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Hierarchies and Equality

I’m going to be away for the next week or so, part work experience and part holiday, and so I thought I’d have a think-aloud post before I go. It won’t be incredibly sophisticated, and will be full to the brim of deficiencies, so if you manage to bear with me then do please be a little charitable. It will also be intentionally mischievous in places – mostly in order to try and provoke some responses in order to help me think things through.

Anyway, on to the post, I’ve been thinking about hierarchies, and about equality, and whether the two are necessarily contradictory. Or, to put that in slightly different terms, must being equal mean being the same, such that a person committed to equality cannot also accept hierarchical structures? Or, put differently still, can a lefty accept an hierarchical society?

Now a very brief word must be written about what is meant by equality here – there is, roughly speaking, equality of outcome, and equality of opportunity (the favourite of contemporary political classes), and equality of ‘status’. It is primarily the latter that I am thinking of, clumsy word as it is, though most people today construct equality almost wholly around the first two, and so reject the latter simply by default. This is because hierarchies of status have historically been entwined with both equality of outcome and equality of opportunity – those at the top of the social hierarchies, conventional wisdom runs, automatically receive the best of outcomes and prospects.

Now, I tend to think that equality and social hierarchies are not at all opposed, that they are even natural bedfellows, and that the question of equality of outcome is misplaced and the question of equality of opportunity is misconceived. Why? Simply because the former understands equality solely through materialist eyes, the latter marries it to a very particular and usually middle-class account of social mobility, and both misdiagnose inequality as the result of social difference, rather than the consequence of social indifference.

Thus, if contemporary left-wing thought is guilty of anything in this regard, it is conflating equality with homogeneity, and thinking it can make everything equal by making everything the same. This whiffs a little of Jacobinism, and it is no accident that the contemporary left like nothing more than to crusade against history and tradition – even when that crusading does more harm to society than do the traditions that are the focus of such ire. Sometimes, of course, the activism is wholly justified, to correct a previous wrong. Sometimes it is political fetishism, crusading for the sake of something to crusade about.

But this tendency toward homogeneity is self-destructive, not to say a little hypocritical – it is no surprise that to flesh out their accounts of equality, they end up creating a standard that more often than not merely reaffirms their own presumptions and prejudices, thus indirectly lessening the value and worth of alternative accounts of the good. As such, for the contemporary left the banker has long been valued more than the baker, mostly because bankers make money whilst bakers only make bread – and they would have us believe that it is more dignified to have the money to buy the bread than it is to be able to make it in the first place. No shock, then, that the Oxbridge brigade at the top of the Labour Party have spent far more time fretting over how to get more women into Boardrooms and more children into Universities, than they have of how to enable more women to stay at home with their children if they wish to, or how to provide the career paths and entry points into the (whisper it) manual trades for their children.

There is a slow movement against this, under the guise of ‘pluralism’, and Rosemary Bechler has recently written an interesting piece on ‘making pluralism mainstream’. The piece, and her comments below it (now removed, for some reason), maintain that feminism had for too long merely replicated masculinity in its account of equality – that is, to be equal with men feminism had tried to be more like men, rather than insist upon the dignity and worth of being women. This means that, for Bechler, feminism must defend domesticity as a legitimate and empowering choice for women too. Which for many not sharing the middle-class view of what ‘achievement’ and ‘power’ must, without any possible deviation, look like, is also a statement of the obvious.

However, whilst important, that pluralistic impulse is not something contemporary liberalism will be naturally comfortable with, largely because it has already banished difference from its accounts of equality. This is not to say that everyone has become the same (though they increasingly have) – more that liberals have constructed their accounts of equality on the basis of sameness, as a natural consequence of the fact that they only ever understand the term through the lens of one isolated atom in natural competition with another. But ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ thus conceived will only ever concentrate power, not disperse it, because it is already premised upon freeing man from anything with power enough to bind him. Thus it is, as I have argued elsewhere, that contemporary liberalism is solely about power, and the best way for the already powerful to accumulate more of it.

As a side note, I suppose it is partly for this reason that I am sympathetic with the idea of monarchy; put simply, the King or Queen has historically provided that ceiling through which the rich and powerful, with one or two (long remembered) aberrations, simply cannot ascend. To be a subject is to be subservient, which of course offends the very soul of contemporary plutocratic societies, in the habit as they are of thinking that social position is equivalent only to wealth and power (unless the rich and the powerful steal the crown of course – see the ‘Glorious’ Revolution). In this sense, republicans speak piously of equality and empowerment whilst quietly desiring the demolition of precisely that institution that ultimately constrained and contained the accumulation, and the use, of power.

Yet there is also something theological on the issue of plurality and diversity more generally, and I am reminded of St. Thomas, and his words

For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.

Of course, Aquinas being Aquinas, he does go into a little more depth than that, but the central insight is, I think, entirely sound. And it also one replicated by Chesterton, whose distributism was as much a reaction against monopolies, of all sorts, as it was a romantic vision of the hotch-potch ideal and a preference for a ‘balance of different things’ (St.Thomas More’s Utopia articulates something similar, if a little more rigid).

In seeking to articulate this vision of the differentiated society, one might also appeal to literature – with Tolkien, for example, equality came with difference, not in spite of it, and it was the diversity of the group considered as a whole, each according to his or her particular talents and the harmonious use of them, that conquered evil. Frodo was no less the hero for bending his knee before Aragorn; though in the end it was Aragorn that was indebted to Frodo. For some similar examples, see John Buchan’s Huntingtower, or more light-heartedly George MacDonald’s wonderful The Princess and the Goblin.

For that reason, I’m not sure that lefties can contest hierarchies simply for being hierarchies (I maintain that these are perfectly natural and indeed necessary in society); rather, it seems more likely that objections are centred around the manner in which those hierarchies are constructed, and also how the web of relationships therein are understood. The first objection is certainly a difficult one – inherited hierarchies of privilege, those bequeathed by the organic processes of history, fill lefties with (sometimes understandable) dread, as arbitrary and thus unjustified. Partly this might be put down to the general loss of notions of providence, but also to the very real danger that such hierarchies might well be self-perpetuating, even when they are manifestly unhealthy and/or unjust. Perhaps it was as a partial response to this that the contemporary left created an alternative hierarchy based on ‘meritocracy’ instead; but being solely a material project, this has succeeded only in undermining all those life paths that do not coalesce with the elite’s view of what ‘merit’ looks like – thus producing far more pernicious hierarchies, much more hostile to those at the bottom than they might otherwise have been. Or, as I have written before,

Since meritocracy has become the creed of our times, the system has invariably tilted toward those possessed of most ‘merit’ – according solely to the standards set by those who define the system. This entrenches privilege, because ‘merit’ largely becomes a reflection of the things valued by those already at the top, a self-affirming social ladder that merely endorses the priorities of the already empowered. These are the environmental factors Stuart White discusses in the blog post, but the pertinent point is not that meritocracy fails because of a pre-existing lack of ‘equality’, but because it also actively fuels further injustice: those at the top have sufficient power and privilege to tilt the system in their own favour, and hoard opportunities accordingly. The slow death of social mobility in this country is instructive here – meritocracy has become the new, and far more rigorous, nepotism.

And this is where that priest’s comment comes in – because a self-affirming social structure allows those at the top to write off those at the bottom, a kind of Nietzschean complex whereby those who lose have deserved to lose, and those who win have deserved to win.

Lastly, the issue of hierarchies constructed round ‘virtue’ has arisen – though, as Sunder Katwala asks, who decides on virtue? Especially, I would add, when contemporary society has pretty much rejected the possibility of objective accounts of the good in preference for subjective accounts of desire. We could say, to paraphrase Socrates, that it is to be constructed around the art of living well, but when people reject all art as inferior to an endless and narcissistic gaze in the mirror, then we hit a brick wall.

As for the objection based upon how relationships within hierarchies are understood, I find this much less convincing, for it rejects hierarchies on the basis of one’s own misconceived hierarchies, and not on account of what they are, which is largely natural, and spontaneously occurring, common acknowledgment of capacity and authority. For example, nobody could argue that the hardy Private is any less important for the winning of a war than the cunning General; but one wouldn’t on the basis of just that maintain that the Private must also be the General. Or to put it in religious terms, we all stand equal before God at the final judgement, Kings, Priests, Politicians and Judges – but this need not mean that the King must also be the Priest, and the Politician must also be the Judge.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that perhaps the left need not dismiss equality as incompatible with hierarchy; perhaps it just needs to deconstruct its own hierarchies and re-assess the value of those it has heretofore considered unequal. In so doing, it might once again value those which it has largely abandoned. And in so doing it would reclaim an organic and differentiated account of society, one that valued all the talents, and sought to develop them accordingly.

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