The need for us to return to this, our best and most basic instinct, is spelled out in a new book by Professor Richard Wilkinson and Dr Kate Pickett called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. It is the culmination of 25 years of scientific research. The truths it contains provide us with a compass to rebuild our societies, and a reason to be optimistic. There is a way we can make our societies dramatically better – and the impulse to do it is hard-wired into each of our brains.
For millennia, there was one obvious and necessary way to improve human life: raise material living standards. If you are hungry, you will be made a lot happier by food. If you are thirsty, you will be made a lot happier by water. The human impulse for self-improvement was simple: give us more, and give it to us now. But we now know from reams of studies that once your basic needs are met – once you pass the magic number of $25,000 a year – something changes.
We carry on accumulating and accumulating, because it's what we've grown to think will give us happiness, but it works less and less. And, after a while, this unhindered chasing of more, more, more by the very richest begins to make us miserable – and corrodes some of the other basics we need as humans.
One of our most basic psychological needs is for status – to feel that we are a valued member of our tribe. We evolved in small, very egalitarian tribes of hunter-gatherers, and have only lived outside them for a few minutes in evolutionary terms. So when we feel our status is threatened – or there is no way of becoming respected by the rest of the tribe – we begin to malfunction in all sorts of ways. (1)
To an extent, this is old potatoes, though it is always worth re-iterating.
There are two different sorts of poverty - there is basic, fundamental, 'can't get enough to eat' poverty, which is largely - though not exclusively - a privilege enjoyed by the Third World - and then there is relative poverty, which afflicts the developed world.
Having enough to eat is fine and dandy, but feeling the feeling of inferiority engendered by not being on the same level, materially, as those around you is alienating and depressing to a lot of people. Rather than face up to the 9myth) that success or failure is doewwn to the quality of of the individual, it is easier to turn away from mainstream society and seek alternate status and means to success. Hence crime florishes and gangs or other sub-cultures form hermetically sealed little worlds where people who feel they aren't part of the wider community - and they are right to think that, though for the wrong reasons, it isn't their failure but the pernicious cult of individualism that is to blame - can find the self worth and sense of success that has been denied them.
The imbalance of wealth in society is a strong index for virtually every other negative factor - the ills bemoaned by people who wail even more loudly at the measures needed to heal them:
Who wouldn't want to live in a society where there is little violence, mental illness, little teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, obesity, low prison population, high life expectancy and where people tend to like and trust each other? The problem is that the means to the end are generally unacceptable to the small but influential group at the top. After all, they don't need any of these things -they already have them. Why should they worry about everyone else?
Yet we have built our societies on exaggerating this status panic, and we have been ratcheting it up over the past 30 years. The more unequal a society is, the more intense it becomes. Even if you slip to the bottom in Sweden, it's not so very different from the top. But when there is a long social ladder, and the bottom rung means humiliation and poverty, everyone at every rung feels a sweatier need to cling to their place – and the society starts to go wrong. This isn't left-wing speculation: it is an empirical fact.
Japan and Sweden are very different societies, but they are consistently at the top of the charts for every indicator of social success. They have low violence, low mental illness, low teenage pregnancy, low drug addiction, low obesity, low prison populations, high life expectancy, and high levels of friendship and trust. They are economically highly equal societies. (2)
The stress point is the lumpen-bourgeois, the increasingly worried and pecarious middleclass, who are smart enough to see what is going on and desperate enough to try to avoid facing up to the truth. Hell, they want to join that little clique of oligarchs, fanntasize about being incredibly wealthy, living in some paradisicla community where the only paupers are their obedient servants. In the mean time, they install locks on the windows and pay or an alarm monitoring service. They don't mind doing this, and try not to think how the monthly costs of alarm monitoring, the insurance premiums and what-not are making the dream of secure luxury ever more obviously impossible. Incidentally, if you suggested they paid a similar amount in tax to alleviate the problems that necessitate these defensive measures, they'd scream and kick ACT into a parliamentary majority.
(Incidentally, this is where ACT have been very clever - though totally cynical and amoral - hammering home two simple measures that appeal to this group - "Low Tax!" and 'Tough on Crime!" They have prospered, and will continue to as long as they continue to play on the mental drivers of the middleclass mind - aspiration to attain the luxury of the upper classes, and terror of the lower classes.)
It should be obvious that the tendency of New Zealand - and the developed world as a whole - has been to move away from egalitarianism. Individualism, and the desperate accretion of commodities, is the preferred choice, and will continue to be so until people actually make the connection between the social model and the social ills attendant to it.
The truth, as Hari points out, is very simple. You don't need to construct some worker's paradise, you simply have to create a society which is characterised by equality, not inequality. George Orwell put his finger on it half a century ago, when he outlined his proposals for a post-war, socialist Britain. He suggested a limitation of incomes, where "the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one" (3).
As Joseph Stiglitz pointed out, Japan is one of the countries which approaches this Orwellian ideal (4).
On point of disagreement with Hari's article. He rounds it off by stating that claims that:
The obvious exception to this rule is Communist societies. They were incredibly miserable: if equality is imposed by crazed tyrants, at the expense of freedom, then it has none of these positive effects. (5)I suspect that he is engaging in a little bit of Commie-bashing to soothe the more reactionary readers.
There is, of course, no equality in the self proclaimed communist world. The socialism that they espouse would not be recognised as such by Orwell, or even Marx. The PRC is is a grossly unequal as any capitalist nation (6). It is probably only the fact that many are contending with real, risk-of-starvation poverty, that they haven'd dragged their corrupt, hypocritical leaders out into the streets to suffer revolutionary justice.
That, and the fact the leaders have lots of guns to shoot anyone stupid enough to try, and a good track record of doing just that.
1 - 'The one lesson of this crisis is the need for a more equal society,' by Johann Hari, published in The Independent, 15th of April, 2009. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-the-one-lesson-of-this-crisis-is-the-need-for-a-more-equal-society-1668814.html)
2 - ibid.
3 - The whole can be read here: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lion/english/. The quotation comes from the third chapter of the essay, 'The English Revolution,' (http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lion/english/e_ter) section two. I find it very od that the top site on google for this essay is Russian.
4 - As described previosuly on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2007/12/interesting.html
5 - Hari, op. cit.
6 - As described previously on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2009/04/communism-chinese-style.html