Equality : Collaboration

3. The Concept of Equality in the Age of Equality: The Liberal Horizon and Beyond

The fault line of modernity can thus be marked by the fact that the presupposition of the equality of all human beings is accepted as an organizing principle of political justification. This transformation was expressed most clearly by the rise of the republican and liberal strands of political thought, which decidedly adopted this egalitarian principle, and sought to turn its universal applicability into a self-evident requirement. The American and French revolutions have anchored the principles of civic and even human equality in their constitutions, thereby granting the decision on this egalitarian view a solid political foundation.

Alongside liberty, equality becomes one of the two main pillars of modern politics, engraved upon the inaugurating plaque of the liberal state, even if only as an abstract principle. The scandal of inequality is now a scandal vis-à-vis a commitment that the polity had already taken upon itself. This does not imply that all claims for equality are addressed, nor that all of them are even registered as such.

The tension between the promise of equality and its fulfillment, in other words, does not go away. Nevertheless, once modernity decides to adopt the pattern of egalitarian political rationality, such claims have a clearer address to which they can be directed. If previously such claims had to dedicate a great deal of their energy to establishing the very idea that lack of equality constitutes a scandalous presence, the bulk of that energy can now be dedicated to the manifestation of further forms of inequality.

This gives birth to a dynamics in which demands for the abolition of inequality expand into more and more fields—both in terms of their subjects (equality of whom) and in terms of their objects (equality of what). More and more forms of lack of equality can now potentially be presented as illegitimate and as demanding redress.

In what follows we do not intend to present an exhaustive genealogy of the development of the concept of equality between the rise of the modern state and the present day, nor a comprehensive mapping of every egalitarian approach. Instead we would like to leap straight to the contemporary landscape of liberal thought in the Anglophone world: a landscape characterized by a reexamination of the political and normative foundations of liberalism, including a revisiting of the concept of equality.

The debates regarding the concept of equality discussed below are relevant not only because they open up certain fundamental questions regarding that concept, but also because they help uncover what we would argue are the fundamental problems of the “picture of equality” that predominates the liberal horizon today.

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