Callinicos on Equality

Alex Callinicos, Equality, Pluto Press, London, 2000

David Murray and Mark Neocleous, Radical Philosophy, No 109, Sept/Oct 2001

Between 1994 and 1998 the wealth of the richest 200 people in the world grew from $440 million to $1042 million; the latter sum is equivalent to the income of 41 per cent of the world’s population. Following Noberto Bobbio’s hugely influential claim that the distinction between left and right centers on the idea of equality, many of the left have argued that the response to global problems such as this is to demand equality. In this book Alex Callinicos joins them. The result is not only a disappointing book, but one which is also symptomatic of the current paucity of thinking on the left.

In this book Marx is presented alongside Tawney and Crosland as providing the traditional socialist agenda concerning equality. The presentation of this triad works in a highly deceiving way. Because Tawney and Crosland wrote arguments for equality, lumping them together with Marx has the effect of encouraging the view that, as a tradition, they were all after the same thing. But nothing Callinicos says here about Marx justifies the view that Marx was somehow ‘for’ equality.

Callinicos gives an account of Marx’s theory of the exploitation inherent in wage-labour as an exchange of formal equals between substantive unequals, and then considers an apparent paradox: ‘Marx is consistently hostile to any appeal to normative concepts. Underlying this stance seems to be…a relativist account of ethics in which moral discourse is reduced to a reflection of the requirement of the prevailing mode of production’. This is an astonishingly naive account of Marx’s relation to ethics, for it fails to notice that Marx’s contempt for moralising was a response to those who hoped to merely ameliorate the effects of wage-slavery.

Alongside this, Callinicos claims that Marx’s own criticism of the political economy of redistibutivism was mistaken because ‘there seems no logically compelling reason why a concern with distribution should necessarily confine itself to the means of consumption rather than that of the means of production’. Well, yes there is: namely that precisely what is meant is the distribution of goods produced while leaving unquestioned the extraction of the surplus product and the question as to whether it is the work of autonomous agents. The strategic function of this move is clear: to open the way for the slide from Marx to Tawney and Crosland.

The move masks the fact that Marx nowhere condemns capitalism on the grounds that it generates inequality. This gap in Callinicos’s argument is a kind of political parapraxis. He makes much of the antagonism in bourgeois society between the aspirations to equality which are necessarily secreted by generalised commodity production and the impossibility of their fulfilment, and quotes from the discussion in Capital Vol. I on Aristotle’s discussion on value: ‘the “concept of human equality” can acquire “the permanence of a fixed popular opinion only in a society where the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of commodities” ‘. But Callinicos fails to see that in terms of political economy this requires that human labour takes the form of a commodity. In other words, the demand for equality is, of its essence, a category within bourgeois society. The radicalisation of this demand may point to the boundary of bourgeois society, but it cannot point beyond it. It has no place in the political discourse of communism.

There is a sense in which Callinicos senses this as a problem, and his solution to it is ingenious: Marx misunderstood his own thought. He cites Norman Geras’s comment, on Marx and justice, that ‘Marx did think capitalism was unjust but he did not think he thought so’. However, even if this is the case, it would need a further argument to show that the content of this concept of justice is that of equality. No argument is offered for this claim.

One of the reasons for the paucity of the discussion of Marx and the ‘traditional socialist agenda’, which takes all of 9 pages, lies in part with Callinicos’s use of normative political theory. Thus the chapter on ‘Equality and the Philosophers’ (Rawls, Sen, Dworkin and a few others) comes in at much more substantial 52 pages. While the discrepancy in the length of discussion is perhaps not surprising given that the most sustained defences of equality have come from ‘the philosophers’, there is more work to be done in spelling out the revolutionary implications of what has been, at best, a reformist political project: normative political philosophy does not translate that easily into a revolutionary politics. But Callinicos also has a solution to this problem: Rawls, like Marx, also misunderstood the implications of his own argument.

The final chapter on ‘Equality and Capitalism’ pitches equality against capitalism. And yet in many ways it is not against capitalism at all. First, the Third Way comes in for sustained criticism without any sense that a criticism of it is by no means a criticism of capitalism per se. Second, while it may be true to say that social inequality cannot be ‘significantly reduced in an economy that conforms to the Anglo-American model of deregulated laissez-faire capitalism’, there is nothing revolutionary about that claim; quite the opposite, for it identifies a particular form of capitalism as the problem, and thus opens the door to a liberal reformism (those damn normative philosophers again). Third, and typically for a work from a member of the Socialist Workers Party, the book seeks to ally itself with whatever appears as the most visible contemporary dissident movement: the anti-globalization protests. One might have thought that a Marxist would realise that globalization is inherent in capitalism and that to oppose it from any standpoint other than that of communism could just as easily feed the political economy of National Socialism.

One of the commonsense assumptions made about Marxism is that it is a radicalized liberalism – liberal concepts taken to their logical-radical conclusion. Thus ‘what Marxism wants is for everyone to be equal’, is the common refrain. This is not only a fallacy, it is an anti-Marxist fallacy, for it operates in such a way as to both misrepresent the nature of Marx’s critique of capital and to make Marxism appear absurd. For too long Marxists have encouraged this fallacy. In that sense, Equality is a sad as well as disappointing book.

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