Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is social equality an illusion?

Some people evidently thought that in my last post I was writing approvingly about Plato’s division of the community/society into three classes (philosopher-kings/queens — yes, he did allow for women in this category; protectors, and producers). Actually, I was not (as my response to Enough Said about classes indicated), although I admire Plato’s wisdom concerning the need to consider the nature of human beings (their psyche) when it comes to thinking about a “just” society — something politicians are generally just too stupid to consider today.

Let me spell out some cogent criticism of Plato’s division of society, and who better than Jacques Ranciére, the philosopher of equality, (see my post on him) to draw on for this. In The Philosopher and his Poor Ranciére talks about precisely this matter — Plato’s argument that the tripartite division of the city (which is, please note, decided on by a philosopher) derives from a denial on Plato’s part that workers (or “the poor”) have the capacity for thinking, which is a prerequisite for being able to rule.

Seen in historical perspective, this must be understood against the backdrop of what is called the attitude relating to “banausia” in ancient Greek society, or the devaluation, even despising, of manual labour, which was mostly provided by slaves, and allowed the aristocratic classes lots of leisure time. (In fact, an argument has been made that philosophy owes its “origin” to leisure made possible by slave labour.) Plato was no exception to this rule.

In a nutshell, Ranciére claims that, far from proposing the divisions in question for the sake of the city, philosophy has to exclude the poor (the producers and protectors being included in this category for all practical purposes) to guarantee its own “purity” — it was for this reason that Plato had to postulate supposedly different, “fixed” natures on the part of different classes. Without the citizens swallowing this “noble lie” about their “natures”, Plato could not hope to propose a city so neatly partitioned into supposedly distinct, harmoniously operating classes. Ironically Plato (who decreed that poets would be banished from his republic) arrogated to philosophy the capacity to construct powerful fictions (that of the soul and of the “just” Republic, here) but was not willing to grant it to artists.

Moreover, this is in accordance with Plato’s principle, Ranciére points out, that every citizen should perform only one social function, best suited to his or her nature. This sounds very persuasive, and at a certain level it is plausible — EXCEPT … if you agreed with Plato, you definitely would not call yourself a democrat. Plato was decidedly not a democrat, and this is where Ranciére (and I) differs fundamentally from Plato, for several reasons. The most obvious one is that no one (neither the philosopher, nor the social scientist) is, or has ever been in a position where she or he could possibly determine with certainty what a specific person is fit for. There is a wonderful science-fiction film, Gattaca, which makes this point forcefully in terms of the genetic unpredictability of what a person is capable of — its tagline captures this beautifully: ”The human spirit has no gene.”

The point is, in Ranciére’s terms, every philosophy “distributes the sensible” in a different way, and Plato’s “distribution of the sensible” — the way that our discourses (including our images, as in movies) organise the world of bodies — established a precedent more than 2000 years ago, which still haunts us with its ostensibly indelible imprint of unavoidable, and moreover desirable, social hierarchy.

Needless to say, this conception of philosophy as being the arbiter or judge regarding society’s desirable structure — or, for that matter, as in the case of Kant, concerning the task of the sciences, philosophy and other cultural practices, respectively — can no longer be accepted. Philosophy is just one discourse among others — a very important discourse, I would argue, because it keeps the flame of critical reflection and practice alive, which few other discourses do, but it is not in a position to legislate, as Plato believed it was.

In our time, as Foucault has shown, it is certain sciences — like psychiatry, psychology and the medical sciences, to which one could add the social sciences and those of computers and electronic communication today — which have taken over the function, perhaps not to “legislate”, but certainly to establish social norms concerning behaviour, including sexual behaviour. This is the source of “bio-power”, for Foucault, and leads to a different “distribution of the sensible”, namely a “panoptical” one.

Ranciére notes the fact that contemporary discourses still have a lot in common with Plato — his criticism of Plato is equally valid for his erstwhile master, Louis Althusser, who believed that only a “scientific Marxism” was qualified to transcend the obfuscating power of ideology, for Sartre, who also proposed to “restrict” the business of thinking, as well as (perhaps surprisingly) for the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

In Bourdieu’s case (who some regard as the true target of Ranciére’s critique) it is notable that while his sociological work is predicated on the claim that it represents fundamental criticism of the class structure of society, some commentators have pointed out that it nevertheless seems content to affirm the fact that this would not ever change. In opposition to Bourdieu, Ranciére shrewdly observes that he (Bourdieu) appeared to begin with the premise that inequality is ubiquitous. Everywhere he (Bourdieu) uncovered in great detail all the “cultural games” and rituals by means of which the wealthy dominates other classes.

Ranciére does not miss the benefit that Bourdieu (and the social sciences in general, one may add) derives from this sociological work at a time when the socialist French government depended on the social sciences for “scientific” advice on ways of alleviating educational (and therefore social) inequalities and disparities. In other words, in the work of scholars like Bourdieu sociology (in the guise of “sociocracy”) was surreptitiously taking the place of philosophy (Plato) regarding “legislation” on the class inequalities that persist in extant societies.

In contrast with Plato, Bourdieu and other social scientists, Ranciére does not regard equality as being illusory — in fact, it is the hidden ground of true democracy, and asserts itself disruptively through social and political “events” that act as forceful reminder of the claims to equality on the part of “those with no part” in the neatly partitioned city/society. In Multitude (2005) Hardt and Negri list many such instances of what Ranciére calls “dissensus”. Or you may recall the French revolution, and here in South Africa, Marikana. To the dismay of those who benefit from social inequality, “equality” will not go away.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

  • Pandora’s box has opened…again!
  • Inequality and violent protests in South Africa
  • How technological control undermines human desire
  • Marx at 200: As relevant as ever