You are the author of a number of books on the topic of equality, including Arguing for Equality which was first published in 1987. I understand you are working on a revised edition of that book. You also taught at University College Dublin where you helped to set up the Equalities Studies Centre. Could you start by saying what attracts you to the subject of equality. Why do you think it is so important?
In my view, the idea of equality is at the centre of the issues that have defined ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ politics in the last three centuries, and arguably throughout human history. Broadly speaking, all of these struggles have been about challenging the power and privilege of those who prevent the rest of humanity from having a decent life.
In Arguing for Equality you state that whilst equality is “out of fashion” an equal society is both “possible and desirable”. There is an obvious discrepancy here, namely if equality is feasible and beneficial then why is it unfashionable?
I think that much of answer to this question lies in the age-old capacity of ruling classes to exercise ideological control over the ideas of their societies. In our times, this is expressed through the dominance of neoliberalism, which maintains that capitalism generally, and neoliberal forms of capitalism in particular, are the only realistic ways of organising the economy. This belief in the inevitability of capitalist relationships is bolstered, in the way all dominant ideologies are, by a set of moral beliefs that portray the outcomes of markets as fair, for example by maintaining that people succeed through hard work and superior talent. There is of course always resistance to these dominant beliefs, and history has shown that they are often false. So there is no real tension between believing that equality is both possible and desirable and noticing that it is out of fashion.
In that same book you also talk about egalitarianism. Is that just a fancy way of saying equality or is there an important difference?
Egalitarianism is a commitment to bringing about much more equality, so the difference is between believing in an objective and the objective itself.
You also write that “egalitarians have often been associated with socialism and anti-egalitarians with capitalism” adding that “since the 1980’s, socialism has been widely dismissed as a failure, while over the same period capitalist economies have become increasingly dominated by neoliberalism”. Nevertheless, capitalists do claim to promote equality. For example, here in the UK we have the Equality Act (2010). Despite this piece of anti-discriminatory legislation, however, the UK remains an incredibly unequal society. How do you make sense of this rather Orwellian situation?
Like other political concepts, equality is a contested concept. Orwell captured the ultimate version of the attempt by the right to colonise the ideals of the left, when Newspeak defined these ideals in terms of their opposites. A more familiar tactic is to define the ideals in relatively weak terms, associating equality merely with certain forms of non-discrimination. Unless we capitulate to the colonisation of our ideals, our only alternative is to continue to insist on more radical interpretations.
Just as you believe an equal society is both “possible and desirable”, in his overview of socialism Bernard Crick asserts that an “egalitarian society is both conceivable and desirable”. For Crick an egalitarian society is one with “no conceit or constraints of class” - i.e. a “classless society”. Would you agree that equality / egalitarianism implies classlessness?
Absolutely, though I am not sure that Crick and I would agree on what it means to have a classless society.
Continuing this theme, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have both argued that socialists have typically overlooked a source of class power - namely the corporate division of labour. Furthermore, they argue that this gives rise to the coordinator class which they define as an “intermediate class in capitalism; the ruling class in coordinator economies such as the Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia”. As you can tell, this was written before 1991 but their point still stands: for Albert and Hahnel what is typically discussed as socialism is, in fact, coordinatorism. As an egalitarian advocate of equality, what do you make of this analysis?
I am very sympathetic to this analysis, but I don’t think I know enough about the details of how those economies were structured to endorse this way of looking at it unreservedly. Where I certainly agree with Albert and Hahnel is in their belief in the democratisation of the economy and their commitment to restructuring the division of labour by eliminating the distinction between those who define tasks and those who merely execute instructions. I don’t think we really yet know how to develop a set of global economic relations that incorporate these principles, but a good first step is to defend them as principles.
Here are the full references for the three books mentioned in the questions. Please note that the Albert and Hahnel book is available online for free here: https://zcomm.org/looking-forward/
Albert, M. Hahnel, R. (1991) Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century. Boston: South End Press.
Baker, J. (1987) Arguing for Equality. London: Verso.
Crick, B. (1987) Socialism. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.