The vicious logic of equality

By Lorenzo

The Left likes to view itself as the champions of equality, compassion, tolerance and support for the oppressed. As with many people, my most dramatic experiences of the Left are of people who are entitled, self-righteous, vicious and nasty.

Some of the latter has been on display in the recent round of commencement addresses in US campuses, where the banning of “heretics” from speaking at US campuses continues to get (via) nuttier and nuttier (while remaining nasty, entitled, self-righteous, vicious and ultimately self-destructive). The science of climate has become infected with the same vicious heretic-hunting, as the recent experience of Prof. Lennart Bengtssom has shown.

Status through equality
But I have long since realised that ostentatious commitment to equality has a huge status advantage–since social life is so, one can always find another “axis of equality” to push. Why is that a status advantage? Because the more committed to equality one is, the more morally virtuous one is.  If one sort of equality becomes generally supported, then one shifts to another to keep ahead in the moral purity stakes.

Support for equality can thus degenerate into a fairly vicious status game. A point that applies to virtues generally, including those the Left is ostentatiously attached to. So the status game of ostentatious morality–the game of feeling morally entitled and self-righteous–generates vicious and nasty behaviour in the name of compassion and tolerance.  Robespierre‘s reign of virtue (which showed how to transmute alleged virtue into terror and viciousness if enough ostentatious self-righteous entitlement is applied) resonating through history, including the pale and pathetic mirrors thereof provided by petulant and privileged youth on US campuses.

Unequal equalising power
Equality specifically has a deeply vicious potential logic to it, for if equality is applied to the material things of life (beyond welfare state redistribution), then pervasive power has to be applied to ensure people do not exchange or work their way into unequal outcomes. This then sets up a profound inequality–between those to be equalised and those who do the equalising. Not merely an inequality of power (though that drives much of the consequences) but also an inequality of status and moral-historical “understanding”.

The compulsorily equal and their equalising hereditary owner.

The most extreme version of this is in North Korea’s bizarre dynastic Stalinism, where one family is deemed to have such transcendent status and moral-historical understanding that the entire apparatus of state (which has essentially subsumed the entire society) is directed according to their purposes. A family that includes an eternal President as well as an eternal Secretary-General and whose current ruling avatar is the third generation of such transcendent guides. All in the names of creating the perfectly equal society utterly free of every last element of exploitation and alienation. But the Kim dynasty has just turned into a dynastic principle the underlying logic of complete material equality and entitled moral purity.

This dynastic Stalinism has created a Party-state-society which is, of course, also a standing offence against such complete material equality as the ruling elite (particularly the ruling dynasty) live lives of great luxury. But that is an inevitable consequence of the gulf in power and status between those to be equalised and those doing the equalising. We can see the same logic in another state committed to material equality which (not coincidentally) has also applied the dynastic principle to leadership of the state: Cuba, were an ailing Fidel Castro has been succeeded by his younger brother Raul Castro.

If people want to see the society described by the film Elysium in real life–a small elite living luxurious and privileged lives while the masses live in the midst of decaying economic ruin–then all they have to do is to go to Havana, Cuba. As writer Michael J. Totten describes in grim detail.

Elysium: presenting us with a post-Castro Los Angeles.

Great imbalances in power have consequences: a perennial consequence of huge power imbalances throughout history has been a small elite living a luxurious existence and masses living in want. Despite the worship of “correct” historical and moral “understanding” in certain circles, equalising intentions are absolutely no protection against that perennial reflection of human nature. That the logic of material equalising generates great power inequalities is much more important a causal factor than the alleged motivation behind the power inequalities. The means chosen utterly overwhelms the alleged motivation. Indeed, this is the problem with the notion that the ends justify the means: the ends are mere intentions in the mind, the means chosen are what affects the world. So, the disastrous effect of utopian ends comes from the absolute nature of the thereby justified means.

If anything, the creating-equality motivations make the effect worse, since material equality is so all-encompassing a goal there is no part of social life that power cannot justify reaching into while full equality without any exploitation or alienation is so ostentatiously “noble” a goal that almost any status game can be justified for its power-practitioners.

Elysium may or may not have been intended as critique of American capitalism: as such it is a failure. To take only one basic point, a fundamental pattern of capitalism has been the diffusion of technology through society, not its elite monopolisation.  But as a description of what a society formally dedicated to complete material equality ends up being like, the film is spot on, as North Korea and Cuba demonstrate.

The Emancipation Sequence, the long fight for equal protection of the law–from the battle against slavery and for Jewish emancipationCatholic emancipationvotes for womenwomen’s liberationcivil rightsqueer emancipation–has been a noble and ennobling series of events in human history. But that is a world away from vicious logic of equality that leads to Havanna’s Elysium on Earth, the dynastic Stalinism of North Korea or the pale, pathetic distant mirrors thereof in what the petulant and privileged fortunate heirs of other people’s struggles get up to on US campuses.

ADDENDA: Yale law Professor Stephen L. Carter provides a very funny “thanks for not disinviting me” comment on the commencement address shenanigans which makes some serious points on the way through.

22 Comments

  1. Posted May 17, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t it be possible for a kleptocracy ostensibly dedicated to ‘equality’ and a plutocracy ostensibly dedicated to capitalism to both result in a tiny group of super-rich people lording it over the rest? (For that matter, has there ever been a system of government that hasn’t had that result to some degree?)

    One difference between the two would be that the former cares very much about monitoring and controlling its people; the plutocracy doesn’t care so much (and I’d say this is the scenario Elysium was based on; the elite only became concerned at the prospect of having the commoners coming up to meet them in space).

    As for the whole deal with moral purity/political correctness, I suspect it’s just the latest version of social jockeying using taste and manners to demonstrate one’s superiority. Tastes and manners may change, (at least we’ve moved/are moving on from church attendance and unswerving loyalty to nation/empire as virtues) but the phenomenon of snotty snobbery will always be with us.

    Comparing it to life under a totalitarian regime seems a bit extreme – but then, I haven’t had the same negative experiences as you.

  2. Nigel Davies
    Posted May 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Dear Terry,

    Yes it would, but you are perhaps missing the point that capitalism is crazy and chaotic and lunges in spurts and bounds with lots of inequalities along the way, but every capitalist society in history has led to steadily higher standards of living across the board. (Interested if anyone can name an exception that does not fit Terry’s ‘plutocracy ostensibly dedicated to…’)

    Meanwhile every society in history that has been dedicated to some form of ‘socialism’ or ‘equality’ or whatever, has had steadily falling standards of living. (I do not think this is just Third World either. Post-war Britain being perhaps the prime example of how the world’s second largest industrial economy can be converted to a basket case in 30 years by socialist idealism.)

    Meanwhile Lorenzo I will note that pushing for ‘gay marriage’ instead of just accepting some sort of equal legal rights with ‘legal unions’, is – in at least some cases –possibly a calculatedly example of how a legitimate cause can too easily become “entitled, self-righteous, viscous and nasty”. (Just to pick on your own favourite moralising…)

  3. Posted May 17, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, your post is little more than dishonest trolling.

    There is a vast army of right wing opinion leaders in the US, folk like Anne Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, who make a good living out of feeding your mob nasty and vicious attacks on individuals. There is no left wing equivalent to these filth merchants. Here is your ideological bedfellow, Rush Limbaugh, describing a woman who argued for the inclusion of birth control in Obamacare:

    What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.

    Of course Oz has its own legions highly paid right wing hater merchants.

    Every day of the week dozens of right wing shock jocks churn out hate speech to the delight of many tens of millions of adoring right wing fans. There is simply no left wing equivalent of this vast hate machine. A small group of stupid Trots carrying on like pork chops is no comparison.

    You might also like to explain why it is that the most equality obsessed western democracies are generally also the most humane and decent places to live in if you happen to born into the lowest class in society.

  4. Martin
    Posted May 17, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo,

    while I don’t always agree with you, I’m usually impressed with your research and attention to detail, but in this case you seem to have not done the work.

    Commencement addresses are not simple presentations in the USA, firstly they are usually accompanied by honorary degrees, therefore it’s not just a matter of speech, it’s actually honoring the speaker which IMO is a very different kettle of fish. Secondly, these speeches do not come free, the speakers are given very large payments to do these commencement addresses, Condaleeza Rice was getting $65,000 to do and the comments are that this is not at all unusual, so again a very different kettle of fish to normal speech. Finally, commencement addresses are meant to be part of a celebratory occasion, inviting controversial speakers of any stripe is generally a bad idea. Of course this means you usually get fairly anodyne addresses, but that is better than turning it in to a bunfight where some of the audience are going to be offended (and I’ve sat through more than my fair share of boring speeches at graduation ceremonies).

    In terms of Lennart Bengtsson, he joined a group which is dedicated to climate scepticism and received a lot of criticism from his colleagues who think it’s unhelpful. They said such mean things as:

    “I received emails from colleagues all over the world telling me it was a “questionable” group.”

    And in what seems to be the worst thing that has happened to him is, that a co-author withdrew from a paper that they were writing together” When you compare this to the attacks on Michael Mann by Ken Cuccinelli (see http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/va-ag-timeline.html), it pales in comparison.

    In terms of the paper, the publisher has put up the actual review at http://ioppublishing.org/newsDetails/statement-from-iop-publishing-on-story-in-the-times and it hardly seems like the vicious logic of equality pervades the review. The rejection seems quite soundly based in my view, though not being a climate scientist, perhaps it has not been written in good faith, but in that case I would’ve expected the professor to have been specific about the errors in the review and not just reveal a very limited out-of-context snippet, that just happens to fit his agenda.

    cheers

    Martin

  5. Posted May 17, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi Nigel,

    thanks for your reply!

    To address a couple of points you made, plutocracies could indulge in protectionism, or enact laws to give specific economic sectors (or companies/corporations) advantages over others, instead of allowing ‘genuinely’ free trade.

    I’m not convinced that capitalism automatically leads to higher living standards – I think it requires wealthy individuals to choose to help the poor (like the industrial mill communities with shops, churches and schools set up in 19th century England), or for laws to be enacted to guarantee certain basic rights (eg children being sent to schools instead of down mines).

    I suspect there was a lot more to Britain’s post-war decline than a vague ‘socialist ideology’ (a declining share of global trade since the 19th century, 1930s Depression, pre-war decline, war debts and the bombing of its industrial bases should figure in there too, shouldn’t they?). Personally, I wouldn’t conflate a welfare state with a socialist one (largely because people’s perceptions of what constitutes ‘socialism’ can vary wildly from a social-liberal mixed economy to full-blown communism).

    But this is moving away from the topic of Lorenzo’s post, so I’ll leave it at that.
    My main point was that I can’t really accept the idea of equating forced economic/material equality with the social pressures of political correctness.
    But I was really taking exception to the interpretation of Elysium. 😉

  6. Posted May 17, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Nigel Davies:

    ” … but every capitalist society in history has led to steadily higher standards of living across the board. ”

    Actually this claim is clearly false.

    * Capitalism without any effective governance can lead to a collapse in living standards (for instance Somalia)

    * Capitalism with poor governance lead to a collapse of living standards (for instance per capita ppp adjusted gdp in Argentina went backwards from the mid 1970s to early 2000s)

    * Capitalism even with effective governance can lead to a collapse in living standards (for instance the lower incomes deciles in the US since the 1970s)

  7. Will
    Posted May 17, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Bengtsson appears to have withdrawn from this think tank as a result of collective peer pressure. Whether the declared ‘viciousness’ he experienced extends beyond individual cases of ugliness which presumably did exist is not obvious to me. Without evidence of extraordinary prevalence, I doubt that most of the pressure he felt could be characterised as such, let alone in generalisation of a broad left-wing monoculture. Non-profane strident emails don’t count as vicious which I’m sure were legion.

    Though I have no want to celebrate anyone’s personal discomfort for voluntary associations they make within the law, our associations do bear normative and reputational costs that we are either willing to bear or not. It seems to me this particular think tank has earned notoriety in the UK for disputing the peer-reviewed literature in other channels outside the journal system — something which is inherently problematic as scientific enterprise. Moreover, as an organisational strongly involved in the media, it is obvious that its reputation will be well-registered in the scientific community and that will reflect to its advisory board. It is also relevant that the Foundation’s charitable status may be examined in relation to factual campaigning, something that is unresolved but a prudent academic might be advised to be careful there.

    Peer pressure can, of course, politicise and limit science. But it’s not obvious this is a major problem in climate science, or that the problem of politicisation is asymmetrical to the left. Bengtsson denies any conspiracy to block his work, and the rejection of his recent paper seems innocuous when the referee papers have since been made available publically. If the review was unfair and the alleged inaccuracies and assessment of the work was unfair, no doubt other journals and scientists will have great incentive to do publish on it. Science and scientific literature are dialectic, so no snap shot like that is particularly relevant compared to hypotheses and adversarial falsification over time.

    As for asymmetry, well there are hundreds of pay-to-publish journals with no scientific value whatsoever, industry journals of little with no peer review which seldom grapple with the high rank literature in good faith, and a vast array of powerful companies and individual saturating non-scientific channels with megaphone scientific commentary claiming things that defame scientists and force them to use more strident communication to put the facts as they see them. That is clearly the real politicisation.

  8. Gavin R Putland
    Posted May 17, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Of all the examples in the graph, the fastest “diffusion of technology through society” was the spread of TV. But, whether the society is capitalist or socialist, the decision on what gets televised is definitely a case of “elite monopolisation”.

  9. Herding cats
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Ah, but in Australia we are – once again – led to believe in the invisible comma.

    i.e “No increase in taxes” – actually means “No, increases in taxes … “No surprise” actually means “No, surprises” etc. et al.

    All Hail the Mighty Invisible Comma. !!!

  10. conrad
    Posted May 20, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I think using Stalinesc states as examples is a bit of a strawman to say the least. You may as well just give, say, Saudia-Arabia as an example of why inequality as bad. And if you want an example of nutty right-wing climate science people, then look no further than Steve Lewandowsky (who Sinclair Davidson seems to have a strange fascination with over at Catallaxy), who was getting death-threats etc. over his views (and now has left for the UK). So this happens to just pretty normal academics with no real power at all, let alone people sitting on panels of major groups. So there are loonies on both sides.

    It’s also not perfect equality that matters, it’s the bounds that allow societies to function reasonably without short of long-term problems, the latter of which often become especially intractable. If I look at the US at the moment, for example, they’ve surely gone too far up this chain, with consequences that either already exist (1% of the population in jail at any giving time; poor overall educational standards) and presumably will be long reaching.

  11. Posted May 20, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Conrad’s correct although there are perhaps some even better examples of the vicious logic of inequality, for example the British and American orchestrated coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically Iranian leader. This along with various other US/British interventions in the Greater Middle East on behalf of the interests of capital were instrumental in shaping the current anti-western hatred and Islamo-fascism that causes us so many problems today.

    The history of the United Fruit Company is another great example of the vicious logic of inequality, not that there is anything unique about this particular example.

  12. Posted May 20, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo is also being less than honest with respect to science. Mainstream climate scientists like Michael Mann have faced far more harassment and character assassination than the denialists.

    But all areas of science often turn into ungodly shit fights. Think of Gary Taubes and his army of poo flinging monkeys that attack genuine science regarding obesity for example. Stephan Guyenet is but one of many victims.

    Or the shit fight over quasi crystals …

    Or the shit fight over the cause of stomach ulcers …

    Science has always been a melodramatic soap opera.

  13. Posted May 20, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    “As with many people, my most dramatic experiences of the Left are of people who are entitled, self-righteous, vicious and nasty.”

    What exactly does this mean?

    Obviously, experiences with people who are “entitled, self-righteous, vicious and nasty” are like to be dramatic, even or possibly especially if you find them to be so.

    What then about the more ordinary run-of-the-mill experiences you have had with “leftists,” Lorenzo?

  14. Martin
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Any reason my comment is still in moderation?

  15. Posted May 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    A couple of examples of the nasty and vicious logic of Lorenzo’s climate change denial mates are in this article.

    Note how the climate change denial crowd manage to pass on their costs to the taxpayer using the limited liability company structure, which must surely be the mother of all legally enshrined symbols of privilege and entitlement.

  16. HetroJim
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Capitalism without any effective governance can lead to a collapse in living standards (for instance Somalia)

    What a superb response. Somalia’s rule of law is the envy of the world. Students from around the world flock to the Somalia University School Of Law from every corner of the world.

    There’s first rate commenting at this blog.

    Mel, totally misunderstands the way a free market functions and why the rule of law is vital. What a whacko.

  17. Posted May 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    HetroJim:

    Mel, totally misunderstands the way a free market functions and why the rule of law is vital. What a whacko.

    That is my point, dopey.

  18. kvd
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I agree with Mel that you completely misread the comment. [email protected] your comment re limited liability companies goes against everything I’ve ever understood about the (beneficial) employment of limited capital.

    Anyway, carry on- both.

  19. Posted May 21, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    kvd,

    I’m not against llc, rather it is an example of a special entitlement to a particular class of people (capitalists) that is sometimes unfair but on balance beneficial.

  20. HetroJim
    Posted May 23, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    No, it really wasn’t your point at all. You believe that unless there exists a strong hand of government people will act “Somalian”. You fail to understand that most of our institutional structures existed ions and arose organically- particularly the legal system.

    And there’s this gem:

    Note how the climate change denial crowd manage to pass on their costs to the taxpayer using the limited liability company structure, which must surely be the mother of all legally enshrined symbols of privilege and entitlement.

    Limited Liability is a method used to compartmentalize capital. It signals to others there is a limited amount of capital pooled, which has put at risk and no more. We understand this and act accordingly in that people will trade on credit, lend money to these artificial structures with these limits in mind. How in god’s name you see this, as a privilege, is ridiculous. It takes only a few hundred Dollars to set up a company! Some privelge.

    It’s the same thing as going to the roulette table putting $20 on the black and knowing this is all you can lose.

    As I said earlier, you’re whacko.

    KVD, your intervention wasn’t helpful in the least. Please remain silent while I dissect this whacko’s limited intellect.

  21. Posted May 23, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Hetro Jim says:

    No, it really wasn’t your point at all. You believe that unless there exists a strong hand of government people will act “Somalian”.

    I never mentioned strong government; the term I used was effective governance.

    America has a strong government and the upshot of that is multi-trillion dollar wars; murderous antipathy towards the west in certain backwaters; drone strikes that slaughters hundreds of civilians every year; and a spooky and ever growing surveillance and extra-legal incarceration and torture programme. These are the things Lorenzo and much of the Right approves of, not me.

    The limited liability corporation is obviously a privileged entity, Jim. You might want to look at the historical arguments regarding limited liability and why many classical liberals opposed granted the privilege of limited liability.

    You fail to understand that most of our institutional structures existed ions and arose organically- particularly the legal system.

    This sounds like Hayekian junk.

  22. HetroJim
    Posted May 27, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Define what you mean by effective governance and avoid the cheap verbal tricks like in your past two comments.

    America has a weaker Federal system than Australia. I fail to see why you’re confusingly bringing in foreign policy and overseas entanglements into the discussion.

    Limited Liability may have started off being a privileged structure, but it isn’t now. The only persons not allowed to own a company are people with specific criminal records, otherwise it’s open slather.

    Let me repeat that limited liability is a mechanism whereby people can only lose what they own as the capital in an entity. Privilege has nothing to do with it, you whacko.

    People can choose not to deal with a limited liability entity. Furthermore the name of the entity must state its limited liability.

    You don’t seem to have much of an understanding of modern business practices, otherwise you wouldn’t be spouting errant nonsense on a screen.

    This sounds like Hayekian junk.

    You sound like a whackjob.

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