By John Rees.
Praeger Publishers. I52 p p . $5.
LABOUR AND INEQUALITY.
Edited by P. Townsend and N. Bosanquet.
The Fabian Society, London. 304 pp. 22.20.
When the Levellers, the Diggers, Babeuf, the 19th-century Utopians or the early Socialists dreamt of a society of equals, they could not even imagine a society with the productive capacities of America today. And yet equality looms more distant than ever on the horizon. Indeed, until quite recently, the panegyrists of growth managed to dismiss it as rather irrelevant. The size of the cake, they argued, is more important than its distribution. But growth for whom, for which purpose and for whose benefit? With such questions springing up spontaneously throughout the Western world, the spokesmen for the Establishment are temporarily on the defensive and there is, once again, scope for the egalitarians.
The search for equality is, naturally enough, anathema to all rulers. Followed’ consistently, it not only strikes at the roots of property and wealth but attacks the prerogatives of power and the perpetuation of privilege. It questions the hierarchical order now concealed under a technological disguise. As such, egalitarianism is dreaded by a11 Establishments from Washington to Moscow. Hitherto they have managed to keep it in check, attacking it cleverly in the West as naive Utopianism and more openly in the East as a dangerous heresy. Yet both sides may soon have to face a new wave of levellers. At our stage of development the concept of equality contains political dynamite.
It cannot be said that Mr. Rees’s little book provides this sort of, ammunition for radical critics of existing society and it is a pity, because the author is well equipped for such a task. Clearly, he has studied Marxism, and possibly sympathized with it, at some stage in his academic career. Hence, the Marxist critique figures prominently in his brief chapter on inequality of wealth and the three following chapters dealing with political equality. Unfortunately, it is a version of Marxism bowdlerized for academic consumption. The letter is often there, but the spirit is not. Despite the many quotations from Marx and particularly Engels, the reader can hardly grasp that when they talked of a society in which men would be “free and equal,” or when Marx claimed that all political and social inequalities would vanish with the abolition of classes, they had in mind quite a different society–in which differences between country and town, between intellectual and manual labor, have disappeared, and the state has withered away; in other words, the social division of labor has been abolished.
It may be objected that the contrast is striking between this vision and the reality of the first alleged attempt to put theory into practice, and no Socialist can simply dismiss this objection. It may equally be argued that there is no need to be a Marxist to write about equality. The snag is that Mr. Rees, having started with real issues, such as the influence of wealth and other factors on the perpetuation of privilege, ends inconclusively with verbal exercises and formal logic. Was it necessary to drag in Rousseau and Buonarroti, Marx and J.S. Mill, to conclude that “absolute equality” (i.e., uniform treatment for all) is not a practical possibility, while conditional equality is a subject “within the cognizance of the rational faculty”? At several stages in his book, the author refers to the Western societies in which we live as “liberal-democratic,” on the ground that they do tolerate protest. In his case there was no need for much toleration. A book turning Marxist dynamite into a wet squib can be safely handed to students, with the blessing of the Establishment.
Indeed, after this disappointingly irrelevant ending one comes gratefully down to earth and the hard facts contained in the essays in Labour and Inequality. The sixteen essays are the more interesting since they are the product of that temple of gradualism, the Fabian Society, where it has always been preached that revolution is superfluous, because the same aim can be achieved by reforms, without a radical break. Hence, it is particularly significant that the authors collectively register here a stinking failure of reformism. They have studied the performance of the Labour government, in office in Britain between 1964 and 1970, taking the struggle against inequality as a test, and found it disastrous. Rather than a record this is an indictment.
Written by specialists, the essays are of particular value for social scientists. Yet, the general reader can learn a great deal as well. First of all, he can learn not to take figures at their face value. Expenditure on welfare did go up during Labour’s years in office, but the rise largely reflected an increase in the number of the aged and the unemployed–the latter hardly a feat of social progress. On closer scrutiny, It IS seen that Labour has done very little to uproot inequalities in housing, health or education, and next to nothing in eliminating .differences between rich and poor.
The distribution of wealth is, naturally enough, one of the least publicized secrets of our societies. The book quotes an estimate made by The Economist (on the basis of official figures of investment income), suggesting that in 1960 the richest 1 per cent of the British taxpayers owned 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth and the richest 7 per cent owned 84 per cent of the total. (Indeed, “the richest tenth of one per cent was actually found to own 13 per cent of total wealth.”) These fantastic proportions are still certainly roughly the same, since the Labour government never dared to strike at the source of wealth. It didn’t even try to tackle the problem from the easier angle of income. “In no budget during this period,” writes one of the authors, “was the aim of government policy a reduction in the degree of inequality in income distribution.”
The book is a mine of Information on the structure of British society. Though each country has its own features and peculiarities, the general trends cut across frontiers. That the poor are less healthy, have a shorter life expectancy or a lesser chance of higher education is not particularly British. The outsider will, therefore, find plenty of occasion for comparison. He will see, for Instance, how the better off can benefit from apparently neutral legislation–how, say, the shift of resources from primary to university education really favors the middle- and upper-middle classes. Above all, he will see that the system has its logic and that an allegedly “progressive” government is its prisoner.
Our Fabian doctors are better at diagnosis than in prescribing remedies. Having thoroughly described the ills, they turn back to the same old medicine, only to be better applied next time. And this 1s perfectly understandable, It took a great deal of courage and honesty for these supporters of Labour to show, the bankruptcy of the movement. It was too much to ask them to give up the gospel of gradualism. Professor Townsend in the concluding essay does ask the crucial question whether the social democracy can lead to the peaceful transformation of society or simply to the “peripheral amelioration of the worst excesses of capitalism.” But his query is rather rhetorical. And most of his fellow authors, while depicting the built-in biases of the system, tend to describe it–as Mr. Rees did in his book–as “liberal democratic.” They cannot quite admit that they are bound merely to tinker with the surface as long as our societies are governed by the Biblical motto, “Unto every one that hath shall be given.”
The failure of reformism to carry out fundamental changes is no surprise for a Socialist, even if the experience of the When government 1s particularly eloquent. But the Marxist can no longer shrug this off with the consolation that revolution will inevitably alter this state of things. The Soviet precedent cannot be simply dismissed with arguments about Russia’s backwardness or Stalin’s crimes. The vagaries of egalitarianism in Russia, of uravnilovka as it was called there, and the revival of privileges, especially since the 1930s, require a closer analysis. It is a reminder that equality, like socialism itself, has to be conquered stage by stage and cannot be expected as a gift from heaven.
We find ourselves today in a paradoxical situation. At least in the advanced industrial countries, the conditions are ripe for men to be “free and equal.” One does not need to be quixotic, or Gandhian, to think in terms of equal distribution within a generation or two. From Tokyo to San Francisco the world cries out for change. But while equality thus rapidly turns from Utopia to necessity, the political obstacles in its way swell rather than vanish. And many illusions are also pricked. Equality will not appear magically through growth nor automatically through revolution. It is the task of the new levellers to show egalitarianism as an indispensable, and explosive, ingredient of any genuine program for the radical transformation of modern society.