The Fantasyland of ‘The Spirit Level’ and the Limitations of the Health and Well-Being Industry
Open Democracy, August 1st 2010
I feel that the world is full of closet egalitarians, that at some level people know this makes sense. They were pushed into the closet by Reagan and Thatcher and monetarism and neo-liberal economics, but many people didn’t really stop believing that some of the old left ideas were important. We just lost confidence in them, and I think maybe we thought they just weren’t relevant to the modern world. I feel that the left entirely lost its way.
Richard Wilkinson interview with Iain Ferguson (1)
Since Gutenberg, there are moments when a particular book defines, for good or ill, a historic moment for a society or a culture. It does so not so much because of its particular argument but because it gives voice to the spirit of its time – its fears, hopes and weaknesses. Will Hutton’s ‘The State We’re In’ captured the hopes many people had before New Labour were elected. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ tapped fears of the Cold War and totalitarianism. Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ articulated concerns about the onward march of the omnipotent state.
The last decade has seen an emerging industry of books and perspectives question the direction, health and very spirit of Western societies and life. This trend began deep in the economic bubble, with numerous writers questioning economic growth and the numerous paradoxes of prosperity. It has continued post-crash as recession and turbulent times have emerged.
In this environment, ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has emerged as one of those defining books. It is a serious book by two epidemiologists, but has reached a popular market and achieved a wide public impact (2). Its central thesis is that inequality hurts and that more equal societies work better for everyone.
It has been cited by David Cameron on the election trail, by Sweden’s Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin, and this week by a fawning ‘Guardian’ editorial which claimed that ‘to emerge from stricken times without breaking Britain, The Spirit Level’s inconvenient truths must be faced’ (3).
‘The Spirit Level’ has aroused significant opposition and even a counter-thesis, ‘The Spirit Level Delusion’ by Christopher Snowdon (4), and a Policy Exchange pamphlet, ‘Beware False Prophets’ by academic Peter Saunders (5). These dismiss ‘The Spirit Level’ as the work of state loving socialists, and are a bit short on subtlety, yet they contain many illuminating explorations of the limits and contradictions within Wilkinson and Pickett’s book.
New Labour advocates and apologists – John McTernan, formerly one of Blair’s senior advisers at No. 10 would be a good example – detest what they see as ‘The Spirit Level’s’ demonising of their Camelot: Anglo-American capitalism with all its dynamism, inclusiveness and the meek of the earth making their way to our shores from far flung lands.
After years of the Thatcherite free market rhetoric – of trickle down, tax cuts and the Laffer Curve being cited as gospel – has ‘The Spirit Level’ turned things round? Not surprisingly things are a little less clear-cut than the thesis put forward by the authors.
What is the Thesis of ‘The Spirit Level’?
Firstly, the central argument of the book for all its huge claims is actually unclear. Are the authors arguing that in more equal societies everyone benefits, or that on average everyone does better? There is a profound world of difference between ‘almost everyone’ and ‘on average everyone’.
It is not possible to make the claim that everyone gains from greater equality. This is just fantasyland politics; the debate between greater equality and inequality involves winners, losers and choices.
Secondly, ‘The Spirit Level’ makes sweeping assumptions about the place and cause of inequality across different societies and gives huge importance to the outliers. For example, the US is the most unequal wealthy society in the world on most indicators, Japan one of the most equal, while the Nordic nations do well on economic and equity comparisons.
Yet, it is almost impossible to compare these countries on equality; they are very different in their cultures, values and histories. Williamson and Pickett claim that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’ – a universalist, sweeping statement – which cannot be substantiated by most of their data.
Thirdly, the authors discount the possibility that the poorest in unequal societies have become detached from the mainstream. Isn’t it possible in the UK and US that the poorest 10-20% of the population have become detached from economic prosperity? The US healthcare debate reflected this concern, with much of the focus of the Obama administration on the millions of uninsured Americans.
Fourthly, inequality produces winners whose lives flourish and are not negatively affected by inequality – something the authors try to contradict. These winners might be few and far-between, but they exist and matter from Chelsea FC to Tiger Woods to Tony Hayward and Fred Goodwin. They are all successes aided by our unequal societies.
The last two points illustrate something Wilkinson and Pickett ignore, namely, the unequal distribution of the cost of inequality. Winners gain rewards; the poor are left with the disproportionate consequences of inequality. ‘The Spirit Level’ in its search for a message for the majority of the population tries to deny this.
One of the central weaknesses in ‘The Spirit Level’ is the absence of the importance of politics. How did inequality rise in the UK and US these last thirty years? Wilkinson and Pickett dismiss it in half a page. They let neo-liberalism and free market fundamentalism off the hook on the basis that rising crime, violence and ill-health was never part of their script; but offer no alternative reading.
‘The Spirit Level’ yearns for ‘evidence based policies’, yet, fails to recognise that ‘evidence’ is never neutral, always about ideas and values. The book’s success, itself a tipping point, taps into deep psychological yearnings and liberal guilt about affluence, inequality and the direction of our society in recent years. This is wish-fulfilment and what Isaiah Berlin called the propensity of human beings to want to make the mess of the world into ‘symmetrical fantasies’ (6).
The Political Dimensions of Inequality
What ‘The Spirit Level’ does not recognise is that evidence and facts will not defeat or roll back inequality. What has dramatically changed British and American society these last thirty years has been an ideology and a dogma which has resulted in the state of affairs and mess we are in. Governments, policy makers, opinion formers and media have gone along with and acquiesced in its assumptions. This worldview is oblivious to evidence and facts.
‘The Spirit Level’ has done us a public service, bringing a debate about the merits of equality and inequality to the centre of public debate in the UK and elsewhere. It is now widely accepted that GDP does not automatically equal progress, but the complex causal relationships are never fully explored by Wilkinson and Pickett.
Part of the success of ‘The Spirit Level’ is liberal guilt, part the retreat of the left, part wish-fulfilment and projection. In a fascinating interview with Wilkinson in ‘International Socialism’, the theoretical journal of the SWP, rather than explore the political weaknesses of the book and its assumptions, the interviewer interprets Wilkinson’s arguments and answers in a more political manner. Here is one example of the exchanges:
Q. One of the great things about your book is that it’s opened up that whole debate, and after more than two decades of neo-liberalism it begins to point some ways out. That said, we now, of course, have a new government in the UK. After the initially very positive reception of your book, do you remain hopeful that the ideas will continue to have an impact, or do you feel that the door has now been closed?
A. In a sense, I’m less interested in political parties than in where the majority of the population is. I do think it was impressive that the BNP didn’t make the gains they expected but actually made losses. But more important than that is the fact that to gain the possibility of election David Cameron had to move so far from Thatcherism, and that reflects how the population has moved. I think that since the financial crash inequality has been moving up the agenda very fast. All the three main parties said that inequality was too great and should be reduced. Cameron quoted our book as showing that by every measure the quality of life is damaged by inequality, while Michael Gove, in a radio programme where we were meant to be having an argument, said: “Richard’s right”! And I think the Labour Party will have to go through some pretty fundamental rethinking. (7)
I have quoted this entire part, because it is both revealing and representative. Time and time again the interviewer, Iain Ferguson, mentions neo-liberalism and other political concepts, reads ‘The Spirit Level’ in this way, and gets replies which are filled with liberal vagueness and a lack of political intelligence. Despite this Ferguson does not point this out.
Another example is when Wilkinson is asked, ‘You’ve set up the Equality Trust and you say several times in the book that what we need is a social movement’, to which he answers, ‘I suspect that the easiest part is to get these ideas into the middle class, particularly middle class people working in the public sector, but also the media’ (8). This is he concedes ‘the first stage’, but isn’t much of an answer, and nor do he go on to sketch out any detailed thought-out ideas. Yet, surprisingly, the interviewer doesn’t point any of this out or challenge it!
There is a fascinating psychological effect going on in relation to ‘The Spirit Level’ which is a sort of collective delusion and fantasy. The defence occasionally offered by some believers that Wilkinson and Pickett are epidemiologists, and cant be expected to provide political answers would have held for their earlier work, but doesn’t hold now: given where they have pitched their argument.
The Rise of the Health and Well-Being Lit Genre
‘The Spirit Level’ isn’t on its own, but part of an industry of books including Layard’s ‘Happiness’ (9), Oliver James ‘Affluenza’ (10) and Neal Lawson’s ‘All Consuming’ (11), which reflect the growth of a health and well-being and anti-consumerist trend. There is in this a profound loss of confidence in progress: once felt to be the exclusive property of the left, but now they feel seized by the liberationist forces of the market. And then there is the whiff of nostalgia, a yearning for a simpler time which was more egalitarian and filled with less choice and ‘stuff’.
Lawson’s book opens like a poor imitation of a Martin Amis novel satirising the 1980s with our hero being woken by his Blackberry Pearl mobile as he rises from his Habitat bed, steps onto his John Lewis carpet, and wraps himself in a White Company towel. Oliver James book is even more outrageous, as James whisks around the globe preaching to people about the threat of ‘turbo-capitalism’. Yet when his publisher offers him what he considers an insultingly low advance, James reverts to the ‘selfish capitalist’ he critiques, claiming he needs the money for a host of consumer goods, including a computer, mobile phone an DVD player.
There is a deep, moralising, middle class liberal superiority in all of this: of people who have gained from the labour market and consumed enough preaching at the rest of us. In a penetrating take on Lawson’s book, Mica Nava took exception to his creation of a ‘binary opposition’ between consumption and citizenship, while ignoring the numerous ways in which shopping allows for play, freedom, being visible and belonging, and crucially, the gender aspect of all of this, in which more women find expression through this without necessarily reducing their lives to a ‘Sex and the City’ caricature (12).
Lawson’s answer did concede that some of Nava’s criticisms had a point, and that he had oversimplified for the sake of building a polemic. He still maintained that consumerism was ‘the glue’ holding capitalist society together, which produced ‘hopeless individualism’ (13). This seems wrong on two levels. First, consumerism is not what holds capitalism together; it is a symptom, not the cause. Second, the idea of ‘hopeless individualism’ goes back to the Frankfurt School and its belief in the rise of a personality type which aided political acquiescence. It goes too far, strengthening a culture of pessimism and a sense of powerlessness.
Despite all the claims in ‘The Spirit Level’, in answer to their question, ‘what can be done?’, the authors answer ‘the good society’ and how employee ownership can lead to a ‘better society’. Missing in all of this is anything about politics, ideology, the economy and how we deal with the elites who have gained disproportionately.
Instead, we need to look much at economics, ideas and ideology and the difficult choices which are fundamental to the societies we live in. Goran Therborn’s ‘Why Some People Are More Unemployed Than Others’ (14) looked at the lie peddled in the 1980s that mass unemployment was inevitable and unavoidable. It charted the five OECD economies: Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Japan, which navigated through the decade with full employment. They achieved this via a balance each made between economics, government, business, politics and ideology. Therborn’s account is a world removed from ‘The Spirit Level’s systematic collection and analysis of data, but ignoring of these factors.
Alongside a Therborn for our times: a ‘Why Are Some People More Unequal than Others?’, a question ‘The Spirit Level’ makes no attempt to answer, there has to be a mapping out of the multi-dimensional characteristics of injustice, which policy-makers and government need to be challenged to act upon. Fortunately, Daniel Dorling has outlined much of this in his recent book, ‘Injustice’ which isn’t about feeding liberal middle class guilt and anxiety (15). He identifies five facets of contemporary injustice – which he links to an updating of Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’: ignorance, want, idleness, squalor, disease:
- Elitism is efficient
- Exclusion is necessary
- Prejudice is natural
- Greed is good
- Despair is inevitable
What is refreshing about Dorling’s book is that he summarised the mantra of injustice into a series of pithy narratives and storylines which address the everyday, populist way in which neo-liberalism validates and reproduces itself and is seen by most people as an unideological force and just the ‘natural order of the world’. From thus Dorling explores the historical evolution of these areas, addresses in detail the socio-economic pattern of each, and then provides the beginning of possible solutions.
This industry, ‘Happiness’, ‘Affluenza’, ‘The Spirit Level’ and ‘All Consuming’ are a manifestation of the times we are living in: of a deep sense that something has gone wrong, a sense for meaning, structure and the desire for an over-arching interpretation for what has happened to our societies. Instead, serious research and political work need to be undertaken which goes back to fundamentals, asks difficult questions and does not try to create a new faith, religion or groupthink to challenge the existing order and orthodoxies.
Perhaps once upon a time at the peak of the Blair-Brown bubble, people felt the lack of focus in the health and well-being industry was the ultimate consumer luxury goods we could afford, but no more. As we face the prospect in the UK and globally of the second wave neo-liberal revolution, and the second in one political generation, we really need a call for back to basics. Back to political economy, to understanding capitalism, economics and markets, and what we have to do to humanise and tame them. Embracing new ideas on all of these, the ecological crisis, psychology and science. Holding power, privilege and the global capitalist class to account.
What we can say with confidence is that we wont find the answer in the ‘health and well-being’ section of Waterstone’s!
1. Richard G. Wilkinson and Iain Ferguson, ‘Interview: Reviving the Spirit of Equality’, International Socialism, No. 127, http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=658&issue=127
2. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Allen Lane 2009.
3. The Guardian Editorial, ‘The Spirit Level: Spooking the right’, The Guardian, July 26th 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/26/the-spirit-level-society-criticism
4. Christopher Snowdon, The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything, Little Dice 2010.
5. Peter Saunders, Beware False Prophets: Equality, the Good Society and The Spirit Level, Policy Exchange 2010.
6. Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essay in the History of Ideas, Oxford University Press 1981.
7. Wilkinson and Ferguson, op. cit.
9. Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Allen Lane 2005.
10. Oliver James, Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane, Vermillon 2007.
11. Neal Lawson, All Consuming: How shopping got us into this mess and how can we find our way out, Penguin 2009.
12. Mica Nava, ‘Shopping’s Not All Bad’, Chartist, No. 241, November/December 2009, http://www.chartist.org.uk/articles/econsoc/nov09nava.htm
13. Mica Nava and Neal Lawson, ‘Is Shopping all Bad?’, OpenDemocracy, January 10th 2010, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/mica-nava-neal-lawson/is-shopping-all-bad
14. Goran Therborn, Why Some Peoples Are More Unemployed Than Others: The Strange Paradox of Growth and Unemployment, Verso 1986.
15. Daniel Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, Policy Press 2010.