Putting Politics Back into the Equality Debate: The Limits of ‘The Spirit Level’
The Guardian Comment, February 3rd 2010
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are right to talk about inequality (Guardian, January 30th) and do so at length in ‘The Spirit Level’, a debate which seems to have captured something about the anxieties and fears we have about modern Britain and life. Yet, despite its popularity and the claims of its authors, ‘The Spirit Level’ does not offer a new egalitarian credo, and instead leaves crucial areas unexplored.
Wilkinson and Pickett pose that inequality hurts and harms all of us and set out to show across a range of international examples that more equal affluent countries are happier, more secure and have a better quality of life.
In a 330 page book on inequality the authors surprisingly say next to nothing about what factors created the rising tide of inequality that we have witnessed these last few decades. Not only that, they take their argument that rising inequality has occurred as proven and don’t offer any historical examination even of the recent past.
Even more surprisingly they dismiss in a couple of paragraphs the role of ideology in creating more inequality. Specifically neo-liberalism is curtly dismissed, apparently because it did not set out to cause the symptoms of inequality such as teenage pregnancy, obesity, and greater levels of violence. This is naïve and a complete misunderstanding of the nature of neo-liberalism, centred on the encouragement of market relationships and inequality with all the symptoms which flow from this.
Following on from this there is no recognition of how economics and politics have forged a new coalescing of power not just in corporate power but across society, from the media to culture and academia. This has become so powerful it has reshaped government, policy and the character of the state in the UK and elsewhere.
There is no examination of the changing nature of the economy, as instead they focus solely on social factors. All we are offered are passing references to ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘weightless world’ and globalisation, all without any criticism offered. There is no grasp that these narratives have been used to legitimise winners in society and greater inequality.
Furthermore, while ‘The Spirit Level’ draws on international comparisons it offers no commentary on the different cultures of modern capitalism in the West. In particular, it has no understanding of the specific cultures of the English speaking democracies.
New Labour apologists use this to damn the book, claiming it does not understand the dynamism and multi-culturalism of the UK and US, but it is much deeper than this. Instead, what Wilkinson and Pickett have in common with their New Labour opponents is a lack of understanding of ‘the Anglo-sphere’: namely the UK, US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In five of the six, brutal neo-liberal experiments were unleashed from the 1980s on unparalleled anywhere in the democratic world (Thatcherism, Reaganism, Rogernomics); the exception in the group is Canada which remained a much more equal society.
There is little on ethnicity and race, and addressing regional and sub-national differences in the UK. ‘The Spirit Level’ has nothing to say on Scotland and Wales and their own specific patterns of inequality, Scotland being scarred by the worst health inequalities in Western Europe.
All of these weaknesses: the absence of examining rising inequality, the role of ideology and the economy, along with what it has done to politics and the state, combine in a set of concluding chapters which culminate in ‘Building the Future’. Wilkinson and Pickett make the case for a ‘better society’, along the lines of Neal Lawson’s and Compass’s ‘good society’ and Richard Layard’s ‘common good’, and define it as ‘a more equal society in which people are less divided by status and hierarchy’.
All of these warm sounding phrases are nothing but euphemisms for the search for an alternative to the world neo-liberalism created, while recognising the retreat from the grand hopes of socialism and grandiose schemes. The problem is that phrases such as ‘the better society’ and ‘the good society’ are so vague as to be meaningless. Who after all is against ‘the good society’? Weren’t Thatcher and Blair motivated by their own version of ‘the good society’?
‘What can be done?’ ask Wilkinson and Pickett and cite employee ownership and buy-outs as the road to a ‘better society’, ignoring any mention of corporate governance, the power of the City and the nature of the open economy which sees foreign takeovers across society from Kraft to football, nuclear power and airports.
‘The Spirit Level’ is written with the best of intentions, but there is a void at its heart. Its authors have set themselves up as offering a mantra for explaining our confusing modern times, and yet in so doing have offered an analysis which is problematic, partial and panglossian.
In their concluding thoughts, they suggest that progressive politics have for decades been weakened by the absence of any idea of a better society, instead becoming reduced to piecemeal policies. Their failing is the opposite, combining vague idealistic notions of a better society along with little practical, political or ideological suggestions for how we progress.
‘The Spirit Level’ is not a bad book but it is not a manifesto for new times. Instead it is a symptom of the problem age we live in, of a Westminster political consensus sitting alongside a set of global orthodoxies which reflect the self-interests of an out of control elite.