The Falinge estate in Rochdale, often cited as one of the most deprived areas of the UK. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty
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Growing injustice: six myths about inequality

We need to see things as they are, not as a few with great wealth would have the rest of us believe.

We used to say that most people don't know how the other half lives; in the UK that has changed. Our society can no longer be meaningfully divided into two halves. Most of us have little understanding of the lives in the tranche just above or below us, and those people have little understanding of the tranches above and below them and so on. We live in different worlds. Most people find it difficult to believe that some people who have an income ten times higher than theirs, when asked, say that they are finding it difficult to manage financially.

We live in an increasingly hierarchical society. We talk about some people being way above and others way below other people. And yet we are not that different from each other. This sham hierarchy has been created by elitism, exclusion, prejudice, and greed. The end result is increasing amounts of despair, not only among the poor, but also among groups like the children of aspirational parents. If we want a content and happy society, we are currently going in the wrong direction.

Direction is crucial. It is not what they have at the moment that makes people most happy, it is whether they feel they are in a situation that is getting better or getting worse. Moreover this need not be a question of getting better for some, but consequently worse for others. Many changes can be better for almost everyone, others disastrous for society as a whole.

 

Myth 1: Elitism is efficient

In the richest, most unequal of countries in the world, pretence is most often made that only the most able, on merit, have got to the top. However, most of those who do make it up there come from affluent backgrounds.

In contrast, people in poorer parts of the world today may easily be the first in their family to have graduated from a secondary school. At the same time in the very poorest of countries, many children still are not getting a full primary school education, let alone persevere through what is considered in rich countries to be a basic education.

University education in poor countries is only for the very rich. In contrast, the affluent world is characterized by long-standing and ever- improving compulsory primary and secondary education for all children, with rates of university access rising almost continuously. Despite this, many young people are not presented as well educated in most affluent nations, but as failing to reach official targets.

Until very recently, too few children even in affluent countries were educated for any length of time. All children are still at risk of being labelled as ‘inadequate’ despite the fact that the resources are there to teach them. They are at risk of being told that they are simply not up to learning what the world now demands of them. Almost all will fail at some hurdle, at some point, in an education system where examination has become so dominant.

People are remarkably similar in ability. However, you can find a few people, especially in politics, celebrity (now a field of work) or business, who appear to truly believe they are especially gifted, that they are a gift to others who should be grateful for their talents and that those others should reward them 'appropriately'. These people are just as much victims of elitism as those who are told they are, in effect, congenitally stupid, fit for little but taking orders and performing menial toil, despite having been required to spend over a decade in school. Under elitism education is less about learning and more about dividing people, sorting out the supposed wheat from the chaff, and conferring high status upon a minority.


It is the poorest who are still most clearly damaged by elitism, by the shame that comes with being told that their ability borders on inadequacy, that there is something wrong with them because of who they are, that they are poor because they lack the ability to be anything else.

Those that are elevated by elitism often lack respect for the people that the system tells them are inferior, even to the point of thinking that many individuals in full employment do not deserve a living wage, one high enough to maintain a normal standard of living. Increasing incomes to the living wage enhances the quality of the work of employees, reduces absenteeism and improves recruitment and retention of staff. How much better would the lives of the children of the poorest be if their parents were not constantly stressed?

In contrast to the poor, the elevated feel they deserve huge salaries enabling them to afford things that most people consider unnecessary, even silly, which deprives others of basic comforts and such things as free education beyond secondary level. These gross disparities in income result in many jobs amounting to little more than acting as servants to the better off, labour which could be employed much more profitably in other more equitable ways. Furthermore there is a backlash to lack of respect. Many of the very well paid are not respected nowadays precisely because people are realizing that those above them don't deserve so much.

 

Myth 2: Exclusion is necessary

It has been estimated that in the UK, as 2015 draws to a close, almost 7.1 million of the nation’s 13 million youngsters will be in homes with incomes judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living. In contrast, relatively few people would describe themselves as poor and needing to take out loans “just to get by” in countries as diverse as Japan and the Netherlands, whereas in Britain and the US, relative and now absolute rates of poverty have grown greatly in recent decades, simply because inequality has grown.

Today, one in six of all households in the UK are excluded from social norms due to poverty, and are poor in at least two out of three ways of assessing poverty. What now makes those households poor are the effects of the riches of others. In the UK more people are imprisoned, when measured both absolutely and relatively, than in any other country in Europe. In Sweden they have had to close jails because of a lack of prisoners. However you need to look to the US to see how far a rich country can go in excluding people totally. In 1940 ten times fewer people were locked up in jail in the US as now, and 70 per cent of the two million now imprisoned there are black. What is now seen as necessary in one country is viewed as incomprehensible in another.

 

Myth 3: Prejudice is natural

Prejudice grows like mould, based on elitist myths in times of exclusion when some people preach that inequalities are simply reflections of individual differences in ability. Racism, as it is applied to people of different skin colours, or different nationalities or different religions, is easily recognized, can easily be inflamed by stoking up fear and is often hard to quell because of segregation and a lack of social mixing. In the UK, just as in the US, there is a sense of prejudice about the value of those ‘beneath’ that is wider than racism. Those both at the top and at the bottom are less likely to trust others, and more likely to become fearful in a society that so clearly values many people so little. Racism rises in just these kinds of circumstances, and a wider form of racism – a new social Darwinism – quietly spreads. Lack of respect for people seen as beneath you and as above you is widespread, and the banker with his high salary and the cleaner with her low one are both despised.

It is the very fact that human societies can change in collective behaviour over extremely short periods of time that suggests that our destinies are not in our genes. We can move in just a few generations from being feudal or cooperative, to being competitive or totalitarian. We move within lifetimes from seeing large groups of people persuaded to take part in wars and not resisting conscription, to marching and singing for others’ rights. Prejudices rise and fall as people promote them or teach against them. Prejudice is nurtured it does not rise unaided.

One manifestation of prejudice is that when great numbers are seen as less deserving, whether as slaves, paupers, or just ‘average’, a minority can describe their own behaviour not as greed, but as receiving higher rewards because there are simply different kinds of human beings, and they themselves truly deserve to be put on a pedestal above those whom they view with prejudice and look down on.

 

Myth 4: Greed is Good

By late 2014, chief executives of UK FTSE 100 firms were paid, on average, 342 times more than their minimum wage employees. Their pay had risen by 243 per cent since the minimum wage was introduced in 1999, three times faster than the percentage rise in the minimum wage, and by many times more in just one year than many others can expect to receive in a lifetime of work.

Squalor in the 1940s was life in crowded damp accommodation with inadequate hygiene, no hot running water, and often no inside toilet. By the late 1970s, in most rich countries, most of the least hygienic dwellings had been converted or demolished, but a new form of squalor then arose. The rich began to take a greater and greater share of living space, of land, ‘spare’ houses and anything else not actually needed by them, but seen as a good investment. Local life in poor areas became downgraded despite the renewal of the worst housing.

‘The great and the good’ know that suggesting in public that greed is good is seen as immoral, and do not openly say it. However the current extraordinarily high cost of housing, whether through attempted home ownership or renting, is due to greed. What do the extremely wealthy do with spare money? One thing they almost all do is invest in property, houses they do not actually need, but out of which they hope to make yet more money. They do, and that money comes from all those new massively indebted mortgagees and all those who are privately renting (with a big chunk being from that special landlord benefit – housing benefit).

Another way for the rich to get their hands on other people's money is to fabricate need and to encourage what is termed credit but is actually debts. Advertising is an industry that frequently aims to make people feel unhappy or jealous until they possess the advertised products. Products are frequently 'upgraded' so that what you bought last year can be presented as second-rate. Credit is a way of extracting money from those that have less, not so much a trickle up effect, but a gushing up, especially from the poorest of all when they have to resort to pay-day lending and similar schemes.

 

Myth 5: Despair is inevitable

Human beings are not mentally immune to the effects of rising elitism, exclusion, prejudice and greed. They react like rats in cages to having their social environments made progressively more unpleasant. Part of the mechanism behind the worldwide rise in diseases of despair – depression and anxiety – is the insecurity caused when particular forms of competition are enhanced. This is happening to children in school as well as from the effects of the advertising industry in making both adults, and especially children, feel inadequate. The powerful also have little immunity from the effects of despair if they live in more unequal countries. The most detrimental damage to ill health is found near the geographical hearts of the problem. However, the widest physical health inequalities in rich countries are to be seen within the very centres of London and New York.

The human condition, our drive, our questioning, our angst and our concern, means that we cannot always be happy, but learning to live better with each other is beginning to be seen as the key to learning to live better within our own minds, to be happier or at least more at ease with ourselves. Not making children and adults anxious, tearful, fearful and stressed in the first place is the best place to start. By looking at different places and at different countries, and by noting the extraordinarily rapid increase in despair in the UK and the US, it is apparent that the proportion of desperately unhappy people is not currently so very high by some law of nature, but the result of policies and attitudes that can be changed.

Conclusion

Look at those attitudes and beliefs that increase inequality, at how people supported those beliefs and their validity.

Do not think what is happening now is normal. Beware people who say it is just human nature, that situations are inevitable, that you just have to face up to reality, that there is no such thing as society. Social attitudes are created by us and can change remarkably quickly. How many people we lock up in prison and for how long is dependent on us, not on some preordained level of wickedness in the world. We are surprised when a victim asks for any punishment to be lenient, being magnanimous is currently the exception in the UK, we can more easily sympathise with the victim who feels the punishment is not sufficiently harsh.

People say that the poor will always be with us, and claim that without the threat of poverty, large numbers of people would be idle. They do not see unemployment as being due to, for many people, a lack of worthwhile jobs, or that we no longer need everyone to work long hours. We do not see those who insist they couldn't or won't do their jobs unless paid millions as the most reluctant to work, as potential shirkers and the most successful scroungers.

Propaganda from the richest in society frequently results in us not recognizing when policies increase inequality. Tax cuts are seen as something that can only be beneficial. Shrinking the state will reduce dependency, the most affluent and actually dependent on others claim. When we clamour for a 2% pay rise, the better-off do not recognize this as a vote for increased inequality. A £500 a year (or should I say 30p an hour) increase across the board is never even suggested, despite the cost to the institution being similar, and anyone who is paid less than you is still paid less. But attitudes can change and have done so dramatically, for better and for worse, in the recent past.

Many wait for a great leader, failing to realise that past great leaders were never more than the product of their times; ordinary people pushed forward by the people around them and the society in which they lived. My view is that no one can truly know what will be sufficient to change deeply held and institutionally transmitted beliefs. Slowly, collectively, with one step back for every two taken forward, we can inch onwards to progress; often having to gradually undo the largely unintended consequences of the solutions to the injustices of the past.

Our current great injustices have in many ways arisen from the solutions to the great injustices of the past, in the UK from the solutions to ignorance, want, idleness, squalor and disease in the 1940s. Those solutions, right for their times, resulted in several decades of progress and a narrowing of the divides. It can be done again. Everything it takes to defeat injustice lies in the mind. First we need to see things as they are, not as a few with great wealth would have the rest of us believe. Then what matters most is how we think, and how we think is metamorphosing because – everywhere – there are signs (only signs) of hope.

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Injustice, why social inequality persists by Daniel Dorling was first published in 2010. It was republished as a paperback in 2011 with the addition of a foreword by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and an Afterword and reprinted in 2013. It was fully revised and the figures and data updated in 2015 and published on 3 June as Injustice, why social inequality still persists and is available from Policy Press.

Full version of the figures shown and all the original and updated figures are available here.

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)