Why society needs equality

Submitted by Anon on 26 June, 2009 - 7:45 Author: Matt Cooper

Matt Cooper reviews Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

The Spirit Level created a considerable stir when it was published earlier this year. Its central proposition is that societies characterised by economic inequality are bad for everyone, not just the poorest. It is written by epidemiologists — scientists concerned with the statistical understanding of disease — and is a readable indictment of the health and social effects of the unequal distribution of wealth.

The authors’ focus is on affluent societies which produce enough for all, but distribute the social product unequally. They find not only that the poorest in each society suffer more from social problems such as poor health, violent crime and educational failure than others, but also that everyone in the more unequal societies suffers. In highly unequal societies not just the poorest have shorter life expectancy, but also all social strata, when compared to more equal societies.

The book’s depiction of the effects of inequality on society is its strongest aspect. The statistics show only that inequality and social/health problems are correlated (a change in one is associated with a change in the other with no implications about causes). But the authors show that inequality (not just poverty) leads to poor health, violent crime and so on. Uncovering such mechanisms is a hard task, but the authors marshall a huge range of psychological and sociological data to show how inequality leads to societies riddled with fear of failure, anxiety, lack of trust and low self esteem.

For many years both analysts and governments from the social democratic centre-left have targeted the symptoms of inequality rather than the causes. For example, Robert Putman in his book Bowling Alone (2000) wraps up issues of inequality with a declining sense of community. He argues for rebuilding communities by investing in “social capital”, encouraging people to be more involved with local education and services and more engaged in local politics for example.

The Spirit Level shows that inequality undermines such any sense of community; it is a labour of Sisyphus to attempt to counter such things without tackling inequality. This has clear implications for the communitarian attempts of New Labour to create “social inclusion”, while doing little to attack underlying inequality — a strategy central to the Blair project. As Blair stated in 2001, “... justice for me is concentrated on lifting incomes of those that don’t have a decent income. It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”. The strength of this book is that it shows that greater equality is necessary for creating a better society.

The Spirit Level shows why Blair is wrong. Neuroscientific, evolutionary psychological and anthropological data all converge on the idea that people do not thrive on competition, but on co-operation. There is a hormonal and neurological basis to human solidarity. Although the authors make no such connection, they support the idea that human behaviour evolved in primitive communist hunter-gather human societies, and that co-operation is central to what Marx called humanity’s “species-being”.

If its treatment of inequality as the cause of other social problems that is this book’s strength, it is also its greatest weakness. While is it quite reasonable to see inequality standing in a causal relationship to social problems, it is quite another to see social inequality as an isolated and independent factor that can be dealt with by itself.

The book is based on an empirical survey of market economies, and thus tends to hold up the more egalitarian of those (Japan and the Scandinavian countries) as models. The concept of class is largely absent from the analysis, and the private ownership of industry appears only very late in the analysis and is neither theorised nor explored.

The third section of the book, which attempts to point the way forward to a better society, is therefore the weakest section. The proposals are for partnership between trade unions and management (as in Sweden or Japan), and more employee ownership. The agency of social change identified is the “third sector” of charities, community organisations and NGOs.

This book is worth reading for its unflinching exposure of the effects of inequality, but you may wish to draw your own conclusions about how to win equality.

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