Why Some Are More Equal Than Others

From Literary Review:

The Remigia cave, about eighty miles north of Valencia, features paintings dating from around 6500 BC. Some depict bands of archers hunting ibex; others appear to show executions. These are the ones tourists come for. But the most significant image is the least dramatic. Fourteen individuals gather closely together, watching a lone figure departing from the group. It appears to be an ostracism – a social death, not a physical one.

The hunter-gatherer tribes of that era were perhaps the most equal communities in human history. But this egalitarianism was strictly bounded. Individuals who were not part of the tribe or who broke its norms were cast out or killed. Inclusion required exclusion.

In a famous essay, the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen pointed out that we are all in favour of equality. We just disagree about whether we mean equality of money, or power, or respect, or legal standing, or whatever. The question is ‘equality of what?’ But there is an even deeper question than this: ‘equality of whom?’ Where is the line between those considered as equals and those who are not – between the fourteen and the one?

This is the question animating Equality, a landmark work of intellectual history by Dartmouth historian Darrin McMahon. ‘Time and again we have seen controversies play out over equality’s “substance” and the degree to which it could admit of difference,’ McMahon writes. ‘Did equality imply common religious or national belonging? Was it delimited by sex, title, or race? Or did it free up individuals to make claims on the collective regardless of the fortunes of their birth?’

It is easy to invoke equality without facing its limits. Contra John Lennon, it is actually very hard to imagine a world with no countries. ‘For all the high-minded talk of “global equality” in recent times’, McMahon writes, ‘its contours have most often been imagined from within the walls of nation-states, where equality extends only to those who share a passport and more often than not a place of birth.’

McMahon has set himself an almost impossible task: to analyse humanity’s most powerful and contested idea throughout history and across the globe. Most attempts at total histories of ideas fail. Depth is sacrificed to achieve breadth, the reader is marched along too strict a chronological path or the author gets stuck in an etymological quagmire. But McMahon succeeds. This book is deeply researched, tightly argued and sparklingly written. It ought to be read by anyone interested in equality, and also anyone interested in people, history, God, politics, religion, nationalism, war or love.

The book is structured around what McMahon calls ‘figures’ of equality, a term he uses in the rhetorical sense of a ‘figure of speech’. These figures are explored in roughly chronological order, from ‘Reversal’, the overturning by hunter-gatherers of the dominance of our ape ancestors, all the way to ‘Dream’, the invoking by 20th-century reformers such as Martin Luther King of a new concept of equality founded on universal brotherhood. The only downside of this approach is that it involves a degree of repetition.

There’s no romanticisation in these pages. Not only did hunter-gatherers kill or expel in order to maintain order, they also formed hierarchies. Or rather, hierarchies formed them. McMahon insists that hierarchies are everywhere in human history, just as they exist in every primate community. Human beings ‘cannot live without hierarchies’, he writes, since ‘status is part of the air we breathe’.

One of the big advantages of human hierarchies is their diversity: there’s more than one way to be top dog. McMahon writes that ‘unlike animals, we regularly inhabit multiple hierarchies at once, with the result that a low-status individual in one environment, say a janitor at a corporation, may be a high-status individual, the captain of the company softball team, in another’. This insight is not developed, but it is critical. One way to square equality with hierarchies is to scramble them, not only over generations but also over the course of an average day. In other words, you defang hierarchies not by denying them but by multiplying them.

Link to the rest at Literary Review

Bonus Book About Equality

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