By Iain Ferguson
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The Spirit Level

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Allen Lane; £20
Issue 335

In their preface to this book, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett note that “people usually exaggerate the importance of their own work and we worry about claiming too much”. In fact, despite some weaknesses to be discussed below, The Spirit Level is by any criterion a groundbreaking work and one that deserves the widest possible readership.

Its central argument is presented in an admirably clear and accessible way and backed up by an impressive body of empirical evidence. The book argues that what matters in determining not only the health and mortality of any society but also the prevalence of a host of other social problems, including mental illness, obesity and homicides, is less the overall wealth of that society but how that wealth is distributed or, in other words, the extent of inequality. It is this factor above all which provides us with a measure, or “spirit level”, against which we can assess the overall health of any given society.

The argument is a profoundly subversive one. For more than two decades supporters of neoliberalism, including successive New Labour governments in Britain, have regarded the issue of inequality as at best an irrelevance, at worst something to be positively encouraged. One need only recall, for example, Peter Mandelson’s boast in a speech in the US that “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. So strong is the evidence deployed by Wilkinson and Pickett to challenge this view of inequality that they say they toyed with the idea of calling the book Evidence-based Politics.

But The Spirit Level is much more than simply a critique of dominant neoliberal attitudes to inequality. Rather, as the authors point out, “for several decades, progressive politics have been seriously weakened by the loss of any concept of a better society”. On the basis of their analysis of the ways in which inequality affects every aspect of social life, therefore, they wish to examine the possibility of creating a very different, much more egalitarian, kind of society. So how successful are they in these aims?

The first two thirds of the book are concerned with exploring the ways in which inequality has an impact on a range of social problems such as those listed above. Wilkinson and Pickett’s method was to compare the extent to which this list of problems occurred in any given society with the degree of economic inequality in that society, across 20 to 30 advanced capitalist societies.

Having done so, what they found, as they illustrate in a series of extraordinary graphs, was that “almost all social problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies”. So in the most unequal societies, notably the US, Britain, Portugal and New Zealand, the level of homicides, mental illness, teenage pregnancies and so on was much higher than in the more equal societies, such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Japan. Nor could this simply be attributed to levels of poverty. Rather, “The reason why these differences are so big is, quite simply, because the effects of inequality are not confined just to the least well-off; instead they affect the vast majority of the population.”

So, for example, life expectancy for the average American is four to five years shorter than for the average Japanese. The reason, Wilkinson and Pickett argue, is that in more unequal societies, people feel more inferior and less respected, leading to forms of “social pain” which are expressed through higher levels of crime, mental illness, lack of trust in others, comfort eating and so on. Reading this reminded me of an interview conducted some years ago with an asylum seeker in Glasgow:

“When people look down on you, when they don’t respect you as a human being, then you feel very belittled. We think that people don’t respect us like human beings. We have a responsibility to be part of the society but if people don’t want us to be part of society, then we feel very segregated, very isolated. That affects us psychologically and mentally because we feel that nobody needs us; they don’t respect us like any other human being.”

At the same time, Wilkinson and Pickett are very clear that the answer to such social pain is not “mass therapy” of the type proposed by the economist Richard Layard and currently being “rolled out” across the country but rather, in the central argument of the book, the need to reduce inequality.

Space does not permit an examination of the “employee-ownership” type of society which these authors propose as an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, their underestimation of poverty in Britain and other advanced capitalist countries or their over-reliance on arguments drawn from evolutionary psychology. These are debates and discussions for another day. In the meantime, every socialist should welcome the appearance of a book whose stated role “is to point out that greater equality is the material foundation on which better social relations are built”.


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