Monday, August 8, 2016

Equality, Not Sameness (2016)

From the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘You can’t have a world of equality,’ it is sometimes said, ‘because people differ. They differ in ability, energy, creativity. A world where everyone was forced to be equal simply wouldn’t work.’

Socialists want a society of equality, but that emphatically does not mean we want a world where everybody is the same. People do indeed differ, in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, any disabilities and so on. We do not all have the capability to be a Beethoven, Dickens, Picasso or Einstein; but that is not an argument against equality.

So what do socialists mean by equality? Firstly, everyone will have the same kind of access to the goods and services produced in socialism. This will mean free access to, at the very least, the basic needs of human beings: food, housing, clothes, heating, household goods, travel, education, leisure time. Nobody will live in a thirty-room mansion, and equally nobody will live in a slum. Nobody will have to choose between eating and heating, or put off getting a new coat or pair of shoes. Secondly, everyone’s opinion will be equal in terms of deciding what should be done or how resources should be allocated. This does not imply that people will be voting all the time or spending hour after hour in meetings: it just means that there will be no power-holders or elites who will decide things for others and also that there will be no impersonal market forces that determine what transpires. Thirdly, work will be organised on a truly democratic basis, with no bosses or hierarchies and nobody being ordered around. There will still have to be organisation, of course, but work will be made as safe and satisfying and comradely as possible.

Where, then, does this leave the point that people are different? There is an old saying, ‘It takes all sorts to make a world – fortunately’. People have a diverse range of interests and abilities, and in socialism they will be able to develop and make use of these in ways simply not possible under capitalism. People may be interested in railways or computers or pottery or carpentry or chemistry, and they will be in a position to use these abilities to help meet human need. They may discover new abilities that are never explored under the present narrow system. Presumably there will still be top novelists, musicians and scientists, some with famous names, but no celebrity culture as now.

Further, it need not follow that socialist society would be exactly the same everywhere. There will very likely be differences in language, and in tastes in music, food and clothing in different parts of the world. We cannot predict this now but we certainly do not envisage a bland uniformity. And no doubt people will want to express their individual styles and preferences in lots of different ways.

So equality does not imply sameness or identity, just a democratic society where people have the same amount of control over their lives, and where creativity can truly flourish without the encumbrances of class and the profit motive.
Paul Bennett