What is equality and why is it a good we should aspire to? Michael Walzer writes:
[I]t’s not the existence of aristocrats and commoners or of office holders and ordinary citizens (and certainly not the existence of different races or sexes) that produces the popular demand for the abolition of social and political difference; it’s what aristocrats do to commoners, what office holders do to ordinary citizens, what people with power do to people without it.
The experience of subordination—of personal subordination, above all—lies behind the vision of equality.
So, what is subordination?
Set aside what might be called domination for its own sake: the exercise of power by someone who takes pleasure in pushing other people around. Walzer is pretty clear that this is not true of every single exercise of power. Sometimes power is exercised in order to get something done for the good of the group or of individuals.
Subordination might be something like what Kant called “tutelage”: being unable to make decisions for oneself. Unfreedom, in that sense.
Imagine a person at work who is being dominated by the boss. In the worst case, they are being prohibited from doing things that are necessary for their bodily health. They are made to work in unsafe conditions, or for excessive hours. They are cheated of their wages. They are not given bathroom breaks. There are no fire doors. These are obviously cases of domination. The workers are unable to protect their physical health, because of the domination exercised on them by their employer.
Now, imagine a person at work who is unfree in more of a Kantian sense. Most simply, their work is dictated by their employer. They don’t get to choose what they should work on or to what use it should be put. They don’t get an opinion on the price that should be offered, or the way work should be divided up among themselves.
But perhaps they are allowed to determine how they will do the work. Then, in some sense they are still free in large part: they aren’t under “tutelage,” but are being allowed to act like adults. In some cases, perhaps, the boss does tell them how to do the work: mandating, say, a particular methodology. Then the workers are slightly less free: they may have good reasons to prefer a different methodology, different tools, and so on, and have not been given alternative reasons to use the boss’s preferred tools instead. Or, in a further case, they are told precisely what to do; the boss has a methodology in mind, and chooses their tasks in line with it, but they aren’t permitted to make those decisions themselves, even if they’re capable of doing this. Or, perhaps worst, the boss gives them tasks to do that aren’t directed by any method whatsoever, but are essentially random, making it impossible for them to plan or make rational decisions. In this case, presumably, they are unfree in a Kantian sense. They are unable to act in an informed and reasonable manner—and are aware that they are unable to do so. This would seem to be a case of domination, and I am interested to see what support Walzer might give for thinking about his ideas along these lines.
It’s interesting to compare an egalitarian approach to this situation with Matthew Crawford’s approach to Kantian emancipation. Crawford doesn’t consider the existence of supervisors at all. His analysis concerns only the distinction between true values and “market” values. True values, for Crawford, are found by a direct confrontation between the worker and physical reality, by a personal relationship between the producer of a product and the person who will use it in an ethical manner. Market values come from advertising propaganda and from being forced to obey the whims of the market, of people disconnected from the reality of the shop.
Crawford secondarily considers the good of a tradition. His workers engage in more complex tasks, involving more complex consumers of their products, and verging onto the cultural realm, by subordinating themselves to some kind of tradition. Such a tradition (he offers the examples of “true”—non-US—physics, and of the manufacture and repair of old-style pipe organs for churches) involves not only the workers’ confrontation with a physical reality, but also their relationships with their mentor. This isn’t discipleship for its own sake. It’s a process of temporary subordination for the purpose of being able to come to understand a reality more complex than the merely physical.
The result, however, is ultimately workers who are equal to one another, and able to work together on equal terms. It will be interesting to see what resources Walzer offers for considering these two questions, as well: both temporary subordination for educational purposes, and the special demands placed on a person by confrontation with outside, physical reality, for producing specific results.