Why Are Anarchists in Favor of Equality?

Source: The Anarchist Library
Reprinted with permission.


Anarchists are dedicated to social equality because it is the only context in which individual liberty can flourish. However, there has been much nonsense written about “equality,” and much of what is commonly believed about it is very strange indeed. Before discussing what anarchist do mean by equality, we have to indicate what we do not mean by it.

Anarchists do not believe in “equality of endowment,” which is not only non-existent but would be very undesirable if it could be brought about. Everyone is unique. Biologically determined human differences not only exist but are “a cause for joy, not fear or regret.” Why? Because “life among clones would not be worth living, and a sane person will only rejoice that others have abilities that they do not share.” [Noam Chomsky, Marxism, Anarchism, and Alternative Futures, p. 782]

That some people seriously suggest that anarchists means by “equality” that everyone should be identical is a sad reflection on the state of present-day intellectual culture and the corruption of words — a corruption used to divert attention from an unjust and authoritarian system and side-track people into discussions of biology. “The uniqueness of the self in no way contradicts the principle of equality,” noted Erich Fromm, “The thesis that men are born equal implies that they all share the same fundamental human qualities, that they share the same basic fate of human beings, that they all have the same inalienable claim on freedom and happiness. It furthermore means that their relationship is one of solidarity, not one of domination-submission. What the concept of equality does not mean is that all men are alike.” [The Fear of Freedom, p. 228] Thus it would be fairer to say that anarchists seek equality because we recognise that everyone is different and, consequently, seek the full affirmation and development of that uniqueness.

Nor are anarchists in favour of so-called “equality of outcome.” We have no desire to live in a society were everyone gets the same goods, lives in the same kind of house, wears the same uniform, etc. Part of the reason for the anarchist revolt against capitalism and statism is that they standardise so much of life (see George Reitzer’s The McDonaldisation of Society on why capitalism is driven towards standardisation and conformity). In the words of Alexander Berkman:

“The spirit of authority, law, written and unwritten, tradition and custom force us into a common grove and make a man [or woman] a will-less automation without independence or individuality... All of us are its victims, and only the exceptionally strong succeed in breaking its chains, and that only partly.” [What is Anarchism?, p. 165]

Anarchists, therefore, have little to desire to make this “common grove” even deeper. Rather, we desire to destroy it and every social relationship and institution that creates it in the first place.

“Equality of outcome” can only be introduced and maintained by force, which would not be equality anyway, as some would have more power than others! “Equality of outcome” is particularly hated by anarchists, as we recognise that every individual has different needs, abilities, desires and interests. To make all consume the same would be tyranny. Obviously, if one person needs medical treatment and another does not, they do not receive an “equal” amount of medical care. The same is true of other human needs. As Alexander Berkman put it:

“equality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity... Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. True anarchist equality implies freedom, not quantity. It does not mean that every one must eat, drink, or wear the same things, do the same work, or live in the same manner. Far from it: the very reverse in fact.”

“Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality.

“Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development. For human character is diverse ... Free opportunity of expressing and acting out your individuality means development of natural dissimilarities and variations.” [Op. Cit., pp. 164–5]

For anarchists, the “concepts” of “equality” as “equality of outcome” or “equality of endowment” are meaningless. However, in a hierarchical society, “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” are related. Under capitalism, for example, the opportunities each generation face are dependent on the outcomes of the previous ones. This means that under capitalism “equality of opportunity” without a rough “equality of outcome” (in the sense of income and resources) becomes meaningless, as there is no real equality of opportunity for the off-spring of a millionaire and that of a road sweeper. Those who argue for “equality of opportunity” while ignoring the barriers created by previous outcomes indicate that they do not know what they are talking about — opportunity in a hierarchical society depends not only on an open road but also upon an equal start. From this obvious fact springs the misconception that anarchists desire “equality of outcome” — but this applies to a hierarchical system, in a free society this would not the case (as we will see).

Equality, in anarchist theory, does not mean denying individual diversity or uniqueness. As Bakunin observes:

“once equality has triumphed and is well established, will various individuals’ abilities and their levels of energy cease to differ? Some will exist, perhaps not so many as now, but certainly some will always exist. It is proverbial that the same tree never bears two identical leaves, and this will probably be always be true. And it is even more truer with regard to human beings, who are much more complex than leaves. But this diversity is hardly an evil. On the contrary... it is a resource of the human race. Thanks to this diversity, humanity is a collective whole in which the one individual complements all the others and needs them. As a result, this infinite diversity of human individuals is the fundamental cause and the very basis of their solidarity. It is all-powerful argument for equality.”[“All-Round Education”, The Basic Bakunin, pp. 117–8]

Equality for anarchists means social equality, or, to use Murray Bookchin’s term, the “equality of unequals” (some like Malatesta used the term “equality of conditions” to express the same idea). By this he means that an anarchist society recognises the differences in ability and need of individuals but does not allow these differences to be turned into power. Individual differences, in other words, “would be of no consequence, because inequality in fact is lost in the collectivity when it cannot cling to some legal fiction or institution.” [Michael Bakunin, God and the State, p. 53]

If hierarchical social relationships, and the forces that create them, are abolished in favour of ones that encourage participation and are based on the principle of “one person, one vote” then natural differences would not be able to be turned into hierarchical power. For example, without capitalist property rights there would not be means by which a minority could monopolise the means of life (machinery and land) and enrich themselves by the work of others via the wages system and usury (profits, rent and interest). Similarly, if workers manage their own work, there is no class of capitalists to grow rich off their labour. Thus Proudhon:

“Now, what can be the origin of this inequality?

“As we see it, ... that origin is the realisation within society of this triple abstraction: capital, labour and talent.

“It is because society has divided itself into three categories of citizen corresponding to the three terms of the formula... that caste distinctions have always been arrived at, and one half of the human race enslaved to the other... socialism thus consists of reducing the aristocratic formula of capital-labour-talent into the simpler formula of labour!... in order to make every citizen simultaneously, equally and to the same extent capitalist, labourer and expert or artist.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 57–8]

Like all anarchists, Proudhon saw this integration of functions as the key to equality and freedom and proposed self-management as the means to achieve it. Thus self-management is the key to social equality. Social equality in the workplace, for example, means that everyone has an equal say in the policy decisions on how the workplace develops and changes. Anarchists are strong believers in the maxim “that which touches all, is decided by all.”

This does not mean, of course, that expertise will be ignored or that everyone will decide everything. As far as expertise goes, different people have different interests, talents, and abilities, so obviously they will want to study different things and do different kinds of work. It is also obvious that when people are ill they consult a doctor — an expert — who manages his or her own work rather than being directed by a committee. We are sorry to have to bring these points up, but once the topics of social equality and workers’ self-management come up, some people start to talk nonsense. It is common sense that a hospital managed in a socially equal way will not involve non-medical staff voting on how doctors should perform an operation!

In fact, social equality and individual liberty are inseparable. Without the collective self-management of decisions that affect a group (equality) to complement the individual self-management of decisions that affect the individual (liberty), a free society is impossible. For without both, some will have power over others, making decisions for them (i.e. governing them), and thus some will be more free than others. Which implies, just to state the obvious, anarchists seek equality inall aspects of life, not just in terms of wealth. Anarchists “demand for every person not just his [or her] entire measure of the wealth of society but also his [or her] portion of social power.” [Malatesta and Hamon, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 20] Thus self-management is needed to ensure both liberty and equality.

Social equality is required for individuals to both govern and express themselves, for the self-management it implies means “people working in face-to-face relations with their fellows in order to bring the uniqueness of their own perspective to the business of solving common problems and achieving common goals.” [George Benello, From the Ground Up, p. 160] Thus equality allows the expression of individuality and so is a necessary base for individual liberty.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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