New Internationalist

Do we really want equality?

Issue 364

An interview with writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips

Do we really want equality?
The curious thing about equality is that lots of people value it and aspire to it. And yet at an individual level people are really quite phobic of it.

There is an anxiety about losing a sense of specialness or uniqueness. One of the origins of this lies in the fact that most people have had some experience of being special to their parents. How that then develops depends on lots of different factors. The problem at an emotional and psychological level is that specialness is associated with being able to be what another person needs. Lots of children have to try to locate, or have a fantasy of locating, what it is their parent needs and try to be that – as well as protesting against it. The problem is that it makes you very specialized: you are the only person who could satisfy your parents or the only person who could cure them. But of course that in itself is a burden. So it’s almost as though there is something in the way that parenting has been constructed that seems to make a certain kind of specialness essential but also very tyrannical and limiting.

And there is another need which seems to work against equality: the need to believe that there are some people whose superiority is guaranteed in advance – and that we can have some kind of connection with them. It could be a deity or celebrity, it could be a race or a nation-state. But without this superiority existing somewhere in a person’s orbit, they – we – are destitute. Clearly it’s not incompatible to be committed to democracy and to dread equality – and so, in the name of democracy, to foster forms of prestige. The forbidden thought may be that there is more pleasure is being less special; that self-importance is the enemy of self-satisfaction.

How does equality connect with democracy?
I think at a political level the idea of democracy must be based on the idea that even though there is inequality in all sorts of areas, the best political organization we can come up with is the one where people have an apparently equal right to elect their leaders. So there will be certain ways in which we are all equal, one of which being we can all vote.

You can always say that we are all equal under the law but if I get a parking fine and I’m a millionaire it’s quite different from someone else getting a parking fine. So there are areas where equality looks more real than others. I think Lenin was right when he said that the fraudulent thing about democracy is the way that it produces what he calls ‘formal equality’. It creates the illusion of equality in that we can all vote but what we all know is that behind this, in every other way, societies are actually unequal.

Where does the idea of conflict fit in?
One of the beliefs of a social democratic theory is that everybody is equally entitled to a point of view – and that means it is inevitable that there will be conflict. In other words, democracy needs a certain degree of consensus, but it’s very wary of an excess of consensus. From a democratic point of view we would begin to wonder what was going on if too many people agreed about something.

Now that seems to me a good thing. What it suggests is that the best political organization we are capable of depends upon us being able to bear and indeed enjoy the differences between us. I think that once you build difference into a political system, you are building in conflict. You are all the time trying to conciliate rival claims.

You write about our need for enemies – and that having enemies makes us feel superior. What are the implications for those of us involved in oppositional politics and social justice movements -– often in pursuit of equality?
I think the risk is always that you demonize the enemy. That you treat the people who disagree with you as the enemy, rather than as people who disagree with you. In a way, the demonizing or scapegoating is an attempt to eradicate conflict. It’s as though if only we could get rid of Jews or blacks or women or some other group there would be no conflict. There was a psychoanalyst called Ernest Jones who said: ‘We don’t want to kill the person we hate most. We want to kill the person who evokes in us the most unbearable conflict.’ I think this is crucial. Instead of trying to abolish the conflict we should be finding ways of sustaining it because it seems to me that the life or vitality is in what the conflict generates. The risk is that if we can’t bear conflict we try to abolish it by killing what we think of as the enemy.

So one’s need to scapegoat, be superior, blame etc is the problem. That’s one of the things that psychoanalysis is useful at enabling people to mitigate. It actually, at its best, enables people to bear an internal democracy rather than turning it into an internal fascist state.

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