As Edward Miliband suggests in his contribution to this collection of essays, it seems ironic that the explosion of interest in the issue of equality in the field of political theory coincided with the steep decline in the fortunes of political movements committed to the implementation of the egalitarian ideal. Ever since the 1971 publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice showed that rumours of the death of political theory had been greatly exaggerated, numerous theorists have picked over Rawls’s egalitarian theory and proposed alternatives of their own.
The New Egalitarianism, co-edited by erstwhile guru of the ‘Third Way’ Anthony Giddens, and Patrick Diamond, a special advisor to the Prime Minister, is intended to establish a new equality agenda through bringing together academic theory and analysis with practically focused policy proposals. The book originated in a series of seminars organised by the Policy Network think tank, and Miliband, chair of Chancellor Gordon Brown’s Council of Economic Advisers, is joined by renowned academics such as Ulrich Beck and Saskia Sassen. Amidst the more sober analysis of recent trends, one finds a diagnosis of the contemporary social changes that have made the achievement of equality as a practical reality more complicated and that suggest the need for a changed agenda.
That we need a ‘new egalitarianism’, and that the task of responding to changing social realities is a task that is internal to the whole process of theorising itself, is a position that might be questioned by some theorists. In his later work, Rawls increasingly focused his attention on the social conditions necessary to ensure that his egalitarian theory of justice could be accepted by all citizens in a democratic society as a practical basis for political organisation. Some critics, notably Brian Barry, were quick to accuse him of taking an unnecessary intellectual turn. For Barry, the job of the theorist rests primarily at the level of the abstract ‘intellectual architecture’ used to construct a theory of justice, which is then used to pass judgement on political reality. The nature of political reality does not itself enter into the very constitution of a theory. The fact that The New Egalitarianism encourages reflection on the interface between theory and politics, particularly the connection between social justice and social solidarity, should be welcomed, even if this endorsement cannot be extended to many of the practical recommendations made by the contributors.
In his essay, entitled ‘Does Inequality Matter’, Miliband charts the social developments which have led to inequality all but disappearing as practical political issues. The rise of the New Right, the fall of Communism and the march of globalisation have all contributed to the creation of a more individualistic and fragmented society. Traditional forms of social solidarity and mechanisms of cohesion have been undermined. In going on to argue why inequality does indeed matter, Miliband makes two sets of arguments. The first are standard procedural arguments, which appeal to the same intuitions that Rawls sought to capture when he argued that we should think what principles of social justice would be chosen by individuals situated behind an imaginary ‘veil of ignorance’, unaware of the position that they would occupy in a future society. Arbitrary differences produced by accidents of birth are held to be unfair, and by imposing a situation of ignorance no one is able to tailor social arrangements to their own advantage. More interesting than these, however, are the consequential arguments that Miliband goes on to offer. Rather than focusing on whether inequalities are unjust in themselves, these look towards the consequences. Here we find arguments about the deleterious effects of inequality in terms of individuals’ sense of self-respect, affected by their relative position vis-à-vis others in society, and the way in which inequality undermines community by producing social atomisation.
For Miliband, the consequential arguments are clearly of greater significance; they ‘provide us with better tools for analysing actually existing societies and working out whether the inequalities within them matter’ (44). Rather than suggesting that inequality matters in and of itself and should be rectified as a matter of fairness, this suggests that inequality matters only in so much as it has negative effects, and that the focus should be on mitigating these. This move away from demanding equality as a matter of right towards demanding it in order to remedy specifically defined problems mirrors the Left’s movement away from a concern with poverty and material circumstances towards the social and psychological consequences of inequality, captured by the concept of social exclusion. As Miliband argues, ‘inequality goes far beyond income and wealth and needs to be thought of holistically. It is about services and institutions and the broader fabric of people’s lives’ (51). Provision of public services is taken to occupy a central place, particularly investment in ‘early years’ services. Such measures, it is argued, have the advantage that, beyond the benefits captured by narrow measures of inequality, they ‘build social capital, and provide a focus for community life, in areas where atomisation and alienation have bred frustration and discontent (50). The overriding theme that emerges from the analysis is the importance of conditionality, with Miliband arguing that a new egalitarianism can ‘demand appropriate responsibilities’ (49) as part of the provision of services.
A similar focus is evident in Gidden’s and Diamond’s title essay. Whilst broadly welcoming the government’s equality agenda, they suggest that there is still pervasive evidence of inequality and express particular concerns about the ‘strains that have emerged at the level of community’ (104). The features that differentiate their proposed ‘new egalitarianism’ from ‘old egalitarianism’ are unsurprising: in an updated egalitarian project, fairness and economic dynamism must go hand in hand. Equality is no longer about removing class distinctions, but about equalising life chances across generations. Again the concept of conditionality emerges. Unlike the old egalitarianism, which treated rights as unconditional, a new egalitarianism must tie rights to corresponding responsibilities. Such conditional rights within the welfare state would, they suggest, justify measures like withdrawing child benefit from the uncooperative parents of truants or reducing housing benefits for problem tenants. Their focus is on an expansive definition of inequality, and they endorse the first priority for social justice outlined by German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel that social justice in postmodern social conditions should focus on the fight against poverty ‘not just because of economic inequality itself, but on the grounds that poverty (above all enduring poverty) limits the individual’s capacity for autonomy and self-esteem’ (109).
David Goodhart’s essay is interesting for the way it highlights the changed political terrain on which equality arguments are now being fought. He points towards a decline of class-based distributional questions and of the state versus market conflict that existed during the era of the Cold War. Instead, he identifies a ‘new politics’ that cuts across traditional left-right divisions. For Goodhart this consists of ‘security and identity’, a broad spectrum of issues related to community, ranging from rising incivility and fear of crime to asylum and immigration and European integration. Goodhart returns to the ‘progressive dilemma’ that he first identified in a Prospect magazine article in 2004. This involves a tension between solidarity and diversity, in which the welfare state is put in jeopardy by a declining sense of moral consensus.
Whilst in outline the tension between solidarity and diversity is an important one, Goodhart’s solution, in the form of a brand of liberal nationalism, is unconvincing. His proposals consist of attempts to foster ersatz community and create ‘a modern sense of membership’. To fill the hole left by what was formerly a self-evident sense of national or local community, he argues that we need a ‘renewed emphasis on the conditionality of citizenship’ and that ‘the social political and welfare rights of citizenship need to be “earned” through appropriate behaviour’. New Labour’s rights and responsibilities agenda should be extended to cover ‘earned citizenship’ for new migrants. The agenda is backward-focused and reactive, involving concessions to assuage the anxiety of the host population concerning the free-riding tendencies of migrants, deemed to be breaching an implicit ‘fairness code’. Goodhart advocates identity cards as a marker of entitlement to welfare and calls for a renewed emphasis on symbols of British identity, such as Britishness citizenship ceremonies, the national anthem and the national flag.
At the other end of the spectrum from Goodhart’s liberal nationalism is Ulrich Beck’s argument for a European cosmopolitan solidarity, but it too fails to ring true. Beck wants to remove what he identifies as the theoretical blinkers imposed by the concept of national solidarity in favour of a European-wide solidarity in diversity. Somewhere between Goodhart’s attempt to shore up the foundations of traditional identity and Beck’s desire to expand the sphere of redistribution through recognition of the ‘equality of the otherness of the Other’ in an expanded Eurosphere, there is an important intellectual agenda to be mapped out which eludes definition in these analyses.
On further reflection, it is perhaps not so surprising that interest in the issue of equality within political theory increased at a time when changing social conditions made its achievement unlikely. In the absence of the conditions required to make it a social reality, equality has taken on greater fascination as a theoretical abstraction. As is directly suggested by Miliband’s essay, and reinforced by other contributions to this collection, a yawning chasm exists between the philosophical theory and political policy of equality. The theory of equality has to evolve to encompass the question of what significance the egalitarian ideal can still hold in changed circumstances. Similarly, it must be hoped that politicians will strive for a broader theoretical framework, moving beyond the argument of Crosland’s, quoted by Miliband - which can all too often be used to excuse short-termism and micro-managing policy interventions - that ‘a practising politician in . . . Britain . . . not celebrating in the monastery cell but living day to day in the thick of things, is not required to answer the stern examiner’s question: how much equality ultimately? He has plenty of harsh, specific and unmerited inequalities to combat in the next ten years; a decade is my timespan not eternity’ (51).
That a new synthesis between theory and political action is required is evident. The issue of equality is embedded with a wider political framework and as this has changed, so has the dynamic behind the egalitarian impulse. What’s new about the ‘new egalitarianism’ is that equality has become an issue largely removed from the field of political contestation, and is no longer conceived of as a zero-sum game of social redistribution. Rather than a politically organised movement demanding the reconstitution of society as a matter of right, the achievement of equality has become bound up with concerns about social fragmentation, and the policy prescriptions intrusive, banal and sometimes both. In Miliband and Giddens and Diamond, the focus tends to be on the young and on future generations, rather than on appealing to the interests of an actually existing electorate. The New Egalitarianism is certainly successful at indicating the need for an updated egalitarian agenda, but only insomuch as it draws attention to the dearth of imagination in current thinking, not because it maps out a promising future direction.
Battle of Ideas
Shaping the future through debate
London, 29-30 October 2005