1980s >> 1981 >> no-927-november-1981

Myths about equality

For two hundred years the survival of capitalism has depended on the belief, on the part of the working class, that we are naturally inferior. Writing in 1784, George Pitt made it clear in his Letters to a Young Nobleman that


Nothing can be more dangerous, more impossible to practise, or more immediately subversive of all government than the doctrine of the equality of mankind. A doctrine, the fallacy of which is proved by the experience of every day, by the concurrence of all history from the earliest times, and above all, by the contemplation of all the works of the Creator, the very essence of which appears to be gradation or inequality.


It is true that the earliest spokesmen of the Whig capitalist class in the late eighteenth century spoke at about the need for political equality. The reason for this was that they wanted to be equal with the dominant aristocratic ruling class and were prepared to use whatever political rhetoric was necessary to get them into a position of state power. But this capitalist equality was never seen by them as anything more than equality for the bosses. In a broadside printed in 1795 by the radical London Corresponding Society — a collection of ambitious capitalists – the defenders of “political equality” protested at the accusation of their aristocratic opponents that they stood for social equality:


In our ideas of equality we have never included (nor till the associations of alarmists broached the frantic notion could we ever have conceived that so wild and destestable a sentiment could have entered the brain of man) as the equalisation of property, or the invasion of personal rights of possession.

The radical capitalists of Sheffield-insisted that

We are not speaking of that visionary equality of property, the practical assertion of which would desolate the world and replunge it into the darkest and wildest barbarism. (Parl. Hist. Vol. XXX, 738)


So, armed with the rhetoric of ‘equal rights’, the rising capitalist class realised that social equality before the means of wealth production was no more desirable to their system than it had been to feudalism. In France in 1789 and Britain in 1832 the working class was led to believe that by supporting political equality for their exploiters they would be furthering their own interests. In the event, they found that they were supporting “the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie” and “that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law” (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).


The socialist movement, of which the Socialist Party of Great Britain is the British representative, was born out of the discontent felt by workers at the inequality inherent to the rule of capital. In February 1848 in Paris workers manned the barricades so as to ensure the rule of their bosses; in June 1848 the capitalists sent their armed guards to massacre the workers for asking for too much in return. In 1831 workers rioted in the streets of London and Bristol so that their bosses could sit in Parliament; after the victory of the 1832 Reform Act the working class of Britain was repaid by notoriously pro-capitalist legislation such as the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which condemned the unemployed to the wretchedness of the workhouses.


The apologists for the inequality of capitalism persist in the assertion that inequality is natural. “It’s human nature; there will always be rich and poor” they tell us, as if social inequality is a reflection of the inherent superiority of the property-owners. The same arguments are used to support claims of racial and sexual inequality. The bosses, we are told, possess natural “enterprise”, “initiative” and “intelligence”. This suggestion is but a thinly disguised insult to the wealth producers of the world who – it follows logically – are poor because of an inherent lack of these fine qualities. After all, the word e-quality simply means “of the same quality”. According to this claim that some are born to be rich and others to be poor, we are asked to believe that the unfortunate child of a capitalist who is born mentally retarded, but with an inheritance of several million pounds, is of a superior quality to an unemployed skilled labourer. Once the majority of the working class recognise the magnitude of this insult they will begin to organise for social equality.


As with many socialist arguments, those who cannot defeat them by reason try to do so by distortion. It is alleged that socialists want all people to be exactly the same. Far from this being the case, socialists are saying that only when the interest of one is the interest of all will the differing talents of humanity be able to be utilised to the common good. We are depending upon the fact that individuals will always be varied indeed, in a socialist society where the mass market ceases to dominate the fashions of life, men and women will be more individualistic than ever.


In a speech on 16 September, 1975 the present Prime Minister, Thatcher, stated that


  The pursuit of equality is a mirage. What is more desirable and more practicable than the pursuit of equality is the pursuit of equality of opportunity.
And opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal.


The ultimate in liberties is this: the right to be unequal! Thatcher should tell this to the 93 per cent of the population who own no stocks and shares, while the richest 1 per cent own 80 per cent of them. She should tell the thirty million people who die of starvation each year – one per second, on average – about this ‘right to be unequal.’ She should tell the old aged pensioners who are too poor to keep warm during the winter that at least they have won the “right to be unequal” with the Queen Mother. The working class, whose labour is the source of all wealth, have certainly won the “right to be unequal” with the idle parasites who live in privileged affluence by exploiting us. And having won this perverse “right”, it is time to push aside the politicians and the philosophers in the realisation that the mighty are only high because we are on our knees.


Steve Coleman