Gurminder Bhambra on The Society of Equals (part two): Some Groups are more Equal than Other Groups

The Society of EqualsThe Society of Equals: Some Groups are more Equal than Other Groups

Gurminder K Bhambra

The idea of the ‘society of equals’ that is at the heart of Pierre Rosanvallon’s book of the same name is, in his own words, about the forging of ‘a world of like human beings … a society of autonomous individuals, and a community of citizens.’ He believes that earlier ideas of social democracy or socialism that emphasize redistribution, and newer ones that stress the importance of equality of opportunity, do not adequately address the problems we face in our contemporary era. What is needed, he argues, is a revised understanding of equality that starts from the position of singularity and distinction rather than a ‘homogenizing’ universality.  That is, he seeks to conceptualize equality from an acknowledgement of the many ways in which we, as individuals, are different, rather than by way of what we might share. Indeed, one of the poisons of equality, he suggests, is separatism – group identity in all its varieties – which undercuts the commonality constituted by a democratic equality of individuals and, paradoxically, can also derive from a universalistic imaginary.

In this way, Rosanvallon moves from the idea of the universal to the idea of the individual and only addresses ‘group’ identity implicitly in terms of its contemporary threat, as a form of separatism, to the ‘society of equals’ he wishes to be established. There are a number of issues here that require comment. Perhaps most significantly, he does not address how groups come to understand themselves as such and so naturalizes both the process of group formation and of understandings of membership within groups.  Much as white males, for example, might have believed themselves to be neither gendered nor in possession of an ethnicity, but simply embodiments of a universal, so throughout the book, Rosanvallon works with a conception of the French nation that sees its population, historically, as constituted solely in terms of its white citizens. He does not mention the many debates over who was to be a citizen and how membership was to be claimed. Group identity is a later disruption into a society of individuals, notwithstanding that such a society was constituted by exclusions of others on the basis of characteristics ascribed to them as members of groups.

With reference to my earlier post, for example, there is no discussion of what implications the demand for inclusion by the delegation from Saint-Domingue had for understandings of being a French citizen. Initially, this delegation had sought simple inclusion and representation within the new revolutionary state. It was only on being denied this that full independence was then sought and equality established on their own terms within the new state of Haiti. The failure to engage with the complex relationship between France and Haiti impoverishes Rosanvallon’s arguments in a number of ways. Ultimately, the failure to transcend racial categories that had white French citizens deny the claim for participation and representation being made by Black appellants suggests that the idea of equality, in its dominant French articulation, was, and is, limited by race. This limitation is not just on the basis of effecting an exclusion, but also points to the relations of domination that were under challenge at the time.

The Code Noir, for example, established in the late 17th century to regulate the lives of the enslaved in the French Caribbean, was extended in subsequent years to cover the conditions governing the lives of those within French colonies and those who had migrated from the colonies to the French national state. Within the French state, there were many debates over whether Black men could be citizens or whether colour, itself, was a radical obstacle to civic and political equality. These debates intersected with the events of Haitian revolution and for a brief period, in metropolitan France, the established division of colour was overcome with the successful abolition of slavery and the (limited) enfranchisement of free Black men. This was overturned within a couple of years, however, with the re-establishment of slavery within the French empire and citizenship re-confirmed as the preserve of white men (with property).

This tumultuous period offers up a moment of history in which arguments for universal (male) equality transcended, however fleetingly, the racial divisions that were otherwise being maintained. It is through consideration of the debates and arguments of this time that we could learn more about what it would take, truly, to create a ‘society of singular equals’. And, yet, Rosanvallon neglects to address this aspect of revolutionary French history and its significance for the present.

By not addressing this initial exclusionary moment (or then subsequent ones in the context of Algeria and other colonies claimed by France), Rosanvallon also cannot account for later demands made by those such as the ‘Indigènes de la République’ except to understand them as separatist claims that undercut the society of equals to be established on the democratic equality of all citizens understood as individuals. This, despite the fact that some of the people who claimed citizenship, as individuals, would have been denied it on the basis of ascribed membership to groups by those very citizens who understood themselves as ‘equals’. The repercussions of this in the present are profound.

The implicit presentation of Europe, and European history, as an account of the activities of those understood as European, then, enacts a variety of exclusions. These make the conditions of diversity in the present anomalous in terms of the past that is being put forward and allows the suggestion that what is now needed is for us to treat each other as equals. This does not address the ways in which those identified as ‘other’ were rarely treated as equals in the past and so effaces the question of restitution for past wrongs (that continue to structure present inequalities) as part of the process of how we might create a society of equals.

Rosanvallon concludes his book with a scant two pages addressing a ‘world of inequality’ in which the difference in average income between the richest and poorest countries now stands at 74:1, having been 3:1 in the late eighteenth century. From this he goes on to suggest – and it’s not quite clear how – that nations are growing closer together while the class divide within nations is becoming wider. The solution to this problem is presented as a needed ‘renationalization’ of democracy. While the strengthening of national democracy would potentially address issues of inequality within nations (though Rosanvallon is not, in fact, an advocate of much greater redistribution within France), it is not clear how this would aid in combatting global inequality as manifested in the income differentials between nations.

Further, in presenting the renationalization of democracy as a solution to inequality, Rosanvallon seems to suggest that national identity is somehow not a ‘poison’ of equality in the way that other group identities are presented as being. This normalizes and, more significantly, homogenizes ‘national’ group identity and is based on an understanding of the emergence of the nation as an endogenous event, unconnected to broader processes of colonization, dispossession, and appropriation. In failing to locate the nation within these broader processes, all ‘others’ are external to the nation as conceived by Rosanvallon. This is what enables him to normalize the group identity of the nation conceived in homogenous terms and pathologize the group identities of multicultural immigrants and diverse others – a notion that aligns rather dangerously with that of most right-wing parties in Europe.

The problem of inequality does not only exist in terms of how we do or do not treat others in the present. It emerges also as a consequence of historical processes that have brought into being structures of inequality. To suggest that the society of equals can be created in the present or future by, effectively, people treating each other equitably – that is, by moving beyond prejudice, by encouraging fraternal (he doesn’t mention sororal) feelings – seems to me to be naïve at best. Equality has to mean more than being nice to one another and has, also, to involve redress for past injustices that continue to have an impact in shaping the present. Without an address of structures of inequality, I would suggest that there is little that is meaningful in any exhortation for equality as a condition of being.

Gurminder K. BhambraGurminder Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. This is the second installment of her reflections on The Society of Equals, the first part can be found here:






Readers may also be interested in the following articles from TCS:

Neoliberalism in Action: Inequality, Insecurity and the Reconstitution of the Social
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Theory, Culture & Society, November 2009; vol. 26, 6: pp. 109-133.
Neoliberal Political Economy, Biopolitics and Colonialism: A Transcolonial Genealogy of Inequality
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Theory, Culture & Society, November 2009; vol. 26, 6: pp. 206-233.


‘I Am My Own Foundation’: Frantz Fanon as a Source of Continued Political Embarrassment
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Theory, Culture & Society, December 2010; vol. 27, 7-8: pp. 33-51.


Another Politics of Life is Possible
Didier Fassin
Theory, Culture & Society, September 2009; vol. 26, 5: pp. 44-60.


Neoliberal Empire
Jan Nederveen Pieterse
Theory, Culture & Society, June 2004; vol. 21, 3: pp. 119-140.


‘There Are No Blacks in France’: Fanonian Discourse, ‘the Dark Night of Slavery’ and the French Civilizing Mission Reconsidered
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Theory, Culture & Society, December 2010; vol. 27, 7-8: pp. 91-111.


Vertigo and Emancipation, Creole Cosmopolitanism and Cultural Politics
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Theory, Culture & Society, June 2001; vol. 18, 2-3: pp. 169-183.




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