Equality : Collaboration

The second theological root we need to trace has to do with the emergence of modern equality out of the graveyard. In the monotheistic framework, the primary form equality assumed was the shared mortality of all humans: their primal association in the absolute certainty of death. All inequalities of the flesh, as well as those of society, were but fading shadows compared with the equal ontological status of all souls in their divine origin (the Image of God again). The relative eternity of the ocean of bones piling up generation after generation reminded believers of the absolute eternity of the Kingdom of Heaven—which, as is well known, is harder for a rich man to enter than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.18

It is true that such beliefs fed certain egalitarian movements for centuries prior to modernity.19 There were always some who were impatient, who demanded curbing the severe inequality of this world precisely in the name of the absolute equality awaiting everyone in the World to Come.

Yet such movements have always been marginal, and in the final account, anecdotal. They never succeeded in replacing the dominant political discourse and the dominant form of political contestation—one that relied on restorative claims, appealing to the justice of a long-lost past. In such a climate, the egalitarian view mainly took the form of trying to locate the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven down on earth, giving birth to egalitarian claims that mirrored the yearning for the World to Come. This was an egalitarian view from God’s perspective: a perspective in which man, qua His icon, gets to play a part.

In the late eighteenth century, however, the demand for equality here and now took the place of claims for restoration. Theologically speaking, this corresponds to the very same period in which the relation to death began to change. Up until that time, death was at the center of first-rate spectacles: public executions, deathbed confessions, deeds and other final words. The transfer of a person from the custody and jurisdiction of an earthly sovereign to that of the true King of Kings was a ceremony that served to rectify the existing order of things (or to restore it, in case the death in question violated it).

But the meaning of death began to change.20 It receded from the public sphere, turning into the most private experience of all, so much so that even the dying person could experience it only up to a point. Death turned from the true judgment of the one true Judge into an absolute failure, ultimate escape, unavoidable retreat. The dead cannot be punished, avenged, or compensated for. Death becomes the absolute limit of modern power—which is why the modern, secularized anxiety in the face of death is completely unlike its predecessor. The cadaver no longer marks the horror of hell but the horror of the limit of power, its non-omnipotence. As death is no longer a journey or movement, equality must now make its appearance in this world down below.

If we go back to the idea that the concept of equality expresses a demand for consistency-based rationality, we can see how these two theological sources—the Image of God, and death—gave birth to immensely important institutions, whose Western European development constitutes the basis for modern political liberalism.21 The idea of man-as-icon was embodied in the idea of the juridical persona, the generalized man-without-qualities, allegedly “pure” of any property that would distinguish it from any other person: the equal subject of the law, the market, and state apparatuses. The view of death as the absolute limit of power was in turn embodied in a different kind of juridical persona, one that does not correspond to any particular human being: the state, firm, association, party, and so on—institutional realizations of social formations that are distinguished from the individuals who compose them, and are immortal since they are able to survive their replacement.

18. Matthew 19:23-26.

19. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

20. See the last section of Michael Foucault, Society Must be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003), 239-264.

21. Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

« Previous // Next »