A sceptical demand for equality

In: Uncategorized

11 Apr 2010

Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land is being widely reviewed. From what I can gather the British historian at New York University is attempting to restate the case for social democracy to a new generation of readers.

Unfortunately, judging by the extract in the New York Review of Books, it takes a typically growth sceptic line by assuming that the widening of inequality constitutes port of an argument against growth. This is achieved by linking support for increased prosperity to a caricatured free market outlook:

“The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.”

Judt, like many growth sceptics, evidently cannot grasp contemporary realities. It is hard to think of many prominent contemporary thinkers, even economists, who express uncritical admiration for the free market or endless growth. More importantly, the demand for equality changes its meaning in an intellectual environment which accepts there is no alternative to the market. It is not part of a drive to transform society but instead represents a call towards restraint or even reversing the growth process.

Any call for egalitarianism in the current intellectual environment should be treated warily. It only becomes a progressive demand in the context of support for higher growth as a way of realising the human potential. Otherwise it becomes a part of a highly conservative outlook.