Beyond Mere Equality - a Politics of Class Analysis Not ‘Evidence’

By Byrne, David | Soundings, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Beyond Mere Equality - a Politics of Class Analysis Not ‘Evidence’


Byrne, David, Soundings


Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level (Penguin 2010), which - to quote its subtitle - seeks to demonstrate 'why equality is better for everyone', has attracted enormous attention since its publication. Their work has been a key element in the emergence of what we might call 'the politics of fairness'. But though the book has done much to raise awareness of inequality, the 'fairness' agenda itself is open to criticism on a number of grounds, which I aim to explore in this article.

Wilkinson and Pickett are social epidemiologists, and work within the dominant tradition of contemporary research in their field - that is, through the presentation of evidence based on the demonstration of relationships established through the exploration of quantitative data. They make their argument primarily through displaying graphs showing that countries which are generally more equal do better in relation to a series of outcome measures across the domain of health and wellbeing. The work has attracted praise from commentators on the liberal centre left, and criticism from those on the right, and in particular from authors associated with right wing think tanks.1 Wilkinson and Pickett have responded to their critics by asserting that they will only answer criticisms presented in peer reviewed journals. They might have also taken a more political stance and asserted that they would only respond to criticisms presented by those who made clear the basis on which their research and publication was funded, given the notorious secrecy of the rightwing think tanks - the hired gobs of the neoliberal elite - in relation to this matter; but their stance reflects the mode of understanding which informs their argument - this is science, to be judged by scientists, and it is on the basis of that objective status that our evidence must be judged and acted upon.2

The criticism presented here is not of their evidence but rather of the nature of the politics it has stimulated and seeks to inform. Wilkinson and Pickett's argument is that their evidence shows that equality is good for the great majority of us (despite the claim in their subtitle to say that it is good for everybody, they acknowledge in the body of the book that this is may not be true for the super-rich). This utilitarian argument is a classic example of a felicific calculus of the greatest good of the greatest number. They actually go beyond this, by asserting on the basis of productivity and growth comparisons that more equality actually makes for a more efficient and productive kind of national capitalism - a view enthusiastically endorsed by both the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of the elite nations in the contemporary global order. On this basis more equality might be good even for the super-rich, for the hegemons of the neoliberal order.

Equality and fairness are not synonyms, but as themes they are clearly linked in contemporary politics - i.e. in the period that Colin Crouch has identified as the post-democratic era of post-industrial capitalism. Crouch has characterised this era as one within which, though forms of democracy continue to exist, all major political parties endorse the neoliberal consensus and sell themselves primarily through marketing expertise, rather than as representing conflicting material interests. These two 'post' descriptions matter because deindustrialisation has massively eroded the capacity of organised workers, both at the point of production in relation to direct economic gain, and politically, in relation to the role of the state in welfare capitalism. We might regard post-democracy as a consequence of a postindustrial order. In any event post-industrial capitalism is evidently more unequal than western industrial capitalism during the post war era. This is a consequence of attacks on real wages, and of the ability of the affluent to avoid and/or evade taxation - both of their property incomes in relation to corporate taxation, and of their personal income and housing wealth. …

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