Friday, 25 October 2013

Absolute equality and the pedantic left

There are some, that I call "the pedantic left" who seem to prefer the idea of a permanent neoliberal crony capitalist dystopia (where the cultural hegemony dictates the definition of "socialism" is akin to something like "pure evil") to the idea that they might have to compromise with other leftists that have slightly different interpretations of what "socialism" might actually mean, so that together they can build solidarity and fight back against the ever accelerating inequality imposed by the crony capitalist establishment.

In my view this abandonment of solidarity in order to engage in pedantic left-wing infighting is one of the big reasons that the right-wing crony capitalist establishment has managed to increase inequality so dramatically and to build and reinforce such a strong cultural hegemony in the first place.

Absolute equality

Distribution of resources

The subject of this article has been on my mind for some time, but an argument with a couple of socialists over the definition of the word "socialism" has pushed it to the front of my queue of articles to write.

The argument is this: I came across an American video on wealth distribution which defined "socialism" as absolute equality, where the poorest person in society gets absolutely the same as the richest person in society (see images). The rest of the video was quite interesting so I posted it on the Another Angry Voice Facebook page with a disclaimer about the absolutist equality stance being a complete straw-man misrepresentation of what "socialism" actually means. 

In my view socialism means that people should have equal access to fundamental resources like education, health care, welfare, energy, finance and sufficient staple resources like food and water. This means that such fundamentals mustn't be monopolised or commodified by rent seekers. To put this into very simple terms; my view of "socialism" is that society should provide people with equal access to opportunities and equal access to fundamental resources, not ruthlessly enforce absolute equality in everything (no matter how much or little the individual is prepared or able to contribute to society).

Several angry socialists came along to condemn my view of socialism as "facile" in defence of the absolutist equality position I was criticising. The problem of course is that the absolutist equality stance is obviously a lot more "facile" than a system that provides equal access to fundamental resources (health care, staple resources, energy, welfare) and opportunities (such as education and finance), but allows economic freedom to pursue non-fundamental commodities (consumer products, arts, literature, modern technology, entertainments, luxury goods, Pigovian products ...).

One of the very easy to grasp criticisms of the absolutist equality position is that some people want commodities that others don't. Some people want 64" flatscreen televisions and others don't (because like me, perhaps they barely watch TV or play computer games). I don't want a massive flatscreen TV, but I have absolutely no problem with others aspiring to ownership of commodities that I don't want. If they want to work a bit harder, or for a few hours longer to acquire the luxury item I don't want, then that's absolutely fine by me, just as the guy with the TV is probably quite happy that I work a bit harder or longer to acquire the science fiction books that he might have absolutely no interest in owning.

Under the absolutist equality definition of socialism either 64" screens (and my science fiction books) would have to be provided to everyone (even those that don't want them - a waste of resources) or they'd have to be banned (totalitarianism). The only other option would be to devise a system which determines how much relative utility is provided by each non-essential commodity, which would rely on the same kind of aggregation problems as neoclassical economics does, and would result in the creation of a vast and inefficient redistributive bureaucracy (is it even possible to determine how many science fiction books create the same level of utility as a big telly? Would a state administered system that expends resources on making such arbitrary determinations result in the most efficient use of resources?).

If you think equal access to basic resources, but freedom to pursue non-essentials is more "facile" than absolutist mandatory equality in absolutely everything, you either haven't thought about it very much or you've misunderstood the meaning of the word "facile".

The value of labour

The next problem with the absolutist equality stance is that it does something that no true socialist would accept; it reduces the value of labour to zero.

One of the most obvious problems with the idea of absolute equality is the fact that all labour would have to be given the same value. The workaholic manager would earn the same as the laid back shop assistant; the highly trained engineer would earn the same as the unskilled labourer; the educated expert would earn the same as the anti-intellectual that refuses to learn new skills; the worker in a dangerous or highly stressful job would earn the same as the worker in a safe or extremely relaxing job. To the vast majority of people, such a system would be transparently unfair. If your system contradicts the common-sense view that the hardworking deserve more than the lazy, the educated deserve more than the uneducated and that jobs in which the individuals risk their health or their lives deserve some form of danger compensation, then you will never be able to enforce such a system without resorting to totalitarianism.

The idea that all labour is equal is a huge problem, but there is a bigger problem still. If everyone is to get exactly the same whether they choose to work or not, then the value of labour is reduced to zero (in financial terms) because it classifies labour as having exactly the same value as no-labour. If the person that chooses not to contribute gets exactly the same as those that choose to work (in a difficult and dangerous jobs to fun and easy ones), then the value of labour is reduced to zero, meaning that there is no financial incentive to work at all. Why would anyone get up in the morning to go and do a dangerous or unpleasant job if they were entitled to exactly the same share of resources if they just stayed at home and did nothing?

The only way an absolutist equality system could possibly work is if labour was made mandatory (for those that are able), because without labour, society would cease to function. But how would it even be possible to force people to work in a system which explicitly prohibits financial coercion?

Absolute equality is the same kind of nonsensical and unworkable absolutist gibberish as the extreme-right view that deregulated markets are perfectly efficient, which is the reason that I choose to believe in a form of socialism that provides for people's fundamental needs, eradicates poverty and removes barriers to opportunities through education and access to finance, but which takes into account the value of the social contribution of the individuals and provides the individual with the liberty to acquire non-essential resources, which therefore creates the incentives to work and to contribute to society.

I believe that the absolute equality position is an absurd caricature of what socialism means. It is such an absurdly unrealistic stance that you're actually undermining the meaning of socialism if you believe in such nonsense and proclaim yourself a socialist. You're not a socialist, you're not even a Marxist (Karl Marx believed that incentives and class hierarchies would still exist within the socialist society) you're an absolutist egalitarian.

Absolutism vs compromise

Returning to the subject of "the pedantic left", it's fair to say that the market socialist (who has a somewhat similar definition of socialism to my own) and the absolutist egalitarian have something in common. They are both strongly opposed to the crony capitalist cultural hegemony and the discredited neoliberal pseudo-scientific economic models that are used to to justify the rent-seeking behavior and outright corruption of the wealthy establishment.

Surely it makes sense for the opponents of crony capitalism to put their differences aside and agree that the most important thing in the immediacy is to come together in solidarity to oppose the cultural hegemony of the establishment?

If you believe in the absolute equality definition of socialism, surely it is better to compromise with market socialists (and other left-wing factions), because a market socialism system is far, far closer to your absolute equality ideal than the vast and rapidly growing inequalities of the current neoliberal socio-economic paradigm.

The problem is that many on the left fail to see it this way, and refuse to co-operate with anyone else on the left who has strayed from their interpretation of "true socialism". One of the most visible examples of this is that way that several members of the new left wing group Left Unity have expended their energies attacking and undermining the Green Party, rather than concentrating on the development of a coherent set of left-wing policies and a powerful social justice narrative to promote their own party.

Instead as attacking the Green Party as "not left-wing enough", it would surely make more sense for Left Unity to examine what the Green Party have done right in order to break into the closed shop of orthodox neoliberal establishment politics that is Westminster, and to identify areas of agreement in which the two parties can co-operate.

If the left spends it's time and energy bickering and infighting, they simply allow the crony capitalist establishment to continue strengthening and reinforcing their cultural hegemony.

Leftist solidarity

There are many examples of diverse leftist groups coming together in solidarity to form powerful political organisations, I'll give a couple of brief examples.


The Labour party in the UK was born of co-operation between numerous trade unions and leftist political groups. Although Labour was never perfect, and has now been usurped by adherents of orthodox neoliberalism, it did achieve a number of important things that the vast majority of left-wing people can appreciate, including the establishment of the National Health Service, the massive improvements to the social safety net, legal aid, the post-war improvements in housing, and the establishment of the economic conditions that led to the unprecedented general prosperity and social mobility of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which have subsequently been eroded away by over three decades of neoliberal pseudo-economics.

The Greek political party Syriza (the coalition of the radical left) was formed as a coalition of various leftist groups in 2004. The groups that make it up include Social Democrats, Marxists, Trotskyites and the Green Left. In the wake of the Greek economic crisis and the economically destructive bailout conditions imposed by the IMF, the European Central Bank and the EU, they have risen to become the second most popular party in Greece and the main opposition in the Greek parliament. Since the last election in 2012 their popularity has improved again, meaning that if (when) the current coalition government fails, they will almost certainly form the next Greek government. Although they are extremely unlikely to impose a full-blownTrotskyite revolution, the Trotskyite faction must recognise that being part of a broad left-wing coalition is preferable to being a tiny minority party with no elected representatives at all.

The problem with co-operation is that when the views of several leftist organisations are aggregated, the result is not entirely pleasing to all of the participants. However, the result is usually a great deal better than a divided left bickering amongst themselves and allowing the right to maintain absolute control over society and the economy.


The self-defeating divisiveness of the left is deeply problematic but it is also amusing. The idea of representatives of a group called Left Unity expending their time and effort in attacking and undermining other left-wing groups is a laughable display of unintentional irony. Probably the most amusing parody of the factionalisation of the left is the famous Monty Pythons' Judaen People's Front scene from the Life of Brian, where they openly admit that the only people they hate more than their Roman oppressors are the various other anti-imperialist factions.

The only way that the left is ever going to be able to effectively fight back against the cultural hegemony of the neoliberal right, and begin reversing the trend towards ever greater inequality, is if we put our own differences aside and show some solidarity against the greater enemy.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that if you are unwilling to tolerate any left-wing views that are not almost identical to your own, then you're part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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rdococ said...

I'd disagree that anyone supports the "absolutist equality" stance. I've communicated with some of these people before, but I haven't seen any of them say that they want that kind of equality.

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