Deep freedom: Why the left should abandon equality

Published Thu 24 Oct 2013
The left will only renew itself, argues Roberto Mangabeira Unger, if it gives up on equality and champions instead the cause of 'deep freedom' and permanent institutional innovation.
Juncture 20.2: Autumn 2013

According to a widespread belief, the distinction between the left and the right, between progressives and conservatives in politics, is chiefly a difference between the relative weights that they give to equality and to freedom. The leftists or progressives would be those who give priority to equality, fairness or social justice; the conservatives or liberals (in the contemporary European sense) those who put freedom first. This set of identifications results from a confusion between shallow and deep freedom or equality. It is, moreover, false to the history of progressive or leftist ideas. We should reject it: it both reveals and reinforces a misguided direction in practical politics as well as in political thought.

Instead, this essay contends that deep freedom should be the core progressive goal.  In opposition to the political ideas that have most recently guided ideological controversy around the world, but similarly to those that used to influence such debate in the 19th century, deep freedom combines a devotion to the empowerment of the ordinary person - a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability - with a disposition to reshape the institutional arrangements of society in the service of such empowerment. In the design of social, economic and democratic institutions, deep freedom has priority over any form of equality of circumstance. Equality of opportunity is a fragmentary aspect of deep freedom.

Institutional conservatism

Almost universally, the liberals and socialists of the 19th century viewed equality as an aspect of freedom. Their core commitment was to the empowerment of both the individual and the species: the formation of a greater humanity and of a greater self. They differed in their understanding of this greatness as well as in the institutional formulas on which, mistakenly, they pinned their hopes. They understood that no sane man or woman who could have a greater life would settle instead for a rigid equality of outcome or circumstance. They regarded abolition of the injustices of class society and of economically dependent wage labour as an important part of the fight for a larger freedom. They would never have accepted the notion that we can redress the greatest evils of social life by compensatory and retrospective redistribution of income through money transfers or social entitlement programmes organised by the state. In professing these beliefs, they were revolutionaries, as we should be today and tomorrow, opposing the established regime and prophesying a higher form of existence for mankind.

Those who take the priority of equality over freedom to be the keynote of the progressive cause make an unacknowledged and decisive assumption: they accept the established institutional settlement. If they live in the rich north Atlantic countries, the settlement that they chiefly accept is the social democratic compromise of the mid-20th century (with its New Deal counterpart in the United States).

The progressives or leftists then become those who, within the limits of the social democratic settlement, want more equality. What that must largely mean, given respect for the established institutional arrangements, is after-the-fact redistribution and regulation rather than any reshaping of either production or politics. By the terms of that bargain, any attempt to alter fundamentally the productive and political arrangements was abandoned. The state was allowed to gain wide-ranging powers to regulate, to redistribute and to manage the economy counter-cyclically.

The conservatives are, according to the same way of thinking, those who want to shift the weight of that historical compromise in the direction of freedom and efficiency. For them, freedom is greater room for manoeuvre within the terms set by the established forms of market economy and constitutional democracy: less regulation and less redistribution so that there may be more space for individual initiative and self-determination, free from the tutelage of the state.

This primitive ideological structure invites a further narrowing of the scope of politics, presented as a synthesis. The aim becomes to reconcile economic flexibility with social protection.

The limits of shallow freedom and shallow equality

Shallow freedom and shallow equality are freedom and equality viewed within the restraints imposed by the prevailing institutional settlement. The actual experience of political life provides an endless series of clues to the inadequacy of this view. For example, at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, some of the countries most admired as examples of social democracy experimented with an initiatives that came to be dubbed 'flexisecurity': universal endowments instead of tenure in particular jobs, with the result that - on a very small scale - it seemed possible to enjoy more fairness and more flexibility at the same. No one, however, imagined that a similar effort could be conducted on a much larger scale through the reformation of the institutional arrangements - including the arrangements of property, of contract, and of relations between public power and private initiative - that shape a market economy.

Shallow freedom and shallow equality are false options. They are based on the unwarranted acceptance of the existing institutional framework: the contingent outcome of the last major institutional reformation. They presuppose the validity of a simple and misleading hydraulic model of ideological debate: more market, less state; more state, less market; or a combination of state and market designed to ensure that the inequalities generated by the market are corrected by the redistributive and regulatory activity of the state.

It is this simple and false scheme that is presupposed by the philosophies of distributive justice that exercise the greatest influence in these same societies. The abstract and unhistorical character of these philosophies cannot conceal their operative intent: the justification of compensatory redistribution under institutionally closed social democracy. Because their theoretical egalitarianism is the reverse side of their institutional emptiness or conservatism, they cannot make good on their professed aims. They argue for the humanisation of a world that they are powerless to reimagine and remake, and define this humanisation narrowly, to suit the devices to which they are committed.

When we reject such an attempt to humanise the supposedly inevitable, we turn away from shallow freedom and shallow equality to deep equality and deep freedom. Deep equality, however, is opposed to the ideals and the interests that have been central to socialism, liberalism and democracy. The first to reject it should be those who remain faithful to the largest and most enduring aims of the left. In the religion of the future they will find further reason to cast it aside.

Rejecting deep equality

Deep equality is the priority accorded to some form of equality of circumstance or outcome, achieved through whatever reshaping of institutions may be required to achieve this goal. Equality of respect and equality of opportunity are intrinsic to freedom and to the conception of a free society. Shallow and deep equality converge in the primacy that they accord to equality of circumstance. This egalitarian commitment may be formulated outright as a prohibition of extreme inequalities of living standards, income or wealth. Alternatively, it may be qualified by a willingness to countenance whatever inequalities can be justified by their contribution to the circumstances of the worst-off, so long as the fundamental principles of equality of respect and of opportunity remain inviolate.

Deep equality is distinguished from shallow equality by its refusal to take the established institutional arrangements, including those that shape the market economy, for granted. Its characteristic device is not, as with shallow equality, compensatory redistribution by tax and transfer. It is a change in the institutional arrangements, especially those that organise production and exchange, the better to influence the primary distribution of wealth and income.

Deep equality is what, for example, the Spartans had among themselves, although not with the subjugated helots. It is what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, William Morris and many other socialists of the past have desired. It can be secured only by imposing radical restraints on the sale of property and the accumulation of capital.

One major historical instance of such a project is the state socialism of the 20th century in those periods - such as Stalin's rural collectivisation drive or Mao's Cultural Revolution - when egalitarianism gained the upper hand. The collectivisation as well as the nationalisation of the means of production, the outlawing of any private accumulation of capital, the widespread restraint on the alienation or acquisition of significant property, and the insistence on suppressing private wage labour all formed part of these experiences.

Who wants deep equality? Not the hundreds of millions who have fled from countryside to city, even when no work awaits them there. Not the multitudes who sit transfixed before their screens watching the fantastical narratives of empowerment and escape of the popular romantic culture. Not those seeking more consumption, more excitement, more diversion, more capability. No one wants it who could have, with a measure of abundance, anything else. And when they want it - if indeed they understand it - they want it only as a consolation, in the absence of such more appealing goods. Austerity, drudgery and monotony, a narrowing of alternatives of action, can seem an acceptable form of existence only if they appear to be the sole alternative to stark oppression. Ancient Sparta has few takers.

Deep equality cannot be the core of the progressive programme. It fails to capture the concerns and aspirations that have historically driven progressives. The common notion that the left is distinguished by the priority that it accords to equality over freedom remains plausible only so long as we limit ourselves to comparing shallow freedom to shallow equality: only when the horizon of programmatic argument has narrowed to the point of balancing economic flexibility and social protection against each other, within an institutional system that the political forces have no impulse to reconstruct. The abdication of such institutional reshaping, however, amounts to the belittlement of the progressive cause, leaving it unable to address any of the major problems of contemporary societies.

Deep freedom is the sole defensible political goal of progressives

The classical liberal idea of freedom, developed in the course of the 19th century and inspiring even now many of the secular projects of social and personal liberation, combined an ideal of individual empowerment with a programme for the institutional reconstruction of society. Both the programme and the ideal are defective. The programme put unwarranted trust in a particular system of private and public rights - a way of organising the economy and the state - that has proved to be an insufficient safeguard against oppression and an inadequate basis on which to develop our individual and collective powers. Its mistake was not simply to have chosen one institutional formula rather than another; it was above all to have committed itself dogmatically to any such formula. Moreover, the ideal of individual empowerment to which this institutional formula was wedded remained too closely modeled on a narrow aristocratic ideal of self-possession to serve as a guide to the achievement of a greater life.

A commitment to deep freedom avoids these pitfalls. It recognises the need to organise a permanent experiment, both worldwide and in the space of the independent states of the world, regarding the institutional arrangements of a free society. Deep freedom, in its fullest sense, is the dialectic between the conception of a free society and the cumulative institutional innovations that can make this conception real.

These two elements - the idea and the institutions of freedom - develop together. The transformational process resulting from their reciprocal connection is more important and more revealing than any one moment in the marriage of conception to arrangements. The conception gains meaning by reference to actual or imagined institutional developments. The institutional innovations, however, are not simply the technical translation into social reality of a conception independently established. Instead, the institutional choices disclose the ambiguities and the alternative possible directions concealed, at any moment, within the idea.

There is no stock set of institutional arrangements that, once enacted, make the conception of a free society live in social reality. There is an open array of institutional enhancements, many of them rough and flawed functional equivalents to other such arrangements. What matters is the direction, defined precisely through the interaction between the understanding and the arrangements. While compensatory redistribution produces its effects immediately, in the form of resource transfer, institutional change produces such effects in historical time. Unless the relevant timespan is arbitrarily restricted, the most extreme inequalities now could in principle be justified by their speculative contribution to the improvement of the conditions of the most disadvantaged at a much later time.

Free societies must enjoy the power to innovate and to diverge - within themselves, not just among themselves - in the way they shape markets, democracies and civil societies. They must possess both the institutional and the conceptual means to create novel varieties of political, economic and social pluralism. The established forms of the market economy, representative democracy and independent civil society are hostile to such experimentation.

Market economies remain fastened to a particular version of the idea of such an economy, embodied in their systems of private law and often justified as the natural and necessary expression of spontaneous order in economic life. Alternative regimes of property and contract should, instead, come to coexist experimentally, gaining a greater or lesser foothold in different parts of the economic order. As a result, freedom to recombine factors of production within an unchallenged framework of production and exchange would be extended into freedom to innovate continuously in the arrangements comprising such a framework. Our liberation from machine-like jobs depends on the massive economic and cultural changes that would allow us to create non-formulaic jobs in large number. These changes are unlikely in turn to advance far until wage labour begins to give way to some combination of self-employment and cooperation as the predominant form of free labour.

Civil societies remain unorganised or unequally organised, under the provisions of contract, corporate and labour law, and they are denied, as a result of their disorganisation, the chance to share directly in the creation of alternative social futures. They cannot create law from the bottom up, not even regarding their own organisation. All they can do is vie for voice and influence in the making of law by the state. The bonds of solidarity in social life, rather than resting on the strong basis of direct responsibility for the welfare of others, depends on the weak cement of money transfers organised by government.

Civil society should be organised, independently and outside the state, the better to share actively and directly in the development of alternative social futures. It should not, and need not, do so simply through the work of elected officials and political parties. One occasion for such participation is engagement in the provision of public services, especially in those services, education first among them, that equip the context-transcending individual. Another opportunity lies in the generalisation of the principle that every able-bodied adult should have at some time a responsibility to take care of other people outside their own family, thus providing social solidarity with a foundation stronger than money.

Democracies continue to be established in ways that render change dependent on crisis and allow an established structure to retain, until the next crisis, its semblance of naturalness, necessity and authority. For democratic politics, the task is to understand and to organise democratic politics as the collective discovery and creation of the new in social life, not simply as the rule of the majority, limited by the rights of political and social minorities. Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics - the facility for structural change - as well as raising its temperature - the level of popular engagement in public life. They should exploit the experimentalist potential of federalism to generate counter models of the social future and to establish in the state a power to rescue groups from situations of exclusion or disadvantage that they are unable to overcome by the means of collective action available to them. They should impart to representative democracy features of direct democracy. By all these devices they should vastly expand our power to create the new and the different, without requiring crisis as the condition of change.

Deep freedom is therefore freedom grasped and realised through change of our institutions and practices - not just through a one-time change but through a practice that can generate future, ongoing changes in the institutional order of society.

Which inequalities matter?

The distinction between right and left has not lost its meaning. Nevertheless, it needs to be redrawn. On this new account the conservatives are those who despair of our power to raise ourselves up, through the transformation of our arrangements, to a greater life, not for a group favoured by society (in the form of hereditary economic and educational advantage) or by nature (in the form of greater genetic endowments) but for all. The progressives are those who insist on transforming the institutional structure of society to the end of achieving a greater life for all. This transformation may be gradual and piecemeal in its method, but nevertheless radical in its outcome if it continues, informed by a developing idea of freedom, in a particular direction.

The practical significance of deep freedom is made clear by spelling out its implications for inequality of circumstance.

First, no inequality of circumstance should be tolerated that threatens either equality of respect or equality of opportunity. These two aspects of equality form part of freedom. They can be secured only by the combination of the public defense of an inclusive idea of freedom with an institutionalised broadening of access to economic and educational opportunity. It is as the result of the force of institutional arrangements resistant to revision that such inequalities exert their effect. It is by appealing to a defective, partial idea of freedom that they retain their authority. The correction of such inequalities should therefore rely first and foremost on the change of institutions and the criticism of beliefs, only secondarily on compensatory redistribution.

Second, inequalities of circumstance resulting in inequalities of opportunity or respect become especially damaging when they are expressed as privileged holds on the economic, political or cultural resources by which, both individually and collectively, we create the future within the present. If, for example, the result of an inequality of circumstance is to allow a certain class of society to exert decisive influence over the government, under the disguise of democratic institutions, and in effect to buy political influence, the system of freedom is violated. Once again, inclusive engagement in the creation of the future within the present requires, above all, innovation in our arrangements and beliefs, regarding the organisation of the market economy, of democratic politics, and of civil society.

Third, inequalities of circumstance that have as their consequence or their expression the subversion of free labour, or the predominance of the inferior form of free labour (wage work) over the superior forms (self-employment and cooperation), or the consignment of people to work that could be performed by machines, are by that very fact suspect.

Fourth, inequalities of circumstance that result from the reproduction of class society by the hereditary transmission of unequal economic and educational advantage through the family are to be combatted. Only the institutionalised broadening of economic and educational opportunity can effectively overcome them.

Fifth, inequalities of circumstance may be defended by their supposed contribution to the development of the wealth and practical powers of society. However, the inequalities thus justified must never be allowed to accumulate to the point of trespassing on the concerns expressed by the first two ideas (the primacy of equality of respect and of opportunity and the exclusion of inequalities that result in privileged strangleholds on the making of the future). They must be prevented from relegating the mass of ordinary men and women to dependent wage labour or to formulaic, machine-like work. Moreover, they should not be allowed to serve as a disguise for the legitimation of class society or for the veneration of exceptional endowments under the banner of merit.

Rising to the greater life

The ideal of equality - equality of respect and of opportunity, and greater equality of circumstance only insofar as it enhances equality of opportunity and of respect, or is required by them - is best defended when it is subordinated to the greater and more inclusive ideal of deep freedom. For it is this ideal that most directly touches our interest in making ourselves more human by making ourselves more godlike. The revolutionary reach of this ideal becomes clear as soon as we insist on equipping it with its most necessary instrument: the institutional reorganisation of society.

Those will be disappointed who expect from ideas about the limits to permissible inequality of circumstance, like those summarised above, a metric of distributive justice. The institutions of society and the ideas predominant in its public culture count for more than the instantaneous reallocation that can be achieved only, if at all, by retrospective and compensatory redistribution. The direction of social and personal change matters more than the short-term arithmetic of redistribution. Our chance of rising to a greater life and of achieving a deep freedom is the standard by which should ultimately distinguish between the permissible and the impermissible forms of inequality.

This essay appears in issue 20(2) of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal for rethinking the centre-left. This essay represents an excerpt, edited by Juncture, from Roberto Mangabeira Unger's forthcoming book, The Religion of the Future, to be published by Harvard University Press in the spring of 2014. (C) Roberto Mangabeira Unger

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