Latest book review for the FT

In: Daniel In The News

22 Sep 2013

This review first appeared in Friday’s edition of FT Wealth.

The Society of Equals, by Pierre Rosanvallon, Harvard University Press, 2013

The idea of equality often evokes heated passions. For its critics it can represent insufferable political correctness, punitive taxation and even the nightmare vision of violent revolution. In contrast, its supporters typically see it as a humane, just and eminently reasonable value.

Yet if tempers remain subdued it becomes possible to appreciate the trickiness of the concept. Most people support some notions of equality even if they reject others. For instance, there is no contradiction between favouring equal rights while dismissing the idea of an equal income for all.

Indeed, even those who call themselves conservatives generally uphold some forms of equality nowadays. The notion of equality of opportunity is widely accepted among all shades of political opinion. It is also relatively rare today to hear an explicit defence of the idea that women or particular ethnic groups are inherently inferior. Whether they have achieved true equality is another matter.

Pierre Rosanvallon, one of France’s leading public intellectuals, has stepped into this minefield to provide a thoughtful work. Being French, it is more laden with erudite references and theoretical reasoning than an Anglo-Saxon equivalent would be likely to have. Nevertheless it is well worth persisting. Partly thanks to a clear translation by Arthur Goldhammer, a Harvard academic, the argument is accessible.

Rosanvallon sets himself the task of “restoring the idea of equality to its former glory”. In his view, widening inequality – a global phenomenon rather than one restricted to France – is tearing democracy apart. It is severing social bonds and undermining solidarity.

For Rosanvallon there are close parallels between what he sees as the present crisis and the challenges of the late 19th century. Back then the world was becoming globalised for the first time, while inequality was widening. Nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia were emerging in response.

The solution that transpired was a new conception of social justice involving the redistribution of wealth. Rosanvallon, who was associated with France’s non-Marxist left and the moderate CFDT trade union, makes clear that he is a supporter of this democratic socialist alternative.

However, he does not claim that the same solution can be replicated exactly. Although there are some parallels, the world has moved on.

Instead Rosanvallon favours an approach centred on three main themes. First, he is worried that a rigid social structure has emerged with an embedded hierarchy. To tackle this challenge, he favours a reform of inheritance tax. Second, he argues for a new development model that downplays the importance of economic growth. In his view, ecological limits need to be respected.

Finally, he is fearful of what he calls separatism, or what an English speaker might refer to as social fragmentation. He favours a dynamic urban policy as a first step in tackling this challenge.

Despite the differences in terminology this is an agenda with which many US or British politicians would feel comfortable. Support for social mobility, sustainability and social inclusion are mainstream in the anglophone world. The main differences would be over the level of taxation he seems to favour.

But it will not do to simply endorse or reject Rosanvallon’s conclusions. It is also necessary to examine how he reached them. This is a tricky task as he covers an enormous amount of ground.

From a historical perspective his clear-cut distinction between democratic socialists on one hand and supporters of xenophobia or nationalism is misleading. Chauvinism was never the preserve of the right. The willingness with which Europe’s leftist parties led their supporters into the carnage of the first world war is the starkest illustration of this.

Nor does Rosanvallon adequately grasp the character of western leaders’ current obsession with the dangers of excessive inequality. Their concern is not, as through much of the 20th century, with the potential for violent revolution. Rather, they are acutely anxious about the possibility that society will break apart.

This exaggerated fear of social breakdown informs the discussion of what is sometimes referred to as political correctness. Politicians are intent on regulating popular behaviour – including what we say, drink and eat – because they are worried that the alternative is acute conflict.

The obsession with social cohesion also explains the hostility to “greedy bankers” and corporate “fat cats”. Contemporary egalitarians are more preoccupied with curbing the excesses of the rich than making everyone more prosperous.