My working theory is that virtually no one wants equality as such. They want inequality, but the good kind, the justified kind. Hence it is plausible that someone could rail against the power of the 1% and yet still get snippy: “They want $15 an hour for flipping burgers?!”
The good inequality now would be based on getting a college education, but whether you received that education and the degree of quality would be based solely on your merits and efforts rather than your wealthy parents. Hence the focus in mainstream education reporting on making sure that Harvard’s student body is representative. Never mind that Harvard commands such vastly superior resources in a world where adjunct professors have to buy their own chalk.
It’s weird the directions that meritocracy starts taking you, though. Have you ever noticed how many firm believers in meritocracy seem to assume that taking race into account automatically cuts against a merit-based approached? How the people displaced by the “affirmative action” candidate are always qualified white men? It’s not surprising if we realize that racism was once considered the good kind of inequality. The racial hierarchy — scientifically established, mind you! — was a reflection of inherent merit. After all, how could whites be so much more powerful if they weren’t somehow better on the ontological level?
Those for whom the race-based meritocracy was too crass leaned on the superiority of cultural institutions. Westerners had developed a better culture, more open to innovation, less beholden to sclerotic traditions, more rewarding of good hard work. Never mind that the average peasant from any part of the world worked unimaginably harder than an enlightened colonial administrator could ever claim to. Never mind that every culture by its very nature is continually changing and thus innovating, that every tradition is an ongoing dialogue with the past and not some kind of robotic carrying out of obscure ancient instructions. And of course, one should ignore the fact that Islamic institutions had always been more supportive of commerce and social mobility, highlighting the dumb luck of the West in stumbling upon new technological approaches first.
The same strategies are repeated today when we learn that the black community’s culture is defective, insufficiently supportive of monogamy, sobriety, and responsibility. It’s not that they’re racially inferior, of course, it just so happens that one racially defined group has developed systematically better institutions than another racially defined group, which justifies the differential treatment of the two groups… And so we’re back to classic racism in all but name.
More enlightened approaches to the good kind of inequality recognize that every race has its “talented tenth” — and seeks to harvest that 10% to serve the dominant power structure. This seeming equality of opportunity, by depriving subaltern communities of their most talented potential leaders, reinforces the subordination of the whole even as it allows greater room to maneuver for selected individual members. One might think here of the juxtaposition of a black president and the callous murder of blacks by the police.
Even in the best kind of inequality, someone’s life chances have to be thwarted. Someone’s single life on earth, the only shot they get, has to be squandered. People demonize equality as totalitarian uniformity — but true equality would be the equality of a livable life for everyone. That would look different for different people, and I think it’s fair to say that such a life might contain its share of tedium and toil (rendered more bearable by its being shared and unstigmatized). It’s hard to predict in advance how to achieve this in all cases, but it seems to me that seeking the good, justified form of inequality is always going to lead us back to racism — hence it’s worth the effort of trying to figure out the elusive “what it would look like.”