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Now statistics prove it - more equal societies have fewer social problems

By Phil Hearse 12.03.09

'The Spirit Level - why more equal societies almost always do better' (1) is going to become a seminal work, at least in Britain,in debates on the current social crisis. Today's Guardian devotes two pages of the G2 supplement to it, with another four pages planned tomorrow. But for Marxists, its statistically based conclusions are, well, stunningly unsurprising.

Its authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, noticed from UN statistics amazingly obvious correlations between income inequality and social problems. The interview with them authored by John Crace in the Guardian (12/03/09) says:

"Take these random headline statistics. The US is wealthier and spends more on health care than any other country, yet a baby born in Greece, where average income levels are about half that of the US, has a lower risk of infant mortality and longer life expectancy than an American baby. Obesity is twice as common in the UK as the more equal societies of Sweden and Norway, and six times more common in the US than in Japan. Teenage birth rates are six times higher in the UK than in more equal societies; mental illness is three times as common in the US as in Japan; murder rates are three times higher in more unequal countries. The examples are almost endless."

Curiously the word class does not appear in this article, although it may do in the book. But for Marxists it is elementary that societies divided by huge extremes of wealth and power cannot generate social solidarity. Which is why Britain since the advent of Thatcherism has got meaner and harder.

Wilkinson and Pickett give their theory a couple of little twists. First they argue that in many ways more equal societies are better for those at the top as well - on average someone in the wealthiest 20% of a more equal nation will live longer than someone from the top 20% of a more unequal nation. There could be lots of reasons for this statistical outcome, which doesn't seem tremendously important (for example, lots of people in the top 20% in the US and USA are in the lunatic financial sector working 80 hours a week; or again that prominent among more equal societies are places like Sweden with very good infant and health care provision).

More interesting is their theory of why more unequal societies give rise to more social conflict and more social problems. John Crace's explanation of the Wilkinson-Picket answer is as follows:

"What is it about unequal societies that causes the damage? Wilkinson believes the answer lies in the psycho-social areas of hierarchy and status. The greater the differential between the haves and have-nots, the greater importance everyone places on the material aspects of consumption; what brand of car you drive carries far more meaning in a more hierarchical society than in a flatter one. It's the knock-on effects of this status anxiety that finds socially corrosive expression in crime, ill-health and mistrust."

Up to a point. It's true of course that dumbed-down, celebrity obsessed, neoliberalism has given rise of a culture focused on material possessions, and a feeling of exclusion for people who do not possess a sufficient quotient of these desirable things. That feeling of exclusion is not irrational. Social prestige, approval and positive feedback are crucial for anyone's sense of self-worth and individuality, and also crucial for their ability to function adequately in their own social life. Young people without cars, mobile phones, iPods and computers are likely to be thought of as odd and socially inadequate by their contemporaries.

But it's not just that; it's also that vast inequality deprives huge sections of the population of things like security (especially job security), adequate housing and health care, and time - time to recover from work, time to develop interests, time to stop worrying.

Nowhere is there any sense that the Wilkinson-Pickett thesis, as it will doubtless become known, is underpinned by a social theory of inequality. Their ideas are statistics driven. Statistics can suggest a lot of things, but they aren't theories in themselves. Without an adequate social theory of inequality, obviously, you can't put forward adequate ideas about how to overcome it.

Wilkinson and Pickett suggest flattening income differentials by imposing upper limits, an excellent idea that any Marxist will agree with. It's also an idea that many social democrats will also happily agree with, especially in today's economic crisis. The Spirit Level is going to contribute to the generation of an intellectual atmosphere more open to social democratic ideas, which in turn will after all make anti-capitalist ideas and Marxism itself more relevant and popular.

(1) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, is published by Allen Lane at £20.

>>Listen to Wilkinson and Pickett at Guardian audio

>>See The Equality Trust website