Leading political philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon outlines a reformation of the idea of equality that takes its inspiration from the revolutionary visions of France and the United States while embracing what is good about our modern individualism and diversity.

20th-century approaches to achieving greater equality have run aground, and so a new approach is required. In this essay, I consider alternatives - from a nostalgic desire to return to social democratic values and institutions of the past, to a commitment to radical equality of opportunity - but reject them. Instead, I propose the forging of a 'society of equals': a world of like human beings (or semblables, as Tocqueville would say, meaning a society of similar individuals, as opposed to a hierarchical, aristocratic society), a society of autonomous individuals, and a community of citizens.

The 20th-century approach to reducing inequalities

In the last century, there were two principal means of reducing inequality: the first was the reduction of social risks such as unemployment and disease; the second was the reduction of income disparities.

The reduction of social risks had its origin in the introduction of the welfare state as a system of social insurance. Ever since the French revolution, the major problem had been how to reconcile the principle of solidarity (society has a debt towards its members) with the principle of responsibility (each individual is master of their own life and must take control of themselves). The solution was not self-evident. In fact, the limitation of the right to public aid initially presupposed that it was straightforward to determine where individual responsibility applied. What happened was quite the opposite: industrial economic development made it increasingly difficult to discern what could be attributed to the individual's own agency and what depended on other factors.

But for all these practical difficulties, the conception of circumstances such as unemployment and disease as risks changed the way they were regarded. They were transformed into social problems, and the mechanisms of the welfare state took them as statistical facts. As such, they could be calculated and treated through the mechanisms of insurance. Above all, this led to a process of the socialisation of responsibility.

The reduction of income disparities, on the other hand, was related to the characteristics of modern business. In Modern Capitalism in 1965, JK Galbraith wrote that in the firms which emerged after the second world war 'power has passed ineluctably and irrevocably from the individual to the group'.

For Galbraith, this transfer of power to the organisation from the individual - 'deindividualisation' - had a number of implications. First, it reflected the disappearance of the Schumpeterian entrepreneur and their replacement with the 'technostructure', a veritable collective mind. Second, the advent of this impersonal power also reflected the fact that the success of the firm depended more on the quality of its organisation and the pertinence of its management procedures than on the exceptional talents of individuals. It could perform quite well even if staffed by perfectly ordinary people. As he put it in The New Industrial State: 'The real accomplishment of modern science and technology consists in taking quite ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply, and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men. This dispenses with the need for genius.' Talent was thus taken down from its pedestal.

These changes, Galbraith argued, meant that a firm's CEO was just another cog in the machinery of the organisation. The socialisation of responsibility and productivity inherent in this type of economic organisation changed the nature of the social question: the productive efficiency of the system inevitably redistributed wealth and reduced inequality, and the individual benefited from what were seen as collective achievements. Executives were better paid than workers, of course, but only within the framework of a functional hierarchy of skills - recall, for example, that Peter Drucker argued at the time that the pay ratio between the top executive and the humblest worker should be no greater than 20:1.

These two means of achieving equality were reinforced by other historical, political and economic factors. Three were particularly important.

The first was a reformism of fear: after both the first and second world wars, the fear of communism pushed liberal and conservative governments alike towards social reform and redistribution. To quote Emile de Girardin, French journalist and politician: 'We must choose between a fiscal revolution and a social revolution.' The second was the pace of economic growth after the second world war in Europe which, with annual growth of 5 per cent until the mid-1970s, produced the resources for redistribution.

The third was an implicit reformulation of the social contract brought about by the world wars, particularly the first. The experience of the Great War marked a decisive turning point in democratic modernity, restoring the idea of a society of semblables in a direct, palpable way. It revived the oldest meaning of the idea of equality, captured by the Greek word homoioi. The first meaning of the epithet homoioi applied to polemos, or combat: it characterised a battle 'that is equal for all, that spares no one'. The homoioi were therefore equals in the sense that they had fought together, had experienced the common lot of the soldier in battle.

The first world war not only demonstrated this aspect of equality through the fraternal experience of combat but also publicly validated it in all combatant countries through the organisation of national funerals to honour the 'unknown soldier'. The anonymity of the unknown soldier expressed in exemplary fashion the idea of radical equality, of strictly equivalent value: the most obscure individual embodied what was best in everyone and became the ultimate measure of the social order. In 1918, everyman became the incarnation of the social individual. Fraternity in combat and the commemoration of sacrifice are complex phenomena, but they helped to pave the way to greater social solidarity.

The great reversal

All three of the historical, political and economic trends that drove greater equality in the mid-20th century have since been reversed. The 30 years of economic boom that followed the second world war are in the past. Politicians are no longer motivated by the 'reformism of fear' - indeed, it has been replaced with a new politics of fear which is destructive of solidarity, such as when it is fueled by popular concerns about immigration. And our society is no longer bound together by strong collective experiences. On the contrary, we live in times of growing individualism - a soci?t? d'?loignement, a distanced society.

In addition, the notion of 'reducing social risk' no longer suffices as a singular response to social problems, for a number of reasons. For one, the nature of social problems is changing: unfortunately, phenomena of exclusion, such as long-term unemployment, now often define stable conditions. We have moved from an unpredictable and circumstantial approach to a more deterministic view, in which situations of social breakdown cannot easily be reversed. As a result, a whole section of the population is no longer part of the world of social insurance.

At the same time, the idea of individual responsibility has once again become central. John Rawls' veil of ignorance has irreparably torn. This is because a new force of disintegration is at work: the progress of information. The great increase in data about and understanding of each individual's circumstances inevitably affects the calculations of insurance. More and more, the acceptance of solidarity is accompanied by a demand for control over personal behaviour. The smoker will soon be required to choose between their vice and the right to equal access to care; the alcoholic will be threatened with demands to pay social surcharges. As the social cost of individual attitudes appears more distinctly, solidarity and freedom will part company.

As this happens, we will witness the decline of the insuring society. From now on, we shall have to rethink solidarity, with clearer knowledge of the situation and chances of each individual. The very bases and scope of the 'insurance society' have been seriously damaged. Solidarity now means more often assistance than insurance, and 'reducing social risk' has become problematic.

Simultaneously, the capitalism of organisation as described by Galbraith has been profoundly transformed. Fordist organisation, based on the mobilisation of large masses of workers, has since the 1980s given way to a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals. Creativity thus has become the principal factor of production. 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 product offerings more varied. In this context, the formerly socialised system of production has given way to a vision based on the addition of personal contributions. This in turn marks a return to singularity, to treating nonconformity as the essential condition of a true society of equals, calling on fellow citizens to insist on their radical incommensurability. The old idea of the centrality of organisation has been replaced by the centrality of individual energies.

This new capitalism is also shaped by the economics of permanent innovation - the Schumpeterian entrepreneurs have returned. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the list of leading firms in the major industrial countries remained relatively constant from 1950 to 1980, but then gave way to admit newcomers such as Microsoft, Apple and Oracle. The industrial and financial landscape was transformed everywhere, and this further accelerated the shift to new modes of organisation and labour mobilisation.

These changes justified more individualised salaries and huge differences in income, so long as they were grounded on individual contribution. The results of what were for a long time invisible transformations are now plainly visible: high inequalities and a deep crisis for the very idea of equality.

Where next: three options rejected

How should we respond to this crisis?

The first option is the populist one, a return to the evils of the late 19th century, at the time of the first wave of globalisation, namely aggressive nationalism, xenophobia and protectionism. This approach was sustained by a purely negative vision of equality. Maurice Barr?s, writing in 1893, put it bluntly: 'The idea of the patrie [fatherland] implies a kind of inequality, but to the detriment of foreigners.' This negative equality in relation to outsiders was reinforced by the desire to organise another community of the rejected, this one internal: namely, 'the crowd of little people', humble capitalists and workers united in opposition to the 'big barons' and 'feudal lords'.

The second option is nostalgic politics, seeking a revival of civic republicanism and/or past social democratic values and institutions. The late Tony Judt recently pleaded for such a reaction in Ill Fares the Land. Although there is great nobility in such a vision, it unfortunately fails to take seriously enough the irreversible character of the individualism of singularity. The individualism of singularity is a process defined by the desire to achieve a fully personalised existence, linked closely to growth in the complexity and heterogeneity of social life and therefore to changes in the nature of capitalism. The crucial point is, therefore, that the great reversal is not the consequence of a broken contract or moral depravity. Rather, it derives from historical and political factors as well as structured transformations affecting the mode of production and the nature of the social bond.

Nostalgic politics is simply not viable because there is now no returning to the previous form of capitalism of organisation: the shift to an economy driven by innovation is irreversible. But even if we could practically return to this past social democratic world, would it be desirable? Perhaps not. We should not reject all aspects of modern individualism. If unbridled individualism, in the moral sense of selfishness and a decline in civic values, should be criticised and reversed, it also has some positive characteristics. We have to consider a striking paradox: the new age of inequality and diminished solidarity has also been a time of heightened awareness of social discrimination and positive tolerance of many kinds of difference. The picture is contradictory, to say the least, and while some ground has been lost, there have been undeniable advances in regard to the status of women, acceptance of differences of sexual orientation, and individual rights generally.

One way to distinguish between the politics of nostalgic impossibilities and what is rich and worth keeping in modern individualism is by examining the internal transformation in the 'society of individuals'. Succinctly put, what we need to understand is the transition from an individualism of universality to an individualism of singularity, a process that has its roots in the revolutionary era of the late 18th century.

Revolutionary individualism does not refer to a social state or moral fact. The term did not appear in the revolutionary period. It describes the constitution of man as both legal subject - the bearer of rights guaranteeing freedom of thought and action, property, and autonomy - and political subject, sharing in sovereignty through exercise of the right to vote. The term therefore defined a way of making society, a novel approach to creating a social and political order in place of the old corporatist and absolutist order. Revolutionary individualism was therefore intimately related to the idea of equality and recognition of human similarity. It characterised a relational form, a type of social bond, and not the condition of a single social atom taken in isolation. Georg Simmel used the phrase 'individualism of similarity' to describe in general terms the tendency of European societies in the 18th century. His point was that the aspiration to autonomy and liberty was intimately related to a universalist egalitarian ethos. The individualist perspective, he argued, 'rested on the assumption that individuals freed of social and historical fetters would turn out to be essentially similar to one another'. In this context, liberty and equality were overlapping values.

The individualism of distinction - the defining of one's identity in terms of dissidence from the common run of mankind - was the precursor of today's individualism of singularity. The present individualism of singularity can be seen as a generalisation of the individualism of distinction. Distinction became commonplace and lost its elitist connotations: in short, it was 'democratised'.

This process inaugurated a new phase in human emancipation, defined by the desire to achieve a fully personalised existence, which - as I have noted - is closely related to the increased complexity and diversity of social life and so to changes in capitalism itself. At another level, it is also linked to the fact that the life of each individual is now shaped more by personal history than by personal condition. Nostalgia cannot undo this.

The point is that the progressive stand has to take into account what is positive in this new individualism of singularity and to denounce the kind of utilitarian reductionism that is now at work where the neoliberal mantra and 'new managers' use and manipulate these transformations in the idea of responsibility.

The third option, which I also reject, can be labeled as the social-liberal one. It takes into account the transformations discussed above and proposes a radicalisation of the notion of equality of opportunity. The so-called 'third way' made a political ideology of this idea, where the theory of justice known as 'luck egalitarianism' had proposed an intellectual model for it.

Writers such as Ronald Dworkin and Gerald Cohen paved the way for this radical version of equality of opportunity. Their stance insists on neutralising all consequences that can be ascribed to chance in the broadest sense of the term. However, there are three limits to such a view. The first is a logical one. This radical version of equality of opportunity is intellectually appealing but unsustainable in practice, because its conceptual underpinnings are paradoxical. If all consequences of chance and circumstance must be compensated for then the range of policies to correct potential handicaps is subject to unlimited expansion. Virtually nothing is the result of pure choice.

The second limit is sociological. If we adopt the radical approach, individuals have to be desocialised in order that they might be treated as true equals. To enforce this would require a draconian, illiberal and politically untenable removal of external influences, such as the family, which would otherwise shape the destinies of children and so work against a radical equality of opportunity.

The third limit is a political one. A society subject to the meritocratic principle alone would be rigidly hierarchical. This was the society envisioned by the Saint-Simonians. They went further than others in making the elimination of inheritance and destruction of the family central tenets of their doctrine. Prosper Enfantin, a proponent of Saint-Simonianism, went so far as to say that its followers 'believe in natural inequality among men and regard such inequality as the very basis of association, the indispensable condition of social order'. A hundred years later, RH Tawney criticised the Saint-Simonian position for offering 'equal opportunities to become unequal'. And Michael Young, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, painted a very dark portrait of meritocracy, given that - paradoxically - it ends in consecrating inequality.

Theories of equality of opportunity can and therefore should serve as a basis for policies of reduction of inequalities, but are incapable of establishing a general social theory. This is for the reasons given above, but also because radical visions of equality of opportunity consider the form and legitimacy of interindividual differences but have nothing to say about social structure in itself. That is why we need a positive theory of social equality, a fourth avenue for exploration.

Rethinking equality: the society of equals

What we need is a new model of solidarity and integration in an age of singularity. If more redistribution is needed today, it has to be relegitimated - but how? The answer is through a redefinition of equality with a universalist dimension. That is to say, through a return to the revolutionary vision that existed in France and in the United States of equality as a social relation and not as an arithmetic measure. Equality was then 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 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 entails an 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, which 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), a society of autonomous individuals and a community of citizens. Equality was thus conceived in terms of the relative position of individuals, the rules governing their interactions, and the principles on which their life in common was based.

The rights of man, the market and universal suffrage were the underlying institutions. Economic inequalities were seen as acceptable in this framework only if they did not threaten the other modes of relational equality that defined the society of equals. These representations, which were formulated in a precapitalist world, 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, a different trio of principles is needed: singularity, reciprocity and commonality.

Singularity in the society of equals

Equality of singularities does not imply 'sameness'. Rather, each individual seeks to stand out by virtue of their unique qualities, and the existence and acceptance of diversity becomes the very standard of equality. Everyone is similar by dint of being incomparable.

The aspiration to such singularity can take shape only in the individual's relation to others. If the meaning of a person's life lies in their difference from others, then they must coexist with those others. This is why it is important to distinguish between singularity and autonomy or identity. Autonomy is defined by a positional variable and is essentially static. Identity is defined by constitutional variables; a composite quality, it is basically given, although it may evolve over time. By contrast, singularity is defined by a relational variable - it is not a state. The difference that defines singularity binds a person to others; it does not set them apart.

This form of equality defines a type of society whose mode of composition is neither abstract universalism nor identity-based communitarianism but rather the dynamic construction and recognition of particularity, or difference. This shift has significant implications. It suggests that individuals now seek to participate in society on the basis of their distinctive rather than common characteristics. Singularity is not a sign of withdrawal from society (individualism as retreat or separation) but is instead an expectation of reciprocity or mutual recognition. This marks the advent of a fully democratic age: the basis of society lies not in nature but solely in a shared philosophy of equality.

One central element of such a democratic society of singularities is gender equality. The essential problem is how to ensure that men and women can live together as equals. This is an inherently relational issue; they do not exist separately at first only to enter into communication later on. As ?tienne Balibar argues: 'Equality here is not neutralisation of differences (equalisation) but a necessary and sufficient condition of the diversification of freedom.' Gender relations are thus the most powerful expression of the individualism of singularity. The gender distinction is fundamental to a deeper understanding of the egalitarian ideal and a laboratory for exploring ways to intertwine similarity and singularity ever more closely.

Reciprocity in the society of equals

Tocqueville placed great stress on the idea that selfishness is 'to societies what rust is to metal'. Today, one might say that the absence of reciprocity is the most critical source of corrosion. People are more likely to contribute to collective projects or costs if they believe that other citizens feel the same way. Conversely, any perceived disruption of reciprocity can lead to withdrawal in one form or another.

Inequality is most acutely felt when citizens believe that rules apply differently to different people, or when they see intolerable differences in the way different individuals are treated by certain institutions. They resent the double standard, the sense that they alone are 'playing by the rules' while others find a way to circumvent those same rules for their own advantage. In another light, Richard Sennett has noted 'modern society's hatred of parasitism'. Sentiments such as these are a critical source of social distrust, which in turn undermines the legitimacy of the welfare state and fosters aversion to taxes.

If we are to create a society of equals, no task is more urgent than to restore reciprocity. This requires a number of changes. One is the need to separate fantasy from reality when it comes to unequal treatment of individuals and groups - we need to gain a better understanding of the facts. Abuse of the welfare and tax systems must be vigorously opposed in order to maintain confidence in these institutions. But debate on this issue must be fair and productive: unless situational inequalities are clearly established on the basis of transparent fiscal and social statistics, the imagination is free to wreak havoc. Moreover, achieving a society of equals will require a return to universalistic policies. This is a crucial point: we are in need of a universalistic approach to rebuilding solidarity, because the so-called 'social question' is not only about minorities, poverty and exclusion, it is also about the reconstruction of a common world for the whole of society.

Commonality in the society of equals

Civil citizenship, and the notion of human rights that goes along with it, have reshaped the very idea of the individual. But citizenship is also social. The citizen is not merely an individual endowed with certain rights, they are also defined by their relations to their fellow citizens. What ?mile Benveniste tells us about the etymology of the word civis is especially enlightening in this regard. The Latin civis, he argues, was originally a term applied to people who shared the same habitat. Implicit in the meaning of the word was a certain idea of reciprocity. The civis was a person who joined with their peers in the construction of a civitas, a common society. I propose the term 'commonality' as a name for this social dimension of citizenship.

Commonality is today under serious attack from various forms of social separation, the secession of the rich being the most visible and shameful one. But regional separatisms are also on the rise throughout Europe. What democracy needs is a more active, creative concept, a more complex understanding of the common, encompassing as vital dimensions participation, mutual comprehension and circulation.

Taken together, the ideas of singularity, reciprocity and commonality offer a way towards reformulating the idea of equality. And this way forward is sorely needed if we are to restore strength to the project of building a society of equals, where democratic equality in relations must come first.

Pierre Rosanvallon's latest book, The Society of Equals, is out now, published by Harvard University Press.