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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Lennon Lennon 14 February 2013

    It could very well be.

    Every society, from the greatest empires to the smallest bands of people, have had some sort of hierarchy which has resulted in at least one person having some sort of elevated status whether it be political or financial. This is seen throughout the animal kingdom from other mammals ,like lions and chimps, to insects such as ants and termites.

    Even a society devoid of currency (a driving factor of inequality) in which every person strives to do the best he or she is capable of (as in Star Trek), there will still have to be some sort of hierarchy and somebody will still be more equal than everyone else. This is not to say that we should try to create such a society – it would be a vast improvement over the mess we live in today, but it will not completely eliminate inequality nor will it eradicate greed or the lust for power.

  2. bernpm bernpm 14 February 2013

    “Is social equality an illusion?”


  3. Alois Alois 14 February 2013

    Social equality. An illusion? Yes, particularly in the case of South Africa whose very gestation period was culturally Piscean in every metaphorical sense of the word. And the old saying still water runs deep is appropriate also. There is no more a social barometer than South Africa’s point of view, which is European although on a nonEuropean stage, Africa. Even the very European names still in place are testimony to the intransigence in terms of cultural reconciliation you face. In contrast to the American experience, in which respect for the indigenous cultures is reflected in the high profile of nonIndoEuropean names, Snoqualmie, Yavapai, Coquile, South Africa appears to have “erased,” if you will, a culture it felt infra dig. In conclusion, then, it does not appear that the two main, and certainly disparate cultures, in South Africa will ever yoke, however many Mandelas come along. It is rather interesting, comparing matters of sexual expression, you have performed quite a fete in elevating homosexuality to a level never before seen in your country.

  4. Maria Maria 14 February 2013

    Bert, more to the point: I can understand why people like Bernpm comment as they do – what Ranciére has to say about equality is certainly counter-intuitive, and most people will find it hard, if not impossible, to understand his polemical intent. Perhaps they should start with the intellectual morsel, that the emptiness of so-called democracies’ claim to BE democracies is shown, like a landscape lit up by lightning at night, whenever something like Marikana happens – that is, such events lay bare the hierarchical nature of these societies. Besides, I don’t believe that Ranciére realistically expects true democracy to arrive, ever, but insists on the kernel of democracy – the rule of the people (all people, not just some) – namely equality, asserting itself forcefully from time to time.

  5. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 15 February 2013

    If we take the question to ask, is the pursuit of ‘equality’ a continuing reality then the answer is clearly Yes and there is a clear benefit in it: it focuses attention on the ideal of social justice and on the social task or duty of working always closer to it.

    If we mean ‘equality’ (ill-defined as the term is) is achievable, then all the circumstances indicate it is only a useful ideal. ‘All men are created equal’ is not true anymore than that they are ‘everywhere in chains’. What Jefferson meant by it was all were equally entitled to enjoy life, liberty and to pursue happiness. The day we are turned out like a row of identical tin soldiers, a fuller kind of equality will perhaps be possible, if that’s what we want. Something like it is for ants, I imagine.

    Meanwhile, incidentally, ‘undemocratic’ is not the same as ‘inequality’, unless someone ups and claims it is. ‘Democracy’ can be seen and supported as a system that allows for our natural diversity. Getting more fair play into democracy is another job.

  6. Enough Said Enough Said 15 February 2013

    Thanks Bert.

  7. HD HD 15 February 2013

    Again, I think Hayek is instructive in this regard:

    “Men can be allowed to act on their own knowledge and for their own purposes only if the reward they obtain is dependent in part on circumstances which they can neither control nor foresee. And if they are to be allowed to be guided in their actions by their own moral beliefs, it cannot also be morally required that the aggregate effects of their respective actions on the different people should correspond to some ideal of distributive justice. In this sense freedom is inseparable from rewards which often have no connection with merit and are therefore felt to be unjust.”

    and more specifically:

    “…government must regard all people as equal, however unequal they may in fact be, and that in whatever manner the government restrains (or assists) the action of one, so it must, under the same abstract rules, restraint (or assist) the actions of all others. Nobody has special claims on government because he is either rich or poor, beyond the assurance of protection against all violence from anybody and the assurance of a certain flat minimum income if things go wholly wrong. Even to take notice of the factual inequality of individuals and to make this the excuse of any discriminating coercion, is a breach of the basic terms on which free man submits to government”


  8. HD HD 15 February 2013

    Paul very much hits the nail on the head. For social justice to be compatible with a liberal free society (read free from unnecessary state coercion) it needs to be based on abstract rules of social justice that applies to all across the board, giving people basic means to secure goods and services. Something like a basic income or very simple safety net. (with the emphasis on the simplicity of the rule not the degree – so a simple high tax rate could fit this notion)

    As soon as you develop a state bureaucracy to micro-manage social justice or social equality outcomes, you threaten liberty. The state through politics reinforces class differences – the original class analysis of the classic liberals was based on this notion of class as a function of state coercion.

    This is essentially the problem with Ranciere notion of equality – how do you avoid the class politics (trap?) he calls for by calling for more politics?

    This for me the big problem with arguments for deliberative democracy and social equality – they lack a realistic social theory (this applies equally to Rawlsian/Dworkin’s high liberalism). I think this is where the left in general should pay a lot more attention to economics, public choice and institutional analysis when talking about deliberative democracy. (A system in my opinion that all to often resembles and empowers Plato’s philosopher-kings – is this surprising given the emphasis on ideas / voice?)

  9. peter peter 15 February 2013

    The entire world is an illusion, created and fashioned by idiots who keep on trying to force their own agenda on others. The thought that there could possibly be something such as social equality is ridiculous in itself. Anyone who believes that being a citizen of this country, makes them remotely socially equal to the elite must be in a coma and need help in a hurry, unless of course, they would rather stay asleep and remain slaves which they are.

  10. Brent Brent 15 February 2013

    Bert (and Maria), apologies for lowering the intellectual tone of the blog but what exactly is ‘equality’? Is it ‘equality of out comes or equality of opportunity’ two very different things. The 100 meter final has equality of opportunity but definitely never equality of outcome. Is this bad, wrong, something that society should address? . Horse racing with its weighting of ‘better’ horses could be said to be trying to ‘socialise’ the winning post and look how crooked that industry is in some countries. Would love to see Bert trying to add a kilo to Usain Bolt’s frame. The ancient Verdic tradition teaches ‘not two’ meaning we are all one together and any conversation/interaction one has with another you are actually speaking to oneself. Similarly the Christians are taught to ‘love they neighbour as yourself’, both similar and very different to Plato’s ‘only the superior shall rule’ my words. Cuba is more equal than the USA but the USA is more free. Which country attracts the most people and warts and all which country would you prefer to live in? That question as been asnwered by thousands over the past 50 years. My view is that democracy is the constant ‘pushing down’ to the lowest levels of decision making, the making of decisions that affect the citizens, with upper levels (and by definition out of touch) staying out of peoples lives. Probably the closest to this is Switzerland, but the answer to your question a big YES, if it is equality of outcomes…

  11. Jens Bierbrauer Jens Bierbrauer 15 February 2013

    Yesterday I sang a rather good rendition of Lennon’s “imagine” in an exclusive kareoke club where not to be connected is not to gain entry.

    Funny that.

  12. Nonearegreater Nonearegreater 15 February 2013

    I think we need to clarify what we mean by inequality! Inequality is not inherently bad, inequality is bad when it is a mark of something else namely destitution or poverty “It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915”. Who in their right mind would listen to a millionaire complain about the status anxiety (a manifestation of inequality) which he/she feels when compared to a billionaire? Nobody would, yet those two people are unequal. If on the other hand you have a destitute person making a claim about the inequality between themselves and a billionaire we have a different story. Both cases represent inequality but the credibility or seriousness of the second case is based on the fact that inequality in that case is an indicator of something more significant.

  13. Maria Maria 15 February 2013

    Brent and Nonearegreater, I can’t speak for Bert, but the way I see it (far from lowering the tone of the blog, Brent) both of you make valid points as far as the more familiar way of understanding equality and inequality is concerned. In ordinary terms, of course there will never be “equality of outcomes”, nor is inequality necessarily “bad”, not only for the reasons you mention, Nonearegreater, but in the sense that we are all different. (And thank goodness for that.) Bert, or rather, Ranciére, would certainly agree with you on this. BUT – this is not Ranciére’s point. His point is a difficult one to grasp, and if one understands it, it seems to me the answer to the question, whether equality is an illusion, for Ranciére, is Yes AND No, simultaneously. Yes, because there is no actual equality anywhere, and No, because it is there, just under the surface, all the time. Extant societies are all, without exception, marked by inequality, factually speaking – even North Korea – given the power hierarchies that exist everywhere, and yet, the vast majority of them claim to be democracies where everyone is, in principle, “equal” in political terms. In a way (if I understand him correctly – which may not be the case, given the difficulty of his work) Ranciére is challenging these democracies through his philosophy of equality, to undo existing hierarchies, and allocate equal political shares to all citizens if one is serious about democracy.

  14. REAList REAList 16 February 2013


    The lazy, stupid, inbred, criminal, entitled would disagree of course.

  15. Rene Rene 16 February 2013

    If equality is an illusion or ever-receding ideal, it nevertheless never ceases exercising its attraction on people’s minds and desires…

  16. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 February 2013

    @Brent – Another awkward consideration is that the two ideals of liberty and equality are irreconcilable – you can only increase one at the expense of the other. Hence ‘the problem’ HD refers to – the state reinforces class and an interventionist state openly ‘takes sides’. No wonder M. Ranciere has a mystical understanding of equality and, as Maria points out, challenges democracies to allocate equal political shares without suggesting how they might manage it.

    Even when you take a practical question as you do – would you rather live in Cuba or the US?- no answer suits everyone. You may opt for Cuba if you’re poor and old and a home lover and for the States if you are rich, young and pretty. More problems for the state. The USSR made it simple for all concerned by refusing to let anyone out.

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 16 February 2013

    Which begs the question: What do we mean with social equality? Is it based on income? Is it based on social aptitude? Are Events stark reminders of social equality? Or are they perhaps a stark reminder of how unattainable this goal is?

    I don’t put much stock in the notion that these concepts are just too difficult to grasp. I believe they are too murky to exclude certain interpretations, and too vague to indicate certain other interpretations. If a concept cannot be explained simply, it is either not understood by the one doing the explaining or it is not a concept that is concise and clear enough to be worth explaining.

  18. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 16 February 2013

    @Bert, a society should strive to give as many people an equal chance for social equality, but, not everyone will achieve social equality. Many people aren’t interested in working hard to achieve social equality. So, the answer to your is yes, it’s an illusion and goes against human nature.

  19. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 16 February 2013

    @Bert, I meant the answer to your question is yes.

  20. Alon Serper Alon Serper 18 February 2013

    It takes activism and struggle to make the idealistic discourse into concrete reality. The American constitution about an equal society for all in freedom was written by slaves owners. It took almost a century and a civil war to push through resolutions to that contradiction and yet the contradiction in American society between its constitutional vision and its reality is very strongly there.

  21. Iain Benson Iain Benson 19 April 2016

    Thanks for your blog. Most interesting. The “Empty Idea of Equality” by Peter Westen in the Harvard Law Review, Vol. 95, No.3, (January 1982) 537-596, however, makes some very strong points that act as qualifications to any adoption of “equality” in the abstract. Context is prior to equality and therefore you need to be very careful to ensure that how you understand equality respects appropriate differences within and between human communities. One of these is that claims for “justice” have to include the place and role for merit and work (labour) as well as incentive and reward and the freedom that diversity entails. This means that abstract plans to “equalize” that avoid these need to explain why these things are not relevant to justice. Reflection on what happens to societies when the state (law and politics) simply “redistributes” (as with land in Zimbabwe) ought to make us more than a little concerned that this is not “justice” at all but the illusion of justice and that the rhetoric of “equality” alone is what drives its claims; what results certainly doesn’t work and reality is part of any scheme of justice however good it sounds. Iain Benson, Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame, Sydney Australia; Extraordinary Professor of Law, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

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