New Internationalist

Equality’s Progress

February 2004

Vanessa Baird charts the passage of a troubled ideal.

Chris Keulen / Panos Pictures
Spectacle of division: the seating system at this sports event in Burkina Faso says it all. Chris Keulen / Panos Pictures

George Bergeron wears a 21-kilo canvas bag, weighted down with birdshot, padlocked to his neck. Plugged into his ear is a little mental-handicap radio which he is required by law to wear at all times.

This radio is tuned to a government transmitter and, every 20 seconds or so, the transmitter sends out some sharp noise to stop George and people like him taking unfair advantage of their brains.

Because George is of above normal intelligence and, in this dark satire by Kurt Vonnegut, ‘the year was 2081 and everybody was finally equal’.

They weren’t just equal before the God and the law,’ Vonnegut writes. ‘They were equal in every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.’1

Vonnegut’s tale, written some 40 years ago, remains compelling because it so vividly expresses two of the most fundamental objections to, and fears aroused by, the ideal of equality.

One is that the aim of equality is to make us all the same – and that this can only be done by ‘levelling down’ any quality or advantage that makes a person stand out.

The other objection is that the social pursuit of equality inevitably violates personal liberty.

So powerful are these objections that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the aim of equality is the exact opposite: not to legislate sameness but to give difference a chance. Far from being against liberty, it is about liberating us from the tyranny of those with overwhelming and enduring power.

Rights and revolutions
That’s certainly how it all started. Although Aristotle talked about it in theory, and radicals like the 17th-century Levellers tried to do it in practice, equality only got going in the West as a mass political ideal in the 18th century. Up until then social inequality was widely viewed as the natural and divine order of things.

In one basic way we live in an era of inequality that is historically unprecedented

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft were all part of the flowering of egalitarian thinking, establishing the ‘Rights of Man’ – and ‘woman’ in the case of Wollstonecraft. They based this on the belief that each of us is born with an equal moral worth and entitlement to dignity and citizenship. This radical idea provided intellectual fuel for both the French and American Revolutions and moral fuel for Anti-Slavery, the Suffragettes and the Black Civil Rights movement.

Since then, the ideal of equality has inspired millions to protest against undemocratic forms of government, monarchy and despotism.

From the seed of the ‘Rights of Man’ was born the human-rights movement, to find monumental expression in Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

Equality’s progress has been troubled, however. In the 20th century especially the ideal took quite a battering when the world’s biggest social experiment in equality – Communism – morphed into totalitarianism until finally unravelling economically. How can we forget the writing on the wall in Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satire on Communism? ‘All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.’

Equality endangered
Large-scale travesties of ideals are hugely damaging to them. And since Soviet-style socialism came to an end in 1989 the fundamental assertion that citizens should share equally in a nation’s wealth has been struggling to find backers.

They are certainly not to be found among social-democrat ‘third way’ politicians who have zealously sidelined the idea of the ‘citizen’ with inalienable rights in favour of the ‘consumer’ with market choice.

Not for nothing does egalitarian thinker Ronald Dworkin comment that equality has become ‘the endangered species’ of political ideals.2

The age of inequality?
Despite this, many believe that we’re far more equal now than in the past – and in some ways it’s true. The position of women in the West has improved – though in no country in the world have women achieved equality. Racial and sexist discrimination are less tolerated and are punishable by law. Diversity and multiculturalism are more widely seen as indications of the richness of a society.

Yet in one basic way we live in an era of inequality that is historically unprecedented: the gap between rich and poor has never been wider. While the West and Asia have got richer, 54 countries in the world – mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet states – saw average income decline in the 1990s and the number of people living on under one dollar day increase.3 Some 21 countries went backwards in terms of ‘human development’ – a measure of income, life expectancy and literacy. Today the income of 25 million Americans is the equivalent of almost two billion of the world’s poorest people. And if you think it’s always been this bad: in 1820 western Europe’s per-capita income was three times that of Africa’s; by the 1990s it was more than 13 times greater.3

Inequality is deepening within countries, too: the rich-poor gap is growing in more than half of the countries for which there is data. It would now take the average US worker 400 to 500 years to earn as much as their Chief Executive earns in one year.4 Greed – and élite networks of privilege – are partly to blame. It’s telling that Nicaragua and Zambia, among the world’s most unequal countries in terms of income and consumption, have both recently tried former presidents for corruption. But other factors exacerbate inequality – like the world’s continuing trend towards privatization of basic services such as health, sanitation and education, which put vital services beyond the reach of the poorest.

UN economists now recognize that the Millennium Goals to halve world poverty between 1990 and 2015 have no chance of being met unless inequality is drastically reduced.

Why equality?
The brutality of inequality is clear to see. In Norway 4 children in 1,000 will die before the age of 5. In Sierra Leone a staggering 363 per 1,000 won’t make it.

But does that mean the ideal of equality is the answer? No and yes. At this point it’s best to admit that the ideal of equality as an absolute principle is an impossibility. Try to imagine it. Think of all the natural differences between human beings in terms of size, shape, colour, strength, talents, desires, health, physical or mental attributes. Think of all the things that make up a life in terms of social differences such as class, gender, race, wealth, religion, sexual orientation. What kind of accounting method could measure all these against each other and come out with a plausible balance sheet? Even if it could, how could you apply such a measure to the deep diversity of human nature and human experience, let alone the shifting nature of human relationships?

Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form

Often political ideas are fine in theory but do not work in practice. With equality it may well be the other way around. The theory does not work – but building equality into political practice and institutions yields tremendous humanitarian results:

• It alleviates the suffering of the worst off.
• It increases a sense of citizenship and trust.
• It provides the basis for policies like universal public education and health.
• It promotes self-respect and respect for human dignity.
• It’s an essential element for reducing world poverty.

For many it is the cornerstone of democracy. US academic Elizabeth Anderson argues: ‘The point of equality is [to create] a democratic society, in which people stand in relations of equality to one another. Democratic equality entitles all citizens to the goods they need to function as free and equal citizens and to avoid oppression by others.’5

Democratic equality also, she adds, obliges citizens to promote equality.

If you were to judge the health of equality in terms of the numbers of democracies in the world today you would be greatly encouraged. In 1900 no country in the world had universal suffrage. By 2000 most countries had democracies and multiparty elections.

But it’s not that simple. German socialist Rosa Luxemburg warned of ‘the hard core of social inequality and lack of liberty that lies hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom’.6

This is not to say that formal equality is unimportant. As post-apartheid South Africans know, having the vote and a constitution that guarantees equality are precious first steps. But it’s getting under that ‘sweet shell’ and changing the ‘hard core of inequality’ inside that’s the really difficult part.

Sharing the pie
So how do we create more equality in a society – or at any rate reduce the injuries of inequality?

Most people can agree with the ‘formal’ equality that holds that everyone above a certain age is entitled to vote and all citizens are equal before the law.

Much trickier is creating ‘substantive’ equality. This involves sharing out resources so that all may benefit. Those resources might be land or industry or mineral wealth or the environment. Reducing inequality almost always requires redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. Within a country the common way to do this is through taxation on income, capital, inheritance and certain types of consumption. In a global context, scrapping Third World debt and making trade fair might be effective means of reducing the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the rich world.

But what’s the goal of redistribution? Is it to ensure that everyone has precisely the same? Probably not. Fairness might require some inequality; a disabled person might need a car more than an able-bodied person. Maybe the aim should be ‘equality of welfare’ in the sense of providing for equal well-being; equal access to services like health and education being of prime importance.

Most egalitarians would agree that people are responsible for certain inequalities resulting from their own decisions – to gamble, for example – and don’t deserve to be compensated for this. We can’t expect the outcomes of the choices we make in life to be equal, but there should be equality of opportunity at least.

Opportunity knocks
At its simplest, equality of opportunity means that people should have access to employment or educational advantages based on merit alone. But it does not take account of any previous advantages or disadvantages people may have had.

A stronger measure tries to tackle this through affirmative action. For example, universities with a low proportion of working-class students may deliberately encourage children from these backgrounds to apply. Maybe bright students from poor backgrounds will be accepted with lower grades than rich students who have benefited from private education.

The strongest measure of all involves gearing equal opportunities to specific outcomes, perhaps via a quota system, to make sure that the proportion of entrants reflects the population in terms of race, gender, class and so forth.

But while equal opportunity policies can do much, they come too late for many people. What’s needed is a level playing field right from the start so that all get good healthcare and good education, regardless of social background.

Radical? Utopian? Not really, just democratic. As Ronald Dworkin points out: ‘In a democracy the rulers have a right to rule only on the basis that they have “equal concern” for the people they rule. This is what legitimates governments.’2

Most governments in the world today don’t practise this and could therefore be said to be illegitimate. If they cannot show equal concern for children, who can’t be accused of having made ‘the wrong choices’, what kind of claims to democracy can they make?

But repairing the injuries of social inequality will take more than providing good basic services for all.

Richard Sennett grew up in Cabrini Green, the working-class, mainly black Chicago project he writes about it in his latest book, Respect. Though often ignored, this focus on respect is crucial if you want to understand how inequality plays out at an emotional level – and why formal and social-policy strategies so often fail to counter the harm done by class and race prejudice.7

Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form,’ Sennett writes. ‘No insult is offered another person, but neither is recognition extended; he or she is not seen as a full human being whose presence matters.’

This is the emotional currency of inequality. Sennett remarks how ghetto adolescents ‘are highly sensitive to being “dissed”, that is, disrespected. In places where resources are scarce and approval from the outside world is lacking, special honour is fragile; it needs to be asserted every day.’

He goes on to say that the way to survive in the ghetto is to keep your head down. Not to stand out above the crowd. And definitely not to do too well at school.

Adrienne Rich has vividly diagnosed how disregard can affect anyone who does not belong to the majority or to the defining group in society:

When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul – and not just individual strength, but collective understanding – to resist this void, this non-being into which you are thrust and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.’8

Hamish Wilson / Panos Pictures
From the grassroots up: Somaliland women making sure they get heard. Hamish Wilson / Panos Pictures

Energy from below
State policies can do much to foster greater equality. But the energy for change, for getting rid of inequality’s tyrannies of sameness, will not come from above. It will come from people organizing at a grassroots level, from people who, in Adrienne Rich’s words ‘stand up’, ‘resist the void’ and ‘demand to be seen and heard’.

Brazil has one of the most unequal societies in the world. Less than three per cent of the population owns two-thirds of the country’s arable land. While 60 per cent of Brazil’s farmland lies idle, 25 million peasants struggle to survive by working in temporary agricultural jobs. The Landless Workers Movement (MST) is a response to these inequalities. Since 1985 hundreds of thousands of peasants have taken it upon themselves to carry out land reform by occupying unproductive land. Today more than 250,000 families have won title to around 60 million square kilometres of land following MST take-overs.9

On the other side of the globe another mass movement for equality is building momentum (see page 22). Dalits and Tribals – who make up around a fifth of India’s population and who as ‘untouchables’ have suffered centuries of abuse – are organizing. ‘We affirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and dignity and that Black is Beautiful and Dalit is Dignified,’ they declared in May 2003. Among their demands is equal access to the country’s economy and institutions.10

Meanwhile Afghanistan’s women, struggling against extreme gender inequality, are using their own secret networks to fight fundamentalism (see page 17).

When such people’s groups get together – for example to protest against the World Trade Organization in Cancún or at the World Social Forum held in Mumbai this year – they become a truly formidable force for equality.

Equality and liberty
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, with which this article began, plays dramatically upon the notion that equality inevitably violates personal liberty. It’s a view held mainly – but not exclusively – by conservatives and libertarians who see all pro-equality measures as interference.

It’s true that at times equality policies will impinge upon a person’s ability to do exactly as they please. But there are important ways in which liberty and equality are natural bedfellows. Amartya Sen’s proposal that we have equal rights to what he calls the ‘capabilities to achieve functionings’ takes a very dynamic and enabling view of equality (see page 28). Human beings are deeply diverse and have diverse needs. They have an equal right to the freedom to pursue the goals that are valuable to them. These goals may range from elementary things like being well-nourished to something as complex as happiness. Ultimately, though, what matters most is that a society has equal concern for all its citizens.11

Feminist Martha Nussbaum agrees, adding that citizens should be conceived ‘not as passive recipients of social planning, but as free and dignified beings who shape their own lives’.12

The funny thing is, Kurt Vonnegut might agree with that too.

  1. Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ in Louis J Pojman and Robert Westmoreland’s Equality: Selected Readings, Oxford University Press 1997.
  2. Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality, Harvard University Press 2000.
  3. United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Development Report 2003, Oxford University Press.
  4. Julia Finch and David Gow, ‘Low earners: mining, catering and retail firms are at the bottom of the FTSE league’, The Guardian, 2 August 2003.
  5. Elizabeth Anderson, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics Vol 109 No 2, January 1999.
  6. Quoted in Alex Callinicos, Equality, Polity Press 2000.
  7. Richard Sennett, Respect, The Penguin Press 2003.
  8. Adrienne Rich, quoted on ZNet.
  9. MST (Landless Workers Movement), 4 June 2003,
  10. Vancouver Declaration: International Dalit Conference, Vancouver, Canada 16-18 May 2003.
  11. Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined, Oxford University Press, 1992.
  12. Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford University Press 1999.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 364 This special report appeared in the equality issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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