The Politics of Equality: An Introduction

The Politics of Equality: An Introduction

by Jason C. Myers


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Why are socialists, communists and social democrats concerned with the distribution of wealth? Why do they place so much importance on public goods such as education and health care? To what extent does democracy matter to socialist ideologies?

In The Politics of Equality, Jason C. Myers sheds new light on questions like this, providing a readable, contemporary introduction to egalitarian political philosophy. Concentrating on ideas and values rather than on the rise and fall of parties and movements, the book offers crucial insights into a vital tradition of political thought and how it is key to our understanding of contemporary debates from Obama's plans for a national health care programme to the recent global wave of economic state regulation.

This is essential reading for anyone interested in constructing a more just society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848138438
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 12/15/2010
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jason Myers is Associate Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus.

Read an Excerpt

The Politics of Equality

An Introduction

By Jason C. Myers

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Jason C. Myers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-844-5


Historical materialism

Perhaps unlike any other tradition of political philosophy, social egalitarianism has been conflated – and confused – with its theory of history: the analytic framework that attempts to explain, in a basic sense, how human societies function and how they change over time.

Most typically, that conflation and confusion occurred as part of the critical reaction to the work of Karl Marx. In total, Marx's body of scholarship comprises a theory of history, a critique of capitalism (including intertwined philosophical and economic aspects), and some limited speculation about economic and political pathways toward social equality. Yet, particularly during the twentieth century, critics tended to fix their attention on Marx's theory of history, reducing not only his work but the broad social egalitarian tradition as a whole to this solitary element. For Cold War-era scholars in the West, this was clearly a strategic choice. If the ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union could be reduced to a single question, it would be that much easier to land a knockout blow. Whether or not the mountain of books and articles produced by this effort had any real impact on the outcome of the Cold War is a question that need not detain us here. What we can say for certain is that the intensive critical focus on Marx's theory of history tended to create the impression that the uniqueness of social egalitarian political philosophy lay not in the specific nature of its theory of history, but simply in its possession of a theory of history. Social egalitarians (so the assumption ran) drew their political beliefs from a package of presumptions and speculations about historical change, while the adherents of other ideological traditions did not.

In fact, even a cursory examination of the history of political thought reveals that nothing could be further from the case. Consider, for example, the great debate in Western political thought between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1651, Hobbes published his landmark text, Leviathan, in which he rigorously defended the legitimacy of monarchy, stressing that it was not divine right, but the ability to create peace and order which should lead us to respect and obey a sovereign. Just over a century later, in his now equally famous Social Contract, Rousseau issued the scathing reply that peace and order could be found in jail cells, though this failed to make them any more desirable places to live. At surface level, of course, this was a debate about the nature of legitimate authority. Could the power of a monarch to command an entire society be genuinely rightful? Or was sovereignty only truly legitimate if it involved the active participation of citizens? Beneath the surface, however, lay two competing theories of history. For Hobbes, the dynamics of social life and historical change could be traced to the fact that human beings generally were aggressive, acquisitive, and perfectly willing to do violence to one another in pursuit of their aims. Only the clear, unified power of a monarch could guarantee law, order, and – most importantly for Hobbes – property rights. For Rousseau, it was precisely the invention of private property which led to social conflict in the first place. The key to social order, then, was not simply the defense of property rights, but the prevention of severe material inequality:

Do you therefore want to give constancy to the State? Bring the extremes as close together as possible. Tolerate neither rich men nor beggars. These two estates, which are naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the common good. From the one come the fomenters of tyranny, and from the other the tyrants. It is always between them that public liberty becomes a matter of commerce. The one buys it and the other sells it.

The classical liberal explanations of property rights, political legitimacy, and economic organization are similarly framed within overarching theories of history. John Locke's Second Treatise of Government traces property rights to the biblical creation story and its suggestion of two original claims: a common right to the Earth, shared by all, and an exclusive right to one's body, held by the individual. Locke famously holds that as they do work, individuals combine their labor power with elements of the world, thereby establishing private claims to whatever their labor touches and transforms. In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith proposes that the historical development of economic relationships can be explained by a natural human propensity 'to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.'

What, then, is the purpose of a theory of history for political philosophy? We might begin to answer that question by first reflecting on the nature of politics itself. Most fundamentally, politics is the range of processes through which we consciously shape the conditions for our collective existence. Politics, in other words, is centered on will and choice. If you believe that all events in the universe unfold according to a divine plan or a mechanical chain reaction in which human initiative plays no part, politics can be nothing other than a minor theatrical performance: emotionally moving, perhaps, but ultimately unconnected to the levers of power. If, however, human free will is real – if it is meaningfully possible to choose between alternate courses of action – then politics matters very much.

Choice, though, if it is not to be thoughtless or random, requires something to guide it. This, of course, is the job of political philosophy: to serve as a set of directions and criteria for political decision-making. But the specific directions to a destination can be formulated only in the context of broader knowledge about who and where we are. What are human beings? What, if anything, is our fundamental nature? What sort of world do we inhabit? How do the societies in which we find ourselves operate and how, if at all, do they change? It is entirely possible that we may not be capable of answering questions like these. It is surely possible that some of our answers may be wrong. But if we are able to say something both meaningful and truthful about who and where we are, it might then become possible to consider the range of political choices that are either consistent or inconsistent with the facts of our existence. This is the reason why we find theories of history at the heart of all traditions of political philosophy.

The materialist theory of history

It is by no means the case that all examples of social egalitarian political thought share precisely the same foundational theory of history. Yet, with respect to basic understandings of human existence and social change, the broad social egalitarian tradition contains some strong family resemblances: distinctive characteristics that allow us to recognize members of a related group, even when every member does not necessarily share every characteristic. I have chosen to refer to the theory of history whose most fundamental elements are commonly found in the work of social egalitarians as a materialist theory of history, despite the fact that this term brings with it a certain amount of controversy.

Just as with the terms used to identify social egalitarian programs and parties ('socialism,' 'communism,' 'social democracy'), both advocates and opponents have at times insisted on narrow and exclusive definitions of historical materialism, maintaining that the name should be applied only to one particular interpretation of one particular author's work. There is, of course, nothing wrong with political or scholarly debates over the correct interpretation of ideas. Neither politics nor scholarship could proceed without such exchanges. But it is also worth remembering that debates about the interpretation of an idea lose an important aspect of their meaning if we allow ourselves to view them only as the staunchest partisans do, seeing those on one side as the true bearers of a tradition and the others as infidels. Baptists and Mormons disagree with one another about the correct interpretation of Christian scripture. The most militant Baptist believers may even claim that Mormons are not truly Christians, or vice versa. An analysis of Mormonism, though, would go very badly wrong in beginning from the proposition that it was something other than an interpretation of Christianity. We should not be deterred, then, from recognizing the broad outlines of a materialist theory of history by the fact that some partisans (and some critics hoping to erect a convenient straw target toward which to direct their attacks) will seek to restrict all discussion of it to their preferred interpretation.

One important early version of a materialist theory of history is contained in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a text which opens by flagging for the reader's attention the central role to be played by a theory of history in the remainder of the argument: 'O man, whatever country you may be from, whatever your opinions may be, listen: here is your history, as I have thought to read it, not in the books of your fellowmen, who are liars, but in nature, who never lies.'

The history that Rousseau proceeds to recount begins from the most fundamental relationship between human beings and their world. The human animal possesses, in a physical sense, both needs and abilities, and interacts with the material world in order to meet those needs. Rousseau imagines the earliest human ancestors to have been solitary creatures, individually roaming the forests, searching for food, and meeting one another only occasionally in order to mate. Contemporary anthropological research would surely disagree with him on this point. The key element, though, of Rousseau's theory of history is not his belief that the earliest humans were non-social animals, but his recognition of a connection between the conditions under which we meet our basic physical needs and the possibilities for social and political organization.

Whether or not human beings began their historical existence in relative isolation from one another, like reptiles, they did not stay that way. But as he tries to account for the development of human social life, Rousseau encounters a puzzle. Could forms of social and political domination, like those in his own world of the eighteenth century, have existed among the earliest generations of human ancestors? When and how, in other words, did durable forms of inequality servitude and slavery – become possible? The answer is not to be found in the natural distribution of strength or skill, but in the situational conditions within which strength and skill can be brought to bear:

Some will dominate with violence; others will groan, enslaved to all their caprices. That is precisely what I observe among us; but I do not see how this could be said of savage men, to whom it would be difficult even to explain what servitude and domination are [...] Is there a man with strength sufficiently superior to mine and who is, moreover, sufficiently depraved, sufficiently lazy and sufficiently ferocious to force me to provide for his subsistence while he remains idle? He must resolve not to take his eyes off me for a single instant, to keep me carefully tied down while he sleeps, for fear that I may escape or that I would kill him [...] After all that, were his vigilance to relax for an instant, were an unforeseen noise to make him turn his head, I take twenty steps into the forest; my chains are broken, and he never sees me again for the rest of his life.

The difference with Rousseau's world is clear. Under primitive conditions, twenty steps into the forest lead to unclaimed ground and free access to the resources necessary for survival. But the eighteenth-century American slaves who strike out for freedom flee into a world in which the land they might otherwise farm is marked by property lines and the tools they will need to pursue a trade are hoarded in stores, available only for cash. Servitude and slavery, then, become possible when some can be made materially dependent upon others. And material dependence, Rousseau suggests, is rooted in the control of necessary productive resources.

Such resources are also the central focus of Marx's theory of history, the best-known version of which is found in his 1859 Preface to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.

Like Rousseau, Marx identifies a connection between the development and control of productive resources and the historical transformation of social institutions. Two elements, however, stand out in Marx's 1859 encapsulation of historical materialism. First, the progressive development of productive forces takes center stage here in a way that it does not for Rousseau. The changing nature of technology is clearly important for Rousseau, but he sees its primary impact in the weakening of the human body. We grow physically weak in civilized society as we come to depend upon more and more powerful forms of technology. Marx's 1859 Preface, though, connects technological development to the transformation of social institutions. Second, the specific nature of that connection is said to involve the rise of contradictions between productive forces and existing social relations, ultimately resulting in political transformation – revolution.

Yet it is precisely the political aspect of historical change which appears to be missing from the 1859 Preface. If the catalytic agent driving revolution was technological innovation, what role – if any – was played by political leadership, organizing, or even accidents of fate? Many during the twentieth century came to see the rigorously mechanistic view of technologically driven social transformation as representative of both Marx's work and historical materialism generally, though this view always stood in sharp contradiction to the events of Marx's life and to much of the rest of his writing.

The Communist Manifesto offers a perfect example of both. In 1847, Marx, along with his friend and co-author, Friedrich Engels, had joined a small European political organization known as the Communist League and they were asked to produce a short piece of literature explaining the group's aims. This was not meant to be a scholarly work, but an organizing pamphlet. Central Europe was on the brink of revolution (which broke out in 1848 and swept through nearly every country on the continent) and as he put himself into the path of these events, Marx began his analysis of history not from the question of technological development, but from the political struggles surrounding social property relationships:

The history of all society up to now is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in short, oppressor and oppressed stood in continual conflict with one another, conducting an unbroken, now hidden, now open struggle, a struggle that finished each time with a revolutionary transformation of society as a whole, or with the common ruin of the contending classes.

Did Marx change his mind ten years after the failed revolutions of 1848 and come to believe that technological development, rather than political organizing, was the real key to social transformation? Perhaps, although he remained active in revolutionary working-class organizations throughout the remainder of his life, indicating that he saw at least some important role to be played by politics. In any event, the question is one that may be left to the Marxologists and need not detain us here. It is enough for our purposes to note that some examples of Marx's work suggest a theory of history focusing on technological development and its related social contradictions, while others center on political conflict and property relations.


Excerpted from The Politics of Equality by Jason C. Myers. Copyright © 2010 Jason C. Myers. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

1. Historical Materialism
2. Equal Freedom
3. Economy and Society
4. Democracy
5. Internationalism
6. The Privation State

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