The Society of Equals
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Since the 1980s, society's wealthiest members have claimed an ever-expanding share of income and property. It has been a true counterrevolution, says Pierre Rosanvallon--the end of the age of growing equality launched by the American and French revolutions. And just as significant as the social and economic factors driving this contemporary inequality has been a loss of faith in the ideal of equality itself. An ambitious transatlantic history of the struggles that, for two centuries, put political and economic equality at their heart, The Society of Equals calls for a new philosophy of social relations to reenergize egalitarian politics.
For eighteenth-century revolutionaries, equality meant understanding human beings as fundamentally alike and then creating universal political and economic rights. Rosanvallon sees the roots of today's crisis in the period 1830-1900, when industrialized capitalism threatened to quash these aspirations. By the early twentieth century, progressive forces had begun to rectify some imbalances of the Gilded Age, and the modern welfare state gradually emerged from Depression-era reforms. But new economic shocks in the 1970s began a slide toward inequality that has only gained momentum in the decades since.
There is no returning to the days of the redistributive welfare state, Rosanvallon says. Rather than resort to outdated notions of social solidarity, we must instead revitalize the idea of equality according to principles of singularity, reciprocity, and communality that more accurately reflect today's realities.
venue for large celebrations. Revolutionary processions headed there spontaneously, usually ignoring the capital’s prominent places and thus demonstrating “that they were less concerned with a geographic center than with a metaphysical center.”75 The festivals sought to create moments of harmony, merging hearts and bodies in one unanimous whole. “The festivals impress a single, uniform character on the social mass,” one commentator observed at the time, “and this creates a single, uniform spirit
of equality. The revolutionary legislators’ reverent attitude toward centralization reﬂected the same impulse. Although the purpose of centralization was to allow for more efﬁcient management, it was more fundamentally linked to a certain vision of equality and production of the general interest. Language-uniﬁcation and dialect-suppression policies had a similar purpose.81 Equality was perceived as an attribute of indivisibility. The decision to standardize weights and mea sures was also part of
of ser vice and fraternity” with the other classes, with the industrial proletarian.28 The confrontation with the new social economy of dependency was a central element of working-class thinking in this period. “Association” became a watchword for those interested in reviving the old ideal of autonomous, emancipated labor, but rather now in a collective mode. Some explored the possibility of “new guilds” capable of orga nizing to protect labor.29 Everyone felt that the proclamation of the freedom
the ﬁscal order. When it came to social legislation and welfare institutions, however, change was piloted by a broad network of charitable organizations and citizens groups that in182 the century of redistribution fused government bureaus with new ideas. The French case is particularly noteworthy in this regard. Reform owed nothing to Jacobin centralization. It was conceived and driven by a reformist milieu, which brought together the ideas and policies of numerous politicians, progressive
this kind of dependence. 24 the invention of equality The Issue of “Indentured Labor” in America In colonial America, however, the concept of dependency included more than just this. For many Americans of humble station it also referred to direct experience or awareness of “indentured labor.” In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many immigrants could not afford to pay their own ways to America. Before the revolution in travel due to the advent of steam, maritime transportation was