Egalitarianism, and the misuse thereof…

Above: equality of opportunities in one lesson.

What mainly distinguishes Anarchists from other political factions is a fierce commitment to egalitarianism. I state that this is my primary political commitment, but I haven’t really defined what that means and implies, so it behooves me to be more specific.

To me, egalitarianism is the commitment to operating under the principle that all human beings have equal rights, are equally important, are equally entitled to their own values, receive an equal part of society’s production. Egalitarianism is radically anti-hierarchical and aims for a world where human creativity and human values, not money or power (which entail the suppression of creativity and native values), is the driving force, where cooperation, not competition, is the normal way for people to interact.

One 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 egalitarian than an equal “right” to punch people in the face (for one thing, some people are stronger than others); the role of such “equality” is merely to reproduce and justify pre-existing power inequalities.

The same is true of “equality under the law.” It would be a nice thing to have (and if we did indeed have it, it would eliminate much of the crimes of government), but to ask everyone to submit to laws written for the benefit of the rich is not egalitarian by a long shot.

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
Anatole France

A similar form of equality is that preached by liberal feminists, who believe that women’s issues can be solved by giving men and women the same wages and giving them the same rights. But, while this would make women in general better off, it would not solve the issue of pre-existing power inequalities between men and women. It would rather create a more beneficent Patriarchy.

Another is that of “equal representation for all religions.” First of all, it omits who gets to decide what is an allowable religion and what is not. Secondly, in practice, it’s impossible to give time or space representation to all religions, so a selective process will be made. Finally, it excludes those who are opposed to religion for ethical reasons.

A prerequisite of any egalitarian society or process is that of equal power between individuals. This is why Anarchist organizations that are serious about not reproducing hierarchies make it their number one priority to give everyone an equal part in the decision-making process.

I think part of the problem is that people have an incomplete or skewed perspective on “power.” We see this, for example, in the use of the term “empowering,” which usually refers to things which really have nothing to do with power. On the trivial extreme, we are all aware of the silly things about fashion or consumption that are supposed to “empower” women. But even beyond that extreme, we find a lot of beliefs that anything that makes you feel “more in control of your own life” is “empowering.”

Power, most simply defined, is the ability to change other people’s minds. The objective, of course, is to get them to further your own values. J.K. Galbraith, in The Anatomy of Power, lists three kinds of power: condign (use of force), compensatory (use of material rewards) and conditioned (use of indoctrination and, obviously, conditioning). Of course there are forces that oppose this power, which we collectively call counterpower.

The individual’s power depends on the ability to change one’s surroundings (physical, social, relational, etc) in accordance with some values one holds. This can be done based on one’s own values or on the basis of some institution’s values (the latter being a result of any of the forms of power I listed).

The individual’s power is intimately linked to power and counterpower in society. The more power any institution has, the less personal power the individual can claim for emself unless one follows the values of that institution, and the reverse is also true. Again, this is also true of counterpower: if your values are concordant with any given counter-culture, then you will have more power to that extent.

So being actually empowered inevitably has a social component, and so does being powerless. The woman who wears high heels and makeup to appear more desirable is made more powerless because she acts to conform to the male gaze, which is a social phenomenon, not to her own desires (you can’t actually be “empowered by your sexuality” if it’s the sexuality everyone wants you to have, even if it makes you feel good). People who refuse to have children and join us with antinatalists or other childless people for support are made more powerful because they are able to fight off institutional values in favor of their own.

The upshot of all this is that whether people believe they are in a society of equal power or not will dictate whether they have a correct view of egalitarianism. The trouble with the liberal view is that it is self-contradictory. If we did live in a society of equal power, then there would be no need to discuss “equality of opportunities” (because people could give themselves whatever opportunities they want), “equality under the law” (because people would decide for themselves what rules they want to enforce), “gender equality” (because there would be no gender, as gender is a hierarchy) or “religious representation” (because religion would be personal and there’d be little desire for “representation”).

Which brings us to the greatest equality boondoggle of all, the one that has most people totally conditioned, democracy. We are indoctrinated to believe that the fact that we all have a vote means that we are politically equal and that we have control (power) over government. This is, of course, a Big Lie.

What we know is that the major political parties are in control of the rules of the democratic game, suppress their competition and decide what “choices” we can make. Furthermore, the political system is founded on the incentive of getting votes (which entails a great number of things, such as neo-liberalist pressure on third-world governments causing socialist politicians to cave in and implement free market measures), which takes hold regardless of one’s ideology. So democratic systems inevitably end up covering only a tiny portion of the spectrum of political beliefs, those that reap the most votes.

Is the end result of democracy sometimes less authoritarian? Democratic systems are more adept at using conditioned power and compensatory power than at using condign power, meaning that they’ll generally indoctrinate you and pay you rather than beat you up. This entails the occasional concession, because it is generally easier for an open democracy to bribe its victims through co-option than to kill them. Because getting the most votes is a simple optimization process which generally entails convergence (depending on the distribution of beliefs in the population), democracies inevitably converge towards party monopolies or oligarchies.

This is a great demonstration of the difference between equality and egalitarianism. Democratic equality entails hierarchies of those who control the political process and those who don’t, those who can pass laws and those who don’t, those who have the guns and those who don’t. It is a form of equality, but it is not egalitarian and therefore not something that anyone who wants an egalitarian, fair society should support.

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