The Egalitarian Principle? The Egalitarian Principle?

Recently, Charley picked up on a tension within some in my criticism of Bhaskar Sunkara’s talk to the YSD. The tension turns around equality.   My writing here is aimed at addressing the issue at hand: Formal equality versus substantive equality.   Charley frames it as thus:

So, on the point that “equal respect” or its cousin, “equal opportunity” are not in any sense socialist values, I concur. However, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable with a sort of Marxist distancing itself from what I would call “substantive equality.” While making sure that people aren’t discriminated against when seeking employment is a fundamentally good thing, and a part of a socialist reform agenda that overlaps with liberalism, I can’t escape my conviction that when we propose a socialist revolution, we are proposing a leveling that radically alters the economic and political power differentials in society from those in the ruling classes to those in the working majority. The working classes become self-ruled in order to abolish class rule forever. To say this is not a process of equalizing wealth and power seems to deny the meaning of the word “equality.”

Up until the last sentence, I agree with Charley.  The last sentence, however, is problematic from a Marxian perspective. My comrade is not a Marxist so this is no so much to point out an error in thinking but to illustrate a complete difference in conception of what is at hand.   The equalizing of wealth and power is not to deny the meaning of the word equality, nor does the equalizing of wealth and power go far enough or even have meaningful implications.   The conservative retort that “if we are all equal at the lowest common denominator, then our future is blend indeed” is fundamentally true.  The dangerous of this focus on equality for equality’s sake even in equality of substance is subtle but acute in its problem: problems of substantive equality are problems of distribution, but if these problems of distribution are fixed by a structural economic process that is dependent on classes of people doing  particular kinds of production, so then we are still left with a fundamental contradiction.  But if we focus only on equality of power, then we are left with another issue?  What is power but not a formal process?  Charley has in no way denied this, but a philosophical problem emerges.

The concept of equality itself has been emptied as a signifier because as a mathematical definition it must be stripped of any qualia.  This must be the case because equality is a principle applied by analogy from mathematics.   It means sameness: both non-difference and non-distinction.  Perfect sameness in this formal sense is not possible when considering any two kinds of qualia, so equality must, by both definition and necessary, be only formal.  The problem can be seen in an old Chinese philosophical riddle: 白馬非馬 (translation: The White horse is not a horse) by 公孫龍 (Kung-sun Lung).  Unpacking the statement which seems like a koan, but is not can be done fairly simply: the specific is not the manifestation of the type in a way that makes one equal to the other. Now, the analytic philosopher will rightly point out that Kung-sun Lung’s paradox is a equivocation fallacy of the form “A非B,” and that this is a problem of ambiguity.   The point, however, is that there is an ambiguity in categories already:  is in the common language statement (in  archaic Chinese as well as English) implies two notions that cannot be parsed easily without the aid of formal categories and type.

To those of you frustrated with this hyper-analytic will probably invoke Wittgenstein (or your granddad) and say: “You know damn well we don’t mean that when we say equality…”  and thus plead with me to go back to the natural language meaning.   But as I have already illustrated, the natural language meanings don’t mean much at all.  It is vague–it either refers to equality before an ideal or equality before a legal system, but as Marx illustrated these don’t produce equality even formally.

Let’s return to Charley’s post:

Only substantive egalitarian reforms, such as changing draconian criminal statutes, radical improvments to education, poverty relief, and economic leveling could make a dent in this deadly and tragic situation. Such reforms seem almost impossible within the current configuration of our political and  economic systems, so calls for radical change are the only route for advancement.

Notice that every one of the reforms here, bar one, is about different elements of the capitalism in a reforming matter.  Furthermore, while social science does confirm that relative equality do promote social stability (the countries studied are generally European social democracies or East Asian mixed economies) what is often noticed is that status seeking is not remotely removed in both contexts.  In East Asia, hierarchies of social power are very rigid even after the semi-leveling. Such leveling will not fundamentally change society’s structure in and of itself, and given that alone: the production of this more leveled society is still based on retribution of the surplus of exploited labor, it will likely be given to the same problems we have seen in Soviet Union of the 1970s and Keynesianism of the same period:  a decline in profits and stagflation and then a massive opening for the reclaiming of prior gains to the real material limits.

It is not that we should not push this reforms when able: we should, but always with the notion that this cannot be our goal. This is not to insult my comrade Charley who knows and accepts that liberal formal equality cannot be enough, but to ask him what he actually means by equality if equality of power as well of material conditions is what is at hand. Indeed, he seems to be advocating something like a principle established by “analytic Marxist,” G.A. Cohen a back in the 1980’s:  “I take for granted that there is something justice requires people to have equal amounts of, not no matter what, but to whatever extent is allowed by values which compete with distributive equality.”   To avoid the same passages of the Critique of the Gotha Program, I will quote some Engels instead:

“The demand for equality in the mouth of the proletariat has therefore a double meaning. It is either – as was the case especially at the very start, for example in the Peasant War – the spontaneous reaction against the crying social inequalities, against the contrast between rich and poor, the feudal lords and their serfs, the surfeiters and the starving; as such it is simply an expression of the revolutionary instinct, and finds its justification in that, and in that only. Or, on the other hand, this demand has arisen as a reaction against the bourgeois demand for equality, drawing more or less correct and more far-reaching demands from this bourgeois demand, and serving as an agitational means in order to stir up workers against the capitalists with the aid of the capitalists’ own assertions; and in this case it stands or falls with bourgeois equality itself. In both cases the real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that necessarily passes into absurdity”

Note it is important before parsing these ideas to remember that Marx rarely mentions equality.  When he does, it is as critique of a political notion, as one he sees as a incoherent and thus limited, but distinctively bourgeois right and value. We can return to this idea later, but notice here: it is not just substantive leveling that is at hand, it is the abolition of class labor.  Engels immediately points out that any other demand of equality is either absurd or doesn’t cut to the root of the problem.  The substantive equality is not equality in any sense above: it is abolition of classes. It is not the leveling of individuals or the leveling of classes, but the complete removal of the structure of class itself.

So we come to the famous line of the Critique of the Gotha Program itself: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” This was a socialist principle, and it has much fewer problems with equivocation than is inherent in the formulations of justice as equity, is actually not of Marx’s “coinage” but is that of Louis Blanc.  Blanc himself may be taking his impossible from the religious socialist principles in the Acts of the apostles.  The point in the Critique of the Gotha Program is that “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” being the results from the material abolition of classed modes of production.  This is all very abstract because it has not, in truth, been entirely necessary for any of this to be possible. For as Marx does illustrate that equality is not what is at stake in the ideas guiding “substantive equality” in the remarks I focused in the Critique of the Gotha Program:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.

Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

To live up to Louis Blanc’s dictum we realize that this is not a development of equality itself, but requires some formal inequality to achieve since abilities are not equal.  This is not a denial of the need for due process for group identities who have been wronged: this problems are fixed within the demand for formal equality which prior liberal revolutions have not been able to achieve.   But to transcend class and thus have something akin to “equality of power” that Charley demands: that is a classless society where people have to ability to make their labor “life’s prime want” instead of a means of subsistence which colors their consciousness and limits their possibility in accordance with their class.

The point is not the spectrum of debates that have dominated liberal–both left-liberal and modern conservative/libertarian–discourse on a tension between liberty and equality, which as conceived in liberal revolutions in European and which have dominated the entirety of the capitalist world. Marx is not a moral prophet nor is he a utilitarian.  The point is to make equality, a concept whose formal nature seems almost eternally confused in human material life with all its messy qualia, irrelevant in both its material and formal relationships and thus remove the tension that the physical world has made in the concepts of liberty/equality itself.  Our mission as socialists should be to figure out a means to achieve such a society, and it will necessarily involve the liberation implied in formal notions of equity, but it will take more than leveling to bring out a classless society.  Leveling could just make the classes equal, but still distinct and perhaps also starving.

One thought on “The Egalitarian Principle? The Egalitarian Principle?

  1. I think I see what you are getting at. I’ve never had a clear opinion about equality. I see such ideas as eternally subjective and relativistic. That is precisely their power and their problematic nature. I doubt they can be otherwise. They are more goads to social change than an objective reality to be achieved and manifested. But the question is, how can they be goads for change that is worthy?

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