by Don Franks
(Wellington journalist Max Rashbrooke reports: ”Our first talk on inequality at Te Papa, on September 13, was a huge success: a great crowd of well over 200 people, and a fantastic array of speakers setting out all the reasons – personal, social, and economic – why we should worry about the widening divide.”)
A turnout of over 200 people concerned about inequality is an achievement.
How strong, and consistent I wonder, is the opposition to inequality?
I suspect, for example, that many opponents of inequality might baulk at the idea of a maximum wage. The notion of a single similar wage for every individual would probably not be universally welcomed either.
As a lifelong low-paid worker I don’t oppose either of those wage restrictions. Even if I did have a problem with them it would not matter; maximum or equal wages are likely to remain academic as long as the wages system exists.
What I question is the futile pursuit of general human equality. Dare I say it, that condition is unattainable and undesirable.
One evening some years back I wandered out of a Wellington pub to the nearest bus stop, where political union rival Bill Andersen and his minder were waiting .
“I see like us you’re a user of public transport,” said Bill.
“Gee Bill, it seems we may have some things in common after all!”
“Yes – breathing and eating,” Bill retorted.
We all share the need to breathe and eat, although even our respirational requirements vary and our culinary tastes are myriad.
But basic physiological similarity aside, humans are unequal, in almost every respect. In many cases happily so and by choice.
There is worldwide unequal access to many of the good things of human life, and to necessities like food, shelter, medicine, education, clean air and water, but those are problems of deprivation, not inequality.
Equality is an artificial human concept, which has no application to the material world we live in.
Nature can do many things, but not equality. On examination, no two cows in a herd, nor any two needles on a pine tree, will be found to be exactly equal. Neither will any two sand grains in the whole of the Sahara desert.
In one very real sense, it is inequality that makes the world go round. There is a constant struggle of opposites in every aspect of the material world. If opposites were equal there could be no movement of matter, no motion, no conversion of matter to motion – there would be no natural world nor any life. Absolute equality of humans only attains at the point of their death – immediately after which our sustaining material world has no domain or dominion.
If equality really is an artificial human concept, with no application to the material world we live in, where did the idea come from?
From the circumstances of the material world, from the suffering and deprivation of the poor, from the denial of rights to the oppressed and the struggle against that injustice. Years of struggle for a better material life produced ideas to justify and sustain that struggle. Ideological justification of rebellion rejected the idea that a privileged few were born to rule and forged such radical ideas as those of the Levellers, where no person should stand above another.
The notion of equality has therefore played a progressive historical part as a rallying cry that all should be equal, or at least, enjoy equal opportunity. Some argue there is now universal civilized acceptance of equality as a human right. Today’s continued deference to feudal millionaire parasites like the British royal family is but one disproof of that.
In certain circumstances, anything can turn into its opposite. This may take place with concepts of the human mind.
Today, the notion of equality plays in many respects a socially-imprisoning role. All citizens have equal legal opportunity to buy a sheep station or a shipping line, or to stand for public office, when so doing, enjoy the same rights to solicit and spend the necessary thousands of dollars required to win. Arch-reactionary Don Brash joyfully trumpeted as his rallying cry “One law for all!”
Equality demands today can assist the winning of some specific concrete reforms, such as full marriage rights for gay and transgender people. But general calls for equality cannot narrow the widening social divide. “Our” present social and political system of capitalism is based on, and cannot exist for a day without, economic inequality at the point of production. Equal human opportunity and capitalism are as water to fire.
Where the working poor do have some cohesion is as members of the class of producers, deprived of the products and services we make. By united action at our workplaces we are able to wrest some occasional temporary improvements to our living standards.
While workers have no show of attaining equality by industrial skirmishes, we can, by great international effort, attain a new world of justice and plenty. We may potentially wipe out deprivation and oppression, by the forcible infliction of inequality on our present rulers, by seizing all power and possessions from the present capitalist ruling class.
If humankind is able to achieve a classless society before destroying the planet, future generations of that society will have no concept of equality. It is not possible to understand anything in the complete absence of its opposite.
Closer to our present era, when a future serious attempt at workers’ revolution is made, the last thing on the mind of any protagonist will be appeals for equality.