Everybody knows that inequalities have exploded since the 1980s and that this is mainly due to the huge increase in incomes at the top.  Statistics are everywhere. The point is that rising inequality stands in stark contrast to the earlier decline in inequality in Europe and America.  It is indeed remarkable that the recent increase in inequality follows a lengthy period of reduced income  and wealth inequality on both continents.

The current system marks a spectacular break with the past, reversing the trend of the past century. A return to the 19th century seems to be on its way—with significant repercussions for our democracies. The “people,” understood in a political sense as a collective entity that ever more powerfully imposes its will, is less and less a “social body.” Political citizenship has progressed, while social citizenship has regressed. This rending of democracy is an ominous threat to our wellbeing. If it continues, the democratic regime itself might ultimately be in danger. The rise of populist movements is at once an indicator of this distress and its driving force. To understand the present “great reversal,” we must start by understanding the preceding “great transformation.”

The Reformism of Fear

The development of the worker’s movement and its translation into socialist votes (with the universalisation of suffrage) at the end  of the 19th century put pressure on conservative governments. “We must choose between a fiscal revolution and a social revolution,” concluded Emile de Girardin in France. The German example is the most salient in this regard. For Bismarck, the reformist option was clearly a political calculation: its immediate purpose was to counter the spread of socialist ideas by showing government concern for the working class. In Germany, in other words, the plan to reduce social inequalities and compensate for the vicissitudes of working-class employment stemmed from what we might call “the reformism of fear.” Most other European countries followed the German lead. After 1918, all these social and political factors converged to encourage governments to extend and accelerate reforms initiated before the war.

The idea of a society composed of sovereign, self-sufficient individuals gave way to an approach based on interdependence.

World Wars and the Nationalisation of Life

The development of inequalities is closely related to the detachment of certain individuals from the common run of mankind and to the legitimation of their right to distinguish themselves and separate themselves from others. It is therefore linked to the prioritisation of private over public norms. The experience of World War One reversed this tendency; in a sense, the war nationalised people’s lives. Private activities were largely shaped by collective constraints. Social relations therefore tended to become polarised between two extremes: either withdrawal into the family circle or absorption in the superior problems of the nation. Virtually no middle ground remained between family and country. The fact that the war threatened everyone’s existence revived the fundamental principles of the social state of nature. The experience of the First World War thus marked a decisive turning point in democratic modernity. It restored the idea of a society of like human beings in a direct, palpable way. Fraternity in combat and the commemoration of sacrifice are complex phenomena, but they helped pave the way to greater social solidarity. The welfare payments awarded to veterans led to a general reconsideration of social benefits and other redistributive transfers.

The De-Individualisation of the World

The redistributive revolution was made possible by these historical and political conditions. But it was also the fruit of an intellectual and moral revolution, which made redistribution thinkable. In short, redistribution became possible because the economy and society were “de-individualised” by thinkers who rejected older views of individual responsibility and talent. What ultimately emerged was a new vision of enterprise itself. A new understanding of the nature of society changed the way people thought about equality and solidarity in the late 19th century.

The founding fathers of European sociology—Albert Schaffle in Germany, J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse in England, Alfred Fouillee in France—all agreed that society was an organic whole. Socialists of the chair in Germany, Fabians and New Liberals in Britain, Solidarist Republicans in France: these various political and intellectual movements converged in the late 19th century. All reformulated the question of how society is constituted in very similar terms. The idea of a society composed of sovereign, self-sufficient individuals gave way to an approach based on interdependence. In this new context, the notions of right and duty, merit and responsibility, autonomy and solidarity were completely redefined. Equality as redistribution not only became thinkable, it also became possible. The introduction of progressive income tax and changes in the estate tax were hence closely related to the growing popularity of the idea that everyone is born owing a debt to society.

A New View of Poverty and Inequality

The development of the welfare state and redistributive institutions was abetted by the fact that the social nature of inequality was increasingly recognised. People were more and more willing to see the organisation of society, rather than objective and justifiable individual differences or personal behaviour, as the structural cause of inequality. Socialist critiques of the social order gained currency in the first half of the 20th century thanks to this new social representation. Views of poverty also changed. It is clear that the political and historical factors for the “great transformation” no longer exist. After the fall of communism, there is no longer room for a reformism of fear.

Social fears still exist, but they concern such things as violence, security or terrorism. They appeal to an authoritarian state and not to one based on solidarity. Similarly, ecological threats raise fears about the fate of future generations, but these are expressed in a general and abstract way and not in terms of social redistribution.

More important still, there is the impact of the transformation of capitalism and society. The capitalism that began to emerge in the 1980s differed from earlier forms of organised capitalism in two ways. First, its relation to the market changed, as did the role assigned to stockholders. Second, labour was organised in a new way. Fordist organisation, based on the mobilisation of large masses of workers, gave way to an emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals. Creativity thus became the principal factor of production.

It is clear that the political and historical factors for the “great transformation” no longer exist. After the fall of communism, there is no longer room for a reformism of fear.

Phrases such as “cognitive capitalism” and “productive subjectivity” were coined to describe this change. Quality has thus become a central feature of the new economy, marking a sharp break with the previous economy of quantity. Work routines have consequently become more diverse and products more varied.  These changes precipitated a crisis in societies previously ruled by he spirit of equality as redistribution. At the same time, the new age of inequality and diminished solidarity has been a time of heightened awareness of social discrimination and tolerance of many kinds of difference— a fact often overlooked by critics. The picture is contradictory, to say the least, and while some ground has been lost, there have been undeniable advances with regard to the status of women, the acceptance of differences of sexual orientation, and individual rights generally. If we want to understand recent changes in our societies, we must take note of all of these divergent tendencies. One way to do this is to look at the internal transformation in the “society of individuals.” This did not suddenly appear at the end of the 20th century: it has formed the framework within which modern institutions have developed for more than two centuries. Succinctly put, what we need to understand is the transition from an individualism of universality to an individualism of singularity, which also reflects new democratic expectations. In democratic regimes associated with the individualism of universality, universal suffrage meant that each individual had a claim to the same share of sovereignty as every other individual. In democracies in which the individualism of singularity is the social form, the individual aspires to be important and unique in the eyes of others. Everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist—that is, to expect his or her ideas and judgments to be taken into account and recognised as valuable.

Equality has lost none of its importance in this new context. The most intolerable form of inequality is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless. Hence the idea of equality implies a desire to be regarded as somebody, as a person similar to others rather than excluded by virtue of some specific difference. To be recognised as being “like” others therefore means to be recognised for the human generality one contains (harking back to the original sense of “humanity” as a quality of unity without distinction).

But this human generality has taken on a broader, more complex meaning. It has come to include the desire to have one’s distinctiveness—one’s history and personal characteristics— recognised by others. No one wants to be “reduced to a number.” Everyone wants to “be someone.

Identity as a positive shared experience

Hence the centrality of the notion of discrimination, considered the mark of an insult to similarity as well as to singularity. As a consequence of these different factors, the idea of equality has today entered a deep crisis. What are the options? The first is a return to the evils of the late 19th century, the time of the first wave of globalisation, namely: aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism. National protectionism was sustained by a purely negative vision of equality. Barres put it bluntly: “The idea of ‘fatherland’ implies a kind of inequality, but to the detriment of foreigners.” In other words, the goal was to bring (some) people closer together by exploiting a relationship of inequality. What was distinctive about national protectionism at the end of the 19th century was that it represented an extreme case, the result of a radical polarisation of both identity and equality. It reduced the idea of equality to the single dimension of community membership as homogeneity, which was itself reduced to a negative definition (“not foreign”). The constitution of an identity always needs a demarcation, a separation, a mirroring effect of some sort. But identity must also be linked to a properly positive idea of shared existence in order to produce a democratic sentiment of membership. This is what distinguished the revolutionary nation of 1789 from the nationalist nation of the late 19th century. The former was associated with the formation of a society of equals, while the latter conceived of integration in a non-political mode, solely as the fusion of individuals into a homogeneous bloc. Such a national-protectionist vision is today at the heart of populist movements in Europe and in the United States. The second option is a politics of nostalgia that calls for a revival of civic republicanism and/or the past values and institutions of former social democracies. The late Tony Judt recently pleaded for such a revival in his book-cum-testimony Ill Fares the Land. Although there is great nobility in such a vision, unfortunately it does not take seriously enough the irreversible character of the individualism of singularity, which is not to be confused with individualism as selfishness and atomism.

The crucial point is that the great reversal is not the consequence of a “broken contract” (see George Packer, “The Broken Contract,” Foreign Affairs, Nov–Dec 2011) or moral depravity. It derives from historical and political factors as well as structured transformations affecting the mode of production and the nature of the social bond. Neoliberalism has, so far, been the main active interpretation of such changes. Neoliberalism considers market society and the perspective of generalised competition as accomplishment of modernity as the desirable form of humanity and personal achievement. But neoliberalism should not be misinterpreted. It is not only a victorious and negative ideology; it is also a perverse instrumentalisation of singularity. For example, modern firms use singularity as a means of production without any consideration for the self-realisation of workers. Hence new types of social conflicts about respect and moral harassment. The problem is that critiques of neoliberalism very often neglect the positive aspiration to singularity and do not take into account the fact that neoliberalism profoundly modifies judgments regarding viable forms of equality as well as tolerable forms of inequality.

The most intolerable form of inequality is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.

Solidarity in an age of singularity

Today, there is in fact only one positive answer to the challenges of the time. Theories of justice reconsider the question of inequalities by transforming it from a social problem to an inter-individual one. They are based on a new consideration of “just inequalities” as structured by the notions of responsibility and merit. Everywhere, equality of opportunity has been the name for such a perspective—albeit with a great variety of definitions, from minimalist to radical ones. But justice is not another word for equality. It says nothing about the nature of democratic society. What we need is a new model of solidarity and integration in an age of singularity. But if more redistribution is needed today, it has to be re-legitimated. How? Through a redefinition of equality with a universalist dimension. That is to say, a return to the vision of the French and American Revolutions—to a vision of equality as a social relation and not as an arithmetic measure. At those moments in history, equality was understood primarily as a relation, as a way of making a society, of producing and living in common. It was seen as a democratic quality and not only as a measure of the distribution of wealth. This relational idea of equality was articulated in connection with three other notions: similarity, independence, and citizenship. Similarity comes under the heading of equality as equivalence: to be “alike” is to have the same essential properties, such that remaining differences do not affect the character of the relationship.  Independence is equality as autonomy: it is defined negatively as the absence of subordination and positively as equilibrium in exchange. Citizenship involves equality as participation: it is constituted by community membership and civic activity. Consequently, the project of equality as relationship was interpreted in terms of a world of like human beings (or semblables, as Tocqueville would say), a society of autonomous individuals, and a community of citizens. These ideas were undermined by the Industrial Revolution, which initiated the first great crisis of equality. In order to overcome the second great crisis, we must recapture the original spirit of equality in a form suitable to the present age. Today the principles of singularity, reciprocity, and commonality can restore the idea of a society of equals and revive the project of creating one. It is these principles that must provide the basic legitimacy for new policies of redistribution. Realising a society of equals should be the new name for social progress with a universalistic dimension. For the so-called “social question” is not only about poverty and exclusion: it is also about the reconstruction of a common world for the whole of society.


This article is from a speech given by Rosanvallon at the Jan Patoka Memorial Lecture 2011, organised in cooperation with the Institut francais d’Autriche. It was originally published in IWMpost

Equality and Sustainability
Equality and Sustainability

Can an economy and society really be sustainable without being equal? And do inequalities within and between Member States threaten the future of the EU?

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