How did we become a society that passively accepts the injustice and discrimination inherent in inequality? How did we come not to care? It would undoubtedly take me a very long time to adequately address that question, but in this and the next two posts I offer a few small clues.
We are each the stars of our own lives
First up is Pierre Rosanvallon’s recent book The Society of Equals. In a review of the book, Paul Starr mentions what may be an impediment to a society of equals: We see ourselves not simply as individuals, but as unique singularities. (emphasis added in this and the following quotations)
The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.
As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized.
Rosanvallon does not criticize the society of singularities, with its “right to be considered a star.” Since it’s now a fact of life, we need to figure out how to deal with it.
Looking at the history of equality, Rosanvallon observes that equality has flourished when we’ve seen ourselves as similar to others. The French revolution sought to eliminate the aristocracy and replace it with a society of similar individuals (semblables).
The revolutionary spirit of equality revolved around the principles of similarity, independence, and citizenship—three ways of conceiving of equality between individuals. The notions of similarity and citizenship remain as important today as they were two centuries ago, but they need to be expanded. The new expectation of an equality of singularities has to be superimposed on the original project of constituting a society of semblables.
The secession of the wealthy
The solutions Rosanvallon discusses in his book do not strike me as particularly promising. But both his account of the history of equality and his insight into our current situation are outstanding. He speaks, for example, of how democracies are becoming denationalized.
Commonality was intimately associated with the rights of man and the citizen in the age of the American and French Revolutions. It was also at the heart of the idea of equality as relation. There is no denying that this association is considerably attenuated today. Does the fault lie with an excess of individualism, to the detriment of the general interest? Or is it the outsized importance attached to human rights, to the detriment of the political? It is tempting, perhaps, to pose the question in these terms. The writer Michel Houellebecq gave striking expression to this shift when he won the Prix Goncourt in the fall of 2010: “I am not a citizen,” he said, “and I have no desire to become one. We have no duties to our country. No such thing exists. We are individuals, not citizens or subjects. France is a hotel, nothing more.” …
[I]f we focus exclusively on the tension between the individual and the political, between self-interest and the general interest, we risk missing the essence of the present moment. … [T]he really important issue of the moment is somewhat different. It has to do with what I propose to call the denationalization of democracy.
… Take, for example, the secession of the wealthy: that is, the fact that the richest sliver of the population now lives in a world unto itself. … Today’s tax exiles are not numerous, perhaps a few thousand or tens of thousands per country. But many of them are well-known as industrial leaders or athletes or artists, so they have become the most glaring symbol of the separatism of the wealthy.
The segmentation of society is not limited to the wealthy. The very concept of similarity has changed: “There has been a tremendous reorganization of collective identities … as our sense of social proximity has fragmented.” We form groups based on similar characteristics — what economists call ‘assortative matching.’ Similarity no longer refers to similar conditions we experience in our own country.
Only a narrow set of sociocultural characteristics count in determining who is similar to whom. The concept of “similarity” has therefore lost its anthropological and democratic dimension. It has become a signifier of class. Contemporary societies are characterized not, as has been alleged, by diffuse “individualism” but rather by generalized social separatism.
Healthism’s contribution to increased inequality
We are also more aware of the segmentation of society and of the segment to which we belong. An argument could be made that the increase in healthism that started in the 1970s (increased awareness of risk, healthy lifestyles, life expectancy) made a significant contribution to this partitioning and thus to the increase in inequality that followed abandonment of welfare state policies and progressive taxation.
Human beings … are less likely to feel solidarity if they perceive a link between individual choices and outcomes. .
Once we can anticipate our health, our longevity, and our position in society, we are no longer behind John Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance,’ where inequalities are acceptable only if they benefit the most disadvantaged (since — who knows — that could be me). When it comes to health and economic opportunities, we believe we know who is disadvantaged and who is not. And if we know it’s not us, we are less motivated to care.
There’s much more to be gained from the insights in The Society of Equals, but I’ll leave that for some other time.
Interrogating inequality: An annoying article
Interrogating inequality: Some good news
Interrogating inequality: Tony Judt
How we came not to care: Historical trends
How we came not to care: Oligarchy of the elite
Income inequality and American politics
Why is it so hard to reform health care? The historical background
What is healthism? (part one)
Healthy lifestyles: Social class. A precarious optimism
On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (2) Economics & the socio-political
For U.S. health care, some are more equal than others
Daniel T. Rodgers on equality and inequality
Joseph Stiglitz on inequality
Image source: Hannah Arendt Center
Pierre Rosanvallon (2013), The Society of Equals
Paul Starr, A Different Road to a Fair Society, The New York Review of Books, May 22, 2014 (paywall)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice