Where the politics of the sixties and seventies focused on the dismantling or preservation of authority and hierarchies and the cultural politics which followed concerned itself with tolerance the politics of the post-2008 era is marked by (in)equality being one of its defining themes.
One might object to the suggestion that the dismantling of authority and hierarchies or the effort to spread tolerance are not both part of the struggle for equality. Equality is, however, not an overarching concept, but distinctive from both tolerance and anti-authoritarianism. The three can and do overlap, but not necessarily so. At times they even conflict.
What does equality mean then? To answer that question one should first establish what its opposite – inequality – entails. There is a common tendency, especially in the liberal tradition, to regard inequality as synonymous with difference; especially if that difference is quantifiable. If I have more of a particular good than you then according to this view we can speak of inequality.
This would include minimal differences to which nobody could reasonably object, especially since some of these differences result from different choices. However, this view of inequality – called ‘primitive equality’ by political philosopher Michael Walzer – is deeply inadequate. Difference is a much broader concept than inequality. The only requirement for two things to be different is for them to be distinguishable from one another. What marks inequality as a distinctive kind of difference is power. That is to say: an inequality is a difference which is associated with certain contingent imbalances in power.
This understanding of inequality prevents misidentifying differences in number or characteristics as inequalities. The focus shifts towards the question of whether I have or am denied equal access to participation, positions, prestige or even property. Inequality is contingent, because innate differences are not covered by it. It only concerns imbalanced power structures, because properly balanced power structures – like those of a democracy – are meant to ensure equal acces to all. This is where the opposition to hierarchies can conflict with the drive for equality. This understanding of inequality also clarifies the meaning of equality. Instead of it meaning the end of difference it becomes identifiable as the end of obstacles to that which we value.
This view leads to a slight blurring of lines between the famous concepts of ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of outcome’. This differentiation is especially important to the liberal tradition where the latter is only justified in so far as it enables the former. However, if one keeps with the concept of (in)equality as outlined here the latter will by definition always undermine the former. These very different conclusions resulting from a different interpretation of (in)equality show why it is important to insist on a proper understanding of (in)equality.