In our unstable neoliberal world, the venerable social ideal of equality is perhaps the most precarious commodity of all. To be sure, evidence of its absence abounds—in the casual enclosure and systematic auctioning of once-public goods, in the gaudy bailouts of our nonproductive financial sector, in the riotous indulgences of the 1 percent and the gnawing penury of the 99. And as the sphere of its exercise has narrowed to the vanishing point, equality seems to have been downgraded into the great dirty secret of our public life—only in contrast to the old Potter Stewart saw, fewer and fewer of us know it for the simple reason that almost none of us see it.
French political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon takes fresh stock of the ideal of equality in The Society of Equals, an ambitious bid to revive egalitarian thought in a global economy that no longer recognizes any moral or political legitimacy in schemes to redistribute wealth—let alone in more modest efforts to expand access to basic social goods such as health care, housing, or education. Amid such pinched conditions, Rosanvallon writes, the very word equality
has somehow become detached from experience, so that it no longer clearly indicates battles that must be fought or goals that need to be achieved. Equality has become a sort of remote deity, which is routinely worshipped, but has ceased to inspire any living faith. When used at all, it is generally as a sort of negative incantation—“reduce inequalities”—without a corresponding positive image of a better world.
He contends that this eloquent silence arises, in turn, from a broader collapse of the old social contract underwriting the growth of the welfare state: “It is a whole era that is coming to an end,” he writes, “an era based on a certain conception of social justice involving redistribution of wealth, forged in the late nineteenth century.”
Rosanvallon deftly traces the slow collapse of the egalitarian tradition, mainly in the counterposed trajectories of French and American political thought. From their origins in the Enlightenment’s confident assertion of equality of both opportunity and condition as nonnegotiable and self-evident truths, each of these landmark republican revolutionary traditions went on to make its uneasy peace with the rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. In America, the frontier-capitalist notion of individual autonomy as the purest mode of democratic freedom spun out, under the pressures of accelerating cycles of boom and bust, into the mythology of self-made success (in the industrial North) and the rigid system of racial caste privilege (in the agrarian South). Add in the more informal elements of the American civic culture, such as the rise of a demotic set of social manners among Americans striving after a “general ennoblement” and the view of rapidly acquired money fortunes as a great “leveler,” and the American romance with the egalitarian ideal becomes rapidly shot through with contradictory impulses—at once socially familiar and economically isolating, democratically expansive and racially segmenting.
As the economy shifted into its high-corporate-capitalist phase in the twentieth century, defenders of the fragmenting egalitarian consensus instinctively reached for the shibboleths of impartial, meritocratic achievement as the all- purpose alibi of first resort. “The United States became the land of testing,” Rosanvallon observes, and “the American cult of testing . . . clearly exposes the central contradiction underlying the history of liberal capitalist democracies: the coexistence of an egalitarian founding philosophy with a social reality marked by substantial inequalities.” Enshrined in the pseudoscientific canons of meritocratic measurement, inequality increasingly became a taken-for-granted fact of life, as opposed to a hateful atavism of old-world privilege. “Thus ‘desocialized,’” Rosanvallon writes, “inequality was able to prosper in a society viscerally attached to the idea that all men are created equal,” since the testing numbers clearly demonstrated—at least to the gatekeepers of the meritocratic university system and its allied bureaucracies of the corporate state—that the unequal distribution of economic reward was ultimately “linked to individual merit and inherited talent alone.”
Meanwhile, in the French polity—always prey to greater revolutionary convulsions and more sweeping dictates about the likely direction of the democratic experiment—the nation-state offered itself as the obvious forum for sublimating the unresolved tensions arising from the country’s own increasingly polarized social reality. Sure, egalitarian insurgents would occasionally come along to pronounce, as the leaders of the Second Republic did quite absurdly in 1848, that “as of the date of this law [enacting universal suffrage], there are no longer any proletarians in France.” But in practice, Rosanvallon notes, the notion of equality in France became yoked—as it did for most major European powers—to the grubbier image of the defended nation, particularly as it concerned the never-ending quest for domination in global trade. Trade tariffs became a proxy for a more fully realized vision of working-class identity and equality—and, in an ugly parallel to the developments along the American frontier, the potent ideology of French colonialism served to tamp down the broader tensions that threatened to sunder the nationalist ideal. The colonial order was “a way of promoting collective satisfaction in conquest and demonstrating joint superiority over the peoples one claimed to be civilizing,” Rosanvallon archly notes. “Colonialism . . . counterbalanced and camouflaged domestic inequalities by depicting the nation as a community in confrontation with the rest of the world.”
In filling out the troubled and deeply unresolved history of egalitarian thought in the West, Rosanvallon highlights a great deal of urgent, unfinished business in the struggle to lend genuine social substance to the billowing pieties of democratic self-rule—such as retiring the outmoded individualist dogmas of meritocratic reward, which he rightly characterizes as simple “luck egalitarianism,” pivoting on an unsightly combination of “progressive sociology” and “conservative ontology.” Unfortunately, though, The Society of Equals isn’t nearly as strong in sketching a vision of social equality untethered from the destructive dogmas of blood and soil. The key path out of the present egalitarian impasse, Rosanvallon insists, is to discard the traditional rights-driven models of redistribution that still shore up the rickety armature of the European welfare state, and to affirm a more contingent “equality as relation.” Only then, he argues, can we dissolve the historical tensions between the state-derived ideal of equality of condition and the more free-floating conception of individual liberty—this latter dogma being, of course, the most corrosive rationale for persistent inequality under present neoliberal economic arrangements.
But the basis of this “relational equality” turns out, on closer inspection, to be an amorphous proposition—and something of a question-begging one into the bargain. Much like Robert Putnam, David Brooks, and various other elegiac prophets of a vanished, quasi-mythical American “civility,” Rosanvallon wants to embed his vision of relational equality in a set of informal social practices. Under this revised, postmaterialist egalitarian dispensation, “common” social goods are reconceived as crucial incubation sites for the spirit of equality. The idea of the common thus gets freighted with many of the affective qualities that are hounded out from the social routines of the neoliberal market order; common urban spaces, public gathering spots, and even points of public transportation all become, under the alchemy of relational equality, modes of ill-defined “mutual understanding,” “circulation,” and “celebration and demonstration.” Thus outfitted with relational models of civic virtue, the egalitarian community is poised to redefine itself: “A community is a group of people united by a bond of reciprocity, a sentiment of joint exploration, and a shared set of hurdles to be overcome and hopes to be realized.”
It’s not so much that this battery of social ideals is unworthy (though, in truth, the earnest rhetoric here does call to mind some of my worst memories of coming of age in a family overrun with passive-aggressive Unitarians). It is, rather, that Rosanvallon offers up this alternative account of a community’s social health as the new proving ground for future social claims of equality: “Redistribution cannot be maintained or expanded unless the vitality of equality as relation is assured. . . . If the meaning of taxation is to be restored in order to enable ambitious programs of redistribution, we must first build up equality as relation and make it the centerpiece of political action.”
This prescription raises much the same sort of objection that effectively refutes the progressive American love affair with educational achievement as the panacea for all social ills. In both instances, it seems, the solution to the nettlesome question of meaningful social equality is simply to transplant the whole messy business into an idealized realm of uncoerced social relations: the meritocratic university in one setting, and the rehabilitated “common” in the other. And in both cases, the rough conditions of social equality so conspicuously absent from the market order are more or less willed into being in a meritocratic-cum-communitarian wish-fulfillment fantasy. Put another way, if relational equality is now the necessary precondition for the redistributionist kind, aren’t we largely expecting the public to equalize itself, before it even begins to petition the state for something like equal treatment or (dare we say it) justice?
Well into our market-addled age, the creaky conceits of a receding civitas simply feel unequal—as it were—to the scale of the present crisis. At this late date, one can’t help but wonder why citizens who take equality seriously should be so preoccupied with squaring the urgent demands of justice with the shopworn pieties of individual liberty. Shouldn’t the ideologues of the market be the ones who are put on the defensive? Perhaps, in this scenario, a robust public sphere can manifest itself directly through a sustained engagement with issues of economic fairness—demanding nontrivial regulation of the financial sector (and actual enforcement of the law on Wall Street), a repudiation of the sick nexus of student debt and meritocratic social fancy, and a thorough overhaul of a money-driven legislative process and mediasphere. Who knows—a reengaged populist citizenry might even create a common or two along the way, once they figure out the right places to occupy.
Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum and the author of Rich People Things: Real-Life Secrets of the Predator Class (Haymarket Books, 2011).