The society of equals

by Pierre Rosanvallon

Hardcover, 2013




Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, [2013]


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. -- Publsiher website… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member pgmcc
The contents page of Professor Pierre Rosanvallon’s “The Society of Equals” is admirable in the simplicity with which it presents the structure of the author’s argument. What it hides is the breadth and depth of the material Rosanvallon covers in the pages of his book. Professor Rosanvallon presents the history of equality, the reasons why people started seeking equality, and how the meaning of equality was changed over the centuries to suit the people who were calling for it.

In Chapter 1, The Invention of Equality, the reader is shown the attitudes of the aristocracy in the 18th Century and how members of the aristocracy were appalled at the idea of anyone intimating that they were in anyway related to the peasantry and poor people. Rosanvallon demonstrates that two races lived in the same land, the rich and the poor, and the gap between the two was vast.

While tracing the evolving meaning of equality from the start of the American and French revolutions to the present day, the author describes how, through various social shifts, the world progressed into the 20th Century with a general focus on redistribution of wealth through such mechanisms of as the welfare state. He then shows the changing situation in the 21st Century and demonstrates the trend towards closing the gap between the rich and the poor has been reversed and the gap is once again widening.

In his final chapter he proposes a definition of equality for the present day, a definition that means everyone is equal in their freedom to be different.

Along the way he explains how major political movements were established and set their formation in historical and economic context. Many of these movements have continued to the present day in the form of the main political parties in the United States and Europe.

He also explains how Socialism developed in Europe and not in the United States because the US did not have an established aristocracy based on hereditary and that the de-facto US aristocracy, i.e. the wealthy, were spared a reaction against them as racism raised its head after the elimination of slavery. This reminded me of a joke that appeared recently: A banker, a worker and an asylum seeker sit down at a table with ten cookies. The banker takes nine of the cookies and tells the worker, “Be careful. The asylum seeker is going to take your cookie.”

This is explanatory of much of what is happening in Europe at the present as many asylum seekers and refugees fleeing wars in Africa and the Middle East are flocking into Europe.

In talking about the concept of equality and its origins he explains how it was first mooted in a time when the term “commerce” was defined as exchange between individuals and at a time, prior to the Industrial Revolution, when the means of production meant that no individual could attain a level of wealth that was immensely greater than what others could attain through hard work and dedication. It was the context in which the concept of the self-made-man made sense in terms of anyone could work hard and build up their position in the world. He explains how the Industrial Revolution, through its mass production created a situation where an individual could become much richer than others and the ways of doing commerce took the “individual” out of commercial interactions: the impersonal organisation was established.

In relation to current times, Rosanvallon has noted the ways in which citizens are being deprived of their representation with decisions on local expenditure being given to non-elected bodies, such as regional development boards and private utility companies. The establishment of Irish Water is a perfect example of this approach whereby the local authorities which were governed by the elected councillors, are having their control of local resources handed over to a commercial company that has no elected representatives on its board or anywhere in its organisation.

He points to other signs that the world is heading back to the days of the 18th Century with increased segregation and unequal treatment of people on the increase. The increased number of gated-communities is a sign, the rise of right-wing propaganda against migrants, the increasing wealth gap between the haves and the have nots.

It is Rosanvallon’s desire that his ideas will prompt a debate on the meaning of equality in modern day society and will lead to policies and initiatives that will enable everyone to have a fair deal in life whereby they, as citizens, receive the respect owed to them as citizens and in which they live up to their obligations to the community in which they live and work.

In his final pages the professor gives his views on the steps necessary to re-introduce the individual into society and to establish meaningful and sustainable interactions that will make society much more egalitarian and rewarding for all.

This is a book I will be coming back to time and again. I cannot hope in only a few pages to do justice to this 376 page book but I hope I have given you a flavour for what it is about.
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