The Spirit Level - Living in an abnormal society


This book sets out to show that unequal societies are bad for everyone in them. It does this by collating decades of research in the areas of health, crime, trust, mental health, obesity, education, teenage pregnancy and social mobility, all of which demonstrate statistically the connection between social inequality and social problems. The authors explain that, in hierarchical societies that are unequal in wealth and status, our social class affects all aspects of our lives. From an Irish perspective, one of the most interesting points they make may be about the connection between inequality, levels of trust in society and corruption.

 The authors, one of whom is an anthropologist, argue that research now proves that, for most of human history, we lived in fairly egalitarian societies that were based on values of cooperation and fairness. It is the unequal class-based societies in which we now live that are abnormal for us.

It’s not surprising then that the more unequal the society we live in, the more anxiety and depression we suffer from. We even comfort eat more, the more unequal the community we live in is! The book debunks the myths that social problems are caused by ‘bad people’, ‘culture’, or lack of morals. Those notions have been overtaken by research in the real world. The great contribution this book makes is in giving all of us access to research that can help us to understand the real roots of our problems, and therefore solve them.

The book also makes the connection between equality and freedom that was once commonly understood. It suggests that the miserable failure of the authoritarian communist states such as Russia led people to believe that equality wasn’t compatible with freedom.

The authors remind us that there was a reason why the French revolutionaries called for 3 things, ‘Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite’. The Spirit Level now provides the hard evidence that freedom for all of us to achieve our full potential is only possible in societies based on egalitarian values.

Where the book fails is in its proposed solutions. The logical conclusion of all of their evidence is that an egalitarian society is the one that we humans thrive best in. This is, naturally, what anarchists have consistently argued. The authors propose employee-owned and controlled enterprises as a solution.

This is another word for the workers’ control which anarchists demand. However, the authors are not prepared to challenge the core issue of eliminating hierarchy itself. They presume that workers will still be prepared to have a CEO who earns many times what they do. They would like to merely reduce inequality. This is a laudable aim, but once we understand that something is so detrimental to us, why does it make sense to keep any of it?

They don’t argue that a little crime is a good thing, or that a little poverty is healthy, or that a bit of inequality is good for us, so why the timidity of the solutions? This book is a good first step and provides hard facts for those who instinctively know that something is not right in our society. But if we want lasting solutions then we’re going to need a little more imagination than the authors are prepared to provide.

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Allen Lane) £20.00 / €23.65

Workers Solidarity 109 May - June 2009 Edition

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