The cumulative dynamic is not so much egalitarian as extra-egalitarian…


Second Soul, Episode 5, Season 1 of The Outer Limits, CBS, 1995

From New Left Review:

Equality currently functions as a shared ideal in both political rhetoric and philosophy. No politician calls for ‘a more unequal society’, and within political theory philosophers of almost every persuasion advocate some form of egalitarianism. The consensus is now so broad that many consider it the presupposition of meaningful political debate, and the universal basis on which governments are held to account by their citizens. Seen from what, following Dworkin, is often termed the ‘egalitarian plateau’, there is little indication that the period during which equality has functioned in this way is one in which global inequalities have remained stubbornly unchanged. In this respect, the image of an egalitarian plateau perhaps conveys rather more than is intended—not just the flatness of the surface, but also the way in which a plateau stands above the surrounding landscape.

There is obviously a distinction to be made between the egalitarian plateau as a level playing field for theoretical discussion, and the egalitarian plateau on which people might seek to live their lives. However, theoretical equality is the basis on which actual inequalities are routinely justified, and the boundaries of the two overlap insofar as the greatest actual inequalities are to be found between those who are the subjects of theoretical concern and those who are not. Around the edge of the plateau is the precipice of relevant difference, into which fall all those to whom its egalitarianism is inapplicable.

In recent years these boundaries have become the focus of lively philosophical debate, and, to a lesser degree, public contestation. Moving from the able-bodied human citizens of the nation-state who currently inhabit the plateau, these discussions have spiralled out to include the disabled, resident aliens, would-be migrants, the citizens of other countries, the members of other species and, hypothetically, the inhabitants of other planets. Supposing that we discovered the inhabitants of another planet to be living in circumstances less favourable than our own, would their small green heads or distant abode be relevant differences? Should not a consistent egalitarian be committed to a redistribution of goods in favour of needy space aliens, and, if necessary, bring them back to share the dwindling resources of planet Earth?

District 9, Tristar Pictures, 2009

“Levelling Out”, Malcolm Bull, New Left Review