‘The Politics of Equality: An Introduction’ reviewed by Andrew Lawrence

The Politics of Equality: An Introduction

Zed Books, London and New York, 2010. 176pp., £14.99 / $26.95 pb
ISBN 9781848138438

Reviewed by Andrew Lawrence

About the reviewer

Andrew Lawrence is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and currently Research Fellow …


Eric Hobsbawm (2011, 414) has recently asserted that contemporary organizing efforts among groups on the Left typically express “protest rather than aspiration”. We know what we are against, but we are less sure about what we are for. In large measure, this uncertainty results from and expresses the abiding dominance of the notion that freedom and equality must be traded off, or balanced against each other. Clearly, however, this is not the case regarding several important expressions of both freedom and equality. To Anatole France’s classic quip that poor and rich alike are forbidden to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread, we might add today: poor and rich alike are free to lose millions in a market meltdown. One of the many virtues of Myers’ book on the philosophical foundations of social rights is to explore several respects in which freedom and equality do not exist in a zero-sum relationship. Written in a refreshingly clear and dispassionate style that is shorn of sectarian jargon and polemics and interspersed with deadpan humour, making the work eminently accessible to undergraduates without any background in political philosophy, it suggests some ways in which the Left can articulate popular aspirations, rather than simply critique inequities and restrictions upon freedoms. At the same time, the book consistently provides fresh perspectives on problems and debates that will engage readers familiar with canonical works.

In its rearticulation of the ‘social egalitarian’ tradition – in which Myers includes socialists, communists, and social democrats within a broad Left – the book also implicitly insists that the commonalities among these traditions, ranging from the First to Fourth Internationals and beyond, are more important than their differences. Its first chapter also places the tradition’s theory of history – historical materialism – in the older tradition of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, and roots its emphasis on class struggle as a motor of history in the works of Plato and Aristotle. This social egalitarian tradition draws from the materialist theory of history a basic awareness of political choices about productive social relations; an awareness of these relations’ influence upon (but not complete determination of) other spheres of social life, including cultural and intellectual developments; and a basic class awareness of how different choices affect different social groups in different ways. If these connections may strike some readers as obvious or familiar, they are likely to strike a larger, younger, audience as novel, and thus will serve as a useful introduction to this Western philosophical tradition.

The second chapter provides a compelling argument for thinking about freedom and equality as complementary and mutually reinforcing, rather than intrinsically in conflict, as dominant views insist. It observes, first, that there are no agreed-upon means of measuring or assessing individual capacities, while at the same time, capacities can always be further developed or stunted by the environment individuals find themselves in. Nature can never be fully separated from nurture, even if instrumentalist arguments favoring equality in specific contexts should be distinguished from a more general, ‘open-ended, radical egalitarianism’ (35). It would indeed make just as little sense to refer to a decontextualized and absolute ‘freedom’. Indeed, this leads to the chapter’s second observation, that in determining which forms of social inequality are just and which unjust, we need to first recognize the extent to which negative freedom (that is, freedom from government or social interference) is itself dependent upon positive freedom (the provision of material resources for the pursuit of basic activities and goals). Without a system of assessing and licensing drivers, we cannot drive with reasonable safety and confidence on public roads; without public mass transit, we cannot be free to dispense with car ownership altogether. Only by assessing the conditions under which choices are made can we evaluate the extent to which they were made freely.  

Recognizing the connections between individual freedoms – the pursuit of freely chosen activities – and their necessary preconditions is thus intrinsic to valuing these freedoms. Indeed, Myers calls society’s attempts to provide its members with meaningful possibilities for the freest development of their fullest capacities to the greatest extent possible ‘social egalitarianism’s most fundamental value’ (47). The whole in this case is greater than the sum of the parts, because the range of possibilities available to members of a freer, more equal society is greater than that enjoyed by the wealthy elite of a more unequal society.

Chapter 3, ‘Economy and Society’, contains an excellent explication of Marxist understandings of exploitation, and the best non-technical discussion of the labour theory of value I have ever read, again, rightly identifying its pre-Marxist roots, as well as Adam Smith’s recognition of causes of employer advantages over employees. It also provides a nuanced discussion of the distinction between ends and means in the social egalitarian tradition, as distinct from more utopian examples. It makes the key observation that even when an initial sacrifice of a degree of negative freedom may be required in securing public freedom, this investment is often rewarded many times over during the individual’s lifetime. Among the greatest societal gains is that of a general increase in trust. The chapter also adopts a sensibly pluralistic approach to the mitigation of exploitation and durable, arbitrary inequalities, advocating the shortening of the workday, strengthened regulation, full employment, share distribution schemes, and the provision of core public goods. There is no silver bullet that can dispense with exploitative iniquities, but the measures enumerated here surely reinforce each other.

If the main foils for the arguments of the preceding chapters are classical liberal (or contemporary neoliberal) arguments, in Chapter 4’s discussion of democracy, they are those of the anarchist tradition, and in particular, of the anarchist strain within the social egalitarian tradition. Chapter 4 critiques two arguments in particular: the claim that government institutions hinder, rather than promote, egalitarian outcomes; and that in the anarchist schema, democratic means should always yield egalitarian results. Both are certainly debatable and in need of historical specification.

Regarding the first argument, the chapter suggests that anarchism views Hobbes’ utilitarian understanding of political obligation toward the state as conveniently ignoring its coercive foundations. State coercion in this view upholds oppressive private property, erodes individual autonomy and responsibility, and thus endangers the exercise of free will and reason. To this coercion, egalitarian anarchists have counterpoised voluntary associations of solidaristic mutual assistance.

Myers argues that anarchist optimism, most evident in western European and North American youth culture, ‘regarding the flowering of cooperative voluntary associations in the absence of state power has little in the way of historical precedent for support and requires assumptions that strain the bounds of credibility’ (89). In an absolute sense, this is of course true, but Chapter 2’s argument in favor of contextualization of equality applies equally well to solidaristic associations. Their flowering has occurred not so much in the absence of state power, as in its oppressive shadow. Historically, their advocates – anarcho-syndicalists in particular – have been most prominent not so much in Western Europe and North America as in Southern and Eastern Europe and South America, where stronger state absolutist traditions and weaker liberal and social democratic ones made voluntarism more of an immediate necessity than a far-off utopian ideal.

Radical democracy’s goals face three challenges, for Myers. First, with increases in population size, ‘direct democracy becomes inefficient to the point of impossibility’. Second, in a context of significant inequality, ‘mechanisms designed to empower citizens would be vulnerable to being hijacked by wealthy individuals or corporations’. And third, if majority preferences do not ‘always tend in an egalitarian direction’, egalitarian progress requires movements and institutions of civil society, such as parties and unions, to channel these preferences toward egalitarian ends. These conclusions are unimpeachable on their own, but again would require further contextualization. There is, similarly, no reason in principle that radical devolution could not also serve as a means toward egalitarian ends.

Admittedly, anarchist theoretical literature as a whole cannot compete in stature with its better-lettered Left counterparts. Mikhail Bakunin acknowledged as much when he called Marx the ‘supreme economic and socialist genius of our day’ (if not indeed ever since). But what anarchism in its heyday lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity. Its success in helping found enduring institutions, from France’s and Spain’s General Confederation of Labour (CGT), to the major unions and federations of Argentina, Brazil, elsewhere in Latin America, Ireland, and Japan, together with a more recent presence in such far-flung locales as Bolivia, Chiapas, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Karnataka, Korea, Nigeria, Peru, Sierra Leone, Syria, and the Ukraine, with a combined membership in the tens of millions, shows that a current of anarchism has been deeply influential worldwide. Moreover, its relation to the social democratic and communist traditions in these and other countries is immensely complex and variable, ranging from close cooperation and cross fertilization to outright conflict. As Benedict Anderson (in Hirsch and Van der Walt 2010, xv) observes, anarchist and syndicalist respect for and attention to peasants and agricultural workers, its practical commitment to internationalism rooted in imperial and diasporic networks, and its ‘utopian élan’ constituted the movement’s historic advantages. To the extent that these elements are re-emergent in the current era, they have the potential to renew anarcho-syndicalist contributions to social egalitarianism’s further development.

A comparison of anarchist and communist contributions is also pertinent to internationalism, the subject of Chapter 5. The chapter plausibly predicts that although ordinary people ‘adrift in the waves of global economic turbulence … will seek control over the seemingly uncontrollable in national and cultural identity’ (124), these identities will be incommensurate to globalization’s challenges. Thus it suggests the need to build transnational political institutions in which revolutionary actors and their ideas may find a home. The two historical examples illustrating this imperative are, however, ambiguous. The anarchist contribution to defending the Spanish republic during its civil war was more significant than its role in defeating apartheid in South Africa. For social democracy, the opposite is true, with Scandinavian countries in particular providing key support to anti-apartheid groups that in the Spanish had been tragically absent from interwar social democratic governments. Communist party support for both causes was more consistent, albeit with sometimes self-defeating tactics. The chapter contends that the major difference between these cases is that by contrast to the International Brigades, the anti-apartheid movement’s ideological foundation was one of ‘moral solidarity with a foreign cause, rather than transnational political struggle toward a common goal’ (119). Depending on context, one can argue for the opposite designation. But even apart from the divergent outcomes – tragic defeat for the earlier, and victory for the later case – the fact that the first campaign was waged by mostly military means, and the second, by mostly ideological means, is also pertinent.

Indeed, ideas have always been the Left’s trump card, and will be indispensible in order for social egalitarianism in whatever guise to emerge from the current crisis as a stronger force. The final chapter’s excoriating critique of US ‘welfare reform’ and the books conclusion provide salutary reminders that the Left will be judged both by the appeals of these ideas, as well as by their shorter and longer term material results. This book should be a handy weapon in this struggle.

2 November 2011


  • Benedict Anderson Preface Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial World, 1870-1940 Hirsch and van der Walt, eds, Brill, Leiden, 2010: xiii-xxix.
  • Eric Hobsbawm How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism Little Brown, London, 2011.

One comment

  1. The statement in the review above that the anti-apartheid struggle was won
    >and the second, by mostly ideological means< is incorrect. The anti-apartheid struggle was won by a conjunction of forces that included significant military struggle, decaying internal economy, international support for the same objectives as the ANC as well as for other objectives and a fundamentally altered world political relationship.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.