Andy Blunden April 2004

Equality of what for whom?

This article was submitted to The New Internationalist in April 2004, but not published.

I would like to make some brief comments on the keynote article on equality in NI 364 by Vanessa Baird. Equality is such a powerful and universal norm, capable of considerable traction in an ethical or political struggle, and it yet can so easily fail to facilitate demands for justice if not appropriately framed.

Equality has been recognised as a norm of social justice since ancient times, but the question is equality of what, for whom? I don’t think “equality” in its narrow conception as equal shares of the social product has ever had significant force, and as Vanessa pointed out, appears in this guise only as parody.

One of the great gains of modernity has been the continual expansion of the domain of “us” for whom “equality” is the equality of equals. When the founding fathers of 1776 and 1789 [1] declared that “all men are created equal” we know that the authors never had a second thought about limiting themselves to “men,” and nor for a moment did they intend to include slaves or Native Americans. Nor did they for a moment think that they were declaring for an equal sharing of the social product. But it would be wrong, wouldn’t it, to accuse these revolutionaries of hypocrisy.

Equality has always been conceived as relevant only to those who are included, to those who are participants in domain across which equality is applicable. In pre-bourgeois society equality was equality of equals,[2] that is to say of people on the same rung of a very long ladder of status subordination. The bourgeois revolution, socialism, feminism, national liberation movements and so on, in the context of an ever-expanding and intensifying unification of the labour process, have now more or less delegitimised status subordination and completed the universalisation of the domain over which equality is deemed to apply. The last remaining domain in which inequality and status subordination are legitimated is in the “line management” hierarchy of the functional division of labour.

It is no longer tenable to write a Declaration like those of 1776 and 1789 which bracket out women, blacks, paupers, foreigners, and so on. Participation in a worldwide division of labour in which status subordination has been de-legitimised (other than through the economic hierarchy) has taught us all that every human being in the world is equal, that is, in the sense as Vanessa says, of having an equal moral worth.

But what does it mean to extend respect to all others as deserving of equal moral worth? Did anyone ever say that justice meant an equal share of the pie?

There have been a number of renderings of the notion of equality, most of which Vanessa reviewed in her article. Equality before the God[3] underlay the Reformation and the construction of the idea of individual conscience and personal responsibility.

Equality before the law underwrote the bourgeois political revolution which began the dismantling of institutions of status subordination, still continuing to this day with the dismantling of legal restrictions on women and homosexuals in some areas of life.

The achievement of formal political and legal equality has brought to light the impossibility of achieving substantive political and legal equality while social inequality exists. Thus today the task of achieving social equality stands before us as a real and legitimate task. But what does social equality entail?

“Equality” is an inherently abstract conception inasmuch as it implies the abstraction of some measure from two subjects which can be brought into quantitative comparison with one another. The notion of equality as equality of wealth therefore poses the measurement of a person by their property, and is therefore inherently dehumanising. Further, it implies a process of measurement and equalisation, a policeman so to speak to keep the queue in line. Critics of the redistributive notion of equality therefore have a good point. Even Amartya Sen’s[4] improved notion of distributive equality still suffers from the same defect: who has the right to administer people’s lives so as to ensure “equality of capability"?

In its actual application, equality has always meant equality of “us,” as peers, entitled to an equal “voice.” Politically this is expressed in universal adult suffrage for example, or in granting equal voice to everyone in decision-making. The notion of equality is inextricably tied up with the domain over which equality is to be measured, and this domain is necessarily some actual social subject, some self-conscious system of activity which makes decisions about its own life and grants equality of voice to its individual constituents in some way.

Even the abstract equality of all people arises from the practice of exchanging the products of each other’s labour in a single market.[5]

While nowadays there certainly exists a broad popular consciousness of equality expressing the equal moral worth of all people in the world, this remains still a very abstract conception precisely because this world market of six billion human beings still exists as only an ideal or potential unity, not as any actual decision-making subject.

Nevertheless, within any decision-making entity, the demand for equality of “voice” remains a powerful norm. It is generally not acceptable today to tolerate any circumstance which in some way limits or constrains the voice of one of the participants in a decision-making process.

The twentieth century have given us two distinct notions of equality of participation, however. The first, having its origin in the beginnings of bourgeois society itself and promoted by the workers’ movement, is the notion that the majority should prevail over a minority, despite any objective barriers to participation. The second has its origin in the post-World War Two social movements, and insists that the voice of a minority must be heard and included within a consensus by the majority.[6] Both these norms support the principle that no citizens should be so poor as to be unable to participate in social life, what John Rawls calls the “basic goods” necessary for participation.[7]

Thus, over and above formal equality (such as equality before the law) barriers to equality of participation may be of two kinds. Firstly, objective barriers, that people should have a real and not just a formal opportunity to speak; secondly subjective barriers, that people’s peculiar point of view should be recognised without denigration or disrespect.[8]

It is difficult to imagine any public political or social current in today’s world which would deny that equality of the right and capacity to participate — “participatory parity” for short — is a valid norm of justice and a right which cannot be denied to participants in their own decision-making. It is a norm which I think is recognised from left to right, and in the “new” social movements as much as the labour movement.[9]

The argument is always about the frame of reference for the decision-making, that is, who has a right to participate in a discussion.

Let us add to the norm of “participatory parity,” the principle that people have a right to participate in deciding what they do, inclusive of the right to decide together what they do with others. That is simply a variation of the Golden Rule: “What we do must be decided by us."[10]

Again it is difficult to imagine an in-principle disagreement with a norm of justice which held that people have a right to participate in determining their own actions.

These two norms of justice together assert that people and groups of people (subjects) have a right to an equal voice in determining their own activity. These norms apply in respect to a couple devising a division of labour for the housework, a employee and employer devising the work plan, or governments determining trading relations with other countries. Any domain of activity frames the participants who ought to have an equal voice in deciding on that activity.

The point is that rather than decrying the lack of (distributive) equality, we must actively use and promote notions of equality that both have traction in political arguments, and contribute to people gaining control over their own destiny.

Further, the demand for equality of participation in determining one’s own activity does not call upon a bureaucratic power to take on the role of Equaliser, but on the contrary encourages subjects to strive for self-determination in dialogue with others. It also challenges the remaining domains of legitimised status subordination in the modern world and challenges the power of those institutions which are overseeing the untenable and inhuman levels of distributive inequality we see today.


1. The Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776 — “all Men are created equal,” Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 26 August 1789 — “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

2. The Magna Carta of 1215 stated, inter alia, “No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” The principle that one can only be judged by peers was inseparable from the fabric of a hierarchical society. “Freemen” was however a very limited category of person. The same Magna Carta also said: “No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman.”

3. “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God.” Thesis 37, Martin Luther 1517. Equality before God was all about access to the Grace of God and His word.

4. Amartya Sen, Commodities and Capabilities, 1999 and On Ethics and Economics, 1987. Sen himself raised this problem of how the state acquires the right to manage the economy for the purpose of engineering an equality of capability.

5. “The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities.” Capital Chapter 1, Marx 1867.

6. See For Ethical Politics, Andy Blunden, 2003.

7. John Rawls, Political Liberalism, 1993.

8. Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus, 1997.

9. Nancy Fraser, Recognition or Redistribution, with Axel Honneth, 2003.

10. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Bible, Luke 6:31, “Act according to a maxim which can be adopted at the same time as a universal law,” Metaphysics of Morals, Kant 1785, “only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse,” Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Habermas 1990, “I do unto you what I expect you to do unto me. What I do unto you and what you do unto me should be decided by you and me” Beyond Justice, Heller 1986, “What we do, is decided by us.” For Ethical Politics, Andy Blunden 2003.

Andy Blunden
Melbourne, April 2004