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HomeHeadlineThe Deception of Liberal Equality: Opportunity Equality

The Deception of Liberal Equality: Opportunity Equality

Ahmet Insel*

The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a famous outcome of the 1789 Revolution, is a manifesto of equality: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” This fundamental principle, declaring that people are not subject to privileges or dependencies due to the circumstances of their birth, serves as the central motto of democratic revolutions. However, an approach that embraces radical democracy and does not reduce equality to merely opportunity equality approaches this article with the annotation: it is necessary but not sufficient. Why is it not sufficient?

By assuming that people are born equal, the liberal understanding of social justice, which considers the equal chance of accessing all social positions and achieving them according to one’s merit as sufficient, implies that those who are left behind are responsible for their own plight. They have either not utilized their opportunities (they are lazy), misused them (they have made poor choices), or have been unlucky. In a system dominated by an understanding of justice based on opportunity equality, inequalities can grow rather than diminish. The increasing inequalities in advanced liberal economies over the last forty years are driven by the dominance of this understanding, accompanied by neoliberal policies.

In his book “Against Opportunity Equality – An Egalitarian Manifesto” (İletişim Publishing, May 2024), Cesar Rendueles carefully distinguishes between social equality and opportunity equality. He shows that while social equality creates a conducive ground for opportunity equality, the reverse is not true. Therefore, the primary goal of egalitarianism is to have effective tools for achieving social equality before considering opportunity equality. These tools include social transfers, various social protection measures, social rights, and social security. In their absence or insufficiency, opportunity equality functions as a tool of social Darwinism. It declares that people deserve their extremely unequal positions as a fair return for their supposed personal merits. Rendueles vehemently opposes this: moving from the assumption of natural or legal equality and basing a principle of equality on opportunity equality will remain formal and limit the horizon for political-social change to the ideal of meritocracy. This can also be referred to as the epistemological limit of liberalism.

Rendueles highlights how, in countries like China with Deng, the USA with Volcker and Reagan, and the United Kingdom with Thatcher, there has been a rapid rise in belief in meritocratic values, which he defines as the myth of meritocracy: “The wealthy are more inclined to believe that their wealth is a product of their efforts rather than inheritance, social position, or luck, compared to the poor.” The goal of “Against Opportunity Equality” is to examine the social, cultural, and ethical dimensions of inequality from the perspective of contemporary liberating political policies. He addresses this by reminding us that equality is not a zero-sum game; transferring resources from one to another is insufficient, and views equality and freedom dynamics as mutually reinforcing. The declining union membership rates and the dizzying increase in wage inequalities highlight this issue.

Union movements, working-class parties, and broadly the left prioritize the fair distribution of resources and strengthening social solidarity over individual merit-based social mobility. This approach also implies a certain “sufficiency feeling,” such as not only a minimum income but also an ethically acceptable maximum income and wealth. Liberalism, however, vehemently opposes setting a socially acceptable limit to individual enrichment on the grounds that it would sacrifice freedoms for equality.

Balibar tries to overcome the deceptive question of whether equality or freedom should come first with the concept of “equalityfreedom” (Equalityfreedom, Metis Publications, 2016). Rendueles suggests defining equality not as a right to benefit from the privileges of the elite but as an obligation to share with our equals. He points to gender equality as the most meaningful example of how freedom and equality can increase together, which not only liberates women but also men.

Rendueles argues for “deep equality,” pointing out that changing the rules of the game is not enough; the game itself must be changed. The experience of the 20th century clearly shows that equality is not achieved and sustained merely by legal conditions as in liberal doctrine, or by providing material conditions as in Marxist doctrine. In addition to these, coherence, the existence of strong egalitarian institutions, and a culture of equality are essential. And these must be naturally integrated into life, not just as a mental exercise, to be successful.

The success of equality is a personal and social struggle; it is also a liberating struggle. It is not fought alone but collectively. Rendueles draws attention to the direct relationship between the increase in social fragility, the decline in common solidarity, and the rise in collective insecurity with the growth of inequality. The limitation of our political imagination by elitism also restricts political participation, thus creating a new social dominance order. The type of political and social participation possibilities limited by various social inequalities or predetermined outcomes defines this system.

Equality is not about a homogeneous society prevailing in a monolithic existence. With its liberating quality, equality is about people freely developing their inherent human capacities, and this requires a dense network of social relationships. The idea that we are complete when we are alone is the very antithesis of egalitarianism. The path to liberating equality involves defining our mutual obligations and ensuring that the economic, social, and political institutions and practices necessary to meet these obligations become part of everyday life.

Based on his observations in Spain during the 2010s, Rendueles notes that the successful egalitarian policies of that period do not possess the same dynamism and appeal by the mid-2020s. Opposing universal egalitarianism on principle and also skeptically regarding the empowering, liberating qualities of this equality, an identity-based approach has risen. Rendueles’s Egalitarian Manifesto not only calls for fighting against this absolute particularism but also assesses both the successful and fleeting concrete practices, illuminating the possibilities of revolutionary transformation.

Ahmet İnsel (b. 1955) is a Turkish economist, editor, journalist and political scientist. Professor at the University of Paris 1, he regularly appears on the Turkish and foreign media, especially French, to talk about the political situation in his country.

The article was originally published in Birikim Magazine and has been translated from Turkish.

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