Thomas Piketty is not the only Frenchman making waves with a new book about inequality. The Society of Equals by Pierre Rosanvallon was just published in a translation by Arthur Goldhammer by Harvard University Press (the same press that published Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. And Rosanvallon, again like Piketty, worries about the return of inequality. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.Paul Star of Princeton and The American Prospect reviews The Society of Equals in the New York Review of Books. Rosanvallon begins, Star writes, by noting that the return of massive inequality in European and American societies has not been met with real anger or revolutionary unrest. There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust. As Star writes:
The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: “it reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice” and “must be grasped as a total social fact.”In other words, Rosanvallon wants to enlarge and transform what we mean when we speak about inequality. He seeks to “provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project.
Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new “age of singularity” when “everyone wants to ‘be someone.’”” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:
The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”
The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.There is good reason for such a focus, but one that has little to do with the purported Marxist revival that Piketty’s book is supposed to herald. The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the superrich from the merely rich and the middle class. For Rosanvallon, we need to simply accept that economic inequality is part of our reality; what is more, he suggests that most of us have accepted that reality. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ideal of equality. Instead, we must re-imagine equality for the modern age.
Rosanvallon wants to renew the egalitarian tradition in line with the changed circumstances of our time. “We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,” he writes in his new book. Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work.
Reading Star’s account of Rosanvallon recalls John Adams’ claim that the true evils of poverty are less economic than invisibility:
The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed…. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market… he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen… To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?
For Hannah Arendt, from whom I take this quotation of Adams, these words express “the feeling of injustice” and “the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty.” For Arendt, as for Adams, the “political predicament of the poor” could only be seen because of the relative “absence of misery” prevailing in revolutionary America.Of course there was misery and poverty in revolutionary America, some amongst whites but clearly amongst black slaves. But as Arendt writes, even as the founding fathers “were aware of the primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested, if they ‘trembled when [they] thought that God is just’ (Jefferson), they did so because they were convinced of the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with the foundation of freedom, not because they were moved by pity or by a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men.” She concludes from this that “the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked.’” It was this blindness to misery that allowed the founders of America to imagine the true evils of inequality to rest not in deprivation but in invisibility. And it was upon this blindness that the American revolution imagined a kind of political equality in which the freedom to appear in public could flourish.What Rosanvallon sees is that the fact of extreme inequality today carries the threat not of misery but of irrelevancy. But such an analysis of inequality has very nearly obscured the question of poverty; it focuses, instead, on the feelings of disempowerment and resentment of the upper and lower middle classes. It is for these classes that Rosanvallon’s new ideal of equality will appeal—the right to equally appear as a singular individual. Here is how Star understands the new ideal of equality as singularity:
The idea of framing equality around the principle of singularity is provocative and appealing. Of course, even in the age of YouTube and Twitter, no society could possibly satisfy the desire of everyone to be a star, but in Rosanvallon’s conception singularity is a basis of human connection: “The difference that defines singularity binds a person to others; it does not set him apart. It arouses in others curiosity, interest, and a desire to understand.” Singularity demands recognition and acceptance:‘Each individual seeks to stand out by virtue of the unique qualities that he or she alone possesses. The existence of diversity then becomes the standard of equality.’
Star raises serious questions about the way Rosanvallon depoliticizes economic inequality as he refocuses the idea of equality around the equal right to stand out and exist in public. But Star also recognizes that there is something true in Rosanvallon’s account, something that all the attention given to his countryman Piketty continues to overlook: That inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income. Of course, both these points depend upon our leaving the truly miserable and poor outside of the debate on inequality. So far, that has proven a fairly reliable assumption.