What do we mean by equality?

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The Conversation is a new Comment project aimed at engaging our readers to contribute their thoughts on relevant issues. This week we are discussing equality and employment- email [email protected] if you would like to pitch a response to anything you read. 

George Gillett’s criticism of Boris Johnson’s comments on inequality and IQ, Joe Miles’ response considering the theoretical background to arguments around economic equality, and Kate Bradley’s closer look at underemployment are part of a crucial debate about employment and equality. In the age of austerity and under a party of government using ‘For Hardworking People’ as its central slogan, we would all benefit from evaluating what we mean when we are discussing ‘hard work’, ‘fairness’ and ‘equality.’

Miles’ article argues that whilst it is difficult to ‘justify’ any basis for wealth inequality, we must accept that the pursuit of economic equality as a core political goal is at best futile and at worst leads to dystopian conclusions. His reference to a story in which ‘the intelligent are fitted with brain implants to dull their thoughts’ brings to mind the famous Thatcher speech of the mid-1980s, when she accused a Labour MP of not caring if the poor were made poorer provided the rich were less rich. In short, the charge levied at economic egalitarians is their supposed preference for equal outcomes at a lower level than unequal outcomes at a higher one. Personally my response would be that it depends entirely upon the set of outcomes being presented. Overattachment to such theoretical catechisms dulls us to looking at the nature of the real world.

One also might say that economic inequality becomes acceptable above a certain threshold where everybody is ‘provided for.’ The most contemporary example of such logic is Switzerland’s referendum on introducing a generous citizens’ income for all (an idea generated by Thomas Paine in the 1790s!) Though a debate framed in these terms assumes that the purest form of economic equality is an exactly equal distribution of goods. The Marxist axiom, ‘From each according to their ability, to each according their needs’ does not say that at all- of course a person in a wheelchair, for instance, needs to be accorded different provision to be ‘equal.’Whilst on the topic of disability, the dire treatment of disabled people by the incumbent government needs to be noted. We live in a system in which over the last few years, thousands of disabled people have died after being declared ‘fit for work’ by assessors with all of two weeks’ worth of medical experience. It’s one of the starker consequences of society’s great Puritan hangover- an obsession with work at all costs. We prize ‘hard work’ not just to produce things we need, but as some sort of inherent moral good (or at least we claim to- if we genuinely valued it we might not be firing nurses and cutting pay for lecturers whilst ever more wealth accumulates in the hands of the City). It’s actually high time we stopped the boondoggle of praising someone because they spend fifteen hours a day chained to a desk. The left always argues for more work, and better-paid work. It should spend more time arguing for less work, for a society that believes there’s more to human life than 6am commuter trains. It’s worth reclaiming and defending idleness.

Image: Guardian
Image: Guardian

Let’s go back to equality, and throw into the mix the concept of ‘equality of opportunity’, a favourite of the centre-right. It falls almost instantly- access to opportunity is of course going to be varied and unequal under any society except one interventionist enough to cut to the chase and ensure total equality of outcome. Most of those on the Right arguing for equality of opportunity would not support, for instance, the destruction of private and grammar schools. This is in spite of the fact that regardless of all Oxbridge’s sterling access efforts, our top universities retain their disproportionate representation of a small financial elite who still go on to run society at the highest levels of politics, business and other quarters of public affairs. And here we reach the point at which a discussion about wealth inequality cannot be continued without looking at the elephant in the room- inequality of power.

Food bank use in Britain (Image: Left Foot Forward)
Food bank use in Britain (Image: Left Foot Forward)

For the propertyless unemployed person reliant on food banks and a pittance for welfare (of which a disturbingly large number exist even in Britain, the sixth richest country in the world), their immediate problem is undoubtedly material suffering. Yet wealth inequality is a symptom of their overall disempowerment. The poor can be forced to work to receive a pitiful amount of money under workfare schemes. They can be forced to relocate their entire lives as councils ship unemployed people out of London to towns in the North that do not have the resources to cope with hundreds of London’s disenfranchised arriving on their doorstep. They can be exploited by employers in a legion of different ways (especially given the fact that labour rights have been rolled back year on year in the name of a ‘competitive economy’)- and they can exert virtually no impact on public affairs or influence on society in the way that the wealthy can. Sure, they can vote once every five years- but as we all should be aware, the outcome of statutory elections is not the only, or even the primary determinant of what political parties do in power. Meanwhile, those at the upper end can buy their way out of the standards of ‘fairness’ that apply elsewhere- whether it’s not paying taxes, holding the country to ransom by threatening to move if they don’t get their way, or even evading the criminal justice system. 

The problem with wealth inequality is not simply that it exists. It is that it perpetuates itself through the disenfranchisement and disempowerment it creates. Its replication allows a small elite to thrive and reproduce itself at the expense of everyone else, whilst it controls the state, the media and the distribution of resources. In a world where millions die of poverty-related causes every year, redistribution is absolutely justifiable given the sheer scale of wealth inequality and the sheer number of people suffering through no fault of their own. But our ultimate task must be a redistribution of power, a democracy worthy of the name. That is something which a fairer distribution of resources cannot be separated from.