The rise and rise of social inequality

What would be your list of the most damaging current social evils in Britain today and how would you explain their survival? A very large number of writers have tried to answer this question over the decades since an answer was first offered by William Beveridge in 1942. In recent years the general public have also been asked more frequently what they think too. A great many evils are listed from all these machinations and consultations.

I thought these lists might be a good place to start when writing the book Injustice, which tries to explain why inequalities persists and are allowed to rise, even having reached, in some cases, their highest recorded levels for almost eighty years (income, health, wealth and voting inequalities). What I found was that almost all the entries in almost all the lists could be put into five broad boxes. These five separated out the five original social evils as identified in the Beveridge report. However, by comparing how the lists changed over time it was possible to see how the natures of each social evil had also changed. What began to emerge, for me at least, was a picture of how each old social evil had transformed into something often very different but equally as damaging when it came to maintaining inequality and hence injustice.

All of the new social evils are arguments for maintaining and increasing inequality or modern arguments for injustice. They are, I claim, what keep us addicted to inequality in the most unequal of countries. Some people used to say that smoking was good for the constitution. It helped you develop a “productive cough”, cleared out the lungs. There are still people today who say that inequality is good, it rewards merit, encourages competition and fosters growth and consumption – these are in effect the “productive coughs” of 21st century society. And, just as there were lobbyists paid to argue for tobacco long after most people came to agree it was harmful, so too there are lobbyists today, who are paid by those who can see a short term gain in bolstering inequality, arguing for injustice and call it ‘freedom’.

Had you told someone in 1942 that there would come a day when smoking was banned in all public buildings they might well not have believed you. If you are told today that within your lifetime you could see social inequalities greatly reduced and the health and well-being of the population greatly increase as a result, will you believe it? Will our grandchildren ever understand why some people equate inequality with freedom?

Daniel Dorling, author of Injustice: Why social inequality persists
Other blogs featuring Injustice include: The Enlightened Economist and Out of Range.

Would you like to win a copy of Daniel Dorling’s Injustice: Why social inequality persists? Simply post a relevant comment to either the ‘The rise and rise of social inequality’ or the ‘Is social inequality addictive’ entry and we will enter you into a prize draw to win copy of the book, we only have one to give away so join the debate now! Closing date 30th April 2010.

12 Responses to “The rise and rise of social inequality”


  1. 1 David April 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Doesn’t greater inequality emerge because of the greater efficiency with which a market society operates? As social networking sites like Facebooks show, even human relationships can now be commodified with a corresponding increase in suffering as human beings find every area of their lives invaded and rationalised by the market(cf Michel Houellebecq’s Extension de la Lutte). But no one has yet discovered a social system which can compete with the free market. What is the alternative to efficiency?

    I would really like to know the answer to this question. Enjoyed listening to an interview with the author on Laurie Taylor’s Radio 4 show and keen to read the book and find out if the book contains any solutions.

  2. 2 Danny April 25, 2010 at 2:26 am

    If greater inequality emerges because of the greater efficiency with which a market society operates, then why did so many social inequalities reduce slowly and steadily in Britain and the USA between 1918 and 1978? This is one argument from the book.

    Almost everything can be commodified, but at some times more than others people have successfully resisted the further commodification of their lives, of land and of public goods and commons. In those places where that resistance has been stronger inequalities are now lower (Japan, Scandinavia, even Canada). All these are market societies.

    Within ‘Injustice’ is an argument that growing inequality is inefficient and that one of its worse effects is to dull our collective thinking in the most unequal of affluent societies – so a majority here think that there is no alternative to where we are now. The problems are not markets. Almost all human societies have had markets. Hardly any of those market societies attained inequalities as wide as those in the UK and USA now – wide between large groups of people – no longer between just a tiny elite and the rest.

    Some alternatives are in our recent past. Other alternatives already exist now in the majority of affluent countries. Yet more alternatives are waiting to be imagined. In those few places (and infrequent times) when inequalities are highest people are least free: least free to choose, least free to ask, least free to think. So perhaps it is not surprising so many of us find it so hard to imagine an alternative. That doesn’t mean that there are not many alternatives out there, just that too few people are looking.

    • 3 Peter Hagerty April 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm

      Yes and as a corollary might I suggest Michael J. Sandel’s book “Justice – What’s the right thing to do?” (Allen Lane 2007). Sandel asks for example is Tiger Woods entitled to the profits from his ‘natural gift’ an ability that few come close to sharing and for the majority, no amount of practice will bring them close to his ‘natural’ ability.

      To applaud and admire such expertise is to rightly accept the ‘luck’ of biology but to reward such ‘luck’ with enormous wealth is surely folly? We may easily extend this argument to talented entrepreneurs where the element of luck whether in country of birth, genetic inheritance or parental wealth is largely neglected, we do not all start with the same life advantages but denial is usually the rejoinder of the successful with remarks like ‘I worked hard for what I have’ imagining that everybody else has spent their life in idleness. This familiar refrain – largely born of the American enterprise which Britain has sought to emulate, suggests that little has changed since the days of the Roman Empire. The citation of Scandinavian social democracy is a rare example of an attempt to engage with a collective endeavour which seeks to minimise the luck of inheritance.

  3. 4 Signe K. April 28, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    The rise of inequality will, I think, only be erased through a rise in spirituality. By this I do NOT mean an increase in organized religion, which seems to applaud inequality in various forms (via the Protestant ethic, etc.). When humans look within themselves and see that collectivistic efforts yield greater rewards that the collecting of material wealth, then perhaps we will shift towards equality. I wrote a book about social class issues that describes a piece of the current mess in the USA: *Servants in the House of the Masters: A Social Class Primer for Educators, Helping Professionals, and Others Who Want to Change the World* (2007, iUniverse). In it I describe the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots and decreasing opportunity for educational attainment and upward social mobility in the USA. I include suggestions for change. There is cause for optimism, and individuals can really make a difference through their choices.

    • 5 Danny April 30, 2010 at 6:47 pm

      William Ruddiman, in his latest book (Plows, Plagues and Petroleum) suggests that all major organised religions arose between 3200 and 1400 years ago as “awakenings to the social inequalities and injustices produced by agricultural wealth. The founding figures of most religions showed deep ethical and moral concerns for the lives of people in general, but specifically for the plight of the disadvantaged in increasingly wealthy societies.” (p. 73). He’s in turn relying on Huston Smith’s ‘The World’s Religions’. Those deep concerns may have abated a bit, or a lot, depending on which religion you are looking at today, but in some ways we may have been here before when it comes to spirituality. IN case this is all getting too deep here is my favourite religious map – its of Spiritualists and where they like to hang out. A relatively young religion that grew popular in parts of the world with, at that time, vast inequalities:
      http://www.worldmapper.org/display_religion.php?selected=578
      Where increased agricultural wealth was initially most evenly distributed (Northern China) there were fewer epiphanies, and some say 100 generations farmed the same land without it becoming barren. China is where most atheists in the world are found, but inequalities have probably been rapidly rising there too recently (its not easy to get good data on recent changes in income inequality in China).

  4. 6 Damien April 30, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Danny came to speak at Housmans Bookshop in London this week.

    He presented a well researched and eloquent analysis of poverty, I thought.

    There was a lot to agree with and a few surprises. The increase of wealth on the Sunday Times Rich List was astounding – they could wipe out the UK’s structural debt with just one year’s income.

    Danny’s critique of meritocracy also rang true for me. When I was a kid I had a scholarship to private school (from which I was subsequently and unceremoniously booted out at the age of 15).

    I never fitted in: the kids there had an infuriating sense of entitlement. The experience gave me an acute sense of inequality. They had everything they needed. My mum was unemployed, I lived with my brother and her in a tiny two-bedroom flat. She used to go without food to feed us. (- we still managed to get fat somehow.)

    Others in the Housmans audience seemed disappointed though. Danny got a tough time from one lady who felt that his solutions weren’t revolutionary enough, his criticism of the elites not acidic enough.

    My anarchist friends too bridled at the suggestion that we should feel sorry for the rich. Maybe they missed the point. I agree that they are also trapped, in a sense.

    Danny said he’d worked on Injustice for five years. I’m glad someone has taken the time to properly survey the problem of inequality. Hopefully people will sit up and take notice!

    I recently qualified as a journalist, and poverty and inequality is an area that I want to focus on during my career. I would like to read more of Danny’s book – it sounds like a great resource of information – but, £19.99! Ouch!

  5. 8 Titus Alexander April 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I appreciate the powerful evidence presented, but it is too simple to say we are “addicted to inequality” or that the persistence of inequality is rooted in certain beliefs. I agree that certain core beliefs perpetuate inequality and that a change in belief or mindset among the most powerful in society would be a major step towards tackling persistent inequality and injustice, but the actual factors perpetuating injustice are structural. Unless these structural factors are also addressed, inequality and injustice will persist or re-emerge in new forms. For example, Western elites abandoned colonialism as a core belief in the middle of the last century, but global inequality and subjugation has in many respects got worse.
    I attempted to tackle this issue in my book, Unravelling Global Apartheid (Polity Press), and concluded that one of the main structures perpetuating inequality is ‘one-sided protectionism’ – rights or privileges for one section of society (whites, property owners, nationals of certain countries) at the expense of other.
    The main driving force of inequality is finance, particularly the demand for exponential growth/compound interest, but it is maintained by structures of
    privileged protection such as national sovereignty, limited liability, professional accreditation & gender roles, as well as assumptions of superiority. These structures are so deeply embeded in our institutional unconsious that we are unaware of them.
    However, inequality imposes a huge cost on society as a whole, as shown by the Spirit Level and other studies (eg Social Exclusion Unit, Fabian society, Centre for Social Justice, studies for the London Living Wage) and I think we could be at a turning point in our beliefs about inequality. The challenge is to translate these into structural changes which can bring about a lasting transformation of society to end institutional injustice and inequality. In my view this is doable within a generation if enough people put their mind to it.

    • 9 Danny April 30, 2010 at 3:12 pm

      It is almost always too simple to try to explain anything in three words, but saying we are “addicted to inequality” is a way of trying to help us think about why inequalities have become so much higher in countries like the UK and USA as compared to the Netherlands or Japan. Why should structural factors result in such different income and wealth distributions being seen in these different rich countries? When a group of people collected together in a country become more unequal it would appear that they begin to take national sovereignty and imagined superiority more seriously, pass laws that make limited liability even more limited, make professional accreditation even more tortuous than they used to… I agree that in all affluent countries in the world a key driving force of inequality is finance, particularly the demand for exponential growth through compound interest – but in some countries this force has been allowed to become far more powerful than in others. People in some parts of the rich world have been much more resistant to the effects of the financial sector demanding the right to grow faster and faster. Those countries have tended to be more equitable places. None of these trends are universal. But we do now know, thanks to that book you mention, the Spirit Level (and those many other studies), that living in a more unequal country is almost always worse for you as compared to living in a more equitable one. Only in terms of having lower suicide rates and perhaps more sarcastic forms of humor so more unequal countries ever come top (I cannot find a third example). A key question then, is why we continue to live with such high levels of inequality if we know it is so bad for us. Comparing this to why we continue to smoke longer after we know that smoking is bad for us, might just be a useful way to think about why it can be so hard to kick the habit of extreme inequality. Just because someone tells us that something is bad for us: inequality, usury, assumptions of superiority, does not mean that we necessarily will take their advice even if we agree with it. In Britain many people don’t even agree with that advice. At the end of the 10pm BBC news on Sunday 25th of April the newscaster announced that the faster rise ever recorded in the wealth of the superrich might just be good evidence that the economic recovery was upon us. In the most unequal of affluent countries many people still celebrate inequalities rising. Why is this?

  6. 10 balak June 16, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    I haven’t read it, don’t know where the author is coming from, might not agree with him, whatever. But I liked this on first reading it:

    “The five tenets of injustice are that: elitism is efficient, exclusion is necessary, prejudice is natural, greed is good and despair is inevitable. Because of widespread and growing opposition to the five key unjust beliefs, including the belief that so many should now be ‘losers’, most of those advocating injustice are careful with their words. And those who believe in these tenets are the majority in power across almost all rich countries. Although many of those who are powerful may want to make the conditions of life a little less painful for others, they do not believe that there is a cure for modern social ills, or even that a few inequalities can be much alleviated. Rather, they believe that just a few children are sufficiently able to be fully educated and only a few of those are then able to govern; the rest must be led. They believe that the poor will always be with us no matter how rich we are… It is their beliefs that uphold injustice.”

    I see some problems in it right away… particularly the implication that the problem starts in peoples’ heads, not in the underlying economic relationships themselves… ruling class ideas do not create what exists, but merely justify, rationalize, excuse the particular material interests and claims of capital over labour. This moralistic approach is reenforced with the use of the word ‘we’ – Who the hell is ‘we’? Apparently the author does not see the opposition of class interests as fundamental at least in advanced capitalist societies. And where does he get the idea that this ideology – basic to all class societies since the beginning of civilization – is limited to ‘most rich countries’?

    • 11 policypressblog June 21, 2010 at 11:49 am

      Reply from Danny Dorling:

      Thanks for your questions – here’s a bit of a pedantic answer: The word ‘we’ is only used once – to go with the phrase “the poor will always be with us” – so the ‘we’ is the ‘us’ the poor are supposed to always be with.

      I think class came with industrial factories not civilization. There were many other things before class, such as caste which usually but not always comes with farming. Class if a very recent way people have been divided up – if you associate class with industrialisation. Even in the countries with the longest record of industrialisation only nine or ten generations of people have been of a particular class. Across most of the world many people are working class now for the first time, their parents being from peasant castes. These are of course not my definitions but widely used by people who differentiate between class and caste.

      So – class is new. If class is new then all is not so set in stone. “Class interests” are not some fixed laws of nature. The interests of classes can change over time. In Britain just under a century ago 1 in 10 of the babies born to the upper classes died in their first year of life. There was a direct class interest not to redistribute and the mortality rate for working class babies in the very worse areas of the country was as much as 1 in 4. If you could more than double your child’s chances of living to age 1 then you might think it was worth fighting to keep your wealth. It took some imagination to work out that improving the lot of the poorest was the best way of improving the chances of all infants not dying from infectious disease. The class interest of the rich altered when enough were finally taught this. Many of the rich still don’t get it.

      Finally – what’s this thing about “the rich countries”. Well, in the rich countries something has changed. Think of the richest 24 in the world today (excluding tiny states). When these countries become richer today well-being no longer increases, health no longer improves for many, standards of living appear no longer to rise, human beings no longer grow less stunted: these countries are rich enough for almost all to be able to have the basics of what people need. This has only been the case for one generation. It is new. Possibly as new as industrialising is. Not all has reminded immutable “since the being of civilization”. People in poorer countries are better off with more. People in richer countries are now better off when they share better and, they need to eat, consume and compete less – but most of all, people in affluent countries which are the most unequal have a problem with how they think and how they see others, much more than do people in more equitable affluent countries. There is more here to back these claims up (and much much more in the book):

      http://www.sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/publications/2010/Dorling_2010_New_Internationalist_2010.pdf

    • 12 Christopher Heward October 6, 2010 at 11:04 am

      “I see some problems in it right away… particularly the implication that the problem starts in peoples’ heads, not in the underlying economic relationships themselves”

      I’m not sure whether that was what Daniel was saying, but either way, surely it’s true that the problems start within people? I guess the myth that this isn’t the case is a large part of the reason we haven’t addressed society’s problems. We always blame something else, rather than thinking there might be something we (i.e. everyone as individuals) can change or do to rectify things. We can blame the bankers, we can blame politicians, we can blame ‘underlying economic relationships’, but, well, bankers and politicians are people, and the economic relationships are created by people, so ultimately people are responsible. It can’t be any other way. Unless we blame the computers or the animals or something (obviously if crops fail that in itself isn’t human, unless it was caused by man-made climate change).

      We need people to realise their own personal responsibilities, and I hope Daniel’s stuff helps in doing this.


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