Equality of Power in Politics

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Daniel Bitton:

"The meaning of equality in a political context is an extremely simple concept. But like I always talk about, even the most simple concepts are obscured and confused in our political discourse, even at the highest levels of academia and journalism.

So, refresher course and you can get more details from my past podcast episodes on left and right:

The word politics refers to everything relating to decision making in groups. Who gets to decide, who doesn’t, how are decisions made etc.

In other words, politics is about who has power and how it is exercised.

So when we’re talking about equality in the context of politics, and Graeber and Wengrow’s book is about anthropology and history as they relate to politics – we’re not talking about people being equal in terms of size, or attractiveness or in terms of their abilities – we’re talking about equality of decision making power.

Equality means that everyone has an equal say in the decisions that affect them. In other words, democracy. And full political equality implies not just representative democracy, but direct democracy.

And equality of power, has all sorts of implications.

First it implies a high degree of individual freedom and autonomy. Because if everyone has equal decision making power, that means that there is no authority figure who has the power to tell anyone what to do. The only time you can’t do something is if what you’re doing interferes with the autonomy and freedom of other people and they join together to stop you.

Next, equality of power, also implies a high degree of economic equality.

Our political discourse always separates decision making involving the state from decision making in the private sphere, like at work in to two totally separate categories. We tend to think of state decision making as politics, and private decision making as just life. But that kind of thinking makes us stupid because power is power. And politics is decision making in any groups, at work and at home as much as in the halls of parliament or congress.

And when there is great economic inequality, that means that there are some people who dominate the resources that other people need to live, which means that the people with the wealth have the power to make the people without the wealth do what they want all day long, in exchange for some food or shelter or some salary.

That’s why your boss tells you what to do all day at work, because he owns a revenue generating business and you depend on that revenue to live. You and Jeff Bezos each have one vote in your political system – if you’re a citizen – but bezos can tell tens of thousands of his employees what they have to do all day, and how to do it and how fast to do it – and he can make them literally piss and shit in bottles and diapers if that suits him.

And that’s because economic inequality is power inequality, i.e. political inequality.

Meanwhile the only people that you can boss around is your dog and your kids, because they’re economically dependent on you, just like you’re economically dependent on your boss.

And wealth inequality also means inequality in terms of government decision making power as well.

You and George Soros or Bill Gates or the Koch Brothers or Jeff Bezos – you all have one vote each, but all of those zillionaires can afford to hire an armies of lobbyists to work 24-7 to teach your representatives what to think and how to think. And they can flood them with electoral campaign contributions to incentivize them to do what he want.

Meanwhile all you can do is vote every few years, and maybe go to a town hall meeting every once in awhile, and ramble about things that you don’t really understand very well, and no one pays much attention to you.

Third, equality of decision making power also implies that there are power hierarchies or no negative discrimination based on cultural categories, like race, gender, religion etc. Because cultural discrimination translates into inequalities of decision making power.

Like in a patriarchal society, men have more power by virtue of their status as men. In a gerontocracy old people have more power based on their age etc.

So, in anthropology, like in politics, when we talk about an egalitarian society, we’re talking about a society which has a high degree of equality of decison making power. And that includes a high degree of economic equality, and a high degree of power equality between cultural categories like age and gender categories.

So in theory, a truly egalitarian society would be one where there are no authority figures, where men and women are equal and where there’s total economic equality.

And as we’ll see, it turns out that isn’t just theoretical, there are actually several societies that approach this type of equality."