Some egalitarians are more egalitarian than others…

Equality of outcome is not a popular position in any quarter. Even the Anarchist FAQ speaks ill of it:

Nor are anarchists in favour of so-called “equality of outcome.” We have no desire to live in a society were everyone gets the same goods, lives in the same kind of house, wears the same uniform, etc…

“Equality of outcome” can only be introduced and maintained by force, which would not be equality anyway, as some would have more power than others! “Equality of outcome” is particularly hated by anarchists, as we recognise that every individual has different needs, abilities, desires and interests. To make all consume the same would be tyranny.

This is an extremely bizarre thing to say, especially since I have seen this definition of “equality of outcome” nowhere else. It seems to have been dreamed up especially for the AFAQ. Equality of outcome has nothing to do with making everyone consume the same! In fact, the AFAQ then provides a definition of the equality it supports, which is exactly the same as equality of outcomes as understood by everyone else:

Equality for anarchists means social equality, or, to use Murray Bookchin’s term, the “equality of unequals” (some like Malatesta used the term “equality of conditions” to express the same idea). By this he means that an anarchist society recognises the differences in ability and need of individuals but does not allow these differences to be turned into power…

Anarchists “demand for every person not just his [or her] entire measure of the wealth of society but also his [or her] portion of social power.” [Malatesta and Hamon, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 20]

That every person should get “his entire measure of the wealth of society” is a most succinct definition of equality of outcome. As Proudhon stated, every individual has the right to an equal part of society’s production. The idea that the individual has the right, either to an equal part of society’s production, or to his own full production (that society’s wealth should go to the workers instead of being centralized), is the very basis of Anarchist economics.

In our current political understanding, liberals present themselves as champions of egalitarianism. In fact, they are not egalitarians at all. The welfare state is about as egalitarian as beating someone up, stealing their wallet, breaking their legs, and then giving them crutches as an “egalitarian” measure. Sure, it is the very smallest glimmer of restitution from the criminal party, the capital-democratic system as a whole, and it is a simple, common sense way to try to make yourself be forgiven, but has absolutely nothing to do with egalitarianism. The very fact that a “safety net” is needed proves that we are not equal. The net is opaque and hides the existence of what is underneath: the guilt of the system.

What liberal politicos really want and fight for is equality of opportunity. This is an absolutely non-threatening ideology for these privileged people, in fact it is a very egocentric ideology, because it basically welcomes people of different gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, and so on, to be exactly like them. It is actually an elitist ideology which imposes a unique vision of “things to which people should be given an opportunity to participate,” invariably the orthodox, heteronormative vision of a usury-driven, consumption-oriented, monogamous child-producing society, and pretends to be egalitarian by opening its doors to all who agree to conform to it. This is the ideology that defeats radical movements based on identity and stops all profound social change: “we are giving you the chance to be like us now, you can stop fighting.”

It is precisely because of the hard work by Anarchists and other radicals to end sexual discrimination, racial discrimination, and other forms of discrimination, that people readily accept the premise that we should all be equal to the law, and thus accept equality of opportunity. But it is an insidious connection. The result of equality of opportunities in the economic realm is that competition is heightened, more people’s morals are eroded, life gets harder for more people, freedom gets lower and lower because one’s life experiences are standardized, and there are inevitable repercussions in the form of ideological backlash. The result of equality of outcomes is the exact opposite of all this, because it gives people the freedom to choose the way they work and live, and it pushes away the strictures of competition which corrupt people and directs people through the hoops of our schooling institutions.

Many people claim that equality of outcomes, most notably equality of wages, drags society down. It can do so if implemented by the State, but unlike equality of opportunities, it does not have to. The Anarchist goal, as expressed by Benjamin Tucker, is “the greatest amount of individual liberty compatible with the equality of liberty.” Establishing equality, in that view, is only a necessary step towards the maximization of freedom for all. There is also the related claim that equality of outcomes takes away the motivation of getting higher wages, leading to a society where no one seeks to improve one’s work in any way. But this relies on the fallacious idea that the lure of getting higher wages than one’s fellows is the only thing that motivates people. In fact, the overwhelming scientific evidence shows that competition between individuals is actually the worst motivator possible (see No Contest by Alfie Kohn for a good summary of these studies) and corrupts the nature of work. Equality of outcomes, therefore, only eliminates the worse possible path an economic system can take, and opens up new, better ones.

More sophisticated arguments rely on pro-growth logic to argue that equality of outcomes leads to a bad outcome for society as a whole. If we practice degrowth, according to economists, our society will lag behind the rest of the world, will cease to innovate, and become impoverished, targeted by other colonialist governments, and become victim to all the evil things we do to poor countries. The only alternative is to forcibly isolate that society from the rest of the world, like the USSR did.

There are major problems with each and every one of these points. First of all, even though Anarchists should rightly support some form of degrowth, it is clear that inequality is a detriment to growth (even as defined by the capitalists) due to its associated social costs, and that a society marred by inequality generates a lot of wasted potential. Even capitalism functions better when everyone has access to healthy foods, health care, schooling, and so on.

Second, it makes no sense to say that innovation is driven by growth if growth is the result of inequality, since inequality prevents people from producing their inventions on a mass level outside of the corporate structure. A study tells us that only 2.2% of the surplus generated by an invention goes to the inventor himself (not all the money paid for it, but only the surplus), so either way the inventor profits very little from what he contributes to society. So even on the level of material incentives, capitalism doesn’t work, and there’s no reason to believe why a socialist system couldn’t provide both better material incentives and better psychological incentives as well.

Third, the “become a third-world country or forcibly isolate yourself” logic is neo-liberalism disguised as an argument. Kropotkin refutes a basic form of this argument in The Conquest of Bread:

“So far so good,” say our critics, “but you will have Rothschilds coming in from outside. How are you to prevent a person from amassing millions in China and then settling amongst you? How are you going to prevent such a one from surrounding himself with lackeys and wage-slaves–from exploiting them and enriching himself at their expense?

“You cannot bring about a revolution all over the world at the same time. Well, then, are you going to establish custom-houses on your frontiers to search all who enter your country and confiscate the money they bring with them?–Anarchist policemen firing on travellers would be a fine spectacle!”

But at the root of this argument there is a great error. Those who propound it have never paused to inquire whence come the fortunes of the rich. A little thought would, however, suffice to show them that these fortunes have their beginnings in the poverty of the poor. When there are no longer any destitute there will no longer be any rich to exploit them.

Nine-tenths of the great fortunes made in the United States are (as Henry George has shown in this “Social Problems”) the result of knavery on a large scale, assisted by the State. In Europe, nine-tenths of the fortunes made in our monarchies and republics have the same origin. There are not two ways of becoming a millionaire.

This is the secret of wealth; find the starving and destitute, pay them half a crown, and make them produce five shillings worth in the day, amass a fortune by these means, and then increase it by some lucky hit, made with the help of the State.

Everywhere you will find that the wealth of the wealthy springs from the poverty of the poor. This is why an anarchist society need not fear the advent of a Rothschild who would settle in its midst. If every member of the community knows that after a few hours of productive toil he will have a right to all the pleasures that civilization procures, and to those deeper sources of enjoyment which art and science offer to all who seek them, he will not sell his strength for a starvation wage. No one will volunteer to work for the enrichment of your Rothschild. His golden guineas will be only so many pieces of metal–useful for various purposes, but incapable of breeding more.

Piotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, p35-41

In short: neo-liberal exploitation is only possible because it first devastates its host economy, or occupies an economy that is already devastated, where people’s wages are so low, or their possibilities of employment so scarce, that they will willingly accept to be exploited. In an Anarchist society, industry would serve human needs instead of serving usurious ends, and thus the work required to be performed by any individual to meet his basic needs would be far reduced from what we have today. Therefore there would be far less motivation in a degrown economy for people to serve foreign interests than in a destroyed economy.

But further, equality of outcomes necessarily implies some form of Anarchism, because hierarchies necessarily imply concentration of wealth and other forms of power. And without corporations or governments, most of the mechanisms by which capitalism exploits the third-world would not be possible in such an economy. Therefore there is no need at all to use force in order to isolate such a society from the rest of the world. If the USSR proved anything at all, it proved that central planning of a whole society cannot bring about equality because its bureaucracy will necessarily become the new power elite; but the USSR is not a good example of equality of outcomes, because such a stratified system could never achieve it.

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9 thoughts on “Some egalitarians are more egalitarian than others…

  1. Lori November 16 2010 at 17:53

    Equality of outcome is a red herring invented by anti-egalitarians (basically capitalists and their toadies) as an instrument for egalitarianism-bashing. Their campaign is to equate egalitarianism with envy, and of course to set up egalitarians as objects of ridicule.

    • Francois Tremblay November 16 2010 at 17:56

      And yet I believe in it. So there you go.

  2. [...] don’t really believe in fairness or equality as we understand it: they believe in “equality of opportunity,” which is a code-word for “equal rights to oppress.” Now that the right to [...]

  3. [...] but we should give women the same opportunities we give men. I’ve already written about how equality of opportunity is an elitist conceit which seeks to amplify existing oppressive institutions. Radfem provides the [...]

  4. Kira January 20 2013 at 21:54

    WTF equality of opportunity doesn’t make things too competitive, it is what gives everyone the freedom to choose their career instead of having their choices limited on the basis of gender or race or current economic status! Without it I couldn’t afford to get a university degree, instead I’d have my options limited to a diploma at best.
    I agree with you on how hierarchies are not a part of human nature, but disagree on almost everything else.

    • Francois Tremblay January 20 2013 at 21:58

      Who the fuck said anything about limiting people on the basis of gender or race or current economic status? Why don’t you go punch your own fucking straw man.

  5. […] popular conception of equality is equality of opportunities, which I’ve already argued is a liberal conceit. So one must be careful not to confuse the two. Equal opportunities is no more […]

  6. […] – They both believe in equality of opportunities. […]

  7. […] because a given ideology is not explicitly woman-hating and preaches some form of equality (like equality of opportunities), we accept it as a “lesser evil.” But anything that keeps people from thinking about […]

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