Equality of power is a lost cause

How the quest for equality backfires

Most of us find the idea of a pluralist society, made of diverse groups and interests that treat each other as equals an alluring ideal. At the same time, our postmodern world has created the ideal of cultural equality, rejecting elite authority figures and traditional hierarchies as the arbiters of cultural value. But these ideals of equality are not what they seem. In our technological civilization, cultural equality, rather than liberation from authority ends up producing bureaucratic uniformity, and pluralism, rather than promoting equality between diverse groups, creates an endless competition for power that results in huge inequalities, argues Richard Stivers.


When faced with a bleak reality we invariably prefer illusion. Cultural equality and plural equality have been advocated in the West since the eighteenth century. Their idealization is our illusion. A deeper examination reveals that cultural equality is a necessary companion to a technological uniformity, which is both undesired and unrecognized, and that plural equality creates an endless competition for power that leaves equality unobtainable. The reality of equality is the inverse of our illusion.

Cultural Equality and Uniformity

A technological civilization is one in which technology is the dominant force in the organization of society. Modern technology, as Max Weber understood it over a century ago, includes both material and non-material technologies. The latter include psychological and organizational techniques, such as advertising and bureaucracy (which he termed a machine). Modern technology represents the most efficient and powerful means of action. In replacing culture as the chief organizing principle of modern societies, technology fragments culture and makes it compensatory for our loss of freedom over against technology. Jacques Ellul observes that in a technological civilization everything becomes an imitation of technology or a compensation for its impact or both. Modern societies operate according to a technological logic, organizing society and disorganizing culture. The only true conformity today is conformity to technology, to its rules of use and its almost total control over how we interact with each other and with our environment. This is why we can permit almost any moral attitude, any form of art, any interpretation, any view of truth, for they make no difference in the operation of a technological system. In other words, cultural standards, the criteria by which we can evaluate a cultural product, have disappeared in our postmodern world.


With cultural equality there is neither a hierarchy of values, nor any authorities. For some the absence of cultural order is an earmark of freedom—with no authority, everything is permissible. But this turns out to be a false freedom


Cultural equality is tantamount to cultural anarchy, the absence of any authority whose legitimacy is recognized by all. Traditional cultures possessed a hierarchy of value—aesthetic and ethical—and authorities who are able to interpret and apply them. In that way, traditional culture provided both meaning and order. With cultural equality there is neither a hierarchy of values, nor any authorities. For some the absence of cultural order is an earmark of freedom—with no authority, everything is permissible. But this turns out to be a false freedom. That’s not to romanticize culture and assume all cultures promote values that enhance life. The point is that without a common culture there is no meaning to existence, no real freedom, for culture provided something against which to struggle. Instead, what we have today is an ideology of cultural equality that advocates the choice of values and lifestyles without restriction. But again, that is a spurious freedom, for in a technological civilization, the dominant form of equality, uniformity, rules out individual differences and thus individual freedom. The unlimited choice of values and lifestyles is compensation for the loss of true individual freedom.

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We can see the way that technology produces an equality of uniformity by looking at how non-material technology, the following of a set of rules and procedures when dealing with other humans, denies the subjective individuality of both user and recipient. If parents, for instance, employ Parental Effectiveness Training to raise their children, they will in effect reject the real differences between their children. Each child will become the same object of the technique. Bureaucratic rules have a similar effect: the reduction of the individual to an abstract, equal object. Simultaneously human technique suppresses the individuality of its user. In depending upon the technological procedure instead of personal experience one becomes equal to every other user.

Technical rules and procedures in the case of non-material technologies reduce human qualities to quantities. Take the qualitative concept “love,” for instance. The meaning of love depends on the context of its use. Love has various historical, cultural, and personal meanings. Parental love in the Middle Ages is radically different from that of today. Each context draws out a somewhat different meaning of love. Yet there are now scales to measure love. The result is that love is standardized, reduced to a set of behaviours and attitudes, no matter how superficial, that can be measured, or in other words, taken out of context. We differ in the quantity of love we give and receive, but love has become a unitary measurable thing.


There is no social order without cultural authority that defines the relationships, responsibilities, and obligations between status groups


Intelligence tests are equally superficial and misleading. They are based on the assumption that intelligence is a unitary factor that can be measured by questions on a test. But if there are many different forms of intelligence, and if intelligence is related to spontaneous creative activity, then the measurement of intelligence is spurious.

Pluralism, Equality and our ambivalence towards Power

Pluralism in the West—the idea that there are a number of different groups and value systems which are of equal worth—emerged in the late eighteenth century. As science and technology were increasingly perceived as standards of truth and objectivity, religion and morality became increasingly viewed as subjective, personal choices. The idea of a unitary, objective morality began to weaken. Pluralism refers to the gradual disintegration of a unified social structure, the erosion of the boundaries between status groups, both vertical and horizontal. In traditional societies everyone had an ascribed status of age, sex, family, clan, and occupation. Moreover, all were aware of the prescribed relationship between the groups, e.g., between men and women, old and young, hunters and farmers. A unified social structure meant society was divided into distinct groups, but united through a moral system of complementary responsibilities and obligations.

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Anthropologist Louis Dumont has contrasted a traditional hierarchal society with a modern horizontal society. Hierarchal societies are characterized by the values of hierarchy and holism. There is no social order without cultural authority that defines the relationships, responsibilities, and obligations between status groups. Hierarchy goes with holism in the following way. Some statuses are higher than others, e.g., old is higher than young, male higher than female (or sometimes it is the reverse, depending on context). When the system works well the difference in status is small and that of power even smaller. Holism holds the hierarchy together. A sense of the whole community takes precedence over individuals and mitigates differences in status and power. One is first a member of the community and only then old or young, man or woman. Holism, moreover, is based on the principle of complementarity—each status group performs a necessary function that taken together make up a community. There is an inevitable tension between hierarchy and holism so that differences in status and power threaten holism. Power and status can become ends in themselves at the expense of community.

Modern horizontal societies are based on equality and individualism. Equality negates the hierarchy of authority so that individuals are freed from the reciprocal responsibilities of a hierarchal society. In a horizontal society, groups are created around special interests to advance the individual rights and needs of their members. Such groups end up competing for access to power and resources.


The quest for an equality of power only leads to inequality


The competition for power has been brilliantly dramatized by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground. Dostoyevsky opposes two kinds of equality: an equality of power and an equality of love. The world of the underground man has three levels: superior, inferior, and equal. The unending competition for power rules out the possibility of equality. The individual or group whose goal is equality proves by this that it is inferior. Competition turns everyone into a master (superior) or slave (inferior). The inferior is bitter and envious, while the superior is left to savor a hollow victory over an inferior. An equality of power is a chimera. Only an equality based on love, in his view, can result in equality. An equality of love is based on respect, cooperation, and unselfish concern for the other. The quest for an equality of power only leads to inequality.

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More recently a variation of the master/slave logic has emerged—the celebration of the powerless. The powerless, women, minorities, and the poor have become heroes. We admire their struggle to become equal. For only power confers dignity on a group. But who can measure power except at the extremes? A group should always refrain from claiming equality because it would lose its ideological advantage. The elevation of powerlessness to a virtue conceals our envy of the powerful. Hence our profound ambivalence toward power. We have turned power into a value that contradicts the value of equality. We are like hamsters on a wheel chasing an equality that can never end the whirl. We eagerly embrace an illusion of equality.

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