John Keane | Capitalism and Democracy [part 4]
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Capitalism and Democracy [part 4]

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Earlier parts of this series on capitalism and democracy raised questions about the tense and often contradictory relationship between capitalist markets and the egalitarian spirit and power-humbling institutions of democracy. Each contribution has pointed out that we shouldn’t be surprised that monitory democracies otherwise as different as South Africa, Argentina, France and the United States are all feeling the pinch of plutocracy. For if capitalism is defined as a restless system of commodity production, exchange and consumption based on risk taking, competition and profiteering, then it follows that market winners will grow wealthy while others fall behind. From the point of view of democracy, the trouble with capitalist competition, as George Orwell pointed out, is that somebody has to win, while others lose. Part four of this series probes this point. It complicates things by asking: what exactly do we mean by equality?

The distinguished historian Mark Mazower has recently pointed out that we are living in times marked by a widespread ‘propensity to crisis’, the ‘hollowing out of political institutions’ and the ‘casualisation of the labour force’. We could add: the gap between rich and poor is almost everywhere widening so rapidly that it feels as though democracies are sliding backwards, possibly returning to the squalid patterns of social injustice of 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

The decadent trend wouldn’t have been surprising to the political economists of that period. Consider Adam Smith’s influential Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (1763). It noted how commodity production and exchange – the forces and relations of production, mediated by nature – are both the dynamic motor of civil society and the key cause of social inequality, to the point where ‘the people who clothe the whole world are in rags themselves’. His Wealth of Nations (1776) puts the same point even more forcefully. ‘Wherever there is great property there is great inequality’, he wrote. ‘For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.’

Living well before the advent of the universal franchise, Smith expected that market economies would generate political troubles. ‘The affluence of the rich’, he noted, ‘excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.‘ We now know that the universal franchise doesn’t automatically change this equation. That’s why concern about market-generated inequality in the age of the universal franchise now grips the work of contemporary political economists, including Thomas Piketty, who emphasises that market economies, when left to themselves, contain ‘powerful forces of divergence’. These forces are potentially destructive of democracy and its ethic of equality, Piketty notes. But why, we may ask?

Thomas Piketty
Ed Alcock/Redux

The roots of market instability, he says, are traceable to the historical fact that in all capitalist economies the private rate of return on capital ® is typically higher than the rate of income and output (g). The inequality r›g is another way of saying that there is a built-in tendency for wealth to accumulate more rapidly than output and wages. It took the catastrophes of the 20th century to reverse this trend, and to reduce significantly the favourable returns to capital. For a time, Piketty argues, the Keynesian welfare state led many to believe that the structural inequality problem had been resolved by democracies. In practically every OECD country, however, growth is now modest and household and state debts are rising along with wealth and income gaps. Contrary to the prevailing consensus, enhanced GDP growth is no equalising solution, he shows. This is because technologically innovative economies typically cannot grow faster than 1-1.5 % in the long run (the historical record shows that only countries engaged in catch-up can grow at Chinese-style rates). It is also because even when growth rates are modest the r›g inequality gap is never automatically reduced. Hence the sobering statistics for rich OECD countries such as France, where the average disposable income (after transfers and taxes) of the wealthiest 0.01 percent of the population now stands at seventy-five times that of the bottom 90 percent.

Rethinking Simple Equality

The widening gaps between rich and poor are plain to see, but much less definite are the answers to questions about how to think positively about equality. Part of the problem faced by democrats in our times is confusion and uncertainty about the meaning of equality.

Opening page of Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? (1789)

Among the difficult challenges we face in these years of the 21st century is to re-imagine what is meant by the word equality. In broad-brush terms, it’s clear that market-generated inequality contradicts the democratic spirit of equality, whose roots run deep. Historically speaking, voices from within democracy in every form have always questioned and rejected the presumption that the wealthy are ‘naturally’ entitled to rule, that (as Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès put it in Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?[1789]) the rich have a right to wallow in their riches, so that they ‘scarcely even think of themselves as belonging to the same humanity’.

Considered as a political form, as a whole way of life, democracy committed itself from the beginning to the equalisation of wealth and power. That was, and remains, its exceptional and appealing quality. From the outset, democracy (here I draw directly from The Life and Death of Democracy) demanded that people see that nothing which is human is carved in stone, that everything is built on the shifting sands of time and place, and that therefore they would be wise to build and maintain ways of living together as equals, openly and flexibly. Democracy required that people see through talk of gods and nature and claims to privilege based on superiority of brain or blood. Democracy meant the denaturing of power. It implied that the most important political problem is how to prevent rule by the few, or by the rich or powerful who claim to be supermen.

Democracy solved this old problem by standing up for a political order that ensured that the matter of who gets what, when and how should be permanently an open question. Democracy recognised that although people were not angels or gods or goddesses, they were at least good enough to prevent some humans from thinking they were. Democracy was to be government of the humble, by the humble, for the humble. It meant self-government by equals, the lawful rule of an assembly of people whose sovereign power to decide things was no longer to be given over to imaginary gods, the stentorian voices of tradition, to despots, to those in the know, or simply handed over to the everyday habit of laziness, unthinkingly allowing others to decide matters of importance.

A strange but exciting feature of our times is that the old democratic principle that democracy means self-government among equals is challenged. Under conditions of monitory democracy, the meaning of equality undergoes a double transformation. It comes to mean institutionalised pluralism, a shared sense among citizens and their representatives of the complexity of their worlds, and their opposition to arbitrary power in every form. This transformation in turn implies the theoretical and political need to re-imagine and practically reconfigure the principle of equality, to understand it in more complex terms.

Voter registration meeting of disabled people, under a mango tree, Kologo Ghana
John Keane/Life and Death of Democracy

Pierre Rosanvallon’s The Society of Equals helpfully pushes in this direction. His proposal for re-imagining equality arguably depends too heavily on the thinking of Tocqueville, whose exaggerated emphasis on equality as sameness during the age of representative democracy has often been noted. Rosanvallon is nevertheless right to appeal for a new political vision of equality based on ‘singularity, reciprocity, and communality’. The political question for democrats is: in the age of monitory democracy, what exactly does this mean?

What is required is a fresh re-description of the relationship between equality and democracy. What’s needed is a way of speaking differently, more democratically, about the principle of equality that recognises that simple notions of equality, understood as equal treatment and equal prospects of advancement for each individual citizen, can become unworkable, even undesirable when they are treated as the sole measure of the meaning and practice of equality. Within democratic settings, some notions of simple equality remain politically important; one person, one vote and universal entitlements to clean water, electricity, health care and education and decent pensions are obvious cases in point. But under conditions of monitory democracy, notions of simple equality cannot be the only measure of equality.

Anarchist solidarity demonstration, Barcelona, 1936

What is required is a more complex notion of equality that recognises that there are circumstances in which, for the sake of reducing inequality, democracies sometimes must privilege some citizens at the expense of others. The paradox can be explained by imagining for a moment a totally different world: a socially undivided and homogeneous political community in which, in the name of equality, all individuals are continuously treated the same. In this paradise of pure and simple equality, summarised in George Orwell’s glowing account of daily life in revolutionary Barcelona in December 1936, resources would be divisible into equal amounts.

‘It was the first time’, Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia, ‘I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties…. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized…Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.’ He added: ‘The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.’

In this way of thinking about equality, each citizen would benefit in exactly the same way and, since people are presumed to be so much alike in their wants and needs, no disputes would break out over the significance and effects of the equal portions given to all as equals. Differences of taste and conflicts among differing goals would be unknown. Or they would be treated as irrelevant. In this society of arithmetic equals, the fully centralised allocation of resources and the absence of politics would render obsolete the need for any institutions of representative government. Why would there need to be mechanisms for monitoring the exercise of power if, at the end of each day, and during the night, every citizen dutifully accepted that she or he was the simple equal of each and every other citizen?

Scenarios of simple equality gained traction with the help of religion (‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’). That did not protect them from hostile criticism and biting satire (William Thackeray: ‘One man is as good as another – and a great dale betther, as the Irish philosopher said’). Analysts of democracy also laid into simple notions of equality. ‘The gradual progress of equality is something fated’, wrote Tocqueville in a famous lament about the crushing consequences of the drive towards equalisation during the age of representative democracy. This ‘irresistible revolution advancing century by century’ in favour of simple equality, so Tocqueville thought, might dangerously steamroll the world into a flat and simple form of equality, what he called levelling into sameness (semblablement). The movement for equality would stop at nothing, he warned in Democracy in America[1835 -1840]. It would have the unintended consequence of building a new form of state servitude brought on by the democratic quest to make and treat everybody equal. ‘Does anyone imagine that democracy, which has destroyed the feudal system and vanquished kings, will fall back before the middle classes and the rich? Will it stop now, when it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak?’

Aside from his habit of underestimating the factual inequalities in 19th-century societies, Tocqueville’s prediction failed to spot the ways in which the concrete and complex ways of monitory democracy would later remould the ideals and practices of equality into something far more complicated than anybody had envisaged in the era of representative democracy. In our age of monitory democracy, the equality principle is democratised. Simple notions of equality, understood as equal treatment and equal prospects of advancement for each individual citizen, within a socially undivided and homogeneous political community, come to be seen as unworkable, and undesirable. Awareness is growing that there are many different kinds of equality that are, in turn, capable of having many different kinds of relationships with one another. The simple word equality is transformed into a much more complex grammar of equality. It becomes apparent to many people that the fractured quality of social and political life demands not only that recognition be granted to more than one practical meaning of equality. Many people realise as well that the principle of equality cannot itself serve as a basis for choosing among them.


In a curious and surprising way, this growing awareness of the complex grammar of equality confirms Aristotle’s critique of ‘numerical equality’. Writing in the era of assembly democracy, in both his Nichomachean Ethics, (1130b-1132b) and Politics (1301a 26-39, 1302a03-15),
he contrasted ‘numerical equality’ with ‘proportional equality’. He defined the latter as a form of equal treatment of others who are considered as equals in some or other important respect, but not others. ‘In the many forms of government which have sprung up’, he wrote, ‘there has always been an acknowledgement of justice and proportionate equality’. He contrasted democracy with oligarchy. Democracy ‘arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.’ Under conditions of oligarchy, by contrast, inequality is valued, he said. Oligarchy ‘is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal; being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely.’ For Aristotle, the contrast was striking. ‘The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things; while the oligarchs, under the idea that they are unequal, claim too much, which is one form of inequality.’

Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)

Aristotle considered that both approaches were faulty, and were prone to ‘stir up revolution’. And so, in opposition to all simple understandings of equality and inequality, he opted for a middle course. Aristotle proposed that the best polity is one in which a mixture of both numerical and proportionate forms of equality are cultivated. ‘That a state should be ordered, simply and wholly, according to either kind of equality [numerical or proportional], is not a good thing’, he wrote. ‘Both kinds of equality should be employed; numerical in some cases, and proportionate in others.’

It is of more than passing interest that several decades ago, in the United States, the landmark legal case of Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S (1980) pointed in this direction. The famous case split the nine-judge United States Supreme Court into five separate opinions about whether the federal government was entitled to give preferential treatment in some part of its public works programmes to minority-owned companies. In the end, the Court held such set-aside treatment was justified, but the case highlighted a watershed clash: between equality understood in terms of equality of results or outcomes, and the quite different understanding of equality as equality of opportunity, a form of equality that typically results in unequal outcomes, in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

Things become still more complicated when these different understandings of equality are applied either to individuals, or to groups, or to specific policy areas, or to large territorial areas, or to cross-border relations of power. Think of efforts to extend citizenship rights to children. Or demands for the right to be different by women and LGBT citizens. Or calls for humans to desist from their reckless domination of nature, to finding ways of respecting and representing our biosphere through new practices mindful of the parameters of such criteria as ‘sustainability’ and ‘inter-generational justice’. Or experiments with new forms of sharing ‘crowd-based capitalism’ (Arun Sundararajan). In each case, the quest for greater ‘equality’ entails assertions of the right to be different. Inevitably, struggles for greater equality in this sense have different – and often unequal – effects. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the scope of equality can be local or territorial or global. These different domains often conflict with one another, so that, for instance, the act of placing singular emphasis on the equality of citizens living within a state (‘all are equals in this country’) easily works against citizens equipped with different needs and concerns within the same state, as well as works against citizens of other states, or those without any state at all.

The political implication of this dynamic is clear: the principle of equality lies at the heart of democracy, but it is not a straightforward Universal Principle that can be applied like a sharp saw to rough wood, or a bulldozer to uneven ground. Aristotle’s contrast of ‘numerical equality’ and ‘proportional equality’ remains pertinent.

Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871)

Or, to switch similes by borrowing from Walt Whitman’s well-known likening of democracy to fruits and flowers: contrary to the complaints and platitudes of its opponents, the thrust of democratic ideals and a democratic politics committed to the complex equalisation of power is not to cut down tall poppies, to level everything to the ground. It is rather to ensure that a wide variety of species everywhere on the planet can flourish, in fields of plants and animals that are otherwise at risk from harm and extinction at the hands of parasites and profiteers and predators.

The Conversation

John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.