Equality: A Western Achievement?

(Utrecht University - École des hautes études en sciences sociales)

Aldo Schiavone, Une histoire de l'égalité

Aldo Schiavone, Une histoire de l’égalité. Leçons pour le XXIe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 2020.

Equality has long been overshadowed by its counterpart, liberty, in the history of political thought and the history of ideas more generally. Aldo Schiavone’s magisterial new book, Une histoire de l’égalité: Leçons pour le XXIe siècle1, is therefore a welcome contribution to a topic that has recently been gaining attention. Beginning in Ancient Greece and tracing changing uses of equality through Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and down through the Industrial Revolution to the present, it is intellectual and social history of a high order. His analysis is built upon what he sees as the dual invention of political/legal and universal/spiritual equality in Ancient Greece and Rome, its rediscovery in the Renaissance, and finally the confluence of this ancient idea of equality with individualism and industrial labour in the modern era. As its subtitle suggests, it is also a passionate plea for using the lessons that this grand scale history provides to rethink equality for our globalized world of fast-growing inequalities. One can raise doubts about the efficacy of his suggestions for reforming present-day equality, but this rich and erudite book is without question thought-provoking, deserving of a wide audience.

Schiavone begins his history in Ancient Greece because it was there and then that we find the first debates concerning whether equality is natural, rooted in a shared human nature, or political, concerned with the government of a circumscribed community of citizens. He uses the well-known Sophist philosopher Antiphon to demonstrate that there was a powerful discourse of basic, natural equality in the fifth-century BCE Greek world. Antiphon argued that the customs of any community, whether Greek or “barbarian,” are arbitrary and that beyond these observable differences lies a common human nature. Schiavone rightly stresses that this kind of equality was pre-political, in the sense that it was abstracted from any particular community and grounded in universal human traits such as the capacity to experience emotion and use language. Sophistic natural equality challenged the commonly held assumption that barbarians are inherently inferior to Greeks. He contrasts this idea of natural equality with political equality, developed in the context of the Greek polis, particularly Athens, encapsulated in the concept of isonomia, or equality before the law for all the citizens of a polis. According to Aristotle, this way of thinking about equality was actually a precondition for conceiving of the polis as a political order. This kind of equality was built upon the various sharp inequalities of the polis, the exclusion of women, slaves, and foreigners from political participation. The tension between these two ways of thinking about equality is most manifest in Aristotle’s work: although he conceived equality as underpinning the very creation of a political order, he argued for the existence of natural slaves, possibly to counteract the Sophist vindication of natural equality.

Schiavone argues that the influence of the Greeks on Roman culture was clear in the fifth-century BCE “wave of democracy” that swept across the ancient world, but the Romans developed a concept of equality distinct from democratic equality: private legal equality. One of Schiavone’s previous books, The Invention of Law in the West2, forcefully argues that law, as a distinct realm of human activity that follows its own logic separate from philosophy, religion, and even politics, developed in Ancient Rome. Here in Une histoire de l’égalité, he develops the role of equality in Roman law more fully, arguing that the Romans produced a “veritable legal machine of equality” that was detached from democracy and politics more generally, a particularly powerful and long-lasting innovation. Beginning with the Twelve Tables in the fifth century BCE, this legal machine would later be refined by Cicero in the first century BCE and Ulpian in the early third century CE. The origins of this Roman legal tradition can be found, according to Schiavone, in the unique early history of Roman society, where powerful heads of families and clans came together under Roman political order and the law regulated this separate, private sphere. Roman law introduced a novel level of abstraction, creating a realm in which the physical and social inequalities between human beings were set aside.

Schiavone is particularly attuned to the alterity of Ancient Rome and convincingly argues against those who hold that Roman law vindicated the inviolable rights of the “human person.” He writes, “It was not the law or right that belonged, as such, to the subject … but rather the subject which belonged to the law” (p. 66). Modern human rights philosophy depends upon the autonomous human subject that, in its turn, rests upon the social control of the individual’s capacity to work. We cannot therefore trace a direct line from Ancient Roman legal equality to modern human rights. This also explains why no ancient writers wrote about a contradiction that seems obvious to us moderns: that between equality before the law and the institution of slavery. The development of the perception of such a contradiction required the social and intellectual context of modernity: the deep interiority of each individual and the rights that follow from this. Yet slavery evolved significantly from the Ancient Greek to the Roman world, as Ulpian and other Roman jurists argued that slavery is a product of civil, not natural law. The Stoic discourse of universal equality was no longer the reserve of philosophy, as it was taken up in Roman law. This chapter ends with the rise of Christianity in the late empire and Schiavone argues that the religion could spread in late antiquity without major social disruption because of Christianity’s relegation of equality to the kingdom of heaven. His apt phrase for equality in the Christianized Roman world, “the political sterilization of equality” (p. 86), applies well to many moments in history in which the revolutionary potential of a radical idea has been contained.

In the third and lengthiest chapter of the book, “The Equality of the Moderns: Labour, Individuals, and Classes in the Time of Capital,” Schiavone charts the rise and triumph of modern equality from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century in the framework of the consolidation of the state and the advent of individualism and capitalism. For Schiavone, modern labour and modes of production are the most important elements that form the background to the growth of political and civic equality as it developed in modernity. The antiquity/modernity divide rests primarily on the absence of capitalism in the ancient world and the fundamentally different nature of labour in early modernity as compared to antiquity. It was the lack of technology and the ubiquity of slavery in antiquity that, according to Schiavone, rendered labour an impuissant element in egalitarian thought. He is frustratingly vague about exactly how and where the new technologies and capitalist labour relations developed in Renaissance Europe, but his larger point is convincing: the novel conception of labour as human energy always uniformly equal to itself and individuals equalized by the process of production meant that new technology and modern labour relations gave impetus to new ways of conceiving equality in the political and social realms. The Renaissance marked both a social and a cultural rupture. Socially, with the advent of capitalism, the old categories of rank no longer held sway and a new, more mobile world was born. Culturally, there developed a novel philosophical concentration on the person as an autonomous agent with a deep interiority developed, explored most eloquently and influentially by Michel de Montaigne.

The recovery of Ancient Roman jurisprudential texts in the Renaissance, when combined with the novel subject of the “individual-person”, gave modern equality its particular strength. Schiavone argues that philosophical and political concern for the individual-person subject was, in part, a response to an intractable problem in early modern Europe: religious civil war. Endowing the individual with rights that were protected by a centralized, powerful state were ways out of violence on an unprecedented scale. Schiavone’s focus is western Europe, particularly the British Isles, France, Italy, and Germany, but he often makes sweeping generalizations about developments across vast swaths of time and space. The role of nascent capitalism in producing novel theories of the individual and equality was most pronounced in the British Isles, where the theory of “possessive individualism” developed in the thought of philosophers such as John Locke.

The two trends that began in the Renaissance – capitalist labour relations and the advent of increasingly atomistic individuals – intensified and reached their apex in the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. Schiavone is right to place equality at the centre of the Enlightenment, writing that “in some ways, it is as if thinking about equality has become an irrefutable sign of embracing its own time” (p. 137). In addition to the Renaissance roots of modern equality already traced, he points to the acceleration of urbanization in eighteenth-century western Europe as an explanation for the increasing traction that equality gained in Enlightenment thought. The Academy of Dijon’s 1754 question regarding the origins of inequality and its justification in natural law did not invent anything new, but rather was seamlessly in tune with the signs of the time. For Schiavone, the principal significance of the most famous response to that question, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was to have decoupled individualism from equality, to have developed an alternative to the possessive individualism elaborated in the British Isles from Hobbes to Hume. For Rousseau, democracy and therefore true freedom as a political community were only possible if individuals were capable of dissolving themselves in the larger community, given that the general will is, as Schiavone puts it, “the only democratic and egalitarian ditch possible in the face of the unbridled drift of history” (p. 143).

In transitioning from the Enlightenment to the Age of Revolutions, Schiavone is careful and nuanced in not drawing any simple, direct causal connection between them. Rather, he convincingly states that a kind of “point of no return” had been reached for the old regime under the stresses of Enlightenment political and social critique and the deep social changes brought by capitalist and industrial development. He places the American and French Revolutions in the same framework and relies primarily upon the work of François Furet and Jonathan Israel to interpret these events. Although political equality was circumscribed during and immediately after the American and French Revolutions, Schiavone nonetheless treats the revolutions as world-historical turning points because equality became a part of declarations and state constitutions and thus set the parameters of political debate. The Atlantic revolutions marked the triumph of bourgeois civil equality, as they rejected inequality of status but enshrined the legitimacy of economic inequality. In short, Rousseau was abandoned for Mandeville, Smith, and Voltaire, and the failure of the revolutions to deal with social and economic inequalities would deeply mark the political struggles around equality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Through an analysis of Hegel, Tocqueville, and Marx, Schiavone covers the trajectory of equality in the nineteenth century. He argues that Hegel was aware of the atomistic tendency of modern individualism and that he attempted to overcome atomism with an organicist conception of society that, of necessity, is marked by some forms of hierarchy. He relies heavily on Tocqueville to highlight the difference between the more broadly socially egalitarian American democracy of the nineteenth century as compared to the hierarchical class structure of European societies. One of his most interesting lines of thought here is that there is a clear parallel between the rise of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism and the centrality of equality to the developing class struggle, on the one hand, and the de-industrialization, technological revolution, and growing inequality of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, on the other. In both cases, the state failed to protect the great multitude who were the most affected by the social transformation brought in changing labour conditions. It was in these new social conditions of modernity that there developed a totally new view of equality, formulated most influentially by Karl Marx. Schiavone lays out the non-political nature of equality in Marx’s thought. Given that Marx believed he had developed a science of society that would lead to freedom and equality, the problem of equality was not a political one but rather a historical-economic one. The consolidation of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union resulted at least partially from this feature of Marxist theory, where democracy as a political form is irrelevant because of the historical determinism built into the theory.

République, égalité
Hyderabad, Inde

Representations of equality: at Place de la République in Paris (1880) and in Hyderabad, India (2019).

In transitioning to the twentieth century, Schiavone uses the triumph of the equality central to the Western model of representative democracy in the twenty-first century as his framework and proposes that this framework allows the twentieth century to be divided into four blocks: 1900-1914, 1914-1945, late 1940s-1990, 1990-11 September 2001. The first period was marked by debates concerning two concepts of equality that continued to operate largely in separate universes: formal equality, invented by Roman jurists, finding its completion in the abstractions of capitalist society – labour, the commodity, the state – which was welcomed by Hegel and critiqued by Marx; and substantial equality, the defenders of which argued for the distribution of resources, political power, and equal sharing in life’s chances. The gap between these two concepts began to close between 1930 and 1950, Schiavone’s second period, as the social services provided by the state expanded. The new situation that developed in these years in both western Europe and the United States had at its centre the institutional, social, and cultural construction of a link between politics, democracy, and labour, founded on an anthropological idea of the latter as intrinsically egalitarian. This was the West’s response to Soviet communism on the Marxist-Leninist model. Schiavone notes how striking it is that during this period when inequality in all of its forms was declining in the West up to the 1960s, none of the major philosophers except for Hannah Arendt really showed much interest in equality. This would change with the major contributions of John Rawls and Michael Walzer in the 1970s and 1980s, whose work Schiavone briskly and lucidly analyses in jargon-free prose. He highlights the Lockean and Enlightenment contractarian roots of Rawls’s famous “veil of ignorance” thought experiment, in which one must select the principles for the structure of society before one knows what position one will have in such a society. Schiavone prefers Walzer’s concept of “complex equality” above Rawlsian equality because different outcomes for different people in different spheres constitutes a just society. What unites both theories is the two ends of the axis around which modern equality turns: emancipation through the recognition of a shared, basic equality that is made possible by the equalizing force of modern labour, on the one hand, and emancipation through the valuation of different individualities, on the other (p. 286). Both forms of equality expanded in the twentieth century, spurred on by the social and cultural movements of the 1960s.

In his fifth and final chapter, “The New Equality: Forms of the Human in the Age of Technology,” Schiavone calls for a “new paradigm of equality” now that the social conditions which produced the individuality-equality pairing have disappeared in a world transformed by the technological revolution of the past thirty to forty years. Schiavone argues that this pairing still plays a role in the twenty-first century, but almost only in the non-Western world, where the paradigm of equal individuals furthers the emancipation of disenfranchised groups. But in the West, the main task we face is to develop a new conception of equality that takes the lessons of the past to heart, but also rises to the challenge of fighting the intensifying inequalities of our time. He follows Thomas Piketty and other scholars in arguing for the introduction of a global tax on wealth. But the lion’s share of his attention goes to the decoupling of equality from individualism. He argues that we have to move beyond the two ends of the axis around which equality has turned throughout modernity – the autonomous individual and the collective sociality – if we are to enter a new era of equality. We must transcend the individual without erasing it in order to move beyond both the “I” and the “we” and towards the impersonal “he” (p. 310). He relies on the philosophy of Roberto Esposito to develop the connection between the impersonal and equality. The basic idea is that we should maintain the personal, the unique individuality of each person and let this function as the basis of difference and inequality and place universal equality at the level of the impersonal in the political, ethical, and legal spheres. Schiavone argues that the end of modern labour means that equality can no longer pass through the paradigm of the person, which has always had a difficult relationship with equality. Two issues are essential if we are to achieve this impersonal/equality, personal/inequality framework: the development of a transnational language of equality to refer to the goods (both physical and social) that will be enjoyed by all and giving a new status to the individual, as the labour-individual-equality connection has been severed.

It is a shame that Schiavone did not engage with the arguments of Siep Stuurman’s The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History3. As far as one can tell, Schiavone is unaware of Stuurman’s scholarship even though they cover very similar ground and Schiavone often makes related arguments. Stuurman coined the concept of modern equality in his book on the seventeenth-century Enlightenment thinker François Poulain de la Barre and uses the concept effectively in his longue-durée history4. He used the theoretical framework of “serial contextualism” in The Invention of Humanity, which enabled him to avoid telling a teleological, Whiggish story of the invention of equality in antiquity and its unfolding and triumph in later history5. Schiavone has certainly not written a Whiggish history, but his comments on theory and methodology are sparse and he sometimes pays little attention to the specificities of a given context, particularly in the modern part of his history, offering generalizations about equality across wide swaths of time and space in post-Renaissance Europe that hovers too high above the specificities that would make his story more convincing.

Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity

Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2017.

It is instructive to contrast Schiavone’s “equality of the moderns” with Stuurman’s concept of modern equality. Both authors stress that equality in antiquity, while sometimes formulated in universalistic terms, was generally compatible with a deeply hierarchical social and political order. Whereas for Schiavone, the Renaissance and the advent of capitalist forms of labour marked the real rupture separating ancient from modern equality, Stuurman sees the confluence of a number of intellectual trends in the Enlightenment as the turning-point towards modern equality. Stuurman develops the concept of “modern equality” to refer to the simple yet revolutionary move that was made possible by the late seventeenth-century “crisis of the European mind” in which equality could become the basis of a social philosophy, first formulated by Poulain de la Barre. Poulain drew together the languages of equality available to early modern Europeans: natural law, the Christian conception of spiritual equality, the cultural relativism of some travelogues, and the Cartesian vindication of the equality of reason. In bringing these languages together, Poulain also abstracted from all of them, transforming equality into a universalist concept. Equality rather than inequality was given the benefit of the doubt. Modern equality made possible the biting criticism of all existing social inequalities, whether they were based on sex, religion, rank, or race6.

For both authors, the individual person is central to the logic of modern equality. As Stuurman writes, “Modern equality posits the individual as the primary reality and society as an artificial contrivance created by men and women to further their security and comfort”7. Schiavone writes that once the doctrine of Roman legal equality was combined with the modern philosophy of the individual person, equality “proved potentially capable of expanding without limits, of overcoming all obstacles in its path” (p. 128). Stuurman uses three meta-concepts for his global history of equality: common humanity, the anthropological turn, and regime of temporality. This enables him to reconstruct the invention of languages of equality at diverse moments in global history, from the Ancient Greece and China of Herodotus and Sima Qian, through the medieval Islamic world of Al-Biruni and Ibn Khaldun, and on to the invention of modern equality in Enlightenment Europe. Given the centrality of Montaigne to Schiavone’s history, it is surprising that he engages so little with the impact of early modern European expansion on the concept of equality. For Stuurman, frontiers – particularly the nomadic-sedentary frontier and frontiers between civilizations, empires, and cultures – are central to the history of equality. This is because equality does not describe social reality but rather must be invented and abstracted from the myriad differences and inequalities that exist at any given time in history. Stuurman’s assessment of modern equality as being “Janus-faced,” as it operates in two registers, relates well to Schiavone’s idea that the twentieth century was an age “never so equal, never so different”. On the one hand, to be equal, one must adopt Enlightenment culture and reason and become like those who already are equal, or, on the other, equality can mean the equal right to live life according to one’s own creed, as long as one respects the autonomy of others8.

Contrasting Schiavone’s history with Stuurman’s highlights the Eurocentrism of the former’s work. While choices have to be made based on one’s expertise, given the centrality of questions of ethnic and gender differences to any history of equality, some of Schiavone’s choices are surprising. In addition to the lack of any sustained engagement with the expansion of European frontiers beginning with the Columbian Exchange, Schiavone also ignores the Haitian Revolution in his coverage of the late eighteenth-century Atlantic revolutions. He occasionally remarks upon those excluded from equal treatment at any given moment in time, particularly the contradiction between equality and slavery that intensified in the eighteenth century. In the post-revolutionary period, he also briefly covers the role of the modern feminist and civil rights movements in expanding the purview of equality, but he doesn’t analyze any feminist or non-European/Euro-American authors at any length. Most remarkable of all, his suggestion that the individual autonomy-equality pairing is “another victory for the West: to lend its face to the redemption of the hitherto forgotten part of the planet” (p. 300) blatantly ignores both non-Western traditions of egalitarian thought and the role of non-Europeans in the development of the autonomy-equality pairing within the so-called Western tradition. The canonical thinkers in the history of European political thought were deeply influenced by the reports coming back to Europe of New World societies with very different attitudes towards equality and inequality than early modern Europeans9. This shortcoming bears on the efficacy of the solutions that he offers for bolstering equality in the twenty-first century in the face of the digital revolution and the globalization of capital.

Schiavone’s focus on the centrality of the valuation of individual differences in the modern history of equality demonstrates that he is aware of the fact that equality is not limited to the equalization of incomes or social goods. It is also, crucially, a “relational ideal” that emphasizes the importance of each individual being able to participate in public life free of the stigma of the inferiority that is often connected to certain genders, ethnicities, religions, or other social groups10. Schiavone seems to think that this egalitarian ideal has been achieved, at least in the West, and that we must look to new horizons to consolidate and expand equality. He is correct to the extent that we have reached an “abstract egalitarian plateau” on which all political discussion must take place11. No major political philosopher or other scholar takes categorical inequalities to be just or inevitable. His desire to transcend the individual without erasing it and to locate equality at the level of the impersonal risks obscuring equality as a relational ideal because he leaves to the individual the task of representing uniqueness, particularity, and thus inequality. At a theoretical level, it is easy to see how Schiavone’s project would work. But in the real-life world of enduring discrimination and unequal treatment on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, etc., it is difficult to see how such inequalities can be tackled if equality is placed purely on the impersonal level. Moving equality to the impersonal level will not help LGBTQ people, for example, to achieve a world in which they can live free of stigma, given that respect for “the personal” is precisely what is at stake.

That said, Schiavone highlights the shortcomings of identity politics. He mentions the very different course of post-war leftist politics in the U.S. and western Europe, as there never was a concerted minority rights movement in Europe as compared to the U.S. His proposal seeks to overcome one of the main drawbacks of twenty-first-century leftism marred by identity politics: the lack of a vocabulary to describe and defend our shared concerns and interests12. He recommends the creation of a public language of the impersonal that relates to equality and to the equal enjoyment of public goods, rather than a language of equality related to individuals. Whether linking inequality to individualism would be able to contain and circumscribe inequality is debatable. But the development of a renewed language of social and political goods that must be shared equally by all for justice to be achieved is certainly a project worthy of further exploration.

Unfold notes and references
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Aldo Schiavone, Une histoire de l’égalité. Leçons pour le XXIe siècle, trans. Giulia Puma, Paris, Fayard, 2020.

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Aldo Schiavone, The Invention of Law in the West, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2012.

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Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2017.

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Siep Stuurman, François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2004.

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Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 22-26.

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Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 259.

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Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 557.

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Siep Stuurman, The Invention of Humanity. Equality and Cultural Difference in World History, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 342.

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Frederick G. Whelan, Enlightenment Political Thought and Non-Western Societies. Sultans and Savages, New York, Routledge, 2009 ; Robert Launay, Savages, Romans, and Despots. Thinking About Others from Montaigne to Herder, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.

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Elizabeth Anderson, « A world turned upside down : social hierarchies and a new history of egalitarianism », Juncture, 20, no 4, 2014, p. 258-267.

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Ronald Dworkin, « In Defense of Equality », Social Philosophy and Policy, 1, 1983, p. 24.

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Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal. After Identity Politics, New York, HarperCollins, 2017.