books equality

Book review: The Inner Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The Spirit Level has been a very significant book, putting inequality on the political agenda in a new way. Where inequality had been pegged as a quasi-socialist ideal based on perceptions of fairness, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provided a wealth of evidence that more equal societies do better on almost every social ill you could think of. The book was cited by politicians from all of Britain’s main political parties, including David Cameron while in opposition.

It was also the subject of a substantial backlash – perhaps because it was mentioned by David Cameron, and for a moment even the Conservatives were talking about inequality. Right wing think tanks issued ‘debunking’ reports. Whole books were written on why it was wrong, and nine years later, whether you think it has any merit is likely to depend on your political views. This is unfortunate, as Wilkinson and Pickett had hoped to write a book that broke inequality out of its association with the left, and show why it should matter to politicians of every stripe.

The authors are, after all, epidemiologists. Their job is to study disease, mental health, and public welfare. Do we want lower rates of mental illness? Fewer teenage pregnancies? Less alcoholism or drug addiction? If we do, it turns out inequality might have something to do with it.

Having presented all the evidence, the question that The Spirit Level didn’t really get into was why inequality affects us the way it does. That’s where this comprehensively subtitled new book picks up the story: The Inner Level – how more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone’s wellbeing. It draws extensively on psychology to show how inequality affects the way we think, and how we locate ourselves in a social hierarchy. It explains how and why higher levels of inequality make us more stressed and depressed. Since the last book kicked off such a debate, lots more research has been done and there’s even more evidence this time so show how inequality corrodes community.

The book ranges widely across the topic, looking at growing rates of narcissism and psychopathy in unequal societies (Though it was written before his electoral victory, Donald Trump’s shadow looms over this section as a striking example.) It looks at bullying, self-esteem, loneliness and isolation, often chiming with George Monbiot’s recent book Out of the Wreckage. We see how class differences declined in Britain for decades, and then came stalking back again.

As the book makes the case for greater equality, and knocks down pet projects such as grammar schools or conventional understandings of meritocracy, the right-wing think tanks will probably need to sharpen their knives again. But the fact is that inequality is a public health issue as well as a political or economic question. When it is hastily dismissed as unimportant, people suffer. Defending inequality today, knowing what we now know, is to perpetuate injustice.

It’s also important to sustainability, the book concludes. Inequality drives status display, consumerism, and greed. Where politicians can’t countenance measures to reduce inequality, they may promise economic growth as a substitute. So countries continue to prioritise growth, even when it has ceased to make a noticeable difference: “As soon as economic growth parts company from increases in wellbeing for society as a whole, continued economic growth loses its rational basis. But everyone’s desire for a higher income continues to be driven by status competition, although it no longer serves the overall well-being of the population and causes siginificant damage to the environment.”

Beyond a certain point, and this is something my forthcoming book gets into in detail, the challenge for wealthy countries is not to create more wealth, but use it better. It’s not the end of the story, but progress is now qualitative, not quantitative. “Having reached the end of what rising material standards can do for well-being,” write Wilkinson and Pickett, “it is important to recognise that improvements in our social environment and relationships can now provide very major advances in the quality of life, consistent with sustainability.”

There were certainly more bombshell revelations in The Spirit Level, so in one sense The Inner Level might be less controversial. Then again, the lessons have not been learned and there’s still far more talk than action on inequality, so here’s hoping The Inner Level can put some heat back in the debate.

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