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Book review: The Spirit Level

The path-breaking book, ‘The Spirit Level’ showed how gross inequalities damage the whole of society. Yet a year later we are entering a general election in which the main parties will ignore their damaging effects.

The path-breaking book, ‘The Spirit Level’ showed how gross inequalities damage the whole of society.  Yet a year later we are entering a general election in which the main parties will ignore their damaging effects. David Beetham suggests why.

Wilkinson, Richard, and Pickett, Kate, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better Allen Lane: Penguin Books, 2009.

For all the developed capitalist countries without exception, the international measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, showed a continuous decline in inequality in incomes from 1945 to the late 1970s. From then on there developed a marked disparity between the continental European countries, where the trend continued, and the Anglo-Saxon economies, where it went into sharp reverse, continuing up to the present.

The explanation lies in the anti-union, de-regulatory and free market policies of Reagan and Thatcher, which were later copied by the respective leaders of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Since New Labour in Britain has carried on with the same policies, it is hardly surprising that the trend to ever greater inequality has continued throughout its period in office, despite successful attempts at poverty reduction for families and children at the very bottom of the income scale. This is because free market capitalism, if left to itself, produces not so much a downward trickle as an upward flood of income and wealth, as the history of the past 30 years has only too clearly demonstrated.

Academic and political criticism of this trend towards greater inequality has until recently concentrated on its manifest injustice, underpinned by theories of justice elaborated within disciplines such as political philosophy. The importance of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, lies in showing that increased levels of inequality lead to an intensification of a whole range of social ills which affect everyone in society. By comparing the evidence from 25 advanced countries and the 50 US states, which all differ markedly in their levels of inequality, the authors demonstrate through a series of tables that all the main social ills correlate closely with high inequality, devoting a chapter to each:

  • low levels of social trust
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality
  • obesity
  • poor educational performance
  • teenage births
  • homicides
  • imprisonment rates
  • reduced social mobility

What is the causal link at work?

One obvious cause is that in highly unequal societies there are more people living in poverty and deprived conditions, and exposed to their effects. However, the key finding is that the ill effects extend throughout the social scale in unequal societies, directly as well as indirectly. “Income inequality exerts a comparable effect across all population subgroups…like a pollutant spread throughout society”. This is because of the marked status distinctions that follow from economic inequality, and the effect these have on the quality of social relationships and people’s sense of self-worth throughout the social scale. In a previous book, Wilkinson summarised the causal chain as follows:

Greater income inequality < increased social distance between groups, less sense of common identity < more dominance and subordination, hierarchical and authoritarian values < increased status competition, emphasis on self-interest and material success < others as rivals, poorer quality of social relations.

In terms of the effect on health, he showed from studies of Whitehall civil servants that those lower down the office hierarchy suffered more from cardio-vascular disease, and that this was due to the effect of stressful lack of control over work on the chemistry of the body (repeated in the present book). This condition of lack of control, status anxiety and fragmented social relations lies at the root of all the social ills documented in the latest book, and can be traced to the same cause of income inequality.

It is the experience of low status and low esteem that encourages violence, obesity, teenage pregnancy, drug use, and so on; and it is the fear of it that drives consumerism, longer working hours and other economic dysfunctionalities of unequal societies. In sum, “the role of this book is to point out that greater equality is the material foundation on which better social relations are built.”

What are the policy implications?

The implications of the work are that three types of ameliorative policy are mistaken if not actually futile:

  1. Treating each of the social ills separately involves dealing with the symptoms, not the underlying cause that connects them all, and involves high levels of public expenditure which would be better spent on reducing the inequalities in the first place.
  2. Poverty alleviation strategies on their own, which aim to lift the lowest, do not touch the structural consequences of inequality, which remain in place. Huge salaries at the top are particularly dysfunctional, as their influence permeates throughout the social and occupational hierarchy.
  3. The socio-psychological effects of inequality on individuals can only at best be ameliorated by cognitive behaviour therapy and such-like (as per Richard Layard’s Happiness), since the condition is set to be continually reproduced if the underlying inequality is not addressed.

What should be done and by whom?

In the final chapters of the book the authors set out a mixed agenda of proposals, which all assume that the inequalities of the dysfunctional societies are not a natural phenomenon, but socially and politically constructed, and therefore open to change, as evidenced by the example of more equal societies (Japan and the Nordic countries). These countries are all “market democracies”, so the changes are not insuperable, though they will take “many decades”. The problem of climate change, they point out, requires movement in the same direction. Among their proposals are:

  • The establishment of a wide social and political movement for greater equality, working through all civil society organisations. The key for such a movement is “to map out ways in which the new society can begin to grow within and alongside the institutions it may gradually marginalise and replace….Rather than simply waiting for government to do it for us, we have to start making it in our lives and in the institutions of our society straight away”. In support of such a movement, the evidence of the book turns what previously were purely private beliefs in equality “into publicly demonstrable facts”;
  • Among the key institutions of this new society will be employee-owned and managed businesses, using participative methods of organisation which break with the hierarchical principles of the unequal society;
  • Of course there is an important role for government. It was the governments of the Thatcher and Reagan era that set the Anglo-Saxon countries on the road to greater inequality, and this can be reversed with wide-ranging policies, but they will take a long time to have effect;
  • The wealthy should not be allowed to stand in the way. “We should not allow ourselves to believe that the rich are scarce and precious members of a superior race of more intelligent beings on whom the rest of us are dependent. That is merely the illusion that wealth and power create”.

What is likely to be done?

Wilkinson and Pickett’s book provoked considerable discussion and concern when it was first published a year ago, but its message has now almost totally disappeared from public view. Nothing is more indicative of the diminished political discourse in the UK than the fact that, with a general election only weeks away, the issue of the gross inequalities of our society is virtually absent from the agenda of the main political parties.

The reasons are not far to seek. These parties all continue to subscribe to the neo-liberal economic ideology which has brought us economic collapse on top of the inequalities documented by the book; they wish nothing more than a return to “business as usual”. The rich and powerful continue to exercise a stranglehold over the popular media and public policy alike. And there is something deep-seated in the Anglo-Saxon mentality which needs to have lesser breeds to demonise, whether they be unmarried or teenage parents, childhood offenders, the overweight, or whoever, and to subject them to punitive policies.

In the absence of a serious public debate about the message of this book, we shall continue to apply sticking plaster to the multiple social ills it documents, and at enormous cost to taxpayers as well as to the quality of the society.

David Beetham is a leading political theorist and author of numerous books. He  has made a major contribution to assessing the quality of democracy throughout the world with his work with Democratic Audit in the UK, International IDEA (The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

About the author

David Beetham is a social theorist making extensive contributions in the fields of democracy and human rights; including social and economic rights. He joined Democratic Audit at the University of Essex in 1992 where he became Associate Editor, working closely with Director Stuart Weir, to devise a methodology for assessing democracy which was pioneered by the Audit in the UK and developed for wider use across the world. He is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Leeds.


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