The following is an extract from an essay on the Spiked website.
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.
Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Ferraris for all: In defence of economic progress, published by The Policy Press.