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.


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.


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.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March