Equality, justice…

Equality, justice, diversity, and politics in postmodernism

In modern thought, ideas about equality, justice and progress are closely bound up with ideas about reason and knowledge in a one-size-fits-all system. In this system, ‘equality’ means ‘the same’. To become equal means to ‘measure up’ to the norm, and be assimilated, and inequality implies exclusion.

The flaws in this system were exposed with the various liberation movements of the later 20th century (first women, and then Black and gay, and later disabled people). While activism on the part of these groups eventually achieved formal equal rights, it did not resolve the problem. Because a person can’t be equal (the same) and different, difference inevitably means deficiency, or lack.

The debate around this eventually produced a new kind of activism, known as the ‘politics of difference’. In this approach, now part of postmodern political theory, equality and difference are seen, not as antithetical, but related terms. They are starting points for debate.

There is a focus on process; on making difference visible, not so it can be assimilated, but to allow it to just ‘be’, to express itself, not in relation to dominant norms, but on its own terms. There is also a focus on ‘third spaces’, on relationship-building between different groups – in ways that allow the partners to acknowledge and recognize their differences as differences, not deficiencies. Justice, in this model, is achieved by ‘working difference together’.

Related to all this is another feature of postmodern thought: the shift to ‘deliberative’—as opposed to representative—forms of democracy, the development of new ways of making decisions about the allocation of scarce public resources in the postmodern era.

The table below outlines some of the features of this shift.

20th century/’modern’ social democracy Neo-liberalism (hyper-modern) 21st century ‘third way’ (post-modern)
Representative democracy Interest-based democracy Deliberative democracy
Universalist, one-size fits all, collective good, (=> also assimilationist). Equality of opportunity, inclusiveness, difference = deficit. Individual rights and freedoms, choice, and enterprise; differentiation (and increased range) of products and services (market will deliver ‘quality’). Diversity, plurality, multiple ways of being/subjectivities; personalised learning, integrated/multiple services; ‘politics of difference’, difference = a ‘resource’
Bureaucratic separation (and differential power relations) between managers & workers, policy-makers/service providers and practitioners/service consumers Emphasis on cost-effectiveness & accountability, outcomes and outputs, choice of services deliverers, consumer choice & self-reliance. Retreat of state from some (previously) core functions (some questioning of state’s continued legitimacy); increased emphasis on security matters – personal, national & economic; ‘targeting’ of service to areas of very high need; more homogenous local communities.
Policy-makers/service providers are ‘experts’ and ‘know best’ (top down), universal/same rules for all, education compulsory (a collective good). Consumers are best placed to determine own needs. Policy-maker’s role is to provide information and guidelines, and, where absolutely necessary, provide some ‘targeted’ support. Consumers of service expected to meet own information needs – to research their ‘choices’. Increased emphasis on partnerships, relationships, dialogue and ‘process’, on exploring, negotiating & debating differences; emphasis on participation, ‘grass roots’ political activity, ‘voice’, collective information-gathering & decision-making (knowledge development). New democratic spaces and identities – new roles and new forms of activism (NGOs, media, pressure groups, consumer collectives); role of traditional expert downgraded/diffused.
Collective good of nation state, extending full suite of ‘social rights’ to all as basis for equality of opportunity; ‘welfarism’. “No such thing as society”; protection of individual rights and freedoms, education = a ‘positional’ (and individual) good; “managerialism’ and ‘marketisation’ of social services…. Dissolving of nation–state; societies = ‘networks and flows’, not ‘structures’, ‘global citizens’.
Education has a number of roles (many of which conflict), but a key role is to provide basic skills, and then to screen & sort, for participation in segmented economy. Under-theorised/superficial concept of education’s purposes. Emphasis on ‘competencies’, ‘learning to learn’, ‘lifelong learning’, ‘critical thinking’, innovation, EQ, communication/relationship/teamwork skills – etc etc

Click on the link to read more about some of the theories behind the shift to 21st century learning, or click one of the specific theories below.

Postmodernism – what is it?

The Knowledge Age – what is it?

Identity and the self in postmodernism

To read more about these ideas, try the following books:

Yeatman, A. (1994). Postmodern revisionings of the political. New York: Routledge.

Yeatman, A. & Wilson, M. Justice and identity: Antipodean practices. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Young, I. M (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gutmann, A. & Thompson, D. (2004). Why deliberative democracy? Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hajer, M. & Wagenaar, H. (eds.) (2003). Deliberative policy analysis: Understanding governance in the network society. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.