Part 1 of 4 (Part 2 here)
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
In 1977 I published a thick book called Viewed from the Right which received the Grand Prix de l’Essai from the French Academy the following year and has since been reprinted a number of times. Since then, one of the most frequently cited statements from the work’s introduction has been:
Here I shall, as a matter of mere convention, call “from the Right” the attitude which consists in considering the diversity of the world, and consequently the relative inequalities which are necessarily produced by it, as a good, and the progressive homogenization of the world preached and realized by the egalitarian discourse of the last two thousand years as an evil.
This statement summed up my way of looking at things then, and today I still recognize myself fairly well in it. This “anti-egalitarian” profession of faith, blending the related but distinct ideas of diversity and inequality, of homogenization and equality, is, however, somewhat equivocal in itself. The obvious risk in making one’s principal object the struggle against egalitarianism is to appear to legitimate exclusionary practices (in the name of the presumed inferiority of this or that group) or of elitist liberal practices (inequality of conditions as the just result of natural inequalities; social justice as an “illusion”). It is worth our while to go deeper into this complex set of problems.
Fortunes & Misfortunes of Equality
Equality between A and B (A = B) means either that A is similar or identical to B, i.e., that it does not differ, or that they are equivalent according to an exact criterion and in a particular respect. “If equality only exists in a particular respect,” writes Julien Freund, “the same things can be different and unequal in other respects.” It follows that equality is never an absolute given, and that it does not refer to any intrinsic respect, but depends on a convention, in fact upon the criterion supposed or the respect chosen. Stated as a self-sufficient principle it is empty, for there is only equality or inequality in a certain given context and in reference to factors which allow us to posit or appreciate it concretely. So the ideas of equality and inequality are always relative, and by definition are never without a certain arbitrariness.
It is significant that inequalities (in the plural) are nowadays opposed to equality in the singular. Through the univocality of the concept, the idea of equality tends in itself toward the homogeneous, i.e., toward the unique. However, this conceptual unity has no counterpart in any identity of the empirical forms it evokes. Forms of equality are not equal amongst themselves. Insofar as one makes of equality an absolute value, moreover, the concept becomes contradictory. No unique value exists, for a value only has value in relation to others of lesser value. Valorizing thus necessarily implies hierarchization, which one practices every time one posits equality as the supreme value. But by hierarchizing one is already violating the principle of equality, which contradicts all hierarchy. (This is the equivalent of the contradiction in which pacifists find themselves constrained to wage war on those who do not share their point of view.) Julien Freund adds:
Egalitarianism theoretically denies the hierarchy it implies in practice. In fact, it accords a superiority and exclusive value to equality in all its forms, and consequently reduces all unequal relations to the ranks of inferior values. . . . Consequently, it judges reality according to an order of superior and inferior, i.e., in practice, it includes in its concept a hierarchy it claims to deny and condemn theoretically.
The very notion of value is ambiguous when it is meant to mark an equivalence. When one says that two things are of equal value, one is not saying they are the same thing, but that they are worth the same in spite of what distinguishes them. But the very fact of emphasizing what makes them similar, however dissimilar they may otherwise be, has the effect of letting their dissimilarity fade into the background. Two things of “equal value” are worth the same. It is easy to conclude from this that, being what they are worth, they are the same.
Mathematical or algebraic equality, as distinct from proportional equality, contains in itself a principle of indifferentiation. Applied to human beings it means there exists no difference between them which might be regarded as being of a nature to relativize that by which they are no different. Understood this way, equality leads one to get rid of any incommensurable part specific to the human subject. But abstract equality is also a fundamental economic concept, for it is only in the economic realm, in relation to the universal equivalent of money, that it can be posited, measured, and verified. Economics is, along with moral philosophy (but for different reasons), the preferred domain in which equality can be appreciated: because its unit of accounting, the monetary unit, is by definition interchangeable. One dollar or euro is worth the same as any other dollar or euro. Only the quantity varies, only the quantity is specific. Political or legal equality is quite different. As for equality which is neither economic nor political nor legal, it is not susceptible of any precise definition. Any doctrine which appeals to such an equality is a form of metaphysics.
In the modern age, human emancipation has long been more associated with the desire for equality than for freedom. Inequality being posited as an a priori oppressive structure (which it has often been), freedom is in a certain way destined to negate itself insofar as it ends by recreating oppression by allowing or even aggravating inequalities. So much so that certain authors, such as Norberto Bobbio, have been able to see in the ideal of equality the essential agent of the Right-Left split. Bobbio writes:
The partisan of equality usually thinks that the greater part of the inequalities which shock him and which he would like to make disappear are of social origin, and consequently that they can be suppressed, whereas the partisan of inequality usually thinks that these inequalities are natural and thus unavoidable.
Is this still true today? It seems to me that as a matter of public opinion in general — taking one current with another — it is now better understood that equality of conditions is not necessarily possible, nor even necessarily desirable. We believe ever less strongly that all inequalities are of social origin. Conversely, one can very well think that excessively large inequalities in income are politically and socially unbearable without thereby believing in natural equality between individuals. (Moreover, it is a commonplace of classical thought to state that excessive wealth is destructive of virtue.) People also realize that massification and cultural uniformization in the name of equality and under cover of “democratization” have more often served the interests of large commercial firms than the ideals of democracy. Equality of opportunity is more frequently aimed at than of results. People tend to distinguish between just and unjust, or tolerable and intolerable, inequalities: which amounts to an admission that inequality per se, like equality, no longer means anything.
More than on equality, emphasis is now placed on equity, which consists not in giving everyone the same thing, but arranging for everyone, as much as possible, to get what is owed him. Even in economic matters the Left, rather than aspiring to equality per se, seeks the maximum sustainable minimum (the maximin), i.e., a division or redistribution which attributes as much as possible to those who receive the least, taking into account (in their own interests) the positive effect certain economic disparities can have on incentives to invest or save. John Rawls was one of the first to present systematically — from an essentially procedural point of view, it is true — a theoretical foundation for the subordination of the demand for equality to that for equity. “Equity,” writes Julien Freund, “is the form of justice which accepts from the beginning the plurality of human activities, the plurality of ends and aspirations, the plurality of interests and ideas, and which exerts itself to practice compensation in the unequal play of reciprocal relations.”
As for democratic equality, so badly understood for different reasons on both Right and Left, it must be understood first of all as an intrinsically political idea. Democracy implies the political equality of citizens and not at all their “natural” equality. As Carl Schmitt remarks,
the equality of anything “with human features’” can produce neither a state nor a form of government, nor a governmental form. Neither distinctions nor limits can be drawn from it. . . . From the fact that all men are men, nothing specific can be deduced whether in morality, religion, politics, or economics. . . . The idea of human equality supplies no legal, political, or economic criterion. . . . An equality with no other content than the intrinsic equality common to all men would be an apolitical equality, because it lacks the corollary of a possible inequality. Every form of equality draws its importance and meaning from its correlation with a possible inequality. It is the more intense the more significant the inequality is in respect of those outside the relation of equality. An equality without the possibility of an inequality, an equality one has intrinsically and which can never be lost, is of no value and indifferent.
Like any political concept, democratic equality refers to the possibility of a distinction. It sanctions a common membership in a particular political entity. The citizens of a democratic country enjoy equal political rights not because their abilities are the same, but because they are equally citizens of their country. Similarly, universal suffrage is not the sanction of an intrinsic equality of the voters (one man, one vote), nor is its goal to make a determination regarding truth. It is the logical consequence of the voters equally being citizens, and its function is to express their preferences and certify their consent or disagreement. Political equality, a condition of all other forms of equality (in democracy the people represent the constitutive power), thus has nothing abstract about it; it is to the highest degree substantive. Already among the Greeks, isonomia does not mean that the citizens are equal in nature or ability, nor even that the law should be equal for everyone, but that all have the same entitlement to participate in public life. So democratic equality implies a common membership and thereby contributes to define an identity. This term “identity” refers both to the singularity which distinguishes and to what allows those who share that singularity to identify with one another. “The word ‘identity,’” says Carl Schmitt, “characterizes the existential side of political unity by contrast with any normative, schematic, or fictive equality.”
The first consequence which results from this is that “the essential concept of democracy is the people and not humanity. If democracy is to remain a political form, there are only democracies of particular peoples and not of humanity.” The second consequence is that the corollary of the equality of citizens resides in their non-equality with those who are not citizens. Carl Schmitt writes:
Political democracy cannot rest on the absence of any distinction between men, but only on their belonging to a particular people, such belonging being determined by a very diverse set of factors: the idea of a common race, a common faith, a common destiny and traditions. The equality which is part of the very essence of democracy only applies inside (a State) and not outside it: within a democratic State, all men of that nationality are equal. One consequence for politics and public law: He who is not a citizen has nothing to do with that democratic equality.
It is in this respect that
democracy as a formal principle of politics is opposed to liberal ideas of freedom and the equality of the individual with all other individuals. If a democratic State recognizes universal human equality in the domain of public life and public law down to its last consequences, it divests itself of its own substance.
So it would be a serious error to oppose to abstract equality a simple principle of inequality. Inequality is not the contrary of equality but its corollary: one is only meaningful because of the other. The contrary of equality is the incommensurable. Moreover, since one can only be equal or unequal in a particular respect, there is nothing intrinsically equal or unequal. A society where only inequality reigns is as unthinkable, and would be as unlivable, as a society where there was nothing but equality. All societies involve, and must involve, both hierarchical and egalitarian relations, equally necessary to its proper functioning. As Julien Freund has written,
equality is one of the normal configurations of social relations by the same title as hierarchy. Egalitarianism, by contrast, considers all these relations exclusively or predominantly from the point of view of equality.
And he adds:
Egalitarianism is the ideological doctrine which tries to persuade us that there is a unique and universal relation capable of subsuming the various relations of equality which engender a plurality of equalities. . . . A unique, exclusive, and universal relation would imply that there is a point of view that is the reason for all points of view. Now the idea of a unique, exclusive, and universal point of view contradicts the very concept of a point of view.
The best thing about equality is in fact reciprocity: mutual assistance, real solidarity, a system of gifts and counter-gifts. Equality and inequality somehow blend in reciprocity.
* * *
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 Julien Freund, “Pluralité des égalités et équité,” in Politique et impolitique, Sirey, Paris 1987, 180.
 Ibid., 183.
 Norberto Bobbio, Destra e sinistra: Ragioni e significati di una distinzione politica, Donzelli, Roma 1994.
 John Rawls, Théorie de la justice, Seuil, Paris 1987.
 Op. cit., 186.
 Carl Schmitt, Théorie de le Constitution, PUF, Paris 1993, 364-365.
 Ibid., 372-373.
 Ibid., 371.
 Ibid., 365.
 Ibid., 371.
 Op. cit., 19.
 Ibid., 181-182.
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