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The Levellers

After his visits to Iceland in the 1870s, William Morris concluded that ‘the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes’. Where life was hard, there was little alternative to all being poor, but where some people were far richer and more powerful than others, that was far worse, since it was so unnecessary and deleterious. The consequences of inequality have recently been set out at length in The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (published by Penguin, and reviewed in the Socialist Standard for June 2009). The authors have established a website (The Equality Trust, http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk), which is aimed at ‘the widest public and political understanding of the harm caused by inequality’.

The book’s subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, suggests the main thrust of its argument. The authors begin by discussing the relation between economic growth and standard of living on the one hand, and life expectancy and happiness on the other. As might be predicted, a low standard of living in a country means low life expectancy (fifty years or less), and an increase in per capita income means people living longer (to over seventy years). But there comes a point at which the relationship disappears, and the wealthiest countries (such as the USA and Norway) do not have greater life expectancy than the rather less rich (like Greece and Germany). A similar point holds for the proportion of people who describe themselves as ‘quite happy’ or ‘very happy’: the first stages of economic growth lead to people being happier but those in the richest countries are no happier than those in the slightly less rich.

But things are different when comparisons are made within one country. In the US, for instance, those living in better-off areas do live longer than those in poorer areas. And for a whole set of health and social problems, Wilkinson and Pickett use a very wide range of data to argue that the more unequal countries have more of the problems. The rates for mental illness, to take one example, are far higher in the US and UK than in less unequal countries such as Germany and Japan.

In addition to mental illness, the problems covered are: levels of trust, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates and social mobility. For thirty ‘advanced’ capitalist countries, the level of inequality is measured by the ratio of the income of the top to the bottom 20 percent (so the top includes many slightly better-off workers). To compare inequality across US states, they use a more complex measure called the Gini coefficient. In each case, they do not just record the correlation between inequality and the extent of the problem, but also discuss why such a correlation should hold. And countries tend to perform badly on all the measures if they do badly on one:

“If…a country does badly on health, you can predict with some confidence that it will also imprison a large proportion of its population, have more teenage pregnancies, lower literacy scores, more obesity, worse mental health, and so on.”

Let’s look more closely at some of the problems. The level of trust is measured by how many people agreed with the statement ‘most people can be trusted’. In Portugal only 10 percent agreed (!), in Sweden 66 percent. The proportion in the US who agree has fallen from 60 percent in 1960 to under 40 percent in 2004. It is quite a commentary on the nature of capitalism that so many people do not trust others. As Wilkinson and Pickett say, ‘High levels of trust mean that people feel secure, they have less to worry about, they see others as co-operative rather than competitive.’ And inequality causes lack of trust, rather than vice versa.

As for obesity, a greater proportion of adults and children are overweight in more unequal countries, and this correlation is stronger for women than for men. Lack of exercise and reliance on fast food are the main causes here, and unemployment also tends to lead to weight gain. A more tentative argument is that people suffering from stress respond to food by accumulating fat around their middle as well as by comfort eating. It had not previously occurred to me that Socialism would drastically reduce the extent of obesity, but maybe it will.

In the case of violence, the general argument is that it is in most cases triggered by humiliation and loss of face when people feel they are disrespected or looked down on. Shame and lack of social status (in terms of education, income, housing, etc) can make us all resentful, even if relatively few will react with violence. And ‘increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more’. Many research studies have shown that violent crime (especially homicides and assaults) is positively linked with inequality. In the US, 72 percent of juvenile murderers grew up in homes without fathers, as family breakdown leads to inter-generational cycles of violence.

In the book’s final part, Wilkinson and Pickett set out their ideas for ‘a better society’. Some of the general points here are perfectly fine, such as recognition of the importance of friendship and mutual help: ‘human beings have a unique potential to be each other’s best source of co-operation, learning, love and assistance of every kind’. From a long-term historical point of view, the current highly unequal societies are exceptional, since the vast majority of humans have lived in extremely egalitarian societies.

What they argue for, of course, is a more equal kind of social system, in the belief that this will improve the quality of life for all. However, they stand not for Socialism, but for a less unequal form of capitalism. There are different roads to greater equality, say the authors, but they all need to address the basic cause of inequality, the institutions that employ us. So the solution they advocate is for employees to own and control the companies that employ them. Workers might then vote for the chief executive to earn ten times the average wage (thus reducing but not eliminating inequality).

Yet this leaves the wages-prices-profit system of capitalism untouched. Most people will still have to work for wages, companies will still have to make a profit, workers will lose their jobs when the company can no longer make a profit from their labour power, the environment will still be desecrated in the search for cheap raw materials and higher profits. The waste of capitalism, with its banks and credit cards and accountants and ticket-collectors, will remain, as will the causes of wars.

It is clear that slightly less unequal versions of capitalism are possible, but also that they do not put an end to social problems, as even the more egalitarian versions still have them. It will take a socialist society to do away with the grotesque inequalities of capitalism and its inherent problems.

PAUL BENNETT