Quest for equality must be a way of life

My grandmother was a maid whose duties included ironing the news-paper because “the master” did not like creases in it. The unfairness angered me.Stand up for Social Care

Without realising it, I was angry at the differences in income, status and power which are a part of inequality.

Equality became my guiding principle when I read socialist thinker RH Tawney who argued that all people are of equal worth because they have “a common nature” or “a common humanity”. It follows from this intrinsic equality that all should share, as far as possible, equally in the advantages of the world.

He was an egalitarian as well because he perceived the disadvantages of inequality. It meant that some people lived in luxury, others in poverty: some owned two houses, others none: some had too much to eat, others too little. The result was a highly divided and divisive society.

Recent studies confirm much of what Tawney said about inequality. Another influential figure, Richard Wilkinson, shows that those at the bottom of unequal societies suffer psycho-social effects which make them depressed, apathetic, angry. The outcomes can include antisocial behaviour, violence, crime, ill-health and early death.(1)

The answer is not greater equality of opportunity. The circumstances have to be changed by the replacement of capitalism by socialism.

To Tawney, the equal or socialist society is a “community of responsible men and women working without fear in comradeship for common ends, all of whom can grow to their full stature (and) develop to the utmost limit the varying capacities with which nature has endowed them”. But this can only happen when goods and advantages are redistributed. Barbara Wootton suggests that no one should have an income more than two-and-a-half times that of another and there should be a “ceiling on personal ownership of capital”.(2)

Tawney anticipated a Labour socialist government which would be the master of capitalism. Today’s New Labour government is the servant of capitalism. What can egalitarian social workers do? Radical social workers have long tried to help users maximise their welfare benefits, to strengthen rather than police them, to encourage them to act collectively. A resurgence of radicalism is being headed by movements such as the Social Work Manifesto Group.

On the downside, social workers are becoming what Sarah Banks calls “technical-bureaucrats” who implement procedures and regulations from above.(3) The huge salaries of top managers in statutory and voluntary agencies serve to perpetuate income inequality.

At least those who want to overcome the barriers between social workers and users can restate values which are in keeping with equality. Further, they can co-operate with locally based community groups whose members challenge inequality by enabling residents, not powerful outsiders, to determine policies.

The equality of socialism is more than politics. Tawney insisted it was a way of life. He taught for the Workers’ Educational Association, not Oxbridge. He declined a commission and served in the ranks in the first world war. He angrily refused a peerage. He stated that equality could not be achieved “merely by desiring it” but had to be practised in our lifestyles and acknowledged that equality could not fully exist without “the shape of socialism”.

Egalitarian social workers have to seek ways to apply equality to the workplace, to make it a part of their daily lives and to be active politically.

(1) R Wilkinson, The Impact of Inequality, Routledge, 2005
(2) B Wootton, In Pursuit of Equality, Fabian Society, 1976
(3) S Banks, Ethics and Values in Social Work, 2nd edition, British Association of Social Workers, 2001

Bob Holman is the author of Towards Equality. A Christian Manifesto

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