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Richard Wilkinson interview: ‘The Spirit Level’ three years on

Tom Robinson talks to Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level, the influential book on inequality which is now being made into a documentary

March 27, 2012
18 min read

Tom Robinson (Red Pepper): How would you describe the reaction to The Spirit Level in the three years since its publication?

Richard Wilkinson: What really amazes me is how it has been picked up in so many places. We have done 700 talks. We are turning them down all the time for more research for our next book. They come from every kind of organisation. We have talked to senior business people, we have talked to charities, we talked to religious groups, political parties, think tanks, civil servants, health service conferences, academics – every kind of group. I think what is most surprising how extraordinarily positive the reception always is all over many audiences.

The audience is self-selected, but there are quite a lot where that is not true – where you are part of some standard health service conference and all the people at some level have to come or something in the civil service. Yet still we find there is an overwhelmingly positive attitude.

I think that’s because of a load of components. One is the intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been alive for hundreds of years. The second is that almost all the outcomes are behavioural: things like violence and drugs and doing worse at school.

Those behavioural outcomes tended to be effects of inequality going through the mind. In a sense what it is telling us is that the effects of inequality are psycho-social affects. When New Labour started to think that inequality did not matter, I think what they were thinking was that maybe in the 1930s, when many people were living in awful hardship and squalor, it was wrong for some people to be living in great luxury in terms of material standards. Now that most people have cars, central heating, DVDs, and so on, well, they thought, inequality doesn’t matter anymore.

If I had been living in the 19th century and someone told me now most of the population have air conditioning, and enough food to eat and obesity would have reversed its social distribution, I would have thought we are living in some kind of utopian harmony.

But that’s why we are dealing with the psycho-social effects of inequality, not simply the individual material effects – it’s about where you are in relation to others, not simply if you have more bedrooms, more food to eat, the sanitary conditions or whatever.

I think psycho-social elements speak to people. For a long time there has been an underlying worry about the contrast between the material success of our societies and our many social failings. There is very good evidence that things like mental illness have been rising, levels of self harm amongst teenage girls – a whole host of things that worry people have been going wrong and nobody knows why. So I think in a way we have filled their explanatory vacuum.

Of course, economists talking about inequality or poverty are rather slow to cotton on to the psycho-social effects. Economics is based on the idea that the primary relationship is between people and material things. Our book in a way is saying the primary relationship is between people and people.

What people call ‘materialism’ is not some sign of natural acquisitiveness. It’s actually us trying to show who we are, improve our self-image to other people – a form of communication, social communication. I think this has caught on because we have shifted the debate in a direction that makes intuitive sense to many people, whereas much of the rest of the stuff on inequality and poverty still talked about it in material terms. Of course there are people who are homeless. But even for them, if you talk to them, it’s about a sense of failure, the hopelessness that their lives are going to like that forever, the lack of contacts, being regarded as inferior, feeling like failures. Even for them the psycho-social is really important.

Tom: This links in with the status frustration that has been mentioned earlier and by Owen Jones in his book on the demonisation of the working class – the alienation and spiral of social decay.

Richard: Yes, in our next book we are going to try and deal more with the individual psychological effects of inequality, to do with how we are seen and how we are judged. All the things to do with putting people down and admiring the people above us. These are not just big external societal class things, but between close friends, intermediate partners. Being treated as though you don’t know this, or are stupid. These things mess up even quite close relationships. In the family context, people who change class or marry across class differences always create awkwardness and tensions. And all those kinds of problems become more serious in more unequal societies.

This is where democracy in the workplace plays a crucial role. The more democratic companies have much smaller income differences between the top and bottom. The FTSE 100 average is something like a 1 to 300 ratio of the top salary to the bottom. To pay people of the bottom one third of one hundredth of what you pay yourself – there is no clearer way of saying ‘you people are near worthless’. And then the bizarre thing we say is, well, the problem with these people is they have low self-esteem! Its absolutely appalling.

Tom: It seems odd on the surface that you talk in your book of suicide rates being higher in Japan and Scandinavia, being two places with higher levels of equality?

Richard: Suicide looks like an exception in that it is, as you say, more common in more equal societies – significantly more common. But depression does not have that pattern. Suicide is higher in more equal societies. Depression is higher in more unequal ones. Although there is ill health, violence and depression at the top, all are more common at the bottom. In Britain, that has been true of suicide only since some time in the 1970s. In many countries that is still not true.

Violence is either against yourself or out against other people. If your partner goes off with someone else, or you get sacked from your job, you feel because you are so hopeless and useless. Do you take it out on the person your partner has run off with, or your boss? Do you feel more angry at them than yourself? Inequality changes the culture of those responses.

Tom: To what extent have the political classes been willing to accept The Spirit Level’s argument?

Politicians of all kinds are terrified of scaring off business. They still think that the rich are doing wonders for us all in some way. They believe that the economy will collapse if fewer millionaires come and live in London. They just haven’t thought it through, this idea that we still have to pay these people so much money. These people are not gold dust.

Any business leader worth their salt would be training up the next layer – vast numbers of people could do these jobs with the right training and expertise and that’s what it needs. We need more training. There are a vast number of people who would do all this for a tiny fraction of what these CEOs are getting.

I don’t think politicians will ever lead public opinion. One of the faults of political systems or institutions we have is that they select the people with ambition as their primary quality. You saw it so much with Blair, cowtowing to Bush and starting to walk in a macho style. That really told you what his psychology was about.

Where there have been expressions of anger at the bonus culture and so on, such as the Occupy movement, they [politicians] pay lip service or sometimes more than lip service to issues to do with equality. Lip service is a beginning. Thatcher did not pay any lip service to this kind of stuff.

But, of course even economists are beginning to turn their attention to these issues. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is looking at measures of wellbeing. There is the beginning of looking at these processes, even close to the establishment. There was a brief phase when people talked about the importance of social cohesion and social capital. Now it is happiness and wellbeing. I think that kind of awareness of the issue grows out of recognition.

Tom: How can we challenge the dominant way of thinking and argue that economic growth is not the ‘be-all-and-end-all’?

Richard: One thing is we need to make a clear distinction between economic growth and innovation. We need innovation very badly, partly to reach sustainability, like spin-offs from electronics and bioengineering and other stuff, which will have benefits. That is not the same as economic growth.

The government talks about economic growth because it is worried about profits going down. We need to distinguish between fluctuations in the economy, which are difficult, and changes in economic activity. We suffer from downturns but it is not the same as needing growth. We want stability of economic activity.

People see it as a choice of either higher unemployment or economic growth. Again, we must break that idea and show that there are other possibilities.

What we should be doing is improvements in productivity we can gain from. Instead of increased consumption and consumerism, we need increased leisure. The New Economics Foundation said we should be moving towards a 21-hour week.

It is not impossible to communicate these messages on a massive scale, because people are already aware that consumerism is shallow. It is something we are driven to. Consumerism is empty. Surveys show it would be better to have more leisure time with family and community.

In more unequal societies people work more hours, and spend more and save less, and get into debt more. Money is even more important because it says what you are worth. All those things to do with status competition are heightened in more unequal societies and we must find ways of communicating that to a wider public.

Even with economic growth, people wonder if it really does must good in the long term. Increasingly, you hear people rather romantically say we are almost as happy as children or in the 1950s or 60s. All the measures show happiness has been flat-lining and have been doing so for decades. The lie is that economic growth is the only thing that’s worthwhile.

Tom: Let’s look from an international perspective. What would you say towards initiatives to reduce global inequality? There is talk of ‘carbon debt’ – the idea that western industrial countries should dedicate 1 percent of their GDP to pay back the amount of carbon emissions they consume to developing nations, as a means to balance environmental needs and go some way to reducing inequality too.

Richard: The reasons why inequality within and between nations is important are quite different. Within societies we have an evolved sensitivity to a social hierarchy. We are really talking of a whether the social pyramid is a very steep pyramid or not so significant.

Internationally, there are very different things that make it important and make it clear that we should be doing all we can to further economic growth in poorer countries. It’s very clear where people do not have basic necessities, we need to raise material living standards, unlike in the rich societies, particularly over these carbon issues.

Greater equality is important for environmental reasons amongst others in the rich world, because inequality is one of the most primary drivers of consumerism. Consumerism is the big threat to any attempt to rein in carbon emissions in the rich, developed world.

Some countries have less than half our levels of carbon emissions and manage our kind of levels of life expectancy. You can draw similar graphs of infant mortality and carbon emissions and see just the same thing. So not having economic growth in the rich world does not mean sacrificing the really important gains in the quality of life that we enjoy.

I think it is really important to paint a picture of a world we can move towards – a world where we not only have greater equality and improve the nature of social relations and our social environment (problems of violence etc), but also a move towards sustainability and transforming the experience of work through co-ops and employee-owned companies. A move towards working for the community, where we get our sense of self-worth. There is a qualitatively better world for all of us.

At the moment dealing with carbon emissions is seen as sacrificing, but all these things are gains in the real quality of life for all of us. We have got to turn the tables on the way that debate has come over. They are not sacrifices – we will be moving towards something better.

Tom: What practical alternatives could help us begin to re-organise our economy?

Ultimately, I think we must be aiming to get changes in control of industry – workplace democracy. The bonus culture is an example of a complete lack of democracy. It’s people not thinking they are accountable to anyone; that they can do just what they like. The way of dealing with that is make them answerable to employees.

We as consumers should be taking our custom to employee-owned companies, co-operatives and mutuals. As well as getting the government to give tax breaks to those companies, put up funding through loans to help employee buyouts.

I think some of these schemes to give employees shares are an attempt to co-opt co-operation with employees rather than shift power. But where you have a significant number of shares owned by employees it makes it a bit easier to move towards 100 percent employee ownership.

We also need community representation. Ideally, one would combine some mix of employee co-operatives and consumer co-operatives. Get them both involved. What I think it valuable about it is you can move towards structures within the market economy. But I think it as it grew, it could also transform the market economy.

I think the other benefits of moving towards greater economic democracy are not simply strengthening our community in residual areas between neighbours, but at work too. It is at work we have most to do with each other. People say that employee ownership can turn a company from a piece of property into a community.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t also be using taxes and benefits to reduce inequality – we need to do it both ways. Economic democracy is a more fundamental way and has many lasting benefits.

Tom: How would you respond to critics who object that you are exaggerating the causal role of inequality in creating social effects in so many spheres of life?

Some people look at our graphs and they say: ‘very odd that so many problems are affected by one conditioning factor’. How can so many things be affected? All the problems we look at are problems of social gradients. Our book is not, as some people call it, a theory of everything. It is a theory of social gradients.

I think people look at those social gradients and think that it is because the resilient move up and the vulnerable move down, it’s just sorting people. The fact we show some problems are anything from twice as common to 10 times as common in societies with bigger income differences mean they are substantial responses to social status differentiation itself.

In a way, what we are saying is that problems we know are related to social status get worse if you increase the status differences. The idea that if you have bigger material differences between people then you have bigger social distances is crucial.

Social class, in status differentiation, imprints itself on people from the earliest stages in life, affecting endless things to do with how we perform and our self-presentation. We are marked by our class. All those affects become more powerful where there is more inequality.

People accept most of that picture – they just won’t bring it to bear on the kind of evidence we have given. So, we do get people who start worrying about causality in this obtuse way.

It is worth pointing out what we are showing is very easy to understand, and is what you would expect in a sense.

Tom: How can we popularise these arguments and help to build a consensus around a more democratic, equitable and sustainable path?

Richard: I feel that one of the advantages I have had of speaking about it so often is one learns to use the right words. I think part of what has held the left together has been an identity thing. You want to show that you are not part of that nasty capitalist world and so you use jargon that distinguishes you from them. I think there is also a lot of intellectual snobbishness on the left – it was there in the idea of the intelligentsia a generation ago.

We need to find ways of not using our politics simply to serve our identity, which means we use phrases and words and vocabulary which separates us from other people. We must find the words that relate it to popular intuition. Make the simple links.

I do think there is a basis in intuitions people already have which we could give expression to. I think people in the past, if you think of socialists in the 1930s and 40s, didn’t commit themselves to that socialist project with the idea that a few tweaks to the tax and benefits system was what was going to make the world better. They committed themselves to that, as a very distant project often, for making the world a qualitatively better world for all of us – not just helping the poor out by asking the middle class to be more altruistic.

We need to be communicating as simply as possible an empirically based picture of a better world we should be moving towards – a world capable of inspiring people. The experience of work is going to be transformed by workplace democracy. The social environment, the quality of social relations, the strength of community, how much we trust each other – all improved by greater equality.

We also mention in our book that digitisation is another element with really exciting possibilities. Huge swathes of human creativity, art, music, computer games, software, films, can be reproduced almost without cost, perfectly.

So it moves a great sphere of human creativity from a private good, allocated according to incomes, to a public good that we all can share as part of our citizenship. We all ought to be able to read all the journals all the academic research for free. I am not saying we shouldn’t be paying all the people who produce all this stuff, but we shouldn’t be paying them in a way that restricts access to the value that they have created.

And so to bring the evidence to a wider public we will be launching a fundraising campaign for a documentary film. The idea is much like an inequality equivalent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

We must work to make people feel a better quality of life is available to all of us. We’ve got to lay out the groundwork that makes us confident that another world is possible.

To donate to the Spirit Level Documentary or find out more about how you can help, go to www.thespiritleveldocumentary.com

The Equality Trust is at www.equalitytrust.org.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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