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New Left Review I/224, July-August 1997

Anne Phillips

From Inequality to Difference: A Severe Case of Displacement?

When considering the shifts in left thinking over the past fifteen years, it is hard to avoid some notion of displacement: the cultural displacing the material; identity politics displacing class; the politics of constitutional reform displacing the economics of equality. Difference, in particular, seems to have displaced inequality as the central concern of political and social theory. We ask ourselves how we can achieve equality while still recognizing difference, rather than how we can eliminate inequality. This rephrasing of the questions can be traced to a variety of sources, but one undoubted element is the shift from exclusively class analyses of inequality to alternatives that consider class on a continuum with inequalities of gender, ethnicity or race. Class inequality lent itself to a strategy of elimination: a notion that the inequalities will disappear when the differences have finally gone. Once attention shifted to other forms of group difference that were not so amenable to erasure, it became inappropriate to regard difference as always and inevitably a problem. Why should sexual equality depend on abolishing the distinction between women and men? Why should equality between ethnic cultures depend on each losing its distinctive features? The idea that equality is antithetical to difference has been extensively criticized by feminists, [1] Including Iris Marion Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton 1990. and those theorizing the conditions for equal citizenship in societies that are multicultural and multi-ethnic. [2] For example, Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford 1996. For some, this remains a strategic point: that we cannot hope to achieve equality by ignoring differences, for all attempts to pretend difference away—not noticing whether someone is male or female, not noticing whether she is white or black—will end up reinforcing the dominance of already dominant groups. For others, it has a more celebratory dimension: that diversity should be regarded as a positive feature and actively embraced in our political initiatives. In either case, the emphasis is on heterogeneity rather than homogeneity, diversity rather than sameness, with the prior recognition of difference a crucial stage in the achievement of equality.

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