History of Inequality As Viewed By Rousseau and Marx

Inequality is a negative force acting to oppress mankind.  Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx lived in very different times and used different models of thinking to look at their societies they both identified inequality as a major cause of social injustice.  Rousseau lived in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution and examined the issue using philosophical reasoning while Marx addressed the problem as the Industrial Revolution was reaching maturity and approached it from the view of an economic historian.

Rousseau looked back on a feudal and monarchical history and conceived of political inequalities that depended on the common consent of mankind.  These inequalities included wealth, honor, and power over others.  Once mankind had created societies, people became aware of status and compared themselves to others and began to care about what other people thought of them.  This self imposed vanity created a contradiction for most people; the desire for things they did not need in order to satisfy this sense of vanity.  Preoccupation with the drive to possess status disguised the oppression of the people and kept them from realizing that they were not free or natural.  In order to gain more status in wealth, possessions, politics, or society they became separated from the natural state of man.  Rousseau reached the conclusion that the arts and sciences created luxuries that soon became needs, “Everyone begins to survey the rest, and wishes to be surveyed himself; and public esteem acquires a value” (1).

People with property need a way to protect it, so “the rich man, thus pressed by necessity, at last conceived the deepest project that ever entered the human mind: this was to employ in his favour the very forces that attacked him, to make allies of his enemies, to inspire them with other maxims, and make them adopt other institutions as favourable to his pretensions, as the law of nature was unfavourable to them.”  Those with only the wealth they could obtain through their own labor needed protection too.  Those with power and property then convinced the people to make laws that “fixed forever the laws of property and inequality” (1).

Marx was looking back at an age that had seen the expansion of low tech, low wage factory labor.  The feudal systems had been replaced by industrialization.  The commoditization of labor allowed the owners of capital to treat the people as mere tools of production.  The people worked the factories while the owners of the property retained the products of their labor in exchange for subsistence wages and security.  As the modes of production improved, the total output of commodities increased while the workers’ value was continuously reset.  This created a society that now consisted of two classes; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  This conflict “…left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment” (2).  Marx predicted that this conflict would inevitably lead to a social revolution; a revolution of the workers against the owners of the means of production.  “In place of the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”(2)  Marx thought that in this way all class distinctions would be eliminated.

While both men found inequality as one of the main sources of the social problems of their times, it is not surprising that they viewed the causes of its development very differently.  One hundred fifty years have passed since Marx’s writings and two hundred and fifty since Rousseau’s and society still has not solved the problem of inequality.  The revolutions that Marx predicted have come and gone in many times and places but always against the ruling parties.  The results are always the same.  Those with wealth and power control the ruling parties and in this way continue to accumulate more wealth while the working people work for subsistence wages and have few freedoms and little power to change the systems that hold them down.  If the workers of the world can wake up and recognize who their real masters are and unite against them maybe we can all work towards a better society.

  1. Jean-Jacque Rousseau – A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind
  2. Karl Marx – The Communist Manifesto
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