Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Plato

Why Inequality Drives Me Crazy

I wrote this blog for The Equality Trust and as a contribution to the international Day of Action on 25th January 2018.

Philosophers know that when you start talking about equality you can quickly get in a muddle. The truth is that we’re all different AND we’re all equal. In fact we’re all wonderfully different and without those differences our world would be a stale and deathly place. But we’re also fundamentally equal – which means we all matter, we all share the same fundamental value, each and everyone of us. In one sense equality means recognising that every single person, with all their differences, contributes to making the world a beautiful place.

Difference and equality feel like they are in conflict because we confuse equality with sameness; we focus on some particular variable aspect of our humanity and then we are tempted into promoting our self-worth by treating that difference as the most important measure of our self. Kids want to be the tallest, adults want to be the richest and football teams want to have most points at the end of the season.

We like to win – however meaningless the game.

And, of course, as soon as someone starts to win then someone else must inevitably lose. As the great Billy Bragg sings:

Just because you’re better than me

Doesn’t mean I’m lazy

Just because you’re going forwards

Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards…

This is the reason that Dante made Pride the First Deadly Sin. If you really believe you are better than other people then you are not only kidding yourself but you will often start to harm other people. You may be tempted to fix the rules of the game so that you’ll keep winning; you may encourage others to believe that they don’t count, that they’ve got nothing to offer and that you are entitled to your supposed superiority.

Game-fixing and toxic inequality is particularly rife when it comes to the distribution of the three great social forces: money, power and fame. The more a society fixates on any of these values then the more vicious that society will become and the more likely that inequality in that variable will increase.

Inequality begets inequality.

Inequality in money is the most obvious example.

If there’s a lot of inequality in money then those with lots of money gain many things – not just extra power and resources, but also the delusion that they are better than other people – combined with a gnawing anxiety that those advantages could be taken away from them. The greater the inequality the greater the sense you have have much to lose and the greater the temptation to fix the game to perpetuate your advantage. So the rich increasingly believe they deserve what they have and they organise society to protect and increase their advantage; to buy influence they buy or bribe the powerful.

Injustice begets injustice.

Sadly the natural result of this toxic inequality is not that people eventually wake up, get over themselves and start to share things more fairly. Inequality distorts the values of everyone.

For those in the middle it is much easier to blame the poor for society’s problems than to challenge the rich. Even worse, most of the poor themselves accept this distorted vision; they rarely reject the values that are imposed upon them, they rarely organise and fight back. Blatant nonsense about benefit scrounging, fraud by disabled people, the costs of immigration or the European Union can be found as much amongst the oppressed as amongst those who oppress them.

To simplify, in the form of a Haiku, it seems that the normal pattern is:

The rich blame the poor

The middle apes the rich and

The poor blame themselves

But there is hope.

Organisations like The Equality Trust hold out a torch and help us see what a self-destructive trap income inequality has become. We can start to see how income inequality has been exploited and inflated to the disadvantage of society as a whole. We can start to identify the disciplines that are required for people to live as equal citizens, welcoming difference, not seeking to exploit or abuse others.

It is clear today that even a relatively modest correction in income inequality would lift millions out of poverty and deprivation. Plato recommended that the richest should get no more than 5 times what the poorest get. As a beginning, this ratio would transform society and radically improve our society.

It’s also exciting to see the emergence of organisations like Acorn – local people self-organising to protect their social rights, hold landlords to account and fight poverty – or Citizen Network – an international community to promote equal citizenship for all. It is possible to reimagine our world and we can organise to make that vision real.

It is time to think start thinking straight and time to challenge the unacceptable acceptance of inequality. In the words of the Gang of Four:

To hell with poverty!

Why Socrates Would Vote for Corbyn

I was reading Plato’s Gorgias recently and I was struck by how close this two and half thousand year old discussion was to the debate currently going on within the Labour Party. In brief, I think it is clear that Socrates would have been a Corbynista – for he advocated the need for a commitment to the principles of justice and he rejected the pragmatic need to flatter or pander to the electorate.

For those of you who have not read Gorgias I heartily recommend it. It is certainly rather funny.

It is a debate between Socrates and some of the leading teachers of rhetoric (the art of oratory) of his day. Socrates mercilessly attacks each of them and demonstrates that as the central function of oratory is to persuade others to an action which is independent of the justice of that action then the person persuaded (or the demos) has been corrupted.

The humour comes from the nearly visible eye-rolling and wry smiles you can imagine on the rhetoricians’  faces as they think to themselves that – for all the truth of Socrates’ critique – everything he says is unrealistic. People want to be flattered. We want politicians to lie to us. Justice feels far too much like hard work. Power is more important than principle.

And of course the wicked twist in this tail is that they were right. The Athenians killed Socrates for his truthfulness and his refusal to flatter them.

Today we hear that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, unpersuasive and unrealistic. He’s too principled. Far better that we accept someone to lead Labour who can ‘reach out’ to the middle and win those critical swing votes.

Is this the vapid choice that lies before us – between honest failure and the victory of the charlatan?

Well here are three reasons why I’ll back Socrates and Corbyn over the current alternative:

Truth has its own victory. We behave as if the trick to justice is to get ‘our man’ (or woman) into power. But in the process, not only do we place an unreasonable responsibility on such a candidate, we also forget that true power comes through community. As Socrates observes, the tyrant inevitably loses that which is the very best thing – friendship. The desire to gain and to keep hold of ‘power’ by tricking people into believing in you is actually the desire to take on the lonely job of manipulating others to do your will.

We commonly confuse – as Hannah Arendt observed – power and force. Control of government only gives you force; real power comes through the collective action which can also shift the will and the understanding without coercion. Offering someone control of your democratic organisation, in the hope that they can then seize power over the country, but in the name of your part, is not the meaning of democracy.

Democracy is more important than Party. Simone Weil persuasively argues we’d all be better off without the Party Machine. This is another (connected) unrealistic idea. But, even if we do not achieve that utopia, surely we must all recognise that democracy in its current form is an inevitable process of victory and defeat and that ‘our’ party cannot be right all the time. The paradox is that this also means that we should want politicians to disagree, to hold out for principles and avoid the race to the middle. It is only through this kind of democratic process that we can expect to develop and improve our society.

The fact is that we are suffering under the most extreme Right-wing Government in the developed world precisely because Labour’s long-term strategy has been to occupy the ground that is as close as possible the Tories. It is a strange form of competition to drive you to imitate your competition. In the end the result of this strategy has been to create no effective counterweight to the Rightward swing that began under Thatcher and has reached such extremes under Cameron. Debate has been stifled, interesting alternative policies are not considered and a stifling elitist consensus prevails.

In fact one of Socrates’ most powerful arguments is that these experts in rhetoric cannot even name someone whose rhetoric has left Athens in a better state than he found it. Even the greatest of Athenians found themselves attacked or exiled after their periods of leadership. As Socrates says, a true leader would not have made the people more vicious, more eager to blame and less interested in true justice. What then the legacy of the New Labour as we enter year 6 of an austerity programme condemned by the United Nations for rejecting human rights?

Argument trumps rhetoric. Modern politics has abandoned any respect for evidence, logic and the wisdom of practice. We wish to be saved from our fears and anxieties and we rush to those who promise us safety. In the end we are disappointed and in fact we knew we’d be disappointed, because we’d listened to promises that we knew lacked substance. The salesman sells and we buy, because all we are offered are competing sales pitches. We do not really believe all the rhetoric – we have just come to accept that the only choice available is to choose the best salesman, the best spin doctor.

Corbyn’s refusal to look the part, to sell himself, to use rhetoric and bombast – that’s what I love about him. I’m sure that on many matters of detail I’d disagree with him. But so what? What appeals to me is that he is offering – both within and without the Labour Party – the chance for meaningful debate.

Socrates may also have been unrealistic and there is certainly no apolitical path to justice. What I’m looking for is someone who wants to open debate – not someone with all the answers. What I’m looking for is someone who remembers that justice is never safe in the hands of the rich and powerful. What I’m looking for is someone who knows I don’t need a hero or even a leader; I just need someone who remembers that it’s ordinary people – the demos – who are the foundation of a just society.

And one last point. You may not have heard of Gorgias, but you’ve probably heard of Socrates. His ideas and his thinking survived his murder by his enemies.

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