La société des égaux

I just finished Pierre Rosanvallon’s La société des égaux. It is a marvelous study of the idea of equality in France and the United States from their revolutions to now, mapping how the idea morphed from a superficial but broad concept of political equality to a much deeper but perhaps narrower economic and social one. Whereas the XVIII th century did not redistribute wealth or include women as citizens, it was based on the sense that everyone should have an equal say in government. By the late XIX th century this began to morph away from the feeling that every citizen was, as if by fiat, on equal footing, to one where such equality had to be maintained through redistribution and social-legal adjustments. And now, since the 1980s, this redistributive tendency has gradually eroded, but is far from having been reversed, and the social gains remain uncontested.

Mr. Rosanvallon is keen to reverse this new trend and even expand our idea of equality to also include its earlier incarnation as a brotherhood of citizens. He suggests we should move away from a redistributive equality towards a relational equality. The idea has merit, and he intends to elaborate upon it further in a second volume, but as with many of these political projects, it is based upon the dying institution of the nation state. He has actually already put his ideas into practice and created a remarkable website+book series called Raconter la vie, in which he encourages run-of-the-mill French men and women to write their stories so they can be heard and heeded by the powers that be. It is a wonderful — and wonderfully French — project, which will hopefully have a long and productive life. But it rests on a difficult premise; it requires that France remain (or become again) a cohesive whole. That seems unlikely. If new kinds of stable societies are to (re-)emerge, they will be un-national, either sub- or trans- but probably never quite coterminous with any old nation’s state. To me at least, that represents a welcome new kind of equality.

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