The first motto of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality’. Fraternity came later on, and was one of several third words that attached itself to the first two.
The republican concept of equality was derived from that of liberty. To be free was to be free from domination. But those who have a lower status find it harder to escape domination. Hence, a republic requires that all should be equal in the eyes of the law, and that all should have the same status as free citizens.
Unfortunately it turns out to be frighteningly easy to move from ‘equal political status for all’ to ‘equal political status for some’ and ‘equal status of some sort, but not political for some’. Women were excluded from the start from the Constitution. And people of colour who had benefitted from equal status in the colonies before the revolution found their equality reduced from ‘political’ to merely ‘civic’, and with no safeguards against the constant and illegal attacks on their civic liberties.
One way to read this is to decide that ‘political equality’ is really too abstract to play the role of guarantor of republican liberty. What constitutes the real threat to liberty, what causes some people to be dominated by others, is economic inequality. The very poor have no choice but to sell themselves to the rich in whatever capacity the rich demand. And once sold, they have no choice but to put up with their employers’ capricious demands, because to protest would result in starvation for the whole family.
So were Revolutionary republicans hypocritically ignoring the real causes of domination, and proposing an empty concept of equality that had no real grasp on the population they sought to address?
That’s not true. But nor is it the case that French 18thcentury republicans believed in economic equality. They simply believed that great inequality was harmful, and that excessive wealth would be better redistributed to the poor.
One example of an argument that great inequality causes domination and that wealth should be distributed in such a way to avoid it, but without any attempt at economic equality comes from Grouchy who proposes the following in her Letter VII:
Let us suppose that laws should no longer support wealth inequality: then, even if justice and humanity were to be satisfied, cupidity, which takes more time and effort to eradicate, may persist. However is it not likely that the natural inequality caused by differences in behavior, degrees of intelligence, by the greater or lesser fecundity of families would result in the random distribution of three-quarters of resources and an equal distribution of the rest? Let us imagine, for instance, a country of six million families, and a land income of twelve hundred millions: each family would have two hundred pounds in annuity from the land. Even supposing that natural inequality absorbs three-quarters of that sum on behalf of the rich, wouldn’t fifty pounds remain for each family? Take a look at our peasantry, my dear C***, and ask yourself whether among those who have a fifty pounds income, many are reduced to a pressing need. It is well known, on the contrary, that as soon as they own two or three acres of crop, they earn a reputation for being well-off, and the average worth of two or three acres of the best soil for wheat, is around fifty pounds.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.