Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level, was a rigorous, evidenced-based exploration of the damage economic inequality does to society. Published in 2009, it came out at just the right moment, and along with the Occupy Movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign, it played an important part in opening up a new conversation about class, in the USA in particular.
Their new book, The Inner Level, examines the damage that inequality does to our psychological health, and it is just as powerfully-argued, evidence-based and rigorous. I found it particularly helpful in trying to get to grips with the psychology of the rise of Donald Trump and the politics of Brexit in the UK. The evidence they gather shows how inequality raises levels of fear and anxiety in societies. These, of course, are some of the same emotions that feed the politics of nationalist populism, which in turn lead to social policies that widen the economic gap, driving us around in a perverse vicious cycle of social self harm. In a society caught in a cycle of growing inequality and anxiety, a leader like Trump isn’t an aberration; in unequal societies, sociopaths like Trump naturally rise to the top:
Greater inequality not only causes psychopathic tendencies to manifest in more people, it provides the cut-throat environment in which those tendencies come to be seen as admirable or valuable … (74)
This is a very important book that has been published at a critical time, and their conclusions will be particularly interesting to readers of this blog because at the end of their analysis they set out a program of actions that we could take to reduce economic inequality, and foremost amongst their recommendations is greatly expanding worker ownership:
The next great stage in human development must therefore be the extension of democracy into working life. (264)
Interestingly, they take the opposite view to Gregory K. Dow’s in his book, Governing the Firm, which I reviewed earlier. Dow was reluctant to recommend worker cooperatives as a means to reduce economic inequality, in part because he was afraid that this would stigmatize the cooperative movement as being too political and radical, holding back the acceptance of cooperatives as a part of the mainstream economy, and instead, he recommended progressive taxation as a better way to deal with rising inequality.
Wilkinson and Pickett also see a place for progressive taxation, but are skeptical that taxation alone will provide a lasting solution to the problem of economic inequality:
Because it is easily reversed, the redistribution of income through taxes and social security benefits is particularly vulnerable when so many people regard taxes as a kind of legalized theft of income which they feel they have earned and have a right to. (246)
In their view, tax policy is too vulnerable to the whims of politicians like Trump. Rather, they favor expanding worker-ownership because this would build greater equality into the structure of the economy itself:
By far the most important long-term measure, however, will be the reduction of pre-tax income differences by extending democracy into the economic sphere. (256)
The Inner Level builds on the argument that Wilkinson and Pickett set out in The Spirit Level but also takes it in a new, important direction that is once again eerily relevant to the political situation we find ourselves in just now. They show how much of the anxiety and division we see around us in the world can be traced back to the psychological impact of economic inequality, and suggest that worker ownership may provide us with the best road out of this mess.