Equality, Inequality and Reciprocal Roles

Toye, J., 2011. Equality, Inequality and Reciprocal Roles. Reformulation, Winter, pp.44-48.

The Spirit Level Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better i by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett was published in 2009. It has had a great deal of publicity and attracted controversy. Its main argument is that, among developed countries, on a whole range of factors, people living in more equal societies do better than those living in more unequal ones. The advantage applies to the better off in more equal societies as well as to the poor; it covers the whole income spectrum. The wealthy in more equal societies may be less wealthy than those at the top of the income scale in more unequal societies, but in other respects they will be better offii. More equal societies also have higher levels of trust between citizens and more social mobility than unequal ones. A chapter is devoted to the significance of this issue.

The evidence used by the authors consists of comparisons of income inequality with measures on factors like mental health and drug use, life expectancy and physical health, obesity, educational performance, violence and punishment, and levels of trust among a) 23 developed nations and b) 50 American states. Singapore, the USA and the UK are the three most unequal societies and Japan, Finland and Norway the most equal. The authors have combined their data on all health and social factors in an ‘Index of health and social problems’. The level of such problems overall is related to income inequality both among countries and among states. But the same problems are related only weakly to average income in both. Thus level of inequality is shown as more significant than amount of actual income.

Critics have questioned the statistical validity of the evidence, especially in relation to the fact that data for the USA iii is on many factors very extreme, and thus can be interpreted as an ‘outlier’ which distorts the overall picture. Wilson and Pickett give their responses to such claims on their websiteiv. The book’s influence was enough to put the issue of equality on the agenda during the 2010 general election. One hundred and one MPs in parliament have signed an Early Day Motion supporting the equality pledgev  which was first publicised during the 2010 election. It would be helpful to know what proportion of them understand that a reduction in inequality is helped by a reduction in top incomes as well as improvement in incomes at the bottom end of the scale.

As regards mental illness, in more unequal countries more people suffer anxiety disorders, impulse control disorders and severe illness, inequality being less strongly correlated with mood disorders.  Psychologist Oliver James is quoted as explaining the link in terms of the ‘affluenza virus’ that involves placing a high value on money and success and looking good in the eyes of others.

Wilkinson and Pickett acknowledge that association on its own does not prove causality, but argue that the same kind of cross-sectional relationships are found so consistently that coincidence is not a plausible explanation. They also investigate and find unconvincing a series of further alternative explanations before considering and discussing persuasively various hypotheses which may explain the positive effect of equality such as: the value of social status, friendship, and good quality social interaction for personal wellbeing, and evidence from brain function on the development of empathy and trust, reciprocity and mutuality. With reference to child development they take account of the individual’s experience of care, nurture and attachment in infancy, and also the emotional make-up that results from preparing to live either in a society where you have to watch your back or one where your security depends on maintaining good relationships with other people. These ideas are highly recognisable in the context of CAT theory and practice that emphasise not only the influence on the individual of his or her personal experience but also of the wider social environment. Many recent articles in Reformulation explore this theme.

Wilkinson and Pickett extend their argument by reference to the dangers of runaway global warming caused by high carbon emissions, which in rich countries are between two and five times higher than the world average. Pointing out that inequality heightens competitive consumption, which increases carbon emissions, they make the case for seeing equality and reduced carbon emissions as complementary. This would mean developing a form of economy that is not dependent on growth. They argue that not only would this benefit the environment but would also improve the quality of life in rich countries because of the advantages of greater equality.

Comparison with adult template for an SDR

Making use of one of the templates recently introduced by Alison Jenawayvi, I offer an attempt at representing some of these ideas in terms first of a general explanation relevant to the equality/inequality debate, and secondly through associated reciprocal roles. Using Jenaway’s ‘Adult template’, The dominant view Fig 1 is based on the economic system relevant to all the countries studied by Wilkinson and Pickett. Taking account of their views on inequality and climate change I have placed these subjects in the middle of the diagram.

Where I am/we are trying to get to

Stable economic growth is similar to totally loved without limits (Jenaway) in the sense that it is clearly unattainable. Government, banks, businesses and (conventional) economists must know this is so, because there have always been recessions. But whatever the current crisis, they still talk, think and behave as if growth is the only solution and must be achieved at all costs. Most of the public seem to accept the idea.

Threats (Fig.1)/ Why it can’t last (Jenaway)

Financial crises, shortages, disasters and wars are not all directly linked to human behaviour based on economic growth, though financial crises obviously are. Other events may arise from climate change, for instance in the greater frequency and intensity of natural disasters, climate change itself being at least partly a consequence of human behaviour.

Recessions (Fig.1)/ Unhappy past experience (Jenaway)

Here loss of jobs, homes and pensions whether in a current recession, as a memory from the past or a fear for the future, is comparable to Jenaway’s unloved, unwanted.

Seek security (Fig.1)/ What do I do to get away from the past/how I cope (Jenaway)

The two ideas are similar. Jenaway’s Try to please, smother my children with love are examples of coping behaviour, whereas compete, consume more, produce more, accumulate wealth are general descriptions of the behaviour that is expected and encouraged as the means of maintaining growth. Here the links with climate change and inequality are clearest, because these forms of behaviour continue to produce damaging carbon emissions and, over the last 30 years, have led to greater income and wealth inequality, especially in the USA and UK.

In Britain both climate change and inequality are topics covered in political discourse, but it is rare for them to be referred to in discussions about the economy and its problems. They are two large elephants in the room.

Implications for associated reciprocal roles

Drawing out reciprocal roles for a whole society – Fig.2 – is not the same as doing it for an individual, especially as the SDR refers to governments and corporations as well as individuals. Each such entity will have its own culture, ethos and external influences affecting those who belong to it.  A variety of other factors affect individuals, including their personal economic position and how management of the national economy affects them personally. The proportion of public as opposed to private provision influences the extent to which members of a society are affected by the free market economy, and in particular how competitive people have to be to gain access to jobs, homes, education and health provision. The amount and effectiveness of financial regulation also make a difference. Another book published in 2011vii  - about the global tax haven system - gives an account of how the USA and UK are intimately and powerfully involved in enabling people and corporations to avoid regulation and thus the payment of tax. Singapore, the world’s most unequal economy, is itself a tax haven. We must also keep in mind that people vary considerably in the extent to which they accept and engage with the prevailing ethos. Thus the reciprocal roles I have chosen are intended to reflect broadly the implications of the system set out in Fig 1. They also give a very negative picture, as is usually the case with an initial SDR we draw up with a client. Such negative reciprocal roles, however, must to some extent apply to everyone if the argument of The Spirit Level is valid.

Reciprocal roles – Governments, corporations, individuals, Fig.2

At the top of the diagram is the longed for state of perfect security, the individual’s equivalent of the national unrealistic desire for stable economic growth: perfect economic security to successful, confident, relaxed.

Threats on the right hand side of Fig.2 are the same as in Fig.1. We have had plenty of examples of all these recently: the banking crisis of 2007, Eurozone problems, the controversy in the USA about extending the Government debt ceiling, and the UK coalition Government’s cuts programme. In addition there have been in 2011 the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, drought in Somalia and Kenya leading to famine, rising food prices everywhere, and extra wars such as that in Libya, which have to be paid for out of the public purse.

At the bottom of the diagram the reciprocal roles are fairly similar to those in the Jenaway diagram; in this case Depriving, abandoning, manipulating, betraying to Deprived, hurt, frightened, demoralised and angry. These particular words are influenced by comments from a CAT colleagueviii  many of whose clients work for large organizations. Some of them recently speak of much ‘changing of the goal posts’ as regards the performance ratings by which they are judged.  A procedure may result whereby the employee becomes anxious about their performance and responds defensively. The manager may then suggest that if they are not coping they should think about leaving. The person’s performance may indeed begin to deteriorate as they come to think they are being ‘managed out of the business’.

On the left hand side of the diagram Demanding, Expectations of success reflects external and internal pressures to do well and thus achieve security. Seducing reflects advertising, the celebrity culture and other means of persuading people to spend even when they may lack the means. Misleading refers to the fact that the hope of personal economic security is a false one for many people since in a competitive system some will win and some will lose. Striving to a greater or lesser extent anxiously will be a major response and, while many may desire to accumulate, only a few people not only accumulate obsessively but manage to keep doing it. They are addicted to their need always to have more in the fear of not being immune to the many known threats. In the process of accumulating untold wealth these people make their own personal large contribution towards destroying the environment and further increasing inequality.

Final thoughts

If this SDR and set of reciprocal roles has credibility it supports the arguments of The Spirit Level. Insofar as people are caught up in this way of thinking, behaving and feeling they are out of touch with reality. As members of globally more prosperous societies many will be subject to more anxiety than their actual financial situation demands. The question of success is not confined to whether one has a certain amount of money, but in a competitive environment to whether as well one has as much as or more than other people. So while competition need not result in extreme forms of rivalry it has a tendency to separate the individual’s interests from those of others’. If the pressures to succeed are extreme, and in the worst cases truly threaten loss and hardship, they will be accompanied by fear of failure and of loss of status. Such economic, social and psychological conditions will severely restrict opportunities and inclinations towards cooperation, cohesion and trust, the very forms of behaviour that Wilkinson and Pickett claim are stronger in more equal societies.

Their last chapter reviews various ways of reducing inequality: increasing employee-ownership and cooperatives, and reducing differentials between the higher and lower paid by moving towards the norms of the public and non-profit sectors. With the coalition Government doing its best to privatise the NHSix and to reduce the public sector generally, these aims at the time of writing seem unlikely to be realised. Nonetheless, the activities of the Equality Trust, set up since the book’s publication, and many other groupsx  campaigning on related issues give some grounds for hope.

I have found The Spirit Level thought provoking and stimulating. It is also easy to read and to understand. I recommend it enthusiastically.

i. R Wilkinson and K Pickett 2009 The Spirit Level Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better London: Penguin

ii. For example, data as between England compared with the USA for incidence of various illnesses show lower rates of illness among men with both high and low educational levels in England compared to the USA, while death rates among working age men are lower in all occupational classes in Sweden compared to England and Wales.

iii. Data is not available for Singapore on many factors.

iv. www.equalitytrust.org.uk

v. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/1775

vi. Jenaway, A. (2011) “Using a template to draw diagrams in Cognitive Analytic Therapy.” Reformulation, issue 36, pp 46-48

vii. Shaxson, Nicholas  (2011) Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World  London: The Bodley Head

viii. Susan Dutfield, Personal communication

ix. Leys, C. & Player, S. (2011) The Plot Against the NHS Pontypool: Merlin

x. For example:
Christian Aid (2010 Blowing the Whistle Time’s Up for Financial Secrecy
Spratt, S. et al  (2009) The Great Transition New Economics Foundation


Tony Ryle was invited to comment, not only from his position as assistant editor of Reformulation, but also  because of his recent paper in the Summer 2010 edition of Reformulation ‘THE POLITICAL SOURCES OF RECIPROCAL ROLE PROCEDURES’ .  Tony writes:

I have read and was impressed by The Spirit Level.  I am all in favour of advertising and promoting its ideas and the translation of them into RRP terms.   But where is the exit?  Just as  the ‘actually existing communism’ of the USSR bore no relation to its  original ideals so ‘actually existing capitalism’ generates wealth at the cost of inequality and violence and crisis.  But it has persuaded people to view its dangerous failures as if they were natural events like tsunamis, not man made.

We need to identify its destructiveness, deceptions and cruelties. It is more powerful now because its international structure sets limits on what individual countries can do and more dangerous because it depends increasingly on gambling rather than on investing in production. Hardly even gambling, for  if they lose they get their money back from everyone else.

As an accompanying text I would recommend David Harvey’s ‘The Enigma of Capital’  (Profile Books, 2010).  He gives a clear account of present day realities based largely on   post-Stalinist Marxism and calls for new forms of resistance: ‘Perhaps we should just define the movement as anti-capitalist or call ourselves the Party of Indignation’.  He concludes with what has to be the exit; the need is for ‘fierce political commitments born out of moral outrage at what exploitive compound growth is doing to all facets of life, human and otherwise, on planet earth’.

We cannot, alas, just cultivate our gardens.

Janet replies:

To be honest I don’t see much by way of exits except what Tony says: the need is for ‘fierce political commitments born out of moral outrage at what exploitive compound growth is doing to all facets of life, human and otherwise, on planet earth’ - and I rather doubt that will be enough since not many people follow these things.

Possibly lots of people becoming aware may give us some kind of chance. And increasingly they seem to be - yet another book on the subject of inequality introduced by its author in the Guardian only yesterday, plus a letter from academics on the subject. Treasure Islands (about tax havens) is an even more important book, but it doesn’t lend itself to psychological analysis as The Spirit Level does.

Apart from spreading the word and living as closely as we can to a less consumerist model, all I wonder otherwise is whether the whole structure will eventually crash so badly it will bring all economic activity to a halt. A dreadful prospect; but maybe better sooner than later.

Fig 1 Dominant ConsensusFig 2 Reciprocal Roles

Full Reference

Toye, J., 2011. Equality, Inequality and Reciprocal Roles. Reformulation, Winter, pp.44-48.

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