Just Published! Equality: The Impossible Quest

Martin van Creveld, Equality: The Impossible Quest, Castalia House, 2015.

Reviewed by Vox Day.

81h5u+UVSQL._SL1500_All over the Western world gaps between rich and poor are widening—or the headlines say. Nobody has done more to spread this view than the French economic historian Thomas Piketty whose best-selling volume, Capital in the Twentieth Century, not only documents the process but represents one long call for reducing the gaps so as to create a more equal society. But what is equality? Who invented the idea, when, where, and why? How did it develop, grow, mature, and interact with other ideas? How was it implemented, and at what cost? Are we getting closer to it? What is the promise? What is the threat?

There is equality before God and equality here on earth. There is natural equality and the kind of equality that society creates. Some people, incidentally, want to extend equality to animals and plants as well. There is equality of body and there is equality of mind. There is economic equality and there is equality before the law. There is civic equality and there is political equality and there is equality of opportunity and there is equality in front of death. There is equality among individuals and there is equality among groups, nations, and races. In Aldous Huxley’s celebrated book, Brave New World, this truth is held to be self-evident that men (and women, though Huxley does not say so) are equal in respect to their bodies’ physico-chemical makeup but in no other way. The list goes on and on.

Equality: The Impossible Quest considers all these problems and then some. It begins by considering our primate relatives as well as various historical societies that never heard of equality. Next, it traces the development of the idea and its implementation in various societies throughout history. This include ancient Greek equality as realized in Athens and Sparta, monastic equality in both East and West, social revolts aimed at establishing equality, utopian equality, liberal equality of the American and French Revolutionary varieties, socialist, communist and kibbutz equalities, Nazi equality, the equality of women and minorities, and biological equality through medical and genetic science. The last chapter deals with the greatest equalizer of all, death.

This survey of the history of equality demonstrates that the vast majority of human societies have not only survived, but thrived without equality. And it appears that despite its popular appeal, if carried too far, equality will present a threat to justice, liberty, and even truth. More problematic still is the observable fact that the various versions of equality tend to be contradictory. For every form of equality achieved, another must often be sacrificed. That is why the attempt to establish it on a lasting basis has, in every previous instance, proven ephemeral.

Equality, especially absolute equality of the form Plato, Rousseau, and their modern successors are seeking, is a dream. When one takes into account the costs it involves, the contradictions to which it inevitably leads, and the tremendous quantities of blood that have been shed in its name, it is hard to conclude that the dream of equality is a beautiful one.

Martin van Creveld’s history of equality is an intellectual tour de force that is more education than polemic. Throughout the book, the author’s natural sympathies toward the basic concept of equality are readily apparent, but his scholastic rigor and integrity are too strong to be influenced by them. Which is why, in the end, the reader finds himself more than ready to respect, and more importantly, to accept, van Creveld’s reluctant conclusion. However desirable it may appear to us, however much it may appeal to us, we have little choice but to understand that Man’s quest for equality is an impossible one that is doomed to failure by virtue of its own inherent contradictions.

The New World Disorder

“A new world order” is in the making, said U.S President George Bush Sr. as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, its limbs broken, was lying prostrate. “The end of history” has come, proclaimed famed political scientist Francis Fukuyama. At the core of World War II, Fukuyama explained, stood a titanic struggle between three ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. By 1945 fascism had been destroyed. Fifty-something years later, communism too had failed and would not rise again.clash_civilizations(1)

But that, Fukuyama continued, was only the beginning. As more and more countries became industrialized and developed a strong middle class, Hollywood and McDonald’s would spread the happy tidings. They would do away with all kinds of cultural relics, globalize the world, and make it safe for liberal democracy. Better still: since everybody knew that democracies never, ever fight each other, war itself would gradually disappear. The new world order, Fukuyama wrote, might be a trifle boring. But that seemed a small price to pay for the blessings of peace and, hopefully ever-spreading prosperity as well.

A quarter of a century later, most of our dreams have been shattered. True, fascism and communism in their classical forms have not made a serious comeback. But autocracy, which is almost as bad, continues to govern large parts of the earth’s population. Some autocratically-governed countries, such as Belarus and North Korea, have done badly. One, Russia, is currently fighting what may be seen either as a war of expansion or as a desperate struggle to assert itself and avoid disintegration. And at least one, China, has done spectacularly well.

As a Chinese friend told me, this is the first period in Chinese history when almost everybody has enough to eat. In a country as large, and over long periods as poor as China used to be, that is no mean achievement. And as a Nigerian student told me: When the Chinese come marching into a “developing” country they do not waste their time preaching democracy and human rights as Westerners always do. Instead they bring dollars, lots and lots of them. Nor are they shy of paying bribes where they think doing so will grease the wheels. The outcome is that, in quite some places, Chinese autocracy, far from being denounced for its lack of democracy and freedom, is praised as a model to follow.

Another widespread belief which did not come true was that wealth, generated by new technologies and better, read less coercive, methods of organization, would keep spreading. It is not that the world has become poorer. Rather what has happened is that the distribution of wealth has changed. As the French economist Thomas Picketty in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has shown, not since the early years of the twentieth century has the gap between rich and poor been as large as it is at present.

The world has not become less diverse. In 1993, just four years after “The End of History,” the late Professor Samuel Huntington came out with The Clash of Civilizations. In it he argued that Fukuyama had been wrong. What rules the world is not ideology but identity. Shaped by “history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion,” different identities make themselves manifest in the form of “different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy.” “These differences,” Huntington concluded, “are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.”

Over the last quarter century struggles over just such identities have become the leading cause of armed conflict. Pace Fukuyama and many others, notably the American psychology professor Steve Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2014), the world has not become more peaceful. To the contrary: it has witnessed any number of ferocious armed conflicts in places as far apart as the former Yugoslavia, parts of Africa and Asia, the Middle East, and, most recently, the Ukraine. In all these wars far more civilians than combatants were killed. The total number of victims, men, women and children, runs into the millions.

So bad have some of these conflicts been that some of the states in which they were waged, far from advancing towards prosperity and liberal democracy, have simply collapsed. That includes Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Several others, such as Chad, Nigeria, and Pakistan have been left almost equally government-less and may turn belly up at any moment. Supposing immigration, and the problems it creates, is allowed to continue unchecked, even Western Europe may not be immune forever.

The widespread incidence of war, and the even more widespread incidence of preparation for it, explains why military spending did not enter a slow, steady decline as many people during the early 1990s expected to happen. According to figures provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “spending in 2012 was… higher in real terms than the peak near the end of the cold war.” In fact it was only in Europe that spending went down at all. By contrast, Russia, North Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia have all seen sharp increases. So, between 2001 and the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did the U.S.A development that will bring the trend to an end does not appear anywhere in sight.

Briefly, the world is in a mess. But is the mess really worse than it used to be? Worse, for example, than it was between 1914 and 1945? Worse than it was throughout the Cold War, when each Superpower had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ready for immediate delivery and a nuclear holocaust sometimes seemed to be just around the corner? Worse than it was in 1945-75 when the various Wars in Indochina, the War in Algeria, and civil war in Nigeria, to list but a few, killed millions? Worse than it was in 1958-76, when first the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution killed an estimated 45 million Chinese? Worse than in the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq used poison gas against one another? Worse than in the 1990s, when the civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Sri Lanka were still raging?

Whenever the mess was particularly great many people thought the world was coming to an end. But it did not. To deny the widespread existence of war, death, horror and hunger would be both foolish and counterproductive. And of course we should do everything in our power to prevent them as far as we can. Yet on the edge of many raging conflicts, often even in the eye of the storm, plenty of decency, generosity, altruism, and, last not least, love have always sprouted. Certainly no less so than in any previous age.

By one story I read long ago, people once asked Mao Tze Dong whether, following a nuclear war, there would still be a world left. To this he is supposed to have answered as follows:

The sun will keep rising

Trees will keep growing

And women

will keep having children.