Thinking About Equality

Against the Current, No. 153, July/August 2011

Bill Smaldone

The Spirit Level:
Why Greater Equality
Makes Societies Stronger
By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010, 352 pages,
$28 hardcover.

Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt
New York: The Penguin Press, 2010, 256 pages, $25.95 hardcover, $15 paperback.

BACK IN 1937, as fascism seemed poised to seize power in much of Europe, George Orwell noted in A Road to Wigan Pier that a “genuinely revolutionary socialism” would have no chance of reversing the tide unless its supporters put aside their factionalism, ceased using jargon that few people could understand, and mobilized around propaganda stressing justice, liberty, and the plight of the unemployed.

To win mass support, he wrote, “All that is needed is to hammer two facts into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that Socialism is compatible with common decency.”

Were he alive today, Orwell would be equally frustrated by the weakness of a western left that is fractured, ideologically adrift, and largely alienated from the people it claims as its core constituents: workers.

He would be heartened, however, by the two books under review here. Both argue, plainly and powerfully, that the left should refocus its project around the simple goal of equality. In a world in which many people recognize that something has gone terribly wrong, the fight for equality would serve as a means of winning broad support and possibly open the way to deeper transformation.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are British epidemiologists who, in a manner akin to Marx’s efforts in the British Museum, have been working for decades amassing a vast amount of material to show that the level of social equality is a decisive factor in determining the state of public health. The quality of social relations, they write, “is built on material foundations. The scale of income difference has a powerful effect on how we relate to each other.”

Instead of blaming parents, religion, values, education or the penal system, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that “the scale of inequality provides a powerful policy lever on the psychological well being of all of us.” (4-5)

Most radical critics of capitalism have long given attention to the problem of inequality, especially since the imposition of the neoliberal regime under Margaret Thatcher in Britain (1979) and Ronald Reagan in the United States (1980). What sets this book apart from most other left analyses is its comprehensive approach from the standpoint of public health, the mass of evidence upon which it draws, and its readability. Avoiding jargon and well equipped with graphics, it will be very useful to seasoned activists and general readers alike.

The authors focus their comparative analysis primarily on conditions within and among the world’s developed democracies. They are aware of the problem of underdevelopment afflicting many societies, but they wish to demonstrate that, unlike poor countries struggling to meet basic needs, the states of the developed world face problems that cannot be solved by more growth. On the contrary, the affluent societies have reached the point where growth, as an “engine of progress,” has largely come to the end of the line.

In addition to promoting environmental degradation, continued focus on growth, rather than on a fairer distribution of wealth, only exacerbates the social pathologies caused by inequality. Indeed, the authors hold that inequality is decisive in determining a society’s level of trust (among social groups), the extent to which the population suffers from mental illness, its life expectancy and infant mortality rates, its obesity rate, its children’s educational performance, its teenage birth, homicide and imprisonment rates, and the extent of social mobility within it.

Inequality as an Obstacle

Wilkinson and Picket note that early socialists believed that material inequality was an obstacle to human harmony, to a universal human brotherhood, sisterhood or comradeship. They go to great lengths to assemble data to show that the socialists’ intuition was sound. Based on the best information available from international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Census, and over 200 separate studies, they illustrate clearly that the higher the degree of inequality, the more severe are a country’s social problems.

Inequality fuels high rates of violent crime and drug usage, high rates of imprisonment, high teenage birthrates, higher obesity rates, lower life expectancy, widespread anxiety, fear, and mental illness, and poorer school performance.

These problems are generally most acute in the most unequal countries such as the United Kingdom, Portugal, and most glaringly the United States. Even in the sphere of social mobility, the latter has a poor record. In a comparative analysis with eight advanced countries, the land of Horatio Alger comes in dead last. It is the egalitarian Scandinavian countries and Canada that provide the most social mobility.

The negative effects of inequality in the advanced countries apply to the rich as well as the poor. While the latter suffer the physical and psychological impact of poverty and low status, wealthy families, increasingly in exclusive or gated communities, are anxious to maintain or enhance their position and often fearful of those “below.”

Studies show that, across whole populations, when comparing the most unequal to the most equal societies, rates of mental illness are five times higher, people are five times more likely to be in prison, and six times more likely to be obese in the former than in the latter.

Workers in unequal societies enjoy far less free time than in more equal ones. U.S. workers typically labor approximately 300 hours per year more than those in Norway, and 400 hours more than in the Netherlands. Life expectancy is also impacted across the board and the average person in the world’s most equal country, Japan, lives 4.5 years longer than in the United States.

There also appears to be a clear correlation between homicide rates and equality. The U.S. homicide rate of 64 per million is more than four times higher than in the UK, and more than 12 times that of Japan.

Wilkinson and Pickett do not view economic inequality as the cause of all social problems in modern society, and they are well aware of the importance of history and culture when comparing different societies or looking at specific issues. For example, they note that while economic inequality is one factor in explaining women’s status, it is one of a complex of influences that result in their still largely subordinate position.

They also make reasonable, though not always successful, efforts to explain data that seem at odds with the general argument. It remains unclear, for example, why suicide rates in Japan and Sweden are higher than those in more unequal countries.

How to Achieve Equality?

While one might quibble with this or that point in the discussion, the main thrust of The Spirit Level is a powerful one: it is better for people’s quality of life (as well as the earth’s environment) to live in a democratic society with more rather than less equality. For our authors, then, achieving a more egalitarian social order is the top priority.

That subject forms the focus of the book’s closing chapters.  That section is also the weakest part of the work.

Wilkinson and Pickett go to great lengths to show that economic activity in the modern world has nothing to do with some type of fixed human nature. They hold that humans have lived in egalitarian rather than hierarchical societies for over 90% of the time humans have existed, and that modern inequality arose with the development of agriculture. This point is very important, especially for readers unfamiliar with anything but the fatuous assumptions that underpin much of our public and academic discourse on people’s economic activity.

At the same time, however, the analysis does not grapple adequately with the function of inequality in the modern capitalist economy. The authors skillfully link the impact of inequality to our psychosocial outlook and behavior, but they provide no historical analysis of how the basis of inequality may have changed as capitalism emerged.

By ignoring this issue, it remains unclear how inequality reproduces itself under capitalism. Inequality is simply a given and is made worse by the wrong economic policies. The authors are most concerned to show that with the requisite political will, this condition can be mitigated via “transformative” changes in social policy.

What they put forward is essentially a social democratic vision of the future that they hope will form the basis of a popular movement. Since the centrally planned economies of the Soviet model proved unworkable, they propose a series of reforms that would not abolish the market but would tame it in ways that would make the economy more sustainable, more democratic and more egalitarian.

They suggest, for example, a scheme of carbon rationing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, progressive tax policies to redistribute wealth and improve services, the strengthening of trade unions, a cap on income at the top, the expansion of the cooperative sector, the municipal ownership of utilities, and support for companies owned and operated by workers.

If implemented, there is no doubt that these changes would do much to improve the quality of life substantially in the most socially polarized advanced countries. Whether they would solve the long-term problems of inequality and environmental sustainability under capitalism, however, is doubtful.

It is certainly possible to substantially reduce the environmental and social pathologies that plague many advanced countries, but these suggestions do little to explain how corporate power, which the authors recognize is out of control, can be overcome.

In addition, growth in developing regions of the global system will certainly replicate many of the social and environmental problems now prevalent in the leading states and will place the planet at risk. It is hard to see how the authors’ model would go far enough to address such problems.

Tony Judt’s Social Democracy

Like Wilkinson and Pickett, Tony Judt also favored a social democratic alternative to the status quo. His view of what social democrats can achieve, however, is more tempered. In an epoch when neoliberal “conservatism” serves as the ideological force with which, as Marx argued in the Manifesto, the bourgeoisie justifies transforming the world after its own image, it is social democracy which must take on a conservative role.

In Judt’s view, “The first task of radical dissidents today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve.”

There are few as knowledgeable about the social democratic legacy as Judt.  Until his recent death at age 62 after a long struggle with ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Judt was a leading historian of 20th century Europe and an important public intellectual, whose contributions to the New York Review of Books sometimes aroused heated acrimony.

Born into an East London secular Jewish family and educated at King’s College, Cambridge and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Judt taught in Europe and at several American institutions before settling at New York University in 1987. After publishing a number of important works on 20th century French social and intellectual history, in 2005 he completed the monumental Postwar: A History of the Europe Since 1945, which one reviewer described as “the best work on the subject that will ever by written by anyone.”

A politically engaged academic, Judt moved from socialist Zionism (he served as a translator and driver in the Israeli Defense Force after the Six Days War), to the radical student left before gravitating, eventually, into the milieu of social democracy. Over the years he developed a reputation as a sharp polemicist who was not shy about defending ideas that he thought were important. In 2003, his controversial article in the New York Review of Books calling for a bi-national state in Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights illustrated well his commitment to principle.

The strength of Ill Fares the Land is its historical perspective. In clear, crisp language Judt reminds the reader that the way we live now is the result of changes wrought by political struggle and that, while there are no historical laws driving the proletariat to inevitable victory, there is also nothing natural about the contemporary economic system. People can achieve positive change.

From 1880 until 1980, he reminds us, “the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal” via progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services, and broad guarantees against acute misfortune. Levels of inequality continued to exist to varying degrees in different places, but the trend toward equality was clear.

After 1980 that tendency was reversed, with all the consequences described by Wilkinson and Pickett. In effect we’ve been heading back to the early 19th century when government attempted to address the “social question” with such innovations as the workhouse.

Judt makes clear how the modern social democratic state emerged from the interwar crisis. In response to the collapse of the economy in 1929, the catastrophic results of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, the parties of the left and right generally agreed on the need for a strong state to manage the economy and mitigate social inequalities.

Whether one considers the New Deal (and later the Great Society) in the United States, the “social market” in West Germany or “indicative” planning in France, the results were similar as the gap between rich and poor narrowed and the universal benefits provided by the parliamentary state, especially in western Europe, won the support of the middle classes.

Judt stresses that these policies were practical responses to flaws in the capitalist order and were not intended to replace it. Social Democratic parties had largely shed their attachments to broad nationalization of industry and instead focused on redistributing wealth. He approvingly quotes Ralf Dahrendorf’s observation that “never before had so many people had so many life’s chances.”

The Road to Reaction

If the new system had so much support, how was it undermined? Judt argues that a combination of factors led people to turn away from the social democratic model. These included substantial alienation from polices that were often imposed top-down by experts and politicians insensitive to the peoples’ wishes, a growing generation gap marked by the decline and fragmentation of social democracy’s traditional blue collar constituency, the rise of a new white collar workforce, the emergence of the “new left,” and the growth of a new and culturally radical youth cohort.

People in these groups often perceived their interests as opposed to those of the state. At the same time, some forgot the traumas of the ’30s and ’40s, while others resented the student movement, the new left and ’60s culture. To varying degrees they advocated a return to “values,” “the nation” and “authority,” and many were attracted to a view of economic policy more akin to the free-market guru Friedrich von Hayek than to John Maynard Keynes.

It was this growing rejection of collectivist solutions and the longing for a policy that would “free” the individual that Thatcher, Reagan, and their acolytes harnessed to their political wagon with such success. The results are well known.

One could certainly take issue with many aspects of Judt’s support for social democratic policies. He says little, for example, about the impact of severe anti-Communist repression (sometimes carried out by American Liberals and European Social Democrats!) on left-wing politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and he neglects substantive discussion of Social Democracy’s belated and inadequate efforts to grapple with racial and gender divides. Nor does he adequately address the apparent exhaustion of the Keynesian economic approach by the late ’70s and the perception by many people that social democracy had no way out of the stagflation crisis.

Rather than focus on such specifics, however, it is more important to grapple with the main question Judt raises in the second part of his book: In the wake of Communism’s demise and the dearth of ready-made alternatives, how can people organize themselves for the common benefit? How can they recover that project from the rubble of collapse in the East and neoliberalism in the West?

Judt’s answer is to mobilize young people and others in defense of the social democratic model. He gives plenty of good reasons why one should do that, but relatively few concerning how. He stresses the need to change how state institutions work as a means for restoring public trust in them, and calls for nurturing a new generation of critical intellectuals who can recast the public discourse to challenge the “economism” of neoliberalism as did the revolutionaries did in the France of 1789 who forged “out of an older language of justice and popular rights a new rhetoric of public action.”

Judt makes clear that this action should be incremental, not revolutionary. It should strive to use state power to reduce inequality in ways that eschew coercion and take local aspirations into account. It should be based on the understanding that neither the market not the state can resolve all problems on its own.

Finding A Road Forward

Tony Judt’s political approach is largely a defensive one, which he openly asserts is based on fear of the alternatives. This strategy will not get the left very far. It makes sense to make every effort to defend the positive achievements of the past, but the left has to place equality within the framework of a new vision that will take the offensive.

Short of some unexpected and more radical transformation, a “social democratic” state clearly will be a central actor in any system of investment decision-making and economic redistribution that favors the vast majority. But a revived left should also focus on ways to anchor and build on such gains by pushing for more democracy throughout our society — in our workplaces, trade unions, and class-bound educational and political institutions on every level.

Judt completed Ill Fares the Land as he lay paralyzed and dying. His book represents a powerful statement of what the 20th century left achieved, but falls short as a guide to action for radicals in the new century.

Wilkinson, Pickett and Judt are right to make equality the central goal of the left’s political project. Achieving the aims they outline would improve the lives of average people markedly and could represent the foundation upon which a united left could strive for more fundamental changes.

Both of these books provide readers with plenty of ammunition to make the case for equality. They are less successful in showing how to build a mass movement for the reforms they seek, and neither work grapples adequately with those processes within the system that cause inequality in the first place.

July/August 2011, ATC 153