Equality : Collaboration

2. The Historicity of Equality

Time and again, with almost worrying ease, historical studies have revealed the incredibly violent origins of various kinds of inequality.11 Those approaches that treat equality as a primary concept of investigation—predominantly Marxism, but also radical feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism—are characterized by a methodological historicism that focuses on exposing the historical sources of inequalities involving class, gender, sex, race, culture, or geography. A great deal of theoretical attention has been placed on analyzing the various ways these structures of inequality have been masked or concealed—first and foremost by presenting certain social structures and identity-formations as natural and a-historical, and hence as pre- or a-political. The historicity of the concept of equality itself, however—that is to say, the question of how equality turned into a central object of political claims-making in the first place, and hence how these concealments of inequality could be scandalized—seems to have been largely neglected.12

The varying presence of inequality throughout history has to do primarily with the varying degree of scandal it involves. Tracing the principle of equality through history thus requires a meticulous, comparative reconstruction of the fluctuating “scandalousness” that appearances of inequality raised in different cultures at different times.13

How do we explain that at certain historical moments in a certain political culture the egalitarian view began to expand, whereas other moments saw the emergence of blind spots within its field of vision? How come outrage over certain forms of inequality erupted in certain junctures and receded in others? It appears, however, that over and above these unending patterns of transformation, a certain fault line can be traced. At a certain point in the history of the West, there occurred a fundamental disturbance in the mechanisms in charge of neutralizing the outrage over the absence of equality; of refracting every egalitarian view by regarding every form of inequality as simply a natural difference.

This fault line is the advent of modernity. It can be located somewhere between Hobbes (1651), who regarded the equality of human beings as a grim natural condition politics ought to remedy, and Locke (1690), who elevated this natural, self-evident equality as what politics ought to preserve. It is around that period that scandals over appearances of inequality turn from episodic incidents into a central concern that gradually turns into the central “motor” of modern political unrest. In the intellectual sphere, this move culminates with Rousseau, who places inequality at the center of the developmental logic of human society: a development from a harmonious state of nature into an unjust, miserable political order, in which inequality is institutionalized into the status of law.14

Equality is thus also (or rather: after all) a modern political concept. Following Carl Schmitt’s understanding of modern political thought, we can regard equality as a secularized theological concept.15 It was secularization that, so to speak, “ignited” the concept of equality as a motor of ongoing discontent at the heart of modern society.

If one understands secularization not as the uprooting of superstitions and theological excesses, or as yet another phase in the progress of truth and rationality, one realizes that the effect secularization had on equality is an ambivalent one. If one also drops the view of modernity and secularization as a crisis, one can regard the characteristic instability of the concept of equality, its constant self-undermining, so to speak, not as a problematic byproduct of the alleged crisis of modernity/secularization, but rather as a “positive,” inherent quality of modern politics in general. If one adopts the view of modern politics as the art of preserving, managing, and channeling mass unrest, then the alleged instability of modern equality reveals itself to be an island of stability that in fact serves as an organizing principle.

The first theological idea to be traced at the basis of the concept of equality is that of man being created in the Image of God (Hebrew: tselem elohim): an idea that allowed the egalitarian view to encompass (in principle) all human beings.16 It allowed the bringing-together of various appearances of the human into a single space of differences that do not make a difference.

One cannot be outrageous about inequality among human beings without thinking of them as comparable to begin with. The half-man-half-god status of a figure like Hercules was not altogether extraordinary against the backdrop of a worldview in which the space stretching between gods and humans was filled with such hybrids. The idea of man-in-the-image-of-god replaces this hybrid continuum with a relation of resemblance between God and man, which in turn implies a “flattening” and unification of the human domain. Man remains an icon; εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ [eikōn tou theou]; imago dei.17

11. For a brilliant example see Clifton Crais, Poverty, War and Violence in South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

12. See Siep Stuurman, “The Voice of Thersites: Reflection on the Origins of the Idea of Equality,” Journal of the History of Ideas 65:2 (2004): 171-189.

13. See Barbara Weinstein, “Developing Inequality,” American Historical Review 113:1 (2008): 1-18; Philip T. Hoffman, David S. Jacks, Patricia A. Levin and Peter H. Lindert, “Real Inequality in Europe Since 1500,” Journal of Economic History 62:2 (2002): 322-355; Aldon Morris, “Building Blocks of Social Inequality: A Critique of Durable Inequality,” Comparative studies in Society and History 42:2 (2000): 482-486; Carole Shammas, “A New Look at Long-Term Trends in Wealth Inequality in the United States,” The American Historical Review 98:2 (1993): 412-431.

14. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994).

15. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 36.

16. “And God said: Let us make mankind in our image, as our likeness” (Genesis 1:27).

17. See the discussion of the notion of resemblance in Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1971), Ch. 2. See also Yair Lorberbaum’s fascinating study, Tselem Elohim [The Image of God] (Tel Aviv: Schoken, 2004, in Hebrew). For a recent discussion of the role of the idea of man’s creation in the image of God in the emergence of modern political subjectivity, see Jürgen Habermas, “The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights,” Metaphilosophy 41:4 (2010): 464-480.

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