Social democracy and the distributive demands of relational equality

goodwp.com_31879.jpgEgalitarians not only have the correct political philosophy, they also make the awesomest jets

In contemporary political philosophy, egalitarians can be classified into two basic groups, depending on what they think it is a matter of fundamental importance to equalize. For distributive egalitarians, the relevant kind of equality is equality in the distribution of some good —a starting package of resources, perhaps, or capabilities, income and wealth, etc. Relational egalitarians, on the other hand, are fundamentally concerned with eradicating social inequality — relations of domination and subjection, arbitrary distinctions of rank and social status, segregation and exclusion, etc.

Despite their differences, egalitarians of both kinds have certain common interests and can seem to blur together in some ways. The distributive egalitarianism of Ronald Dworkin, for example,  is based on an ideal of respect for persons and a certain conception of what it means to live an authentic life. The relational egalitarianism of Elizabeth Anderson, on the other hand, requires the elimination of distributive inequalities that express, embody or cause unequal social relations. But although relational egalitarians are very much concerned with distributive inequalities, the forms and the degree of redistribution they favour are dictated by their more fundamental concern with social inequalities. How much redistribution relational equality requires and how it should be carried out are contentious topics. Some critics and commentators have tended to cast relational egalitarians as apologists for liberal capitalism as practiced in countries like the United States and Canada, while at the other extreme, Robert Paul Wolff has argued that the demands of relational equality can only be satisfied by the Marxist distributive formula, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” In this post, I hope to narrow down the possibilities just a little bit.

Elizabeth Anderson, one of the most influential contemporary relational egalitarians, cites as her philosophical inspiration the actual history of egalitarian social and political movements, from the Levellers of the 17th century onwards. In her view, the history of egalitarian movements is the history of struggle against oppression and for a free society of equals, not a struggle for material equality as such. The content of an egalitarian theory of social justice should reflect the historic aims of egalitarian movements. Assuming this is the correct approach, we can learn a bit about how much redistribution relational equality is likely to require by examining the experience of one of the most successful egalitarian movements in recent history: the Swedish social democratic movement.

In The Political Theory of Swedish Social Democracy, Tim Tilton argues against the common perception that the Swedish experiment is best understood as a product of pure pragmatism rather than principle. Through a series of analyses connecting the works of the movement’s foremost theoreticians with the policies championed by the Social Democratic party and its allies among organized labour, Tilton make a persuasive case that behind Sweden’s distinctive form of social democracy lay an equally distinctive ideological vision. From the outset, this vision was clearly egalitarian in Anderson’s sense. Sweden’s first Social Democratic prime minister, Hjalmar Branting, spoke of realizing the socialist goal of the “voluntary association of producers” by means of a parliamentary state that the enfranchised working class has purged of its oppressive character. Social and political equality were not to be valued merely instrumentally, as means with which to secure a more equal distribution of goods; although Branting’s ultimate goal was the socialization of industry, he was not prepared to pursue this goal at the expense of democracy. Socialism would only be worthwhile if democracy was achieved first (p. 24-25). The enfranchisement of the working class was itself, in Branting’s words, “a complete victory for the ideal of equality.” (p. 28)

With universal suffrage achieved, the Social Democratic Party soon became a real force in electoral politics. Naturally, much of its legislative agenda was concerned with social and economic policy; the period from the 1930s to the 1950s was marked by rapid industrialization of this northern backwater — driven in part by the brutal Darwinian pressure that the high wages won by Swedish unions inflicted on business — and the development of the famously expansive Swedish welfare state.

When opposition parties argued that the Social Democratic party’s achievements had rendered itself obsolete by successfully ameliorating the poverty and gross material inequalities of the early 20th century, the influential theorist and finance minister Ernst Wigforss responded that Sweden was still a very long way from a truly classless society. “The emphasis upon material consumption, competition, prestige, and success,” Tilton writes of Wigforss’s view of the state of Swedish society at this time, “polluted the psychological atmosphere.” (p. 48-49) The relational slant of Wigforss’s egalitarianism is made even more explicit by his special concern for the way material inequalities “make it difficult for the different groups to come in contact with each other.” (p. 51) Tilton goes on to note that “the major appeal of a classless society is that it removes conventional and emotional barriers between people. The model of equality is the unconstrained intercourse of comrades, be they school chums, workmates, or drinking companions.” (p. 51)  “The equality that I seek lives in every circle of comrades,” Wigforss writes. (p. 51-52) The degree of material inequality in Sweden even in the golden age of the social democratic experiment was still not sufficient to realize this ideal of relational equality.

The relational dimension of the Swedish social democrats’ egalitarianism is perhaps most striking in the work of Per Albin Hansson, the wartime prime minister and theorist of the Folkhemmet or “People’s Home”. Tilton reproduces a passage from records of Hansson speaking in the Swedish parliament that is worth quoting in full:

The basis of the home is togetherness and common feeling. The good home does not consider anyone as privileged or under appreciated; it knows no special favourites and no stepchildren. There no one looks down upon anyone else, there no one tries to gain advantage at another’s expense, and the stronger do not suppress and plunder the weaker. In the good home equality, consideration, co-operation, and helpfulness prevail. Applied to the great people’s and citizens’ home this would mean the breaking down of all the social and economic barriers that now divide citizens into the privileged and the unfortunate, into rulers and subjects, into rich and poor, the glutted and the destitute, the plunderers and the plundered. (p. 126)

It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the ideal of relational equality and its implications for distributive justice.

Another point of connection between the relational and distributive aspects of the Social Democratic project is found in the work of Nils Karleby, who also saw the amelioration of gross material inequality as crucially important in order for the promise of social equality to be fulfilled. Karleby articulated a constructivist “bundle” theory of property rights. On this view, the right to private property neither precedes positive law nor is it even a single, irreducible right. Rather, property rights consist in a bundle of distinct and separable rights, immunities, prerogatives and duties which are established by the state and are always subject to modification as needed. Taxation, employment legislation, environmental regulation — these are not attacks on property rights, but merely rearrangement of what property rights consist in (p. 80-81). It follows that capitalists have no claim on any particular bundle; but equally it follows that socialists have no reason to pursue socialization of private property outright. Instead, they can content themselves with the piecemeal rearrangement of bundles as needed (p. 81).

When property rights are understood this way, egalitarians can ask of any prospective bundle whether it expresses, embodies or causes social inequalities; if it does, the bundle in question can be modified as needed. The system of property rights that Social Democratic governments inherited from their predecessors certainly met this standard; property rights had been constructed by dominant social classes in their own interest, without the contribution or consideration of the working class, and tended to produce the material inequalities that sustained class society. Faced with this same situation, as we are no doubt today, relational egalitarians would therefore have the same obligation to reassemble a system of property rights fit for a society of equals; they are neither required nor permitted to take the existing framework of ownership for granted or to respect it as a constraint on other equality-promoting redistributive measures.

This view of property rights is certainly supported and is arguably presupposed by Hansson’s approach to economic policy. The Social Democrats could, on an entirely principled basis, leave certain powers associated with property ownership in the hands of private industry while reserving others for the state and for the workers’ organizations, and the arrangement at any given time would be strictly provisional, selected as appropriate for the circumstances and for democratically determined social purposes.

There is a good deal more that could be said about the ideology and personalities of the social democratic movement in Sweden, but I think this small sampling suffices to show the importance of relational equality for the social democrats, the major importance they assigned to redistribution as an element of that ideal, and their perceived failure to achieve the goal of a classless society. I have said almost nothing about the specific policies and institutions through which they pursued these goals, an important topic in itself (and possibly a topic for future posts). As I wrote above, my hope here is just to set the stage for future discussion of economic and social policy from a relational egalitarian perspective by narrowing down the range of estimates regarding the amount of redistribution required to sustain a society of equals. If Anderson is right (as I believe she is) to look to the experiences and objectives of egalitarian movements to fill out the content of an egalitarian political philosophy, the Swedish experience implies that relational egalitarians should be prepared to advocate redistribution on an extraordinary scale. Even if social equality — not distributive equality — is the kind of equality that’s really worth wanting, the golden age of social democracy in Sweden falls short of the minimum amount of redistribution egalitarians can settle for.


One thought on “Social democracy and the distributive demands of relational equality

  1. Pingback: Olof Palme and the egalitarian deliberative constraint | Popcorn Machine

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