For decades, the left asserted that inequality was harmful to societies. The 2009 book The Spirit Level sought to prove that it was. Through meticulous research its authors, husband and wife Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, demonstrated that countries with larger income disparities endured higher rates of violence, infant mortality, obesity, social immobility and educational failure.
Such was the book’s potency and originality that it sold 150,000 copies; its arguments were cited by IMF head Christine Lagarde, Barack Obama and (briefly) David Cameron. Nearly a decade later, Wilkinson and Pickett have written a sequel, The Inner Level, which shifts the focus from society to the individual, demonstrating how inequality magnifies psychological ills such as anxiety, stress, depression and narcissism. “Inequality ups the stakes about social position, status and everything else,” Wilkinson, 74, a polite but firm man with thick eyebrows, told me when we met in London. “People at the bottom are more devalued, people at the top are more looked up to, we judge each other more.”
Pickett, 53, professor of epidemiology at the University of York, explained that the book was partly inspired by a study allegedly disproving the link between ill health and inequality. “In the US, people were much more likely to say their health was great, whereas in Japan more than half said their health was not very good – but they’ve got the longer life expectancy,” she said. “There is something about living in a more unequal society that pushes you to put on a good face.”
Crucially, The Inner Level contends that inequality harms individuals across the income spectrum rather than merely the poorest groups. “Inequality is a social pollutant – it’s like air pollution, you can’t get away from it,” Pickett said. And a mental pollutant? “Yes.”
What of those who argue that social media and modern technology, rather than inequality, are to blame for rising mental illness? “There are other factors behind all of the trends we’re looking at; inequality is not the only cause,” Pickett said. “But it’s strongly connected to them and the explanation is coherent. Social media has an amplifying effect – inequality means that status becomes more important.”
When I recently interviewed Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, he dismissed the left’s focus on the income divide and argued that “affluence has greater predictive power for societal well-being”. I put this to Wilkinson, emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, and he said: “There is not a correlation between GNP per capita and health.”
Kate Pickett added: “He [Pinker] is putting an astonishing amount of weight on one study. The evidence that links inequality to health and well-being is vast, there are hundreds of studies.”
But some maintain that the egalitarianism of the Nordic states reflects other factors such as their smaller populations. “Well, the US, the largest, is at one end [unequal] and Japan, the next biggest, is at the other [equal],” Wilkinson said. “Portugal at one end is small, Norway at the other end is also small.”
To the conservative charge that human nature militates against equality, Pickett and Wilkinson cite anthropological studies showing that for around 95 per cent of human existence, our societies have been “assertively egalitarian”. Humans are neither innately selfish nor altruistic, Wilkinson said: rather their “social strategies” depend on the structures they encounter.
Though some on the right cherry-pick data suggesting that inequality in the UK has declined, the crucial point is that it has changed little since the 1980s – when taxes on the rich were reduced and their incomes surged (the average FTSE chief executive earns 386 times more than a worker paid the minimum wage).
Pickett and Wilkinson emphasise that redistribution is necessary but insufficient. They argue for a dramatic expansion of “economic democracy”: employee representation on company boards and more co-operatives and employee-owned firms.
“Redistribution is too easily reversed,” Pickett said. “The idea of getting greater equality more deeply embedded into the institutions where inequality is created is much more attractive.” Wilkinson added: “There is now very good evidence that it [economic democracy] leads to reliable improvements in productivity.”
Both have been enthused by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left’s ascent (they are members of shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s Progressive Economics Group). “We’re very encouraged that they listen to relevant experts and look for an academic underpinning of policy,” said Pickett.
But in the nine years since The Spirit Level was published, despite recurrent talk of a social democratic moment, inequality has persisted in the UK and elsewhere. Are they disappointed? “I don’t think anyone could say they’re not,” Wilkinson conceded. Yet Kate Pickett maintained that she was optimistic: “There is now a general acceptance, at all levels, that extreme inequality is a bad thing, that inequality causes health and social problems, that it’s not good for economic growth.”
Such is the authors’ awareness of the costs of inequality that they seemed reluctant to conceive of a future in which it persists or even worsens. For them, as for Kant, ought will always imply can.
“The Inner Level” is published by Allen Lane
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family