The Spirit Level: UK inequalities and a new social Darwinism

On 26 July 2010 The Guardian newspaper ran an editorial on the recent discussion around the book The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The thesis of the 2009 book had been briefly picked up by some “modernising Conservatives, up to and including David Cameron, to demonstrate their progressive credentials”, but more recently had been attacked by a range of rightwing thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic. (Attacks the book’s authors have responded to.) The book argues that highly unequal societies tend to do worse on a whole range of social indicators, for example in areas such as crime and health. The Guardian concluded that “Even though its great sweep invites all manner of sceptical questions, this book’s inconvenient truths must be faced.”

A forthcoming article by Danny Dorling, “All connected? Geographies of race, death, wealth, votes and births” addresses some of the  Spirit Level issues in a UK context. Dorling notes that in the UK income inequality has returned to 1918 levels, having risen for the last 30 years, after falling for 60. Similarly, Dorling shows that in terms of life expectancy, wealth and voting segregation, the UK had become once again as socially divided in 2010 as it had been in 1934. Dorling identifies correlations (in the 1918 – 2005 period) between income, health and the geographical concentration of Conservative votes, and concludes “When the rich take even more of the national income of a country (and almost all of its wealth), the health of the poor suffers and voting in general elections becomes more spatially polarised.”

Going beyond this, Dorling argues that the UK’s post-1970s rise in social and economic inequalities contributed to a revival of social Darwinism (“a kind of growing racism against the poor”), which had been rejected in the more equitable post-war era. This time, however, it came with “a geographical nationalist twist” involving a myth of racial homogeneity, where a country’s social cohesion is imagined as being due to a single shared ethnicity. However, Dorling argues that “ethnic homogeneity is almost always a myth that is easily exposed. The supposedly homogeneous group can be found, after a little digging, to have a wide variety of origins, being made up of a collection of people with a far wider range of backgrounds than the myth would suggest.” Whether it is small countries like Iceland (Vikings intermarrying with slaves) or large countries like Japan (where immigration from other parts of Asia has been “rendered imaginary by the myth of the homogeneity of the Japanese”), it is low economic inequality, Dorling argues, which allows racial, religious, and other differences to matter less. “In contrast, on islands and peninsulas such as Singapore, New Zealand and the UK where inequalities are much wider, ethnicity is seen to matter much more.”

Dorling’s article draws on Chapter 5 of his new book, Injustice: Why social inequality persists (Polity Press, 2010), which sets out in more detail his thesis of the relationship between social inequality and beliefs.

View the Dorling (2010) article here Dorling, Danny (2010), “All connected? Geographies of race, death, wealth, votes and births“, Geographical Journal, Early View

The Spirit Level: Spooking the right Editorial, The Guardian, 26 July 2010, “The Spirit Level: Spooking the right

Robin de la Motte

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