward, is long standing, and in the neo-liberal global order it’s been bolstered by the political unchallengeability of “free enterprise” and the prerogatives of the wealthy. Behind it is, of course, a fear of losing what we have, but also a fear of being exposed to the kind of insecurity and want to which so many of our fellow human beings are exposed. The only answer to that, in the long run, is to end insecurity and want.
It’s argued that all attempts at establishing an egalitarian order have ended in disaster of one kind of another: chaos, dictatorship, economic stagnation. Examples are cited from the French Revolution to the Soviet Union to British social democracy in the 1970s. The crises, unexpected reversals and contradictions encountered by egalitarian experiments raise difficult questions, but they are not necessarily unanswerable. It’s a principle of the scientific world view that because something is unknown does not make it unknowable, because it has yet to be achieved does not make it unachievable.
It says much about our world that only a tiny fraction of the intellectual effort that’s put into rationalising inequalities is put into discussing how equality might be achieved. We won’t see each other as we truly are — we won’t see ourselves, collectively, for who we truly are — as long as we live in a world divided between rich and poor, or even between the not-so-rich and the not-so-poor.
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