Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Arendt and Equality

Not to harp on a theme (although I am wont to do so) but I’m reading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1961, Meridan Books) and came across this quote:
Equality of condition, though it is certainly a basic requirement for justice, is nevertheless among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. The more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between people; and thus all the more unequal do individuals and groups become. This perplexing consequence came fully to light as soon as equality was no longer seen in terms of an omnipotent being like God or an unavoidable common destiny like death. Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is "normal" if he is like everybody else and "abnormal" if he happens to be different.
I don’t think I need to do huge amounts of explanation here, but I do think it raises some interesting points. Firstly, to my mind, this is more convincing than what Schmitt says, because she doesn’t make homogeneity a determining fact. Secondly, I think what she does do is let is theorise Schmitt’s position more adequately. Rather than see homogeneity as central to democracy we can see that – owing to the structural problems generated by extending formal equality to all it is sometimes (perhaps oftentimes but not always and not inevitably) necessary that this equality relies on an inequality of the ‘other’. Thus, in certain conjunctures this manifests itself as a quasi-permanent exclusion of some people from liberal rights. However, and I think Arendt is right to do this, we don’t need to make inequality into a (linguistic or otherwise) precondition for equality. Thirdly, Arendt flags up what we already know that the critique of liberal equality as a false one isn’t necessarily politically progressive. Depending on political circumstances the Jews or the bourgeoisie could be targeted. This me to my fourth and final point, which is also something I’ve been thinking about. If these problems are endemic to liberal egalitarianism this says something about how we ought to orient ourselves towards liberalism. Clearly we don’t prefer the ‘bad’ argument about false equality (racism, fascism etc.), but we do have to see how this argument arises from the internal problems of liberal equality itself. This also means that a defence of liberalism, or even an argument for its ‘deepening’ (we need more equality!) is highly problematic. As such, the pseudo-term that is ‘left-liberal’ or ‘liberal-left’ really does need re-thinking (and I think merits some deep consideration in itself). The way we avoid these problems is surely by transcending them, this is not to say we jettison everything good about liberalism (sublation and all that) but I really don’t think it’s appropriate to dub ourselves ‘liberals’ of any stripe. Chris Arthur again (Law and Marxism: A General Theory, 1978, Ink Links):
In truth the demand for equality, or for equity in economic and legal arrangements, does not go beyond a radical bourgeois framework and does not grasp the qualitative break with previous forms that Marx looks forward to. Equality is the highest concept of bourgeois politics. It is not accidental that Marx never issued any programmatic declaration for it.

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