Equality : Collaboration

These and other types of egalitarian demands—greater equality of opportunity, improved upward mobility, greater access to social resources, more equal treatment by government authorities, greater recognition of underrepresented groups, encouraging participation of more groups in the public discourse—are all examples of vastly important and worthy causes of egalitarian struggles. The problem we would like to point out, however, is that such demands often fail to get to the root of the problem that they themselves make visible. They both fail to fully conceptualize the nature of structural inequality and, as a result, generate demands that call not for its significant abolition, but only for its partial offsetting or relief.

Contrast the two answers above with the ones given by the systemic notion of structural inequality. First, the question of what turns a gap between two groups from an insignificant difference into a scandalous inequality. The systemic interpretation highlights not only the fact that the gap constitutes an unjustifiable or unfair advantage of one group over another, nor that this advantage causally reproduces itself, but the fact that the advantage of one group is achieved on the basis of the disadvantage of the other.

Underlying such a claim is the view that social activity is not the product of independently-operating agents (be they individuals or groups), but rather a system of interaction and interdependence, within which certain individuals and groups often gain a relatively higher degree of welfare, status, or other advantageous positions at the expense of others. The systemic view emphasizes the fact that structural inequality involves not only the self-generating gap between those who have more of something and those who have less, but that the first is a product of the second; and that both are the result of the nature of the interaction or interdependence that takes place between the groups.

The situational notion of structural inequality focuses its attention on such phenomena as unequal starting conditions, social constraints, various advantages that un-level the social playing field, and the self-replicating nature of various forms of capital accumulation (economic, symbolic, or other). But what gets lost in the situational picture is the fact that under social relations which generate interdependence between gainers and losers, advantaged and disadvantaged, empowered and disempowered, the primary violation of the principle of equality results not from the participants’ conduct under this system of relations but from the nature of the relations themselves.

The systemic view takes more seriously the idea—which, even if glimpsed at by the situational-structural analysis, is not fully translated into its egalitarian view—that individuals not only act with or alongside one another but also upon each other. This implies the possibility that the nature of the social interaction itself might be the very source of the gap in question—which in turn means that the issue of inequality lies not solely with the fact that this gap exists, nor with the fact that it causally re-produces itself, but with the specific nature of the interdependence that is its source.

Now to the question of what kind of redress is implied by the systemic view of inequality. Such remedies cannot be exhausted by guaranteeing some transition of individuals or groups from one position to another within the existing framework of social relations (through upward mobility, the narrowing of gaps, or making these gaps less fixed and more contingent), nor by increasing the chances for such positional changes (by empowering the disempowered or by removing mobility obstacles). Instead, what the systemic interpretation calls for is a change of the very relations of oppression and domination that sustain the structural inequality in question. Facing the deep cause and scandalous element of structural inequality cannot be exhausted by actions that ultimately strive to either narrow the gaps or to “change ranks” between the groups. As noble and even helpful as such demands might be, they are misaligned with the nature of the inequality they wish to tackle.

To recap, the systemic interpretation of structural inequality emphasizes the fact that to argue that such inequality exists means to argue that there is a scandalous relation of power and interdependence between two groups, which in turn results in gaps with respect to resources, accessibility, welfare, or any other aspect—gaps that are not mere byproducts of these relations but an essential part of their modus operandi. These gaps sustain themselves not only as a result of the self-tendency of the system to allocate, divert, or channel more of something to one group and less to the other, but because the advantage enjoyed by one group is a product of the fact that the other group suffers a disadvantage. The difference between these two pictures of structural inequality is thus a difference between a social-political structure that is characterized by- and sustains inequality, and one that is founded upon inequality.

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