We live in post-crash society that is (rightly) obsessed by questions of inequality; living as we do in a world where the richest 1% have more wealth than the remaining 99%. However, as it turns out, not all theories on inequality were created equal.

Andrew Abbott’s departmental seminar at Warwick, for instance, was heavy with gaps, oversights, preconceptions and unaddressed power. Perhaps these concerns are addressed in more detail in his wider work, I don’t know, but if they aren’t (and I suspect by the paper that this might not be the case) it seems to me that there are a number of urgent things that need to be addressed in his theory on equality.

Abbott began by pointing at the decline of the term ‘justice’ in American Sociological Journals (popular at the turn of the 20th century) towards the rise of the term ‘equality’ from the 1960s onwards. Empirically, this may well be the case. But extrapolating from this that equality and justice are synonymous surely overlooks the context in which this change took place. Enlightenment theories of ‘justice’ – whether utilitarian, contractual or idealistic – were based on a universal, essentialised, hypothetical ‘man’: the ‘rights of man’; that  ‘all men were created equal’; that ‘all man has to lose is his chains’. This is, however, built upon the exclusion (and inequality) of those who do not fit into that universal category; which provide the ‘other’ to its reach. African Americans, for instance, don’t get the vote until 1870 with the 15th amendment and American women, not until the 19th amendment in 1920.

Turn of the century ‘justice’, in other words, was based on exclusion and inequality. Even within sociology (as a discipline that defined itself as concerned with social justice) it was (and remains) white, CIS male, middle class, hetereosexual identities that were (and still are) implicitly the ones who were (are) included in abstract theories of justice.

The ‘turn’ to equality, then, was surely not a simple re-phrasing of concerns with ‘justice’ as they were conceptualized at the turn of the century; but a concern with who that justice applied to and the structural inequalities built into those theories, as well as societal applications of those theories (whether through culture or policy). In other words, Civil rights and second wave feminism, two of many movements concerned with equality in the 1960s, were surely a blatant departure from such an idea of ‘justice’ as conceptualised in those earlier American journals?

About this time, of course, we also see the rise of free market economic thinking being taken seriously. But where is neoliberalism in Abbott’s analysis? Surely in a post-crash era and the re-estalishment of neoliberalism as the rational, reasonable, sensible model for economic, cultural and political questions, any theory of (in)equality must be willing to meet with the critiques of equality proposed by neoliberalism?

Indeed, it is important to recognise that neoliberalism theorizes inequality as just in a (utopian) situation of free competition in all areas of society. While it has been shown again and again (first and foremost by sociology) to be greatly misguided, neoliberal ideologues, politicians, economists, business leads, commentators and think-tanks, nevertheless continue to justify inequality either by the fact that state is over-interfering or by the fact that everyone has equal opportunity to make of themselves what they will and to succeed.

Crucially, and something which Abbott also overlooks, this does not include a clearly agreed theory of what ‘success’ is, only certain examples which we can look up to (Steve Jobs, Richard Branson; Bill Gates…). For neoliberals, the market ‘knows no race or gender’, and any attempt by an over-zealous government to privilege equality above freedom (to paraphrase Friedman) will leave society with neither; but privileging freedom above equality will give reasonable measures of growth.

Indeed, it was particularly telling, I thought, that the post-paper conversation turned quickly to questions of genetic inequality, in terms of class and in terms of mental ability and (to quote Abbott) that some people are intelligent and other people are ‘retarded’ and there will never be anything that we can do about that. Such an argument simply ignores the fact that such a distinction is always a contingent construction and a societal creation. That is, it is society which dictates reason, rationality, intelligence, ability; not something innate.

This is not to say, of course, that this makes inequality ‘lesser’ as an issue; but it dos avoid essentialist claims about the subject. I think that these mistakes mostly come from Abbott’s positivist misconception that, while equality exists in physics; it cannot exist in society (his example being how gas fills a jar ‘equally’ because all the molecules are free to move where their needed; yet welfare cannot do this). In other words, because society does not act like gas particles, it can never be equal. This is flawed logic.

Just because gas acts a certain way does not mean it extrapolates onto the social (which is infinitely more complex). Indeed, such a preconception of how society works; how equality works; how there are natural laws at play which cannot be ‘dealt’ with structurally… can only act to pre-limit social possibility and foreclose horizons of potential futures.

Bearing this in mind, it must surely become the case that the measure of equality is seen an outcome (not a pre-established position or a structural ‘opportunity’ – as if opportunities were the same for everyone, or even universally considered to be ‘opportunities’ in first place!). If treating people unequally – such as including more black academics on sociology modules; including more women on conference panels; including more physical access for (for example) wheelchair users – not as tokenism (which would leave power structures intact) but as something that leads towards a structurally equal outcome, towards a change in the wider measure of what counts as an equal outcome (to the greater), then surely this is equality.

Indeed, it is impossible to think these questions empirically, scientifically, quantitatively, and outside of philosophical and political questions of power, because what counts as ‘justice’ or ‘equality’ is always an effect of power, and therefore any effort to do so will overlook this presuppositions. These are the larger ‘normative’ questions of the measures, distributions, partitions and designations that indicate equality, and are unavoidable.

Instead, it seems to me that a better theory of (in)equality would be to follow Ranciere’s reworking of Joseph Jacotot in The Ignorant Schoolmaster. What happens, asks Ranciere, if we presuppose equality between people? Perhaps there are inherent genetic differences – unequal intelligence, unequal abilities, unequal personalities – but these do not matter without the social constructions that treat them as hindrances and make them meaningful. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be treated unequally, but that – if equality is presupposed – we approach such questions in a radically different manner.


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