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The Challenge of Sustainable Development and the Culture of Substantive Equality

István MészÁros is author of Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (Monthly Review Press, 2001), and Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition (Monthly Review Press, 1995).
This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Latin American Parliaments’ “Summit on the Social Debt and Latin American Integration,” held in Caracas, Venezuela, July 10-13, 2001.

To the memory of Daniel Singer with whom I often conversed about the untenability of our order of structural inequality.


Two closely connected propositions are at the center of this intervention: If development in the future is not sustainable development, there will be no significant development at all, no matter how badly needed; only frustrated attempts to square the circle, as in the last few decades, marked by ever more elusive “modernizing” theories and practices, condescendingly prescribed for the so-called Third World by the spokesmen of former colonial powers. The corollary to this is that the pursuit of sustainable development is inseparable from the progressive realization of substantive equality. It must also be stressed in this context that the obstacles to be overcome could hardly be greater. For up to our own days the culture of substantive inequality remains dominant, despite the usually half-hearted efforts to counter the damaging impact of social inequality by instituting some mechanism of strictly formal equality in the political sphere.

We may well ask the question: what happened in the course of subsequent historical development to the noble ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality proclaimed at the time of the French Revolution, and genuinely believed by many long afterwards? Why did fraternity and equality have to be discarded altogether, often with undisguised contempt, and liberty reduced to the fragile skeleton of “the democratic right to vote,” exercised by a skeptically diminishing number of people in the countries which like to describe themselves as “the model of democracy”?1 And that is far from all the bad news. For, as twentieth century history amply demonstrates, even the meager measures of formal equality are often considered unaffordable luxuries, to be unceremoniously nullified by corrupt and authoritarian political practices, or by openly pursued dictatorial interventions.

After more than a century of promises of eliminating, or at least reducing, inequality through “progressive taxation” and other measures, (thereby securing the conditions of socially viable development), the reality is ever growing inequality. The gap has widened not only between the “developed North” and the “underdeveloped South,” but even within the advanced capitalist countries. A recent report of the U.S. Congress (which could not be accused of “left-wing bias”) admitted that the income of the top 1 percent of the U.S. population now exceeds that of the bottom 40 percent;2 a figure which in the last two decades doubled from “only” twenty percent, scandalous as it was even at that lower figure. These regressive developments went hand in hand with first stipulating a false opposition between “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity,” and then abandoning even the lip service once paid to the (never realized) idea of “equality of opportunity.” This result could not be considered surprising. For once the socially challenging “outcome” is arbitrarily eliminated from the picture, and replaced by “opportunity,” the latter becomes devoid of all content. The totally vacuous term of objectless (and worse: outcome-denying) “equality” is turned into the ideological justification of the effective practical negation of all real opportunity to those who need it.

Once upon a time, the progressive thinkers of the rising bourgeoisie optimistically predicted that the domination of one social being by another would be remembered in the future as a bad dream. Henry Home, a great figure of the Scottish historical school of the Enlightenment, predicted that “Reason, resuming her sovereign authority, will banish persecution altogether, and within the next century it will be thought strange that persecution should have prevailed among social beings. It will perhaps be even doubted, whether it ever was seriously put into practice.”3

Ironically, however, in the light of the way things have turned out, what now seems hard to believe is that the intellectual representatives of the bourgeoisie, in the ascendant, could once have reasoned in such terms. A giant of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot, did not hesitate to make the radical assertion, “if the day-worker is miserable the nation is miserable.” 4 Equally Rousseau, with utmost radicalism and biting sarcasm, described the prevailing order of social domination and subordination in this way:

The terms of the social compact between these two estates of man may be summed up in a few words: “You have need of me, because I am rich and you are poor. We will therefore come to an agreement. I will permit you to have the honour of serving me, on condition that you bestow on me the little you have left, in return for the pains I shall take to command you.”5

In the same progressive spirit, the great Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico, insisted that the culmination of historical development is “the age of men in which all men recognized themselves as equal in human nature.6 And a long time earlier Thomas Münzer, the Anabaptist leader of the German peasant revolution, pinpointed in his pamphlet against Luther the root cause of the advancing social evil in quite tangible terms, diagnosing it as the cult of universal salability and alienation. He concluded his discourse by saying how intolerable it was “that every creature should be transformed into property—the fishes in the water, the birds of the air, the plants of the earth.”7 This was a far-sighted identification of what was to unfold with all-engulfing power in the course of the next three centuries. As befits the paradoxical achievements of premature utopian anticipations, it offered from the vantage point of the far less settled structures of early capitalistic developments a much clearer vision of the dangers to come than what became visible to the participants directly involved in the vicissitudes of the more advanced phases. For once the social trend of universal salability triumphs, in tune with the inner requirements of capital’s social formation, what appeared to Münzer as the gross violation of the natural order (and, as we know, ultimately endangers the very existence of humankind), now seems self-evidently natural, unalterable, and acceptable to the thinkers who unreservedly identify themselves with the historically created (and in principle likewise removable) constraints of capital’s fully developed social order.

Thus many things become opaque and obfuscated by the shift in the historical vantage point. Even the crucial term of “liberty” suffers a reduction to its alienated core. In opposition to the political restrictions of the feudal order liberty is hailed as the conquest of “the power freely to sell oneself,” through the presumed “contract between equals,” while the grave material and social constraints of the new order are ignored and even idealized. Accordingly, the original meaning of both liberty and equality is changed into abstract and circularly self-sustaining determinations,8 making thereby the idea of fraternity—the third member of the once solemnly proclaimed noble aspirations—utterly redundant as a matter of course.


It is this spirit of alienation that must be now confronted, unless we are willing to resign ourselves to the acceptance of the status quo and with it the prospect of continuing social paralysis and ultimate human self-destruction. Those who are the beneficiaries of the prevailing system of crying inequality between the “developed” and the “underdeveloped” parts of the world do not hesitate to impose, with utmost cynicism, the consequences of their self-serving irresponsibility on the rest of the world (as they have done quite recently in the arbitrary dismissal of the Kyoto Protocol and other environmental imperatives). This is justified by insisting that the countries of the “South” should remain stuck at their present level of development, otherwise they would benefit from “iniquitously preferential” treatment. Here the ruling powers have the nerve to speak in the name of equality! At the same time those benefitting from the system refuse to see that the “North/South divide” is a major structural defect of the whole system, affecting every single country, including their own, even if for the time being in a less extreme form than in the so-called Third World. Nevertheless, the tendency in question is far from reassuring, even for the capitalistically most advanced countries. As an illustration we may add the alarming rise in child poverty in Britain: in the last two decades, according to the most recent statistics, the number of children living below the poverty line has multiplied threefold in the United Kingdom, and continues to increase every year.

The difficulty for us is that viewing these matters in a short-term perspective, as the dominant cultural and political organs necessarily portray them, carries with it the temptation to follow “the line of least resistance,” leading to no significant change. The argument associated with this way of assessing the issues at stake is that “the problems worked themselves out in the past; they are bound to do so also in the future.” Nothing could be more fallacious than this line of reasoning, even if it is most convenient to the beneficiaries of the status quo who cannot face up to the explosive contradictions of our predicament in the long run. Yet, as concerned scientists of the ecological movement keep reminding us: the long run is by no means that long by now, since the clouds of an environmental catastrophe are visibly getting darker on our horizon. Shutting our eyes offers no solutions. Nor should we allow ourselves to be deceived by the illusion that the danger of devastating military collisions belongs irretrievably to the past, thanks to the good offices of the “New World Order.” The perils in this respect are as great as ever, if not greater, in that not even a single one of the underlying contradictions and antagonisms has been resolved through the implosion of the Soviet system. The recently announced abandonment of even the fragile and limited arms agreements of the past, and the adventurist pursuit of the nightmare project of “the son of star wars,” with the lamest possible justification of installing such weaponry “against rogue states,” represent stark reminders in this respect.

For a very long time we were expected to believe that all our problems would be happily solved through socially neutral “development” and “modernization.” Technology alone was supposed to overcome all conceivable obstacles and difficulties. This was at best an illusion imposed on those who, lacking any active role in decision making, went on hoping that major improvements in their conditions of existence would be realized as promised. They had to find out through bitter experience that the technological panacea was a self-serving evasion of the contradictions by those who held the levers of social control. The “green revolution” in agriculture was supposed to resolve once and for all the world problem of famine and malnutrition. Instead, it created monster corporations like Monsanto, entrenching their power all over the world in such a way that major grassroots action is required in order to eradicate it. Yet the ideology of strictly technological remedies continues to be propagandized despite all the failures. Recently some heads of governments, including the British, started to preach sermons about the coming “green industrial revolution,” whatever that might mean. What is clear, nevertheless, is that this new-fangled technological panacea is intended, again, as a way to run away from the ineradicable social and political dimensions of the ever-intensifying environmental dangers.

Thus it is no exaggeration to say that in our time the interests of those who cannot even imagine an alternative to the short-term perspective of the given order, and to the fanciful projection of strictly technological correctives compatible with it, directly collide with the interest of human survival itself. In the past, the magic term for judging the health of our social system was growth, and still today it remains the framework in which solutions must be envisaged. Questions of what kind of growth and to what end are precisely what is evaded by the unqualified praise of growth. This is especially the case since the reality of unqualified growth under our conditions of social metabolic reproduction happens to be extreme wastefulness and the heaping up of problems for future generations to face—as they must one day deal with the consequences of nuclear power (peaceful and military alike) for instance. The cousin of growth, the concept of development, must be also subjected to the same kind of critical scrutiny. Once upon a time, it was embraced without hesitation by virtually everybody, and major institutional resources were mobilized in the service of spreading the gospel of U.S. type “modernization and development” in the so-called underdeveloped world. It took some time before it could be realized that there was something fatefully defective about the recommended model. For if the U.S. model—whereby 4 percent of the world’s population wastes 25 percent of world’s energy and strategic material resources, and pollutes the world by the same 25 percent—were to be followed everywhere else, we would all suffocate in no time at all. This is why it is necessary to qualify all future development as sustainable development, in order to fill the concept with actually feasible and socially desirable content.


The great challenge of sustainable development, which we now must face, cannot be properly addressed without removing the paralyzing constraints of the adversarial character of our social reproduction process. This is why the question of substantive equality cannot be avoided in our time, as it was in the past. For sustainabilitymeans being really in control of the vital social, economic, and cultural processes through which human beings not merely survive but can also find fulfilment, in accordance with the designs which they set themselves, instead of being at the mercy of unpredictable natural forces and quasi-natural socio-economic determinations. Our existing social order is built on the structural antagonism between capital and labor, and therefore it requires the exercise of external control over all recalcitrant forces. Adversariality is the necessary concomitant of such a system, no matter how great the human and economic resources wasted for its maintenance.

The imperative for eliminating waste has clearly surfaced on our horizon, as a major requirement of sustainable development. For economy in the long run must go hand in hand with rational and humanly meaningful economizing, as befits the core of its concept. But the meaningfully economizing way of regulating our social metabolic reproduction process, on the basis of internal/self-directed, as opposed to the now prevailing external/top-down control, is radically incompatible with structural inequality and adversariality. The Soviet type system had its own form of adversariality, which ultimately resulted in its implosion. But no one should nourish the illusion that our type of capital system is immune to such contradictions, just because for the time being it can manage wastefulness and inequality in a more effective way.

In our societies the structurally entrenched and safeguarded determinations of material inequality are greatly reinforced by the dominant culture of inequality, mentioned earlier, through which the individuals internalize their “station in society,” more or less consensually resigning themselves to their predicament of subordination to those who make the decisions over their life-activity. This culture was constituted parallel to the formation of capital’s new structures of inequality, on the iniquitous foundations inherited from the past. There was a reciprocal interaction between the material reproductive structures and the cultural dimension, creating a vicious circle that trapped the overwhelming majority of individuals in their strictly restrained domain of action. If we now envisage a qualitative change for the future, as we must, the vital role of cultural processes cannot be overstated. For there can be no escape from the dominant vicious circle, unless we succeed in carrying out the same kind of interaction—but this time in a positive emancipatory direction—which characterized social development in the past. No instant change can be envisaged from the present, in the long run quite untenable, mode of social metabolic reproduction to one no longer burdened with the destructive tendencies intrinsic to the adversarial confrontations of our time. Success will require the constitution of a culture of substantive equality, with the active involvement of all, and the awareness of one’s own share of responsibility implicit in the operation of such a non-adversarial mode of decision making.

Understandably, even the greatest and most enlightened thinkers of the ascendant bourgeoisie, as children of their time and station, were implicated in the creation of the long-established culture of substantive inequality. Let me illustrate this point with Goethe’s lifelong struggle with the meaning of the Faust legend, intended to represent humanity’s quest to realize its destiny. As we know, according to the pact of the restless Faust with the devil, he is bound to lose his wager (and his soul) the moment he finds fulfilment and satisfaction in life. And this is how the fateful moment is greeted by Faust:

Such busy, teeming throngs I long to see,
Standing on freedom’s soil, a people free.
Then to the moment could I say:
Linger you now, you are so fair!
Now records of my earthly day
No flight of aeons can impair—
Foreknowledge comes, and fills me with such bliss,
I take my joy, my highest moment this.

However, with supreme irony Goethe shows that Faust’s great excitement is misplaced. For what he greets (when blinded by Sorge) as the great work of conquering land from the swamps in fulfilment of his own plan, is in reality the noise made by the lemures digging his grave. And only celestial intervention can, in the end, save Faust, rescuing his soul from the clutches of the devil. The greatness of Goethe is evident in the way he also indicates why Faust’s quest must end in irony and insoluble ambiguity, even if Goethe cannot distance himself from the world view of his hero, trapped by the conception of “enlightened inequality.” This is the summation of the Faustian vision:

Only the master’s word gives action weight,
And what I framed in thought I will fulfil.
Ho, you my people, quickly come from rest:
Let the world see the fruit of bold behest.
Man all the tools, spade, shovel, as is due,
The work marked out must straight be carried through.
Quick diligence, firm discipline,
With these the noblest heights we win.
To end the greatest work designed,
A thousand hands need but one mind.

Clearly, the consignment of the overwhelming majority of humankind to the role of “hands,” asked to “man all the tools,” in the service of “one mind,” and obeying “the master’s word” with “quick diligence and discipline,” is quite untenable in the long run, no matter how closely it resembles the dominant actual state of affairs. How could we consider the human beings confined to such a role to be “Standing on freedom’s soil, a people free”? The instructions given by Faust to the Overseer on the way to control the workers, directly relevant though they are to our predicament today, reflect the same, untenable spirit:

Use every means, and strive
To get more workers, shift on shift enrol,
With comforts spur them on, and good control.
Pay them, cajole them, use a press-gang drive,
A fresh report you’ll bring me daily, showing
How my projected locks and dykes are growing.

And what meaning can we give to Faust’s “great plan on behalf of humanity” when we know that capital’s social order is radically incompatible with the comprehensive planning necessary for the very survival of humanity? As Goethe’s Mephistopheles describes the prospects ahead of us with brutal realism:

What matters our creative endless toil,
When, at a snatch, oblivion ends the coil?

“A thousand hands” in the service of “one mind” obviously cannot offer us any solution. Nor can the mystical Chorus of Angels in the last scene of Goethe’s Faust counter the Mephistophelian threat of oblivion looming at the end of the road.9

In a somewhat more conflict-torn age Balzac, in one of his great novellas, Melmoth Reconciled, takes up the Faust theme, rescuing in a very different way Melmoth/Faust—who, thanks to his pact with the devil, enjoys unlimited wealth throughout his life. There is no need for divine intervention in his case. On the contrary, the solution is offered with extreme irony and sarcasm. For Melmoth cleverly saves his own soul—when he feels death approaching and wants to get out of his pact with the devil—by making a deal with another man, Castanier, in trouble for embezzlement, exchanging his imperilled soul with the latter, who doesn’t hesitate to enter the deal that confers upon him unlimited wealth. And Castanier’s words, when he in turn hits on the idea of how he is to get out of ultimate trouble, by obtaining still another soul in exchange for his own devil-plighted soul, sum up in a striking way Balzac’s sarcasm, which brings up-to-date Thomas Münzer’s prophetic diagnosis of all-encroaching alienation. Castanier goes to the stock exchange, absolutely convinced he will succeed in finding someone whose soul he can obtain in exchange for his own, by saying that on the stock exchange “even the Holy Spirit has its quotation” (Il Banco di Santo Spirito of the Vatican) in the list of the great banks.10

However, it is enough to follow even for a few days the threatening disturbances on our stock exchanges in order to realize that the Melmoth/Castanier solution is no more realistic today than Goethe’s celestial intervention. Our historical challenge for securing the conditions of sustainable development must be solved in a very different way.

Extricating ourselves from the culture of substantive inequality and progressively replacing it with a viable alternative is the road we need to follow.


  1. It is enough to think of two recent examples: (1) the practical disenfranchising of countless millions, due to apathy or manipulation, and the electoral farce witnessed after the last U.S. Presidential election and (2) the lowest ever participation of voters in the June 2001 General Election in Britain, producing a grotesquely inflated parliamentary majority of 169 for the Government party with the votes of less than 25 percent of the electorate. The spokesmen of the winning party, refusing to listen to the British electorate’s clear warning message, boasted that “New Labour” had achieved a “land-slide victory.” Shirley Williams aptly commented that what we were witnessing was not a landslide but a mudslide.
  2. David Cay Johnston, “Gap Between Rich and Poor Found Substantially Wider,” New York Times, September 5, 1999.
  3. Henry Home (Lord Kames), Loose Hints upon Education, chiefly concerning the Culture of the Heart (Edinburgh & London, 1781), 284.
  4. Diderot’s entry on Journalier in the Encyclopédie (emphasis added).
  5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Political Economy (London: Everyman edition, n.d.), p. 264.
  6. Giambattista Vico, The New Science, translated from the third edition (1744) (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1961), 3 (emphasis added).
  7. Thomas Münzer, Hochverursachte Schutzrede und Antwort wider das geistlose, sanftlebende Fleisch zu Wittenberg, welches mit verkehrter Weise durch den Diebstahl der heiligen Schrift die erbärmliche Christenheit also ganz jämmerlich besudelt hat (1524), quoted by Marx in his essay The Jewish Question (emphasis added).
  8. In other words, we end up with a double circularity, produced by the most iniquitous actual historical development: “liberty” is defined as (abstractly postulated but in real substance utterly fictitious) “contractual equality,” and “equality” is exhausted in the vague desideratum of a “liberty” to aspire at being granted nothing more than the formally proclaimed but socially nullified “equality of opportunity.”
  9. From Part Two, Act 5, of Goethe’s Faust. English translation by Philip Wayne (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1959). English quotations are taken from pages 267-270 of this volume (emphasis added).
  10. The direct inspiration for Balzac’s novella was a long tale by an Irish Anglican clergyman, the descendant of a French Huguenot priest who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This work, by Charles Robert Maturin, the curate of St. Peter’s, Dublin, entitled Melmoth the Wanderer, was first published in Dublin in 1820, and immediately translated into French. (Recent edition by The Folio Society, London, 1993, pp. xvii.+ 506, with an Introduction by Virendra P. Varma.) The big difference is that while Maturin’s wandering Melmoth in the end cannot escape hell, Balzac’s very different way of approaching the Faust legend, with devastating irony and sarcasm, transfers the story on a radically different plane, putting into relief a vital determination of our social order.