Like the Judaic idea of God, ‘equality of opportunity’ is something that is only ever spoken of as a perpetual absence. Those who profess to be in favour of it are sometimes able to point to examples of it in the distant past, or imagine it in the future, but it’s difficult to imagine someone pointing at a concrete sociological occurrence and saying – there, that’s equality of opportunity. In fact, when something happens that quickens the pulse of the self-described ‘meritocrats’ and ‘level playing field’ morons, such as Mo Farah winning an athletics gold medal for Britain or Colin Powell rising to become US Secretary of State, the excitement is underscored by a sense that this triumph was radically, statistically unlikely.
Absent the inanity of sporting contest – where the rules of the individual contest are specifically designed to produce the most localised and irrelevant equality of opportunity – and you are left with false memories of the American settlers and of Victorian entrepreneurs. The rest is guff, or ideology as some people prefer to call it. Equality of opportunity simply doesn’t and never has existed.
But I don’t simply mean this in the critical sense, that life or capitalism is intrinsically unfair. I mean it in an ontological, existential sense, that ‘equality of opportunity’ refers to something that has no substance or content; it cannot exist. The notion is entirely formal and abstract, and therefore it is impossible for it to be realised in any set of concrete political or sociological institutions. It is in its nature not to exist.
From a liberal perspective, this is a feature not a bug. In pursuit of something like ‘equality of opportunity’, John Rawls specifically sought to ignore contingent and empirical features of society, and work only with abstract principles, thereby ensuring that his mode of reasoning was consistent with ‘fairness’. Introduce institutions or history, and fairness is lost. But by the same token, it is impossible to then say whether a given economic distribution (as opposed to a legal system) is consistent with Rawls’ definition of justice, precisely because that definition is emptied of any content.
When ‘equality of opportunity’ comes close to actually existing, we cease to call it ‘equality of opportunity’ and it ceases to look like ‘equality of opportunity’. Instead, it looks like the sort of liberal society envisaged by Michael Walzer, in which multiple spheres of inequality exist side by side, separate from one another, with none dominating any other. Hence educational attainment and monetary income have little bearing on each other; the electoral system and the media are mutually resistant to the influence of the other; the judiciary and the executive are genuinely separate. It is the separation of spheres in the present that has bite, and not some abstract set of possibilities for each individual’s future.
To some extent, separation of institutions may have the statistical effect of ‘equality of opportunity’, or what is often referred to as ‘social mobility’. Hence social democratic societies in which state institutions, markets and public debate all have their own legitimate but separate space are likely to have higher levels of social mobility (not to mention higher levels of economic equality). But that is something for the statisticians and wonks. It is not what is actually going on from the pragmatic perspective of individuals and institutions themselves. Nations with high levels of ‘social mobility’ are nations with a distaste for allowing private income to pollute their politics or their education systems. So why not recognise the significance of this distaste?
The liberal left can achieve far more political traction by pursuing a Walzerian separation of rival institutional spheres (primarily putting financial capital back in its box) than in pursuing some abstract or statistical imaginary of a ‘level playing field’. This separation can be pursued as a good, in and of itself, and not merely for the instrumental reason that it impacts upon statistical outcomes. In the process, liberal critique operates in sociologically extant institutional territory, rather than in analytical Rawlsian diagrams or econometric models. There are at least three advantages to this.
Firstly, the critique of excessive institutional integration is also a critique of capitalism, inasmuch as ‘capitalism’ refers to the political rights of capital to dominate people. First and foremost, as Marx argued, capital constantly needs new social spheres into which to expand, and a capitalist society is one in which business and government are constantly seeking to dissolve institutional boundaries, so as to make new spheres available to profit-seeking exploitation. Reinforcing those boundaries, on the basis that boundaries are good in and of themselves, represents a denial of capital’s demand to expand into new territories.
Secondly, this critique is also a critique of neoliberalism, inasmuch as ‘neoliberalism’ refers to the expansion of market-based modes of valuation into more and more non-market economic spheres. As Foucault and some Polanyians have noted, a key distinction between 19th century liberalism and 20th century neoliberalism was that the former was characterised by a logic of separation of state, society and market, whereas the latter is/was characterised by a logic of re-integration, fuelled by economistic measurement (I address this contrast in this paper [pdf]). Examples of this are all over the public sector, in the form of ‘new public management’, or in the third sector in the form of ‘social valuation’. And as Foucault identifies, the metaphor of 'human capital' performs a crucial role in subsuming non-market spheres (school, family, doctor's surgery) within an economising logic. I suspect that 'wellbeing' is now taking a similar logic of integration in a subtly different direction.
The ‘equality of opportunity’ mantra seeks to work with the grain of neoliberalism, by taking the all-encompassing competitive game, and making it fair. Yet, until that game is subdivided into separate games, and until that monolithic culture of economic valuation is replaced by plural (and incommensurable) cultures of valuation, it’s impossible to conceive of what fairness might even look like. Pluralism of measurement systems (for example, restoring some autonomy of judgement and measurement to critics, professions and scholars) is a necessary liberal left response to neoliberalism.
Thirdly, with the focus upon separation of different forms of inequality, and not on equality of opportunity, policy-making no longer runs up against thorny problems of informal conduct. For example, there will always be a variations in how much parents choose to read to their children. This has always been there; it will never go away. Equality of reading-to-children cannot exist. If it transpires that this passes on advantages to children, the only egalitarian response is to ensure that society doesn’t become entirely dominated by a particular type of ability, namely one that depends on being read to as a child. Yes, middle class parents pass on advantages, and yes, many of those advantages are informal and cultural. But if literacy, money, political voice, self-respect and academic achievement do not convert cleanly into one another, this acts as the only possible check on the uses of cultural and informal advantage.
In short, pursuing the separation of rival institutional spheres is also a way of keeping the state out of our domestic and personal lives. Surely it has to be a matter of regret for the Left, if the only way it knows of pursuing equality involves lecturing and interfering in the lives of deprived people. For that reason, other definitions of equality can at least be countenanced.
A liberal re-separation of institutional spheres is a fiercely difficult thing to achieve, in capitalist and neoliberal societies. On the other hand, contemporary crises demonstrate the sense of disgust that results, when excessive integration of power, voice and money comes to light (yes, you, Jeremy Hunt). But then if we also adopt Amartya Sen’s critique of Rawls, and recognise that justice can be pursued incrementally (and not only as an all-or-nothing state of affairs) then perhaps there can be a politics of gradually crow-barring spheres apart. One place to start would be to divert attention away from the interview techniques of Oxbridge, and how to make them ‘inclusive’, start slowly to reduce the freedoms of private schools.