Equality: The History of an Elusive Idea, by Darrin M. McMahon

Book review by Branko Milanović, cross-posted from his blog.

The ideological history of the idea of equality (“Equality: The History of an Elusive Idea”) is an ambitious, erudite and well-written book by Darrin M. McMahon. In eleven chronological chapters McMahon shows how societies as diverse as hunter-gatherers, Greeks and Romans, early and medieval Western Christians, French revolutionaries etc. and ultimately the partisans of identity politics have thought of equality. (Not inequality, the term that has, as McMahon reminds us, become ubiquitous, but equality.) Not all chapters are equal though. In my opinion, the best are on the American and French revolutions, and the concluding chapter on US civil rights movements and today’s politics of identity. The concluding chapter is indeed about the United States only, and as it stands for today’s world in general, it could be thought as somewhat reductonist. However, the two big themes faced by the American society in the past half-century, the rights of Black population or “people of color” and identity politics, transcend US limits, as the French riots attest for the former and Putin’s vociferous attacks on sexually-based identities on the latter.

            The motif of the book is, I think, best expressed in the phraseology of (not popular, but recently much more quoted) Carl Schmitt: every ideology of equality among the “brothers” or “peers” is predicated on the exclusion of others from that equality. This is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of equality as we know it historically. Athens and Sparta insisted on equality among their citizens, but excluded enslaved people, metecs (resident foreigners) and women. It was an equality that, at most, encompassed a third of the population. Christians, like all monotheistic co-religionaires excluded from the application of their equality members of other religions. The American revolutionaries wrote that all men are created equal, but they really meant white men only, and defined that equality in the opposition to the enslaved people. In percentage terms, the reach of the American equality was not greater than the Athenian. The French revolutionaries were more universal in their approach, but gave only a grudging recognition of equality to the colonized. Marxism is keen on equality among proletarians, but excludes “bourgeoisie”, and in its Maoist variant during the Cultural Revolution, created the most radical reversal by openly discriminating people from the “bad” social classes, and promoting (including in the access to education) those from the formally oppressed classes.

            As this review shows, equality went together with exclusion. Often, the more equality among one group was emphasized, the stronger was the implied chasm with the excluded. Before I move to discuss two, in my opinion, most interesting issues raised by McMahon, let me mention that McMahon’s several comments on Marxism’s lack of concern with equality (as opposed to its interest in abolition of classes) is not a controversial point. McMahon at times seems to believe so, but his interpretation is accurate, non-controversial, and shared by most who have read Marx and Engels. Similarly, I think that few people who know Fascist ideology would be surprised by its emphasis on national equality. It was supposed to solve the class conflict, to unify national labour and national capital, to divide one nation from another, and thus its within-national calls to equality are not surprising.

            The two most interesting aspects, in my opinion, are identity politics and (what is missing in McMahon’s book almost entirely) the contrast between national and global equality. But are present-day issues.

            Identity politics in McMahon’s telling comes at the heels of the civil rights movement in the United States. That movement too, in its extreme version propagated by Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and “Black Power”, as they outflanked Martin Luther King, could be seen within the same motif as the rest of the ideologies discussed in the book: the Whites were now excluded from the application of the equality principle, thus creating a reverse racism or (in Sartre’s words) “anti-racial racism”. But the civil rights movement also opened the gap with Black women who saw some of the movement’s leaders as imbued with machismo and “male chauvinism”. White women themselves have had a historically fraught relationship with Blacks’ emancipation; as McMahon mentions, Susan B. Anthony thought it was much more important that (White) women be enfranchised than that the rights be extended to Blacks. But men/women, Blacks/Whites are not homogeneous among themselves once sexual differences are brought into the play. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, the movement for equality not only led to the fragmentation of society into many groups, working at times at cross-purposes, but to the emphasis on differences. “To insist at difference as the very meaning of equality [is] in the long-run of egalitarian reflection a novel claim”, as McMahon discreetly observes. The struggle for equality that does not underscore some fundamental equality, or even sameness, among people but rather their differences is not common, to say the least. One can paper over this by arguing that all current movements just ask for recognition of specificity and equal treatment. But at what point does the insistence on differences, and even incommunicability of experiences, becomes exactly what we have seen before: insistence on equality within by creating an ever-greater divide from the rest?

            My second comment has to do with what is, with a few exceptions, absent in McMahon’s book. It is the change in perspective when one moves from claims for national to claims for global equality. McMahon mentions how the two were linked in the US civil rights movement, and how the New International Economic Order tried (and failed) to equalize the power of rich and poor nations. But it might have been worth discussing a bit more the change in perspective brought about by globalization. Consider equality of opportunity. There is probably no ideology today that would be against equality of opportunity within a nation-state. But extend that call for equality of opportunity to the global level and the problems immediately arise. If the “same” persons in Sweden and Zimbabwe face entirely different life prospects (in terms of income, wealth accumulation, housing, life expectancy etc.), and if the main reason for this lack of equality is the difference in mean incomes between the nations, there are two obvious ways to remedy this state of affairs: transfer more money from rich to poor countries (a global welfarist approach as envisaged by Gunnar Myrdal) or open borders to migration. Neither enjoys a majoritarian support in rich countries. It then becomes interesting to ask on what grounds people who often strongly support equality of opportunity, exclude from its application people who do not reside in their country? We see there the same mechanism as many times in history: the greater the desire for equality amongst the peers, the greater the need to exclude others. It then becomes fully understandable why  countries with the most developed welfare states (Sweden, Denmark Norway, the Netherlands) are the most notable examples of the ideological U-turn on international migration. 

            I have taken the last topic to show how McMahon’s motif plays well in contemporary situations even in cases where ideologically the issue has not been fully developed. McMahon’s (or Carl Schmitt’s) approach thus shows its obvious advantages, but it also leads us to a less upbeat conclusion: unlike the oft-quoted “long arc of  history” that allegedly bends toward “justice” (meaning equality), the outcome may be greater equalities in some areas and the creation of greater chasms between people in other areas. This is what history seems to teach us.

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