Mark ffrench-Mullen

Fair is difficult to define. It implies that everybody or at least a reasonable majority accept the status quo, and feel that they have a reasonable level of power in society. They feel that they have a reasonable level of control over their lives. They do not feel that the power of others impinges on their freedom. So this seems to be a cohesive society, which implies one where income disparity and wealth accumulation are not excessive. The exact point where this lies depends on the values and outlook of the society. Cohesive also implies that the majority coincide in their basic values, and that one of those values be a tolerance of difference. Perhaps it is the only important value to share. For a society to be cohesive and for people to feel in control of theri destiny and not to feel oppressed, it is important that power is shared. Individuals may have greater power because they are more energetic, more single minded, more intelligent, more skilled and so on. But if individuals or groups of individuals are powerful because they have accumulated over generations more and more wealth and control of the economy, institutions of state, the press, the universities, then they naturally begin to use that power to protect their interests – their wealth – and this is inevitably at some point in contradiction to the interests and well-being and liberty of the rest of society. That point is more likely to be reached in a period of crisis, where the needs of the majority may be in stark contrast to those of the wealthy elite. There is a lot of evidence that societies with extreme inequality of wealth distribution are much less stable politically, and have higher rates of crime. Which is what you would expect when people do not feel they have an equal stake in society, when they do not feel that the values promoted through the institutions of society – Press, Education political and economic orthodoxy – do not reflect the interests of all sectors of society, but bolster the position of an elite. Britain experienced this under Thatcher, US under several Presidents beginning with Reagan. An alternative way to look at it is that the “Ruling Class” always impose on society a vision which maintains their position. While they manage to convince a sufficient majority of their values and philosophy, society is stable and people will generally regards it as a “fair” society. When that hegemony fractures, society becomes unstable. Sections of society begin to look at alternative and radical visions. Tolerance begins to break down. The ‘Ruling class’ may be in a position to impose their will on these sections, using the forces of the state. This often causes fractures in the Ruling Class also. They begin to abandon their own hegemonic ideas and may seek to harness new forces emerging in society. This is what happened in pre-war Europe in the 1930s and there are some worrying signs now. Across Europe, we see new parties gaining ground with new and often intolerant ideas. The old parties – those representing the old consensus or hegemony – are in retreat. And yet the USA is probably more unequal than most European states and is still remarkably stable. Presumably this is down to the persistence of an idea – the American dream. So a fair society is a cohesive society, where values are largely shared and there is a tolerance of other values because they are not perceived as threatening the status quo. Wealth distribution affects that cohesiveness when it appears to overly affect the balance of power. But at what values of inequality of wealth or power, cohesiveness is affected, depends on the nature of the shared values of the society and the strength and depth of their persistence at all levels of society.

Mark ffrench-Mullen, Divisional Librarian, Dublin City Public Libraries