Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has handed those of us interested in a better, more socially-just political economy a huge gift. I can only hope we don’t squander the energy it has given us by getting bogged down and distracted by the conservative backlash and smear campaign currently underway. For those of us who’ve been paying attention, Piketty is telling us nothing we didn’t already know intuitively but he has given us a wealth of data that better enables us to present our case for a better, fairer society in a more convincing way.
Despite the great benefit of solid data, albeit exhaustively researched and compiled, we need to accept that facts alone offer us little in the way of a route to change. Simply revealing the problem is not sufficient to demonstrate that an alternative exists. Without a narrative and a compelling story offering a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, facts, such as those offered by Piketty, remain little more than a target for the pedantic counter-arguments of conservatives and a source of defensive counter-counter arguments for progressives. Meanwhile, the Left-Right data pie-fights become a mere sideshow for the mass of people who actually have real problems in the societies they live in and limited patience with ideological pugilism.
It is, however, wonderful that inequality is back on the agenda and no time could be better for the Left to rally around a new vision of what kind of society might better serve the common good. It looks like it ought to be a good time to be a social-democrat, and yet, frustratingly, we’re still not clearly winning the argument. Our historical cause célèbre is the current hot topic of the day but it seems the Left still needs to create a really clear story to explain what inequality is and why it matters. Something that immediately strikes me from following popular debates on this subject, especially in the English-speaking world, is that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the basic terms of the discussion, people are not really clear on what is meant by “equality”.
The Right is trying to defuse the issues concerning inequality by pushing a crude understanding of the concept itself, arguing over the details of the data presented by Piketty and generally trying to show that the issue is of less consequence than the Left is claiming. We should not fall into the trap of entering this discussion by trying to answer all the petty objections they raise and getting bogged down in details. Rather the Left needs to shift the entire field of debate to what ought to be our own home turf, the place where we ought to be strongest, to mount a convincing assault on the fundamentals of neo-liberal ideology; a fundamentally different set of values and assumptions about what society is and how it should function.
Inequality And Freedom
What would make this vision compelling is that it goes to the heart of the longing for safety, security, social peace and common prosperity that most people are quite clearly longing for yet cannot quite articulate, and offers a way out to those who don’t dare dream of a better world because they have been convinced by the dour, cynical “realism” of the conservative/liberal message that endless austerity and the end of all hope is somehow inevitable. Every failure by the Left to present an alternative, every rightward turn by a Left-wing government, every concession to the reigning ideology of hopelessness deepens the disappointment and despair of ordinary citizens throughout Europe and the world and undermines democratic politics as a whole. It is absolutely crucial that we get our act together and get out of our ideological funk before the political landscape of tomorrow is dominated by figures such as Marine LePen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage.
A quick glance at any social-democratic party constitution shows that we are a movement that claims to be committed to the principles of freedom, equality and solidarity. How can we articulate this vision in a way that conveys a concrete path forward to citizens? I really don’t think this should be so difficult as the vision it conveys is no pie-in-the-sky utopia, although getting there cannot be achieved without a modicum of radicalism and resolve for serious change. On the contrary, the biggest fairy story being peddled today is the empirically shoddy notion that austerity will somehow, someday deliver magical growth.
One of the first myths to take on is the persistent notion that freedom and equality are somehow in conflict. This argument is such a boring cliché of political discussions that it has devolved to the level of “common sense”. Like many “common sense” propositions however it is, if not complete nonsense, at least woefully inadequate. Any meaningful definition of equality is absolutely predicated on there being freedom. Likewise any meaningful notion of freedom is totally dependent on the existence of equality. “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” are not just a nice slogan but the shorthand formula for a good society. No one of these concepts is meaningful without the other two. The problem is; most of the time in political discourse, words like “freedom” and “equality” are used as mere weasel words. Without context, neither of these two words can have any real meaning at all. They are used, and deserve to be used, because they resonate profoundly within the modern human soul and that is a good thing for us. It is surely about time we reclaimed these ideals and fought to make them more concrete social realities.
The question is often asked of us; why do we care about equality? Do we mean “equality of opportunity” or “equality of outcome”? Are we talking about formal equality or a deeper concept? Do we mean mere material equality and closing pay gaps or redistributing income, or a more radical notion based on property ownership, or are there other forms of inequality beyond material concerns demanding our attention, such as social inequality based on gender, sexual identity or ethnicity? Does equality not demand sameness, “one-size-fits-all” solutions and bland attempts to appease the “lowest common denominator”? These are all valid questions. In truth, the history of the socialist movement is full of such questions and we could do worse than going back and revisiting some of the debates around them.
The usual liberal argument concerning our approach to equality and theirs is that liberals defend equality of opportunity whereas socialists/social-democrats defend equality of outcome. In recent years, altogether too many social-democrats have answered this accusation by backing away from the goal of equalising outcomes and stressing “equality of opportunity”. In fact, some degree of both is desirable. Before getting into this discussion however, it’s worth asking “what opportunities” and “what outcomes”? What are we really talking about here? I believe that what social-democrats ought to be stressing in our discussions on equality is the question of power. We must avoid crude arguments that are solely about income. Equality, just like freedom, is both a political and economic issue that has massive implications for a democratic polity.
Freedom And The Politics Of Power
In politics it is easy to understand the levelling value of “one person one vote” and the principle of “equality before the law”. It should be equally obvious that both of these formal equalities have an economic dimension. Questions of absolute material equality however are not really relevant to this discussion and serve as an annoying distraction. If I have sufficient income, time, access to property and opportunity to live my life in a way that pleases me with the maximum degree of empowerment as a citizen in my community, then it will probably bother me very little if other members of the community, who prize material acquisition much more than I do, have more stuff, or even disposable income, than me. If someone else’s love of certain luxuries takes nothing away from me, my environment or opportunities and if this other materially wealthier individual enjoys no extra legal, social or political privileges due to this relatively larger stock of tchotchkes and baubles, it is unlikely to bother me much and, for all intents and purposes, represents no meaningful inequality. If it is just a matter of possessions or income acquired through different choices then there is little to discuss. Certainly, in crude terms, we may be” unequal” but, arguably, only to the extent that all individuals are de facto “unequal” due to the inevitability of difference.
In reality however, it is obvious that the CEO of a major corporation, for example, and an unemployed job-seeker do not enjoy a mere technical inequality. The differences between these two individuals are not a mere matter of one owning more stuff or having more disposable income or enjoying more luxuries than the other; the wealth of a CEO has a major influence on the real freedom of that individual and has a social and political influence that directly impacts other individuals and the society as a whole, just as the lack of wealth and influence of the unemployed job-seeker brings a lack of power to that individual and this also exerts an influence on other individuals and society as a whole. Material inequality creates de facto political inequalities, which means more freedom for some and less for others. How is it possible to overlook such obvious linkages between equality and freedom? Neo-liberal talk of freedom, along with their idea of “freedom of opportunity” is intellectually dishonest and full of obvious holes. Our discourse needs to more clearly show how freedom and equality are innately linked.
Perhaps, instead of “equality” we should speak more of “fairness” to simply cut through all the myths and bluster on the right over how pursuing “equality” restricts “freedom”. Of course, we must ask the obvious question “freedom of what and whom?” What is freedom? The neo-liberal ideology posits freedom as the right of individuals to seek out maximum benefit for themselves in a competitive market society. Leaving aside for the moment the kind of society created by an obsession with endless competition and the stress and anxiety this usually produces in individuals, unless there is periodic intervention to reset the system, like all competitions there will come a point where the winners have taken all they can and the losers have lost all they can. To keep a “level playing field” there must be constant re-sets.
Perhaps if inheritance was abolished and the children off the rich sent penniless back onto the field to play for themselves it might be somewhat fairer in theory but who would seriously advocate such a measure? Who would support it and would it really solve the problem? The pursuit of market-based freedom can only end in a lack of freedom for the majority and, it should be clear, this lack of freedom stems directly from a lack of equality. Rather than polar opposites, freedom and equality are actually more like symbiotic Siamese-Twins.
The failures of crude levelling through Soviet-style state socialism have clearly demonstrated the impossibility of equality without freedom, as the Right is fond of pointing out. The need for someone to enforce such a notion of equality paradoxically negates it as, without some kind of administrative, privileged class empowered to make political decisions “on behalf of the people” the system cannot endure. Yet, what has not yet been adequately realised is that the notion of freedom without equality is equally absurd. Without a real, not mere formal, sense that all citizens are empowered in their societies to participate in decision-making concerning their common interests, the society in question must be understood to be lacking in both freedom and equality.
If those with money and property can purchase political outcomes through lobbying, ensure that their voices are heard more loudly than others through corporate media ownership and use their economic power to bully and blackmail others through capital flight and tantrums over attempts to introduce measures to protect the interests of workers or boost wages while, conversely, other citizens are forced into precarious jobs with no social protection and no sense of control over any of the factors that determine their lives or the future of their children, then such a society can, in fact, be neither free nor equal and democracy will ultimately be a mere slogan rather than a living reality.
Shayn McCallum is an Australian-born resident of Istanbul and PES activist (working as a member of the Irish Labour Party and French Socialist Party). He is employed as an instructor at Bogazici University in Istanbul and is also currently working on his doctoral thesis on the subject of European Social Democracy.