To dismiss the idea of equality, some liberals call it ‘levelling down’, or ‘politics of envy’. They characterize the pursuit for equality as the masses’ envious desire to lower the living standards and material wealth of the rich to the level of the ordinary person. Such a politics undermines reward for effort, pride in property, and diversity of lifestyle, sapping the moral lifeblood of vibrant civilised society.
Crude egalitarians rise to this bait, and insist that equality need not lower the rich’s lifestyles and living standards. They believe that if the proceeds of growth were shared then the standard for those at the top would hardly suffer, whereas it would rise for the mass of people, as small boats on a tide. Their celebrated research proves that sharing wealth more equally is good not just for the poor but for society and everyone in it. Their philosophy amounts to levelling up.
A breed of this egalitarian politics has seeped through the left of Scotland’s Yes campaign. Its propagandists have named it Common Weal: “an old Scots phrase that means both ‘wealth shared in common’ and ‘for the wellbeiing of all’. It has come the name for a different kind of politics, a politics that puts All Of Us First.”
Common Weal has a variety of demands and dimensions. It looks for progress through mutual agreement and shared interests. It looks to raise the level of the poorest without harming the interests of those at the top. It starts from the hopes and aspirations of the citizenry, as they express themselves publicly.
Its guidebook opens with a question: what are the hopes of citizens? It answers with a list of things that characterize ‘a good life’, such as a comfortable home, a secure income, and good relationships. This is a fair description of the lifestyle of our comfortable classes. Raising people to this level is the aim of Common Weal.
It is no wonder that parts of Scotland’s political and public elite have gladly welcomed this doctrine, for it flatters them directly, describing their lives as the model lifestyle. Its ideas have found fertile ground on high plains, amongst those whose lives already are comfortable – the upper middle classes – but who are morally awkward about the poverty around them. Such people are concerned about the lives of those less privileged, but naturally do not want their own quality of life to decrease. Thankfully, their philosophers (like Richard Wilkinson to Robin McAlpine) insists it will improve their lives too. ‘A fair society is good for everyone’. ‘Inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor’. It is no wonder that rich middle classes, not the mass of people, lead the Common Weal.
These noble levellers, demanding the distribution of rights and raising of standards, set their aims within the frame of wealth and living standards that already exist in the country. The experts come from within their own ranks. They are the ones with experience of this better life, and access to the power of distribution. They want others to share their privilege, and with a language of rights and citizenship, they spread their faith in Levelling Up.
In the seventeenth century, an organisation of reformists called themselves the Levellers. Their demand was for the extension of rights and ownership of private property to the people – not to everyone, but to many more people than before, to Level Up the rights and property ownership held by ordinary men.
As time went by, this movement presented itself to the establishment. Its most vocal proponents were part of a rich class, so they were heard at court. Theirs was a moral demand for equal rights to property, but was increasingly presented in a politically astute and mutual way so as not to upset the authorities that held power. Compromise by compromise, progress was made, but the movement did not create the revolution of demands that could have sent a shudder of hope through the poor. Most remained without the rights that the Levellers sought.
Disillusioned with their establishment brethren, a band of radicals emerged from these ranks. They called themselves the True Levellers, and have come to be known as the Diggers. For them, the call for private property and ownership of land did not go far enough. In order to disrupt the concentration of land, which at that time was the primary means of production, the land had to be seized and held in common ownership, to be worked in common for all to share in. They would not accept that they were levelling down, and indeed they were not. To level up or down, the system has to remain the same. The Diggers wanted to reach a wholly different level, of common ownership of the means of production.
The division between the Diggers and the Levellers is a historical issue. But the Diggers’ frustrations with the modest Levellers’ demands are easy to understand. The Levellers said they sought equality, but did not question private property. They wanted to advance the interests of the poor without toppling the rich, but were blind to the chains of bondage and law that tied the poor beneath the rich. They did not seek to cut down the men of property, but to raise up men of labour. The Diggers, more honest and more radical, voiced the real demand for equality – they were slandered and patronized, and the orders came to cut them down.
A similar conflict is going on today. The Common Weal, purporting to be radical, has appropriated language of equality and common wellbeing. Conscripting academics to prepare papers setting out their politics of mutual gain, their philosophy is toothless because it wants to seduce the establishment from which it came. It will not fight or challenge, but is bound by chains of law and property. It wants to raise the fortunes of the poor without coming into conflict with the rich. It says “politics of conflict have set us all against each other… We don’t need blame, we don’t need resentment, we don’t need anger. We need change.”
These words should provoke anger. The elite itself could have written them. When an ever-smaller class holds wealth, when work is done for ever-lower wages, and ever-fewer proprietors own the land, the politics of mutual agreement is an affront to the poor. Anger is legitimate. Power to appropriate and share the land and wealth in common is something to be taken from the rich – not by mutual consent, which will never be reached, but by conflict.
If not by force, then by friction. If not by social science, then by polemic. Not in terms that flatter the rich, not by presenting some ‘real alternative’ that is close to the present arrangements, but by making the kind of demand that everyone knows will not be attained without struggle that the Common Weal cannot suffer – cannot suffer because in truth they represent the very class with most to lose.