Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Reinventing egalitarianism

Just a couple of election book recommendations, as this issue of equality is going to be vital in rebuilding the Left after New Labour's meltdown this Thursday. Getting a firm grasp on the topic is also going to be important in unmasking the pseudo-egalitarianism of the Cameronites. Notwithstanding some of Brown's last minute attempts to talk up his egalitarian credentials, it is reasonably well established that the New Labour project that he co-founded has been positively harmful to the cause of equality. It actively shifted the agenda on this question to the right, away from equality and toward a nebulous conception of fairness and social inclusion. This in turn has fed into Cameron's 'Big Society' agenda. (Actually, the story goes back further than that, as readers of my unreasonably inexpensive little book will discover).

Fortunately, there is an intellectual backlash against this trend underway. Two recent books make an explicit and compelling case for egalitarianism: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, which has been widely celebrated and even cited by David Cameron to the authors disdain; and Injustice by Danny Dorling. Each deals with different aspects of the argument. While Pickett and Wilkinson, experts in health and social epidemiology, deal with forensic statistical analysis of inequality and its baleful effects on various aspects of social well-being, Dorling, a geographer at Sheffield University, tackles the corrosive beliefs which support inequality, and which the powerful go to great efforts to reproduce through various institutions from education to the media.

So, while The Spirit Level makes the case for equality on the basis of the social advantages it brings, Injustice makes the case for equality as a demand for political justice. Not to lapse into caricature, I should stress that it is clear that Pickett and Wilkinson believe that inequality is inherently unjust aside from being disadvantageous, but that is not the focus of their treatise. Their main focus is to show that almost every aspect of our lives, including educational attainment, our susceptibility to imprisonment, mental and physical health problems, community relations, and everything that makes up for the quality of life, is related to inequality. The authors note that in the last 'epidemiological shift', the focus of healthcare moved toward seeing stress as a major factor in long-term and fatal illnesses. And stress, as an occupational hazard, is something that mostly affects the majority who are lowest in the hierarchy, and who have the least control over their work. So, there's a multi-dimensional account of inequality here - it isn't just about inequalities of wealth; it is also about status and power, especially power over one's own destiny. They attack politicians for attempting to decouple the symptoms of inequality from their cause, thus leading to moralistic, socially authoritarian drives to get people to change their behaviour. Whether it is an insistence that parents be more feckful, or the heart disease-prone get more exercise, policies built in such a basis have consistently failed in their objective. Only a materially more egalitarian society will produce the desired effects.

Dorling argues that there are five chief kinds of inegalitarian belief that are encouraged by the powerful, perhaps only really believed by the powerful, but which exert real social effects because of their role in shaping official doctrines and policy. Worse is that they come in a language that deliberately softens their edges, prettifies them, and neutralises their political charge. Thus, Dorling engages in a sustained attack on the intellectual bases for inequality, from the superstition that elitism is efficient to the claim that prejudice is natural. All of the arguments he discusses are ones that have become, in different ways, hegemonic, and all of them have been involved in one way or another in this election campaign. Moreover, the effects that such beliefs have are evident in the arrogant self-satisfaction of the rich, their contempt for the poor and unemployed, and their belief that any government interference with their wealth is a betrayal of the extraordinary few who make things work for the rest of us. Given that the rich don't believe they should be forced to pay for any of the recession for which they are chiefly responsible, from the proceeds of the growth that they did least to create and most to benefit from, making the case against public sector cuts and for a socialist response to the crisis requires a fundamental break from the ruling dogmas of the past generation.