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6. Equality

6. Equality
From Fact to Norm

It is we who ploughed the prairies built the cities where they trade Dug the mines and built the workshops endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving ‘mid the wonders we have made.

Ralph Chaplin “Solidarity Forever”
in Hille ed. The People's Song Book
In August 1964 I spent two weeks in Czechoslovakia in Prague in what was then the home of my father's sister Jennie Freed and her husband Norman. They were there because Norman was at the time an editor of World Marxist Review the now defunct Prague-based theoretical journal of the also now defunct international communist movement. Daytimes I wandered around Prague speaking with whoever would speak to me. Evenings I spent with Jennie and Norman and sometimes we argued.
One evening I raised a question about the relationship between justice and indeed moral principles more generally and communist political practice. The question elicited a sardonic response from Uncle Norman. “Don't talk to me about morality” he said with some contempt. “I'm not interested in morals.” The tone and context of his words gave them this force: “Morality is ideological eyewash; it has nothing to do with the struggle between capitalism and socialism.”
In response to Norman's “Don't talk to me about morals” I said: “But Uncle Norman you're a life-long communist. Surely your political activity reflects a strong moral commitment?”
“It's nothing to do with morals” he replied his voice now rising in volume. “I'am fighting for my class!”
We then turned from the problem of the relationship between morals and politics to the problem of identifying Norman's class. Our exchange about that was stormy but I draw a veil across it since it is not germane to my theme.
In his depreciation of morality Uncle Norman was expressing in vernacular form a venerable deep and disastrously illuded Marxist self-conception. There were several reasons why questions of moral principle were brushed aside in the Marxist tradition. Some were better than others and some of the relatively good ones are presented in sections 1–4 and 7 here. But the most distinctive reason was that as we have seen Marxism presented itself to itself from its inception as the consciousness of a struggle within the world rather than as a set of ideals proposed to the world to which the world was required to adjust itself. The consciousness of the world's struggle would induce the world to consummate its struggle. As we have also seen that conception of practice appeared in the thought of Marx himself even before he became a Marxist on anyone's understanding of when that was. Recall in particular his letters of 1843 excerpts from which were presented in section 4 of Lecture 4 above.
In striking the posture that he did Uncle Norman was therefore faithful to classical Marxism.1 Classical Marxism distinguished itself from what it condemned as the socialism of dreams by declaring a commitment to hard-headed historical and economic analysis: it was proud of what it considered to be the stoutly factual character of its central claims.2 The title of Engels’ book Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science)3 articulated that piece of Marxist self-interpretation. Socialism once raised aloft by airy ideals would henceforth rest on a firm foundation of fact. It had been utopian but now as a result of Marx's work it had become a science.
Marxism's heroic self-description was in part justified. For its founders and followers did distinguish themselves from socialist forerunners like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen by forsaking the detailed depiction of imaginary perfect societies and they did achieve a great leap forward in realistic understanding of how the social order functions. But the favored classical Marxist self-description was also in part bravado. For values of equality community and human self-realization were undoubtedly integral to the Marxist belief structure. All classical Marxists believed in some kind of equality even if many would have refused to acknowledge that they believed in it and even if none perhaps could have formulate with any precision a principle of equality that he believed in.
Yet Marxists were not preoccupied with and therefore never examined principles of equality or indeed any other values or principles. Instead they devoted their intellectual energy to the hard factual carapace surrounding their values to bold explanatory theses about history in general and capitalism in particular—the theses which gave Marxism its commanding authority in the field of socialist doctrine and even indeed its moral authority because its heavy intellectual labor on matters of history and economic theory proved the depth of its political commitment.
And now Marxism has lost much or most of its carapace its hard shell of supposed fact. Scarcely anybody defends it in the academy and there are no more apparatchiki who believe that they are applying it in Communist Party offices. To the extent that Marxism is still alive—and one may say that a sort of Marxism is alive in for example the work of scholars like John Roemer in the United States and Philippe Van Parijs in Belgium—it presents itself as a set of values and a set of designs for realizing those values. It is therefore now far less different than it could once advertise itself to be from the utopian socialism with which it so proudly contrasted itself. Its shell is cracked and crumbling its soft underbelly exposed.
Let me illustrate Marxism's loss of factual carapace with respect to the value of equality in particular. Whatever one may think in general terms of the obstetric perspective it presupposed in its Marxist form factual beliefs about equality that are no longer sustainable.
Classical Marxists believed that material equality equality of access to goods and services was both historically inevitable and morally right. They believed the first entirely consciously and they believed the second more or less consciously and exhibited more or less evasion when asked whether they believed it. It was partly because they believed that equality was historically inevitable that classical Marxists did not spend much time thinking about why equality was morally right about exactly what made it morally binding. Equality was coming it was welcome and it would be a waste of time to theorize about why it was welcome rather than about how to make it come as quickly and as painlessly as possible—for the precise date at which equality would be achieved and the cost of reaching it were unlike equality itself not themselves inevitable and obstetric wisdom would therefore find its application here.
Two supposedly irrepressible historical trends working together guaranteed the future material equality. One was the rise of an organized working class whose social emplacement at the short end of inequality directed it in favor of equality. The workers’ movement would grow in numbers and in strength until it had the power to abolish the unequal society which had nurtured its growth. And the other trend helping to ensure an eventual equality was the development of the productive forces the continual increase in the human power to transform nature for human benefit. That growth would issue in a material abundance so great that anything anyone needed for a richly fulfilling life could be taken from the common store at no cost to anyone. The guaranteed future abundance served as a source of rebuttal to the suggestion that inequality might reemerge in a new form after the revolution—peaceful or bloody legal or illegal fast or slow—which the proletariat could and would accomplish. Following that revolution there would be an interim period of limited inequality: although class division would no longer exist more productive people would still be better rewarded than less productive. But when “all the springs of cooperative wealth [came] to flow more abundantly”4 even that limited inequality would disappear because everyone could have everything they might (in all sanity) want to have.
History has shredded each of the predictions that I have just sketched. The proletariat did for a while grow larger and stronger but it never became as the “Communist Manifesto” foretold “the immense majority”5 and it was ultimately reduced and divided by the increasing technological sophistication of the capitalist production process which had been expected to continue to expand the proletariat's size and augment its power. And the development of the productive forces now runs up against a resource barrier. Technical knowledge has not stopped and will not stop growing but productive power which is the capacity (all things considered) to transform nature into use-value—that is into sources of utility for human beings—cannot expand pari passu with the growth of technical knowledge because planet Earth rebels: its resources turn out to be not lavish enough for continuous growth in technical knowledge to generate unceasing expansion of use-value.
Let us look more closely at the two leading Marxist inevitabilitarian claims that were distinguished above.
The first claim is false because the proletariat is in process of disintegration in a sense that I shall shortly try to make precise. As a result—and a very discouraging result it is for those of us who remain egalitarians—the struggle for equality is no longer a reflex movement on the part of an agent located at a strategic point in the capitalist industrial process;6 socialist values have lost their mooring in capitalist social structure. Accordingly and as I shall now explain issues arise for socialist philosophy that did not have to be faced in the past. And Marxists or semi-Marxists or ex-Marxists like Roemer and Van Parijs and me find themselves engaged by questions in moral and political philosophy which did not in the past attract the attention of Marxists and which very often earned their disdain.
The sharp shift of attention is explained by profound changes in the class structure of Western capitalist societies changes which raise normative problems which did not exist before or rather which previously had little political significance. Those normative problems have great political significance now.
As a way into the normative problems I shall begin by repeating the epigraph of this chapter which is from the second verse of “Solidarity Forever”7 an old American socialist song:
It is we who ploughed the prairies built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we sand outcast and starving ‘mid the wonders we have made.…
“Solidarity Forever” was sung not only by revolutionary communists but also by social democrats whose socialist aspiration did not go beyond a demand for welfare state provision in a capitalism that initially did nothing for those who were thrown out of work in hard times. The part of the exhibited verse that merits special attention here is its third line: “Now we stand outcast and starving ‘mid the wonders we have made.” As these words suggest the campaigns for socialism and for the welfare state were seen as a struggle on behalf centrally of working people; the outcast and starving people who needed socialism or at least the welfare state were the very people who created the wealth of society. More or less extensive public provision of the necessities of life was regarded as a rectification of the wrongs done to labor with respect to the product of its own activity its products being the wonders it had made. Compare the famous American lamentation of the 1930s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”—a song which was for a while at the top of the hit parade. The man says “Once I built a railroad Made it run … Once I built a tower To the sun”; and those creations are supposed to show that he should have at least a dime.8
In the lines of these songs people do not demand relief from starvation on the ground that they cannot produce because for example they are disabled or because they are permanently unemployed or because they are careers who have no time for paid work. The people who demand relief in these songs demand it on the ground that they have produced and should therefore not be left to starve. Two claims to recompense need and entitlement through labor are fused in a fashion typical of the old socialist rhetoric in the “Solidarity” line. It was possible to fuse such claims at the time the song was written because socialists saw the set of exploited producers as roughly coterminous with the set of those who needed socialism's benefits. Accordingly they did not sense any conflict between the producer entitlement doctrine implied by the second part of the third line (“‘Mid the wonders we have made”) and the more egalitarian doctrine suggested in its first part (“Now we stand out-cast and starving”) when it is read on its own. For it does not require much argument to show that there is indeed a difference of principle between the appeals in the two parts of the line. Starving people are not necessarily people who have produced what starving people need; and if what people produce belongs by right to them the people who have produced it then starving people who have not produced it have no claim on it. The old image of the working class as a set of people who both make the wealth and have very little of it conceals in its fusion of those characteristics the poignant and problematic truth that the two claims—namely “I made this and I should therefore have it” and “I need this I will die or wither if I do not get it”—are not only different but potentially contradictory pleas.9
That they created the wonders and that they were outcast and starving were two of four characteristics which Marxists perceived in the working class in the heyday of the socialist movement. The four features never belonged to any single set of people anywhere but there used to be enough convergence among them for an impression of their coincidence to be sustainable given a dose of enthusiasm and a bit of self-deception. The communist impression of the working class was that its members
1. constituted the majority of society;
2. produced the wealth of society;
3. were the exploited people in society; and
4. were the needy people in society.
There were moreover in the same impression two further characteristics consequent on those four. The workers were so needy that they
5. would have nothing to lose from revolution whatever its upshot might be;
and because of 1 2 and 5 it was within the capacity (1 2) and in the interest (5) of the working class to change society so that it
6. could and would transform society.
We can use these names to denote the six features: majority production exploitation need nothing-to-lose and revolution.
However one chooses to apply the much contested labels “working class” and “proletariat” there is now no group in advanced industrial society which unites the four characteristics of: (1) being the producers on whom society depends (2) being exploited (3) being (with their families) the majority of society and (4) being in dire need. There certainly still exist key producers exploited people and needy people but these are not now as they were in the past even roughly coincident designations nor still less alternative designations of the great majority of the population. And as a result there is now no group with both (because of its exploitation and its neediness) a compelling interest in and (because of its productiveness and its numbers) a ready capacity to achieve a socialist transformation. In confidently expecting the proletariat to become such a group classical Marxism failed to anticipate what we now know to be the natural course of capitalist social evolution.
It is necessary to emphasize that the point I am laboring has nothing to do with the scholastic question about what is the correct way to use the phrases “working class” or “proletariat.” Under some orthodox definitions of these terms where for example the essential condition for inclusion in their denotation is that one must sell one's labor power to get one's living the overwhelming mass of the population is some would argue now proletarian. But that if indeed a fact10 is an entirely boring fact in face of the nonverbal and politically fateful truth that the four features I listed have come apart. That truth has nothing to do with the proper meaning of the expression “proletariat” (or “working class”) and is therefore not refutable on the basis of whatever anyone thinks its proper meaning is.
Many of the present problems of socialist theory and of socialist and communist parties reflect the increasing lack of coincidence of the first four characteristics. Particularly problematic from the point of view of a socialist political philosopher is the coming apart of the exploitation and need features. It forces a choice between the principle of a right to the product of one's labor embedded in the doctrine of exploitation and a principle of equality of benefits and burdens which negates the right to the product of one's labor and which is required to defend support for very need people who are not producers and who are a fortiori not exploited. This is the central normative problem which Marxists did not have to face in the past.11
If you can get yourself to believe that the features cohere you then have a very powerful political posture.12 You can say to democrats that they should embrace socialism because workers form the immense majority of the population. You can say the same to humanitarians because workers suffer tremendous need. And very importantly you are under less pressure than you otherwise would be to worry about the exact ideals and principles of socialism and that is so for two reasons. The first is that when the features are seen to cohere several kinds of moral principle will justify a struggle for socialism and there is then no practical urgency about identifying which principle or principles are essential; from a practical point of view such discussion will appear unnecessary and a waste of political energy. And the second reason for not worrying too much about principles when the features (seem to) cohere is that you do not then need to recruit people to the socialist cause by articulating principles which will draw them to it. Success of the cause is guaranteed by the majority production and nothing-to-lose features.
It is partly because there is now patently no group which has those features and therefore the will to and capacity for revolution that Marxists or what were Marxists are increasingly impelled into normative political philosophy. The disintegration of the characteristics produces an intellectual need to philosophize which is related to a political need to be clear as never before about values and principles for the sake of socialist advocacy. Normative socialist advocacy is less necessary when the features coincide. You do not have to justify a socialist transformation as a matter of principle when people are driven to make it by the urgencies of their situation and in a good position to succeed. And you do not have to decide what principle justifies socialism to recommend it to all people of good will when you think that so many principles justify it that any person of good will would be moved by at least one of them. For when the group whose plight requires the relief supplied by socialism is conceived as having the four features that I have listed socialism will then present itself as a demand of democracy justice elementary human need and even of the general happiness.
All non-self-serving politics proceeds under the inspiration of ideals. The Marxist declaration that scientific socialists needed no ideals was paradoxically buoyed up by a sense that all ideals favored them: they thought they needed no ideals because they had all of them. This powerful sense depended entirely as I have explained on a conception of the proletariat which is now unsustainable. If that conception had remained sustainable the collapse of world communism would not have disoriented socialists as much as it has. Had world communism moreover persisted socialists would not then be much less disoriented than they actually are given the defeating transformation of the Western proletariat.
Each of the first four characteristics listed at the beginning of section 3 is now the leading motif in a certain kind of left-wing or post-left-wing politics in Britain. First there is “rainbow” majority politics adopted by socialists who recognize the disintegration and look to generate a majority for egalitarian social change out of heterogeneous elements: badly paid workers the unemployed oppressed races people oppressed because of their gender or their sexual preference neglected old people single-parent families the infirm and so forth. A producer politics with reduced emphasis on exploitation characterized the Harold Wilsonian rhetoric of 1964 which promised a melting away of reactionary British structures in the “white heat” of a technological transformation of the country in which an alliance of proletarian and highly educated producers would overcome the power of City and landed and other drones; and there are similar strains in Tony Blair's emphasis on hooking Labour up to the computer revolution. Producer politics projects a Saint-Simonian alliance of workers and high-tech producers with greater emphasis on the parasitism of those who do not produce than on the exploitation of those who do (since some of the high fliers who fall within the Saint-Simonian inclusion could hardly be regarded as exploited). An exploitation politics with a degree of pretense that the other features are still there characterizes various forms of obsolescent laborism. And finally there is the need-centered politics of welfare rights action a politics of those who think that current suffering has the first claim on radical energy and who devote their efforts to new organizations such as Shelter the Child Poverty Action Group Age Concern and the panoply of groups which confront worldwide deprivation hunger and injustice. Such organizations did not exist when the disintegration was less advanced and the labor movement and the welfare movement were pretty well identical. (Philanthropic activity on behalf of deprived children the homeless and the indigent old long predates the founding of the organizations named above but the new organizations pursue their aims in a new spirit—not the old one of providing charity but a new spirit of rectifying injustice; injustice moreover which cannot be brought under the concept of exploitation.)
When those who suffer dire need can be conceived as coinciding with or as a subset of the exploited working class then the socialist doctrine of exploitation does not cause much difficulty for the socialist principle of distribution according to need. But once the really needy and the exploited producers no longer coincide then the inherited doctrine of exploitation is flagrantly incongruent with even the minimal principle of the welfare state. And tasks are thereby set for socialist political philosophy that did not have to be addressed in the past.
Sometimes when I present the foregoing reflections about the disintegration of the working class at a seminar or to some more political audience someone accuses me of forgetting that from the start Marxism conceived the revolution in international terms: the closing sentence of the “Communist Manifesto” was after all “Working men of all countries unite!”13 If I widen my focus so it is urged I shall see that the features listed in section 3 remain integrated but now on a world scale. I am said to show blindness in the foregoing to the fact that a classically featured international proletariat has emerged or is emerging.
But that is instructively false. It is no doubt true that across the countries which form the bulk of the world's population there are producers previously cut off from capitalism who amply realize the exploitation and need characteristics—in Indian steel mills in Korean electronic assembly factories and so on. But they do not form a majority within or across the societies in question14 which remain largely agrarian and they do not represent producers on whose labor capitalism is dependent in the traditional projected sense. For the engine of production in to day's world is the transnational corporation which absorbs and expels sets of workers at will. No group of its workers has substantial clout because so many other groups form a kind of industrial reserve army vis-à-vis any one of those groups. The actual and potential proletariats of India and China are ready to displace the workers of Birmingham Detroit and Lille and of manila and Sao Paolo and Capetown.
Unification of capital historically precedes unification of labor. Capital coagulates in joint stock oligopolies before it faces a unionized workforce and the capitalist interest is asserted at the level of the nation-state long before labor achieves any kind of national voice. But for combined cultural and economic reasons it is far more difficult for labor to emulate capital at the international level where increasingly the action is. The problem does not lie in the dimension Marx and Engles would have focused on: that of transport and communication. Communication is now easy and cheap. But the cultural diversity across nations and the huge gulfs between them in actual and expected living standards make mutual identification of their working classes difficult.
The final verse of one of the socialist songs that expressed the sentiments of the old working class-movement runs as follows:
I've seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land
I prayed we'd get together
And together make a stand.15
This getting together this transcendence of cultural and economic difference was more or less attainable and was sometimes in good measure achieved within a single country. But it is a daunting project on a world scale. How can a Boeing technician in Seattle envisage “getting together” with a laborer on an Indian tea plantation? If there is to be any form of solidarity linking such people it needs once again the moral leavening which seemed so unnecessary16 for proletarian solidarity in the past. The hugely better off in the world's proletariat must become highly sensitive to moral appeals for there to be any progress along these lines.
So much on the consequences for the prospects of equality of the fact that the proletariat did not and will not gain the unity and power anticipated for it in Marxist belief. Capitalism does not produce its own gravediggers.17 The old (partly real partly imagined) agency of socialist transformation is gone and there is not and never will be another one like it. Socialists have to settle for a less dramatic scenario and they must engage in more moral advocacy than used to be fashionable. And I now want to discuss in the spirit of those acknowledgments an aspect of the present predicament which brings to the fore a basis for demanding equality which is new relative to traditional Marxist and also to mainstream liberal expectations. As we shall see this new basis is connected with the falsehood of Marxism's abundance prediction which was the basis in the past not for demanding equality but for believing it to be inevitable.
The new basis of a demand for equality relates to the ecological crisis. The scale of the threat to humanity which that crisis poses is a matter of controversy among the experts and so is the shape of the required remedy if indeed it is not too late to speak of remedies. But two propositions seem to me to be true: that our environment is already severely degraded and that if there is a way out of the crisis then it must include much less aggregate material consumption than what now prevails and as a result unwanted changes in lifestyle for hundreds of millions of people.
Let me distinguish between what is certain and what is conjectural in that uncongenial assessment. It is beyond dispute that Western consumption measured in terms of use of fossil fuel energy and natural resources must on average fall drastically and that non-Western consumption considered in the aggregate will never reach current Western levels so measured. But the qualification carried by the italicized phrases is important. It is certain that we cannot achieve Western-style goods and services for humanity as a whole nor even sustain them for as large a minority as has enjoyed them by drawing on the fuels and materials that we have hitherto used to provide them. It is less certain that the desired consumption satisfactions themselves the goods and services considered in abstraction from the customary means of supplying them cannot be secured by new means on the desired scale. But I believe that the second claim about goods and services as such is also true18 and the following remarks proceed under that assumption.
When aggregate wealth is increasing the condition of those at the bottom of society and in the world can improve even while the distance between them and the better off does not diminish or even grows. Where such improvement occurs (and it has occurred on a substantial scale for many disadvantaged groups) egalitarian justice does not cease to demand equality but that demand can seem shrill and even dangerous if the worse off are steadily growing better off even though they are not catching up with those above them. When however progress must give way to regress when average material living standards must fall then poor people and poor nations can no longer hope to approach the levels of amenity which are now enjoyed by the world's well off. Sharply falling average standards mean that settling for limitless improvement instead of equality ceases to be an option and huge disparities of wealth become correspondingly more intolerable from a moral point of view.
Notice the strong contrast between the foregoing ecologically grounded case for reduced tolerance of inequality and traditional Marxist belief. The achievement of Marxist equality (“From each according to his ability to each according to his needs”)19 is premised on a conviction that industrial progress will bring society to a condition of such fluent abundance that it is possible to supply what everyone needs for a richly fulfilling life. There will then no longer be any occasion for competition for precedence either across individuals or between groups. A (supposedly) inevitable future plenty was a reason for predicting equality. Persisting scarcity is now a reason for demanding it.
We can no longer sustain Marx's extravagant pre-Green materialist optimism. At least for the foreseeable future we have to abandon the vision of abundance. But if I am right about the straitened choices posed by the ecological crisis we also have to abandon on pain of giving up socialist politics a severe pessimism about social possibility which accompanied Marx's optimism about material possibility. For Marx thought that material abundance was not only a sufficient but also a necessary condition of equality and not only of equality but of a reasonably decent society. He thought that anything short of an abundance so complete that it removed all major conflicts of interest would guarantee continued social strife a “struggle for necessities … and all the old filthy business.”20 It was because he was so uncompromisingly pessimistic about the social consequences of anything less than limitless abundance that Marx needed to be so optimistic about the possibility of that abundance.21
And that amplifies the explanation of traditional Marxism's failure to bring questions of distributive justice into close focus. Under conditions of scarcity so traditional Marxism maintains class society is inescapable its property structures settle questions of distribution and discussion of the nature of justice in general terms is therefore futile for a political movement whose task must be to overturn class society rather than to decide which of the many criteria by which it comes out unjust is the right one to use to condemn it. Nor is it necessary to inquire into what precisely will be demanded by justice in the future condition of abundance . For communism in which everyone has what she wants will then supervene effortlessly (with a little help from its obstetric friends such as Tim Buck)22 and justice will thereby be achieved on any conception of it from utilitarian through egalitarian to libertarian. Devoting energy to the question “What is the right way to distribute?” is futile with respect to the present and unnecessary with respect to the future.23
We can no longer believe the factual premises of those conclusions about the practical (ir) relevance of the study of norms. We cannot share Marx's optimism about material possibility but we therefore also cannot share his pessimism about social possibility if we wish to sustain a socialist commitment. Marx's optimism allowed him to maintain a pessimism that we must give up because we must give up the optimism that made that pessimism safe.
We cannot rely on technology to fix things for us; if they can be fixed then we have to fix them through hard theoretical and political labor. Marxism thought that equality would be delivered to us by abundance but we have to seek equality for a context of scarcity and we consequently have to be far more clear than we were about what we are seeking why we are justified in seeking it and how it can be implemented institutionally. That recognition must govern the future efforts of socialist economists and philosophers.