David Griscom

Inequality As Deficiency

David Griscom
Inequality As Deficiency


            The question of inequality is the question of politics. The tension between those with power and those without power is inevitable. Class identifications based on power and wealth designate at least two positions, those within and those without. The ruling classes articulation of difference includes the lower class that either accept or reject their position as it is given to them. This difference was supported by superstition for most of history. God, divine rule, and nature, rule of the best, have attempted to cover up the antagonism of class division. But with the killing of god the former has become untenable and the latter argument is disappearing. It is important that Nietzsche claims, “We have killed him – you and I”[1] because the murder of god is the defiling of the body of the king to borrow Claude Lefort’s terms. The old ideas were once alive but we have killed them.  The communal murder of certainty is itself democratic. But the question remains if the covering up of the reason for inequality is no longer tenable, why do certain people have and others do not? If it is still present after we have killed off the claim to tradition, to birth, and have equalized political power, can our society continue the conditions that create inequality? Are there new myths that contribute to this reality? Capitalism has borrowed ideology from the past and we now believe in ghosts. We are told work ethic and playing by the rules creates wealth, naturally. But platitudes ignore the material conditions that produce them. Capitalism has reordered class mythologizing its social order it has replaced the myth of blood with the myth of money.

Class position of birth is still a much better indicator of future status than work ethic. We may not give titles to families anymore but families still dominant societies. Many people are aware of this. The failure of the utopian projects of our time has much to do with many people’s acceptance of the current reality and fuels their resistance to change. But is there not a problem, with a society that is growing more and more unequal, in ways that we all recognize, but is both structurally and philosophically unable to act upon it. It may be as Slavoj Zizek proposes that ideology today is not what Marx proposes, “they do not know it yet they are doing it”[2] but “they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it.”[3]

            It is apparent that when taking a view of the world today there is a crisis, which in many ways is a philosophical problem. To flip Leo Strauss’ idea, that the answer will come from a return to the political philosophy of the ancients[4], the answer to this problem is not to turn today’s political agnostics into ‘believers’ but to recognize that the claim of total knowledge, which is inherently political, is a dangerous one. Democracy is a system of uncertainty. Gross levels of inequality challenge the realization of a democratic system. Inequality represents areas of society and thought left untouched by the promises of the democratic revolution. In fact, inequality is a deficiency of democratic power and the solution is expanding the role of democracy.    

Dangers of democracy

            The problem with this great uncertain aspect of democracy is its ability to consume society. In the Greek tradition Aristocracy or rule of the best, attempts to alleviate the tensions of debate by designating a natural class of rulers. Of course, what person ‘is best,’ is the focus of the political debate for society. Often the best class is determined by the ever-present competition of classes and those who already have power i.e. wealth are determined to be best. As Aristotle argues it delineates into “an oligarchy [which] considers only the rich.”[5] Locating the aim of society as Aristotle highlights is critical to understanding how the political sphere will act. Both aristocracy and oligarchy are not just aimed at something different than democracy, which is in the interest of the many or ‘the poor’[6] but assumes something outside of itself. Power in an aristocracy society is given to those who are best; this principle legitimizes not only the political power of the ruling class but also the wealth of the ruling class and inequality in society. Democracy is in the ‘interest of the poor’ because it does not make the same assumptions about the permanent character of society. That permanent character that only some can be rich so most must be poor. By tamping class tensions with concepts of natural order, aristocracy is rigid not only in its political structure but it in its social structure, since any reform is a challenge to its fundamental structures. Even liberal capitalist democracy may lead to policies that aim at an improved condition for the poor at the expense of the rich, because democracy especially liberal democracy accepts that there are different interests, within society. There is a democratic spirit that challenges inequality.

            We have seen the many dangers of this kind of rhetoric in the major people’s movements in society. The travesty of the 20th century socialist and Marxist movements is entrenched with the problem of addressing inequality from a political position riddled with assumptions. This is the danger of utopian ideas because as Yannis Stavrakakis argues, “Every utopian fantasy produces its reverse and calls for its elimination. Put another way, the beatific side of fantasy is coupled in utopian constructions with a horrific side, a paranoid need for a stigmatized scapegoat.”[7] This was apparent in the Marxist movements of the 20th century. That the people are this, they are not this, and to achieve what we want we must rid society of that which is stopping us from achieving what we want, is a violent notion. This kind of political ‘fantasy’ is problematic for politics, though it is quite sustainable ideologically, “Fantasy negates the real by promising to ‘realise’ it, by promising to close the gap between the real and reality, by repressing the discursive nature of reality’s production.”[8] It is clear when addressing the political in this way that the utopian project will always be unable to be achieved because it locates itself in what it cannot be.  It needs its antagonism to maintain itself and this negative identification limits its ability to realize itself. Inequality as the main political problem is recognizable here, the diametrically opposed classes that Aristotle posits, their incompatibility that his and the utopian idea posits, are destined to conflict in a way that is violent and dangerous if not controlled somehow. But when we reject certainty in the political sphere as the solution, do we not open ourselves up to the conflict between classes, as the only thing that can be articulated? This is where liberal democracy appears to try and mediate this dichotomy.

Liberal democracy negation through acceptance

            The brilliance of the work of the Federalists in America was to be able to recognize the fact that society will be fragmented. By hoping to find a way for this to prevent oppression they attempted to open up political space. This can be understood in the way that Madison addressed the problem of inequality. Working with the idea of Aristotle’s divided classes, who work against the other, better articulated in Machiavelli’s ‘two diverse humors,’[9] Madison understands that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”[10] Working within the framework of the class divide presented by Aristotle, Madison locates the fundamental problem of politics, the economic one. His fears mirror Aristotle’s that these classes will oppress each other so there needs to be a stop on the political and this will be achieved by encouraging factions.

            Economic inequality creates categories that are antagonists to each other naturally leading to conflict. Democratic space being the theater for this conflict creates a social risk. That risk that the democratic apparatus itself may be commandeered as a weapon of class war. In this category, inequality is an inherent danger because it exacerbates the class conflict, threatening democratic peace. Liberal democracy tries to rectify this through the suppression of democracy or the dilution of its power. Madison articulates this in Federalist 10, “refine and enlarge the public view by passing them through the medium of a choice body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”[11] This check on democratic will through an intermediary allows for questions to be posed and the response interpreted. But the role of questioner and interpreter are still held by the elite. Dividing and slowing down democracy prevents it from acting upon its more divisive and dangerous tendencies. However, limiting democracy does a few equally and possibly more dangerous things. First, it has to posit certain ideas, even though it does not have the authority or ability to do so. For example, the ‘all men are created equal’[12], this adage of the early American idea, was obviously incongruent with slavery. Over the course of time, this contradiction was rectified, but the sword, not the ballot box solved it. This reveals something problematic about the American democratic system its sluggishness and institutions favor a certain group those who already possess power. American democracy was radical in its rejection of certain European norms, but its retention of others, namely, apparatuses that limited citizenship to the poor, and treated black people as property, and excluded women severely limited the possibility of its democratic revolution.

            This concept of ‘rights’ in liberal democracy is critical to its apparatus. It is the end of the political realm, areas that the political cannot enter. Tocqueville addresses this problem when he praises the separation of the moral and political world. This separation implies that rights are natural and by the structure and society, “in the moral world, everything is classified, coordinated, foreseen decided in advance. In the political world, everything is agitated, contested uncertain.”[13] There is here an assumption of certainty involved in the moral world and its separation from the questioning of the political world is a critical distinction. Are these rights democratic? Rights are presented as universal claims, but as seen in the earlier example of slavery, they are reflective of current power structures. A country can claim human rights but the character of their society is going to determine whether or not they are realized. Karl Marx argues this in the Jewish Question, “None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice.”[14] Simply put what Marx argues in the Jewish Question, is that the rights presented by ‘bourgeois democracy’ do not address man, but a certain kind of man, a man of the bourgeois republic, an assumed man. In the US case, this assumed subject in “all men are created equal,” is maintained at the expense of all others, for the benefit of the few. This particularity in its presentation as truth, as universal, is critical for why there will always be a problem with a limited political approach to society. Placing certain concepts outside of democratic questioning is dangerous to democracy and has an incredible possibility to maintain or even expand inequality.

This passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte captures another issue of liberal democracy:

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit: but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and along depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm and stress period.[15]


They are only able to go so far because these revolutions are radical in the sense that they challenge certain aspects of society, but they codify and protect others, and present them as ideas of the revolution. Liberty, equality, and freedom, are stated as the products of the democratic revolution without achieving these concepts. Even more damaging this pseudo-universalism are maintained in a way that allows for certain kinds of ‘political fantasies’ to try and mediate the role of the exposed contradictions. But these rights and principles are only actionable by those who already have power, that is why slavery was solved with the sword and rather than the ballot box. Liberal democracy employed many of the hopes of society at this point, but it was unable to escape from the issues that it was rebelling against. “Instead of society having conquered a new content for itself, the state only appears to have returned to its oldest form, to the shamelessly simple domination of the sabre and the cowl.”[16]  

What should be done?

            It is here that this question has been pushed to its limit. Society and politics informs the way that material conditions are presented. Marx shows us in the German Ideology that the “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”[17] The ability of the ruling class to maintain its power through ideology is antithetical to a revolution based on the equalizing of political power and of ideas. Yes, liberal democracy formally allows ideas to compete but they do not compete equally. It has been posited by some that liberal democracy with its faults exemplifies the best possible attempt to fix the issues of class difference. This is because it allows these tensions to be fought out without the potential disruption or the violence of a proletarian revolution. But this myopically focuses on it successes in some areas and ignores its failures in others. Tocqueville’s statement that “there is no class hatred”[18] in America, often celebrated as a uniquely American achievement is not necessarily a good thing. Good for whom? It certainly does not benefit the poor who are denied the opportunity to at least despise their oppressors. We cannot accept that class tensions that have been exposed in Aristotle, Machiavelli, Tocqueville, Marx, and Madison, are somehow solved because there is not active antagonism?

There is an assumption that a lack of struggle is a good thing in and of itself. It is good for those who benefit from sitting on top of society. But because people are not actively in revolt does not mean that these tensions between political power and inequality have gone away. As Laclau and Mouffe argued, “only in certain cases do these forms of resistance take on a political character and become struggles directed towards putting an end to relations of subordination as such.”[19] The lack of class-based parties in the United States does not mean that these tensions have at all disappeared; in fact as we see today many of them are getting even worse.

The question of inequality is a fundamental problem of politics but because of the limits on democracy in liberal democracy, this question cannot be addressed within that model. The fear of the excesses of the Communist movements of the 20th century severely limits alternative imaginations. This stalemate is represented in the general feeling of agnosticism towards power coming from the people. In other words, the impossibility of the other, promotes the possibility of this as the one, or as Margret Thatcher often articulated, ‘there is no alternative,’ is not a convincing sell as to why a system should stay, but the alternatives are not convincing enough to get people to leave. It may not be perfect but because of the threat from utopian ideas, and the danger of a democratic field that is open to the ‘tyranny of the majority’, this system with its faults is the best possible solution, may not be a good argument to do anything, but it is convincing enough to get people to do nothing.

Opening up the democratic space

            The risk of democracy is not enough to preclude its existence; it is not strong enough to override the alternative, which is a system and ideology that cannot adequately wrestle with the question of inequality. In fact, Zizek addresses this quite clearly:

It is true that democracy makes possible all sorts of manipulation, corruption, the rule of demagogy, and so on, but as soon as we eliminate the possibility of such deformations, we lose democracy itself – a neat example of the Hegelian Universal which can realize itself only in impure, deformed, corrupted forms; if we want to remove these deformations and to grasp the Universal in its intact purity, we obtain its very opposite. So-called ‘real democracy’ is just another name for non-democracy[20]

What is exposed here is the charge levied against democracy in its fullest, that it risks failing. But through expanding the democratic understanding and refusing to hold universal ideas its failure can be avoided. On the contrary, it is through limiting the democratic spaces that certain issues of society are internalized. As Marx argues about America, even without a tradition of cemented classes “we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately takes possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends – and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality dominate and plunder it.”[21] Here is an important exposure of why the expansion of democracy is critical for the revaluation of the economic problem, we must realize that the political form of liberal democracy restricts this democratic nature to address the reason for power.

            It comes from the democratic idea that everything can be questioned, that power is fluid and not held by one group over the other. As Laclau and Mouffe present, “From the critique of political inequality there is effected, through the different socialist discourses, a displacement towards the critique of economic inequality, which leads to the putting in question of other forms of subordination and the demanding of new rights.”[22] Pushing the question of political power in democracy further, leads to questions about economic inequality, as it does to others and recognizes them as problems. The point is that democracy, unlike other attempted political systems, can avoid reverting to ‘fantasy’ to try and ignore or fix the tension. This is the key the argument for an expansion of the democratic space that as Claude Lefort posits, “Power becomes and remains democratic when it proves to belong to no one.”[23] When democracy is limited because of a fear of malpractice, malpractice ironically occurs. This happens because limiting the scope of democracy, favors particular groups usually a class and usually the rich, and when a certain class is posited as being the one class or group society falls into the totalitarian problem, “the fantasy of the People-as One.”[24]

The glaring issue is that in many ways the projects of the past two hundred years are reenactments of the political problem diagnosed by Aristotle, trapped by the prognosis of those who followed in his footsteps. Breaking down these assumptions and these problems will have to come from a refusal to partake in systems that have these critical flaws. It is a return in many ways to the democratic question itself, “Democratic politics – and politics in general – can never eliminate conflict and dislocation, antagonism and division. The aim is rather to establish unity within an environment of conflict and diversity.”[25] It is this fact that the bourgeois democracy will never be able to address the question of inequality because it is outside of its perception, and that totalitarian or ‘fantasy’ political projects will turn violent and will never achieve their goals. The expansion of democracy and the rejection of the assumptions of the previous political societies is clearly as the best way forward. To recognize that there is difference in society and to actualize it was the attempt of the early democratic regimes. Unfortunately, “In the first half of the century the amorphous character of ‘democracy’, its lack of roots in the economic bases of society, made it essentially vulnerable and unstable, and prevented it from constituting itself into a steadfast and permanent trench in the struggle against the established order.”[26] It rejected the old society in some areas and reproduced it in others. As Marx claimed, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”[27]


Investigating whether or not inequality poses a threat to democracy leads one to find that it is indeed a very real threat to the democratic revolution. However, it is more nuanced than a force that appears for democracy to address, this question of inequality is fundamental to the democratic process and to its genealogy. It is through the expansion of the democratic processes of destroying what was, recognizing everything for what it is and what is not, that is the democratic process. By acknowledging this question of whether or not inequality is even something that a society can address the existence of inequality can be posed, in the question of whether or not it is problematic. Inequality is a problem for democracy because it challenges its idea. This is not to say that opening up the space of democracy will instantly solve this problem of economic inequality, but that it is the only way in which this problem can be safely addressed.  




Aristotle. Politics. Project Gutenberg EBook.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985.


Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.


Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1998..


Marx, Karl. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1978.


Madison, James. "Federalist Ten." In The Federalist Papers,. Penguin Books, 1987


Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Keith Pearson. "The Gay Science." In The Nietzsche Reader,. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006.


Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1959.


Stavrakakis, Yannis. Lacan & the Political. New York: Routledge, 1999.


Tocqueville, Alexis De, and Harvey Claflin Mansfield. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.


Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.





[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Keith Pearson. "The Gay Science." In The Nietzsche Reader,. 2006. 224


[2] Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989. 24

[3] Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. 30.

[4] Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1959.

[5] Aristotle. Politics. Project Gutenberg EBook. 1.


[6] Ibid “an oligarchy considers only the rich, and a democracy only the poor; but neither of them have a common good in view.”

[7] Stavrakakis, Yannis. Lacan & the Political. New York: Routledge, 1999. 100

[8] ibid 107

[9] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 39.

[10] Madison, James. "Federalist Ten." In The Federalist Papers,. Penguin Books, 1987. 124


[11] Madison, James The Federalist Papers, 126



[13] Tocqueville, Alexis De, and Harvey Claflin Mansfield. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 43.


[14] Marx, Karl. "On the Jewish Question." In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1978. 43. All other cites of Marx will be from this text and will be indicated by the chapter they come from.

[15] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 597.

[16] Ibid597

[17] Marx, Karl, “The German Ideology” 172

[18] Tocqueville, Alexis De. Democracy in America. Edited by Harvey Claflin Mansfield. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 169

[19] Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985. 136

[20] Zizek, Slavoj. Sublime Object of Ideology. 166.

[21] Marx, Karl. The Civil War in France. 628.

[22] Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. 140

[23] Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory. 1988 27

[24] Lefort, Claude.,Democracy and Political Theory. 1988. 20.

[25] Stavrakakis, Yannis., Lacan & the Political. 112

[26] Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 133

[27] Marx, Karl,. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 594.