In praise of inequality: a response to Max Rashbrooke

Posted: October 5, 2012 by Admin in Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Economics, Marxism, New Zealand politics, Poverty & Inequality, Unions - NZ, Welfare rights, Workers' rights

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.


  1. Not everyone has the courage to subject such sacred cows to critical scrutiny. Congratulations Don. I must say that after reading Max Rashbrooke’s recent article in the “New Zealand Listener” I also have some misgivings about his approach which I liken to that of the television “Fair Go” show.

    Under this kaupapa some of the bit players of capitalist society (in Max Rashbrooke’s case the boarding house proprietor “Malcolm”, in “Fair Go” sundry self-employed tradesmen) are given a hard time while the major corporations either come under no scrutiny at all, or are given the “soft soap” treatment, and the opportunity to make a public show of magnanimity and corporate largesse towards the “little man” who laid the complaint. Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual cases, programmes such as “Fair Go” are used to boost the standing of large corporations, while destroying the livelihoods of small tradespeople.

    “Malcolm” may be a scoundrel or he may be genuinely doing the best he can to help the human flotsam and jetsam of capitalism. We don’t really know. This is the problem with Rashbrooke’s approach. It is based on a certain level of deceit (Rashbrooke deliberately concealed his identity and set out to give a false impression of his class and socio-economic status), it fails to expose the structural problems which give rise to social misery, it is itself an expression of inequality (“Malcolm” is no match for the power of “New Zealand Listener”), and being essentially anecdotal, it risks creating serious injustice to the person singled out – in this case “Malcolm”.

    The great irony is that when the mass media goes on crusade for “the little guy”, “the victims of injustice”, “equality” and “a fair go” it only goes after those who are less powerful than itself, and who are effectively unable to defend themselves.

    Your theoretical examination of the concept of equality opens up a valuable field of discussion. Yet there is more to be said. While undoubtedly a “human construct” the concept of equality serves a crucial purpose in everything from mathematics to social relations. We cannot do without it, but we do have to properly understand its meaning, its context, and its broader implications if it is to serve a useful purpose.

  2. Don Franks says:

    Thanks Geoff.

    Havn’t read that “New Zealand Listener” article, I hope you send them your comments on it as a letter.

  3. As Don says, inequality is normal, but equality is a critically important theoretical concept and social construct. For example children are unequal to their parents in strength, knowledge and wisdom, and in the normal course parents protect, nurture and discipline their children until they become more or less equal in all those attributes. Later in life the parent-child inequality, and the respective roles of parent and child may be reversed.

    This parent-child case shows that material inequalities are normal, they are constantly shifting, and that the consequences of material inequalities depend upon the existence, or otherwise, of some over-riding principle of equality in the spiritual identity such as “whanau” or “the family of man”. The key to the way in which humans behave towards those who are inferior in material aspects such as strength, agility, dexterity, intelligence and social understanding is what Don calls the “human construct” of “equality”, which forms the basis of all social law and physical laws, and underlies all human action and social behaviour.

    Any two objects are definitively equal with respect to their common identity, and may be relatively equal, or unequal, with respect to their other attributes. An apple will be absolutely equal to another apple in respect of that thing which makes an apple an apple – namely that it is the fruit of an apple tree. Otherwise, all apples will be more or less unequal, or if one prefers more or less equal, in their other properties such as size, mass, colour, taste and texture.

    Similarly human beings are deemed to be equal to one another in respect of their humanity which is determined not by their physical properties, but by their origin, or descent. The legal and biological definition of a human being is “the offspring of a human being”. This iterative legal/biological definition underlies the spiritual definition of a human being as a descendant of the first woman (“Eve”). In the spiritual scheme all human beings are deemed equal by virtue of their common descent or common identity. Spiritual equality pays no regard to physical, intellectual or social attributes and therefore is the most absolute and inclusive definition of human equality possible.

    In bourgeois society, people are also deemed to be equal in respect of their common identity as “citizens”. The class of citizen is more restricted than the class of human being. Bourgeois citizenship depends on birthplace (rather than birth-parent, which is the rule of tribal and feudal systems, or primeval parent, which is the rule of spiritual systems). All those who are born within the territory of the state are deemed to be equal in respect of citizenship, and all others are generally excluded, subject to certain exceptions and limitations. For example felons may be excluded, naturalised immigrants included, and minors subject to limitations.

    One of the curious features of bourgeois equality, the equality of the citizens, is that it is tightly circumscribed by social conditions and context, exemplified in the famous saying that “the law in its magnificent impartiality prohibits the rich man and the poor man alike from sleeping under bridges”. Bourgeois equality also tends to be formal, specific and transient. For example all citizens have the right to vote, which is often portrayed as a generalised right to participate in the process of government, and described in such terms as “having a say” and “deciding the future direction of society” and “choosing our own leaders”. However, the right to vote is none of those things. The individual casts his vote in secret. If he is indeed “having his say”, then it is strange that no one is permitted to hear. In an election, the voter does not decide policies. He casts a vote for an individual or group of individuals comprising a party which he may or may not, rightly or wrongly, associate with certain policies. Neither does he “choose his own leader”. He merely expresses a preference, which may in the end be over-ruled by the preference of others.

    Furthermore, the equality of the ballot box is only a momentary equality, which is negated in the very instant that it is exercised. In the hour that the polls open the ordinary citizen appears to be equal to the politician yet from the moment the polls close, the politicians in government will exercise total power over the citizens.

    Equality in bourgeois society is therefore not so much a condition of being as a relationship formed in a particular process which is formal, specific, transient, and conditioned by material inequalities.

    Problems arise whenever material inequalities are allowed to over-ride the idea of fundamental spiritual equality of all human beings. Husbands abuse wives, parents abuse children, employers abuse workers, and the state abuses citizens. All such abuses which arise out of material inequality tend to generate reactions such as rebellions, revolutions or outside interventions. In an ideal world it is the role of institutions such as the church and state to discourage abuses or, failing that, to intervene to protect the weaker members of society such as children, women, the old and the infirm whenever abuse does occur. If persuasions or interventions fail to have an effect, abuses will persist, and may only be resolved when, in the natural course of development, the material inequalities are reversed. This, as I understand it, is the future that Karl Marx envisaged for the working classes. His theory seems to postulate that the working classes would eventually become stronger and more capable than the capitalist classes, at which point they would assert their independence of capital and put an end to their exploitation.

    Material inequalities are an inescapable fact of life. The evil is not inequality, but the exploitation, oppression and abuse which may be associated with inequality of power. However, if the capitalists are, as they like to claim, industrious, thrifty, abstemious, compassionate people who use their wealth wisely to develop industry, protect the land, and provide the poor with the same standards of nutrition, housing, health, education and general quality of life which the wealthy themselves enjoy, then capitalism could look forward to a long innings. If the workers are feckless idiots who squander their inheritance on drugs, alcohol, gambling and a generally dissolute lifestyle, then there would be merit in retaining the disciplines of capitalism and its inequalities of economic power for the long term.

    In New Zealand there is just enough factual basis to the above stereotypes to sustain the colonial regime’s arguments in favour of retaining, and even extending, inequalities of wealth and income. But if we look at the situation objectively we see a different picture. We see the self-indulgent middle classes who enjoy their wine, fashion, films, luxury cars, pleasure boats, beach houses and overseas travel on the strength of exorbitant rents extracted from hard-pressed tenants and interest paid on their capital by an exploitative financial system.
    We see the seriously wealthy who reap speculative profits reaped from the acquisition and sale of state assets, and then, almost without exception, retire to a life of opulence in Zurich, Sydney, London, or New York.

    As a fair generalisation the wealthy in New Zealand have failed our people both morally and practically. They have failed to set an example. They have failed to develop a viable national economy. They have been feckless and dissolute. They should be brought to account. Minor redistribution of income – “greater equality of income” – is arguably no longer a viable option. The means of production – land and industry – must be redistributed if the nation is to have any serious hope of progressing.

    Socialism won’t happen just because the working classes are being exploited and oppressed. It won’t even happen when the working classes become fully conscious of their exploitation and oppression. It will only happen when the working classes achieve moral and practical superiority over the capitalists. The material inequality between the classes – the inequality of power and discipline which has essentially spiritual foundations – must be reversed. In that context, the call for “equality” is a delusion. The one pertinent question is “What measures will make the working classes morally and practically superior to the colonial ruling class?” The working classes of Aotearoa have a simple choice: either to be inferior or superior to their colonial rulers, with all the consequences which will flow from that choice.