Decoupling fairness from class and power in the UK

Published on openDemocracy, by William Davies, 4 June 2010.

There’s an argument, stemming from Hegel, that a political idea is only fully realised by its opponent. Hegel explored this via the master-slave dialectic: the master is implicitly dependent on the slave for his mastery, whereas the slave’s freedom – when it arrives – is actually real. Overthrowing something enables one to realise its inner possibility. Marx reinvented this in class terms, which is why the proletariat has the potential for a higher form of liberal freedom than the liberal bourgeoisie themselves … //

… To apply pain and gain equally, proportionately and fairly across every rank in society is the ultimate legitimation of the ranks as they presently stand. The status quo receives an endorsement, not in economic terms (it is efficient) nor in conservative terms (it has worked in the past) but in liberal ones (it will be managed fairly).

It is the final abandonment of the possibility that the rankings might be rearranged, that power might be challenged or society reorganised. The disavowel of inequality getting significantly greater is at the same time a morally confident statement that it needn’t get any less either. The next step would be to throw the odd sacrificial CEO into jail, as occurs periodically in the US.

This is Rawls’s ‘justice as fairness’, but instead of being designed from behind a veil of ignorance, it is being designed and upheld within a set of contingently unequal social, economic and political relations. “What”, the Rawlsian Tory asks “would it mean for this political-economic arrangement to be made fair?” To which the answer is “5% pay-cuts for everyone.”

All of which makes me wonder if greater equality is another of those political goals that is best pursued obliquely. It is taken as read that the Labour movement has always been about greater equality. Has it really? Were statistics of this sort available in the 1870s? Is social justice really just a matter of earnings, be they of labour or capital? Was the welfare state about reducing some quantifiable gap, or was it about tackling degradation? Today there is a case for reforming corporate governance structures, quite aside from the inequality that they produce; inequality may be reduced obliquely as a result.

Building on these thoughts of a couple of days ago, I think it would be mistaken were the Labour Party now to try to wrest back the ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ agenda from the Coalition government. How much fairer can you get than sending Ministers on the tube, they’ll say. What was so fair about the celebrity-obsessed era of New Labour? We are the new egalitarians, Osborne will reply, as the cuts are affecting top and bottom equally (never mind that that would be termed ‘regressive’ if the same logic were applied to taxation). Best to let them have fairness, and see how far they can run with it, just as the Tories had to let Labour do the same with open and competitive markets. (full text).

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