Some More Thoughts on Equality

So a few posts back I talked about the need to distinguish equality of consumption (people have the same access to drink, clothes, cars, movies, etc.) and equality of power, both political power traditionally conceived, and economic power, power to control production and distribution.

I mentioned how money combines both of these. Money can be spent both to get me some delicious vegan food, and to pay for factories, infrastructure, and wages – i.e. it can be invested, and thus used to control production. For example, consumers in the west have much more money than consumers in the third world. This doesn’t just mean that they get more of the food though – it determines what gets done with the food, how much is produced, etc. In particular, it causes food that could be fed to third world consumers to be fed to farm animals, who are then murdered and eaten by western consumers, because this course of action, although it feeds far fewer people, is more profitable.

Anyway, the obvious response to this blurring together is to separate the two – have variable individual rations of consumable goods, but run production independently through a network of federated democratic assemblies. These variable rations are what has often been called ‘labour vouchers’ and hypothesised as an institution of early, ‘transitional’ socialism, prior to the full development of totally equal communism. They are not money because they cannot be invested, i.e. they cannot be used as capital.

It’s important to recognise that any inequality that such a system produced would likely be far smaller than what we currently have, because inequality is not primarily a result of differential ability to work. Yes, highly-trained doctors tend to be paid more than secretaries, and in general people who work longer will get more wages. But the really breathtaking inequality isn’t of this sort. The really breathtaking inequality is, on the one hand, the wealth of the properly rich, who are largely either owners of property (‘businesspeople’, shareholders, bankers) or provide services which are particularly useful to owners of property (managers, executives, lawyers, politicians), and on the other hand, the poverty of those who are not given the opportunity to work in the ways they want to, because unemployment keeps wages down and thus benefits…property-owners!

This is why defenses of inequality that talk about people having different talents piss me off. If you’re only interested in inequalities proportional to talent, then let’s argue socialism vs. communism. But socialism/communism vs. capitalism is nothing to do with that – it’s about a system that manufactures inequality regardless of anybody’s talent.

However, there is a certain complication to the rosy picture I’ve painted of socialism. An individual capitalist, after all, cannot physically possess very much capital – they cannot carry around the means of production in their pockets. So their control over the means of production works through legal ownership, not physical possession – through a social construct. Hence it’s fairly easy for society to just not construct that construct, and private ownership of capital disappears.

However, a region or settlement can and does physically possess the means of production – it physically possesses the houses, the farmland, the roads and railways, the buildings and offices and factories, etc. To the extent that migration is difficult and rare, it even somewhat ‘possesses’ the skills of the people living there. As a result, no social change can immediately equalise control of the means of production between areas. Even if the world proletariat revolts and establishes stateless, borderless world socialism, Britain will still be richer than Namibia, and within Britain, London will still be richer than rural Wales. To whatever extent different regions and areas retain a degree of autonomy in their interactions, even under the heading of being parts of the same federation, and thus nominally in common ownership of land and capital, to that extent, there will be room for that autonomy to be used by the better-endowed regions to further improve their position relative to the worse off.

Now there might be situations where this problem isn’t a big problem. In a hyper-mobile world, where we could go to a different continent as easily as we go to a different house, maybe there’d be no issue. Equally, in a world so immobile that no economic interactions take place on any scale above how far people can walk everyday, then again, the issue is largely irrelevant. But of course we live in a world where mobility is enough to produce a world economy, but not to make where you’re born irrelevant.

It would also be less of a problem if no decision-making power was held by these different regions – if all power was in the hands of a single, world-level organisation. But that seems incompatible with the idea of direct democracy, of individuals expressing themselves through local assemblies, local assemblies expressing themselves through regional assemblies, regional through larger-regional, up to world-level. If we value democratic control and individual freedom, then centralising all power into a world-wide administrator seems like maybe not such a good idea. It’s also likely to be inefficient, insofar as a few hundred people in such a world organisation cannot process as much information as if the whole billions-strong population was involved.

The same goes for if everyone becomes absolutely sororital/fraternal, and no-one in developed countries even thinks about trying to exploit their advantageous position to get more advantage out of interactions with other parts of the world. But if we can count on this sort of complete goodwill and pro-social attitude there’s not much point doing political philosophy, is there?

Finally, we may observe that this problem will be made more extreme in situations where individuals most have the character of regions – i.e. where the greatest number of people own land, and exist tied to a particular place. That is, it may (perhaps?) be strongest in a peasant-dominated society, because here the fact that work is done individually on little plots of land means that equality of control cannot be acheived – even if all farms are exactly the same size, they will differ in their location, in the fertility of their soil, in their proximity to roads and markets, in the number of animals on them (if animals are still being exploited for food) etc. Which is interesting because peasant societies have traditionally fallen outside the mainstream socialist intellectual tradition, whose interest has focused on the proletariat, especially the urban proletariat.

Anyway, having observed this probem, what can we say about the way to resolve it? I’m not going to offer anything like a systematic solution – I’m not sure. But the outlines of the general solution seem to me to be this: that just as currently, the economic framework in which people/regions/groups interact is one which tends by its natural workings to exacerbate inequalities, i.e. to bring more benefit to the stronger partner in any exchange, there must be devised an economic framework which tends by its natural workings to reduce inequalities, i.e. to bring more benefit to the weaker partner in any exchange.

To imagine what such a framework might look like, we could consider sectors of the economy in which principles of this sort are naturally in operation. For example, those industries which target need, such as healthcare, and insurance more generally, obviously contain an inequality-reducing principle: insofar as one person is sicker than another, that person receives more medical treatment, and thus becomes less sick. Of course, when such industries are subsumed within the wider capitalist economy, as insurance firms are, and as healthcare is in some countries, they are forced to adjust themselves and find ways to benefit the better-off more (hence the millions of Americans without health insurance).

A second example is ideas and knowledge. If I know how to do something, then generally when I explain it to you, what you gain (the knowledge) is greater in value than what I lose (a bit of time and effort). The spread of ideas and information is naturally equalising, since it takes far less effort to read and learn ideas from others than to produce new ideas oneself.

But again, the capitalist economy has to subvert this, through ‘intellectual property’ laws, i.e. laws to ensure that the producers of knowledge are able to extract ‘sufficient’ monetary advantage from their product, even where this means needlessly stopping others from using that knowledge (hence the difficulties experienced by developing country health systems in manufacturing patented medicines).

At the moment these parts of the economy must adjust their natural principles (which are potentially equality-promoting) to fit with the general principles of the economic system (which are inequality-promoting). But what if the general principles of the economic system were in fact based on and developed out of these natural principles, and others like them – then the economy would naturally bring the weakest up the level of the strongest over time. Absolute equality might not be guaranteed, but the economy would naturally tend to approach close to it.

But what would such a system actually look like? I don’t know. But the issue between regions (and perhaps, analogously, in a peasant-dominated society?) seems to me like the principal real ‘problem of inequality’, becase regions can physically possess different means of production, which individuals, broadly speaking, do not. It’s odd how many different sorts of inequality get talked, and how straightforwardly many of them can be resolved by an application of some good sensible socialism.

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