The primitive equality of humanity asserted by Rousseau and Marx seems to have been more than a philosophical speculation or golden age myth. Without individual ownership of property, and no differentiation of labor beyond gender differentiation, humans in foraging, hunter gatherer bands had no systematic basis for systematically distinguishing among individual men or individual women. Some may have been more persuasive or more powerful than others, but whatever prestige people held characterized them as personalities, not as social statuses. Only the advent of settled village life brought the need for regularity and predictability in relations that brought well-defined leadership into existence.
Differentiated societies and the unequal statuses inherent in differentiated societies posed two options regarding the identification of individuals with their statuses. Either each human being was identical with his or her position in a society or each was in some sense distinct from the social position happened to occupy. In its most radical state, the first option was total immanence. If statuses are positions in a system of social relations, then being completely identified with a status means being completely a part of the social world. The extreme of the second option was total transcendence. If one’s true self is not one’s place in society, then every individual is ultimately apart from the realm of extant social relations.
Caste systems have expressed one level of social immanence. According to the classic work of Georges Dumézil, still widely accepted today, the early Indo-European speaking peoples divided their societies into three fundamental categories of humans: priests, warriors, and herder-cultivators. These three categories may still survive in three of the major Hindu castes of brahmans, ksatriyas, and vaisyas. The Hindu example may suggest to us that even in the immanence of a caste system there may be some transcendent level at which humans are equal. If people can move from one caste to another through metempsychosis, then there must be some part of them that is not identical with caste. This is a theoretical transcendence, though, and it reinforces rather than undermines inequality. Another way of putting this coexistence of transcendence and immanence in social life is that people may be seen as completely in the social order while they maintain an ultimate self that is completely outside of the social order.
In the canonical tradition of Europe, the dual existence of hierarchical social order and abstract, transcendent egalitarian individualism appears throughout the philosophical and religious traditions of Mediterranean antiquity. Epicureanism, for example, taught that individuals should strive for a state of eudaimonia, or well-being, by pursuing the state of ataraxia, or freedom from trouble and anxiety. While it did not challenge the social hierarchy directly, Epicureanism did encourage withdrawal from political and administrative involvement and it offered a private egalitarian alternative to public hierarchy by admitting people from all walks of life on the same basis as adherents. The Stoics posited moral virtue as the path to eudaimonia and argued that each individual, regardless of social position, could pursue virtue. When the Stoic Epictetus was a slave, his capacity for the pursuit of virtue was the same as the later Stoic Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Being a slave or an emperor was accidental. In their true natures, or ultimate selves, both were equal in the pursuit of virtue. The idea of “nature” was the way in which both Epicureans and Stoics expressed their extra-social egalitarianism, since for both living in accordance with nature was the way in which people could live in a manner consistent with their true natures. The idea would become important for views about individual egalitarianism in early modern European, since it would be reinterpreted as natural law, but the concept of natural law was not just an inheritance from antiquity. It was an old idea that became useful and relevant for the interpretation of a new situation.
Out of the decay of the political and social order of the Roman Empire medieval corporatism had emerged. Christendom maintained the old extra-social, transcendent egalitarianism within a rigidly hierarchical system, in which each individual in the saeculum wholly identified with location, family, guild, and status. The old sociology of the three orders reappeared as the unchanging division into oratores, bellatores, and laboratores. Within their all-encompassing statuses, people did not have rights, but privileges; literally, private laws that applied to them as members of corporate bodies.
It is difficult to trace the original causes of the breakdown in worldly hierarchy, but this breakdown clearly accompanied a development of enormous importance for the emergence of modernity: the rise of banking and investment between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries. Loaning money at interest encouraged entrepreneurial activities and stimulated the search for more efficient production of goods and spread of information. Finance, in other words, set the stage for the first Industrial Revolution, the beginning of which is conventionally dated about 1750.
One consequence of that revolution was the breakdown of the corporate order, and its replacement by what Thomas Carlyle, in widely used phrase, called the “Cash Nexus.” Relations between people in a market system became defined less by invariant positions and more by free-floating exchanges. As Bruce Mazlish argued in A New Science, the modern discipline of sociology grew out of responses to the transition to the Cash Nexus, either by “lamenters,” who bemoaned the loss of the old ties, or by “breakers,” who saw the old ties as chains and celebrated the liberation of individuals by the marketplace.
In my view, one of the most notable consequences of the rise of the free market system was the “immanentization” of the transcendent equality of individuals. By treating individuals as interchangeable units of production, the market abstracted them from their corporate settings. Previously, each one had a soul in another realm apart from present activities. In the fluidity of the market, no one could be wholly identified with present activities; each private individual existed apart from all socially defining connections. This, I think, was the root of our modern idea of rights: we share in universal rights to the extent we can be considered as pure abstractions, utterly outside our nets of social connections. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, pushed this assumption of individual rights as properties of abstract human entities to what I consider a strange extreme, essentially arguing that a just society would be one based entirely on individual rights and that individual rights can be identified by imaginatively stripping social beings of all their social traits and relationships.
Behind individual rights, then, lies the market economy. People have entered the realm of abstract rights and left the realm of immanent status to the extent that they have entered the market. Within the United States, the debate over abolition of slavery, was an argument about the replacement of a racial caste order by the Cash Nexus of a labor market (John C. Calhoun, then, was a “lamenter,” like Wordsworth). Similarly, the women’s rights movement has proceeded with women’s movement out of the status relations of the home and into the labor market as abstract sexless entities. Census data show that only 15 percent of women aged 16 and over participated in the American labor force in 1870, but that this grew to just over a quarter of American women by 1910. The urban setting of the new industrial America, shrinking families, and movement into the public sphere of the market economy meant that the complete identification of women with women’s roles began to weaken. In the minds of a growing number of Americans, women were becoming abstract beings whose rights and social roles entailed participation in an impersonal, rationalized society.
Like most Americans, I’m deeply attached to the idea of individual, equal rights. As Mazlish’s lamenters realized, though, the same abstraction that frees us can also leave us lost. The quest for authenticity from Rousseau to modern identity politics has been a desperate response to being reduced to abstractions. Further, human beings never really function as completely abstract, independent beings. What they can do even in the Cash Nexus of the marketplace depends on their upbringings and their social networks, so that there is always an element of caste within the market. Too great an attachment to the ideal of complete abstract equality, ironically, can produce heavy handed governmental efforts to “level the playing field” by searching for strategies to dissolve all benefits of social connection, and the further government pursues these kinds of strategies, the more it exercises control and undermines the independent equality of rights. “Starting from unlimited freedom,” proclaimed Dostoevsky’s Shigalov, “I arrive at unlimited despotism.”
The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?