Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists is an excellent, sharp and at times poignant analysis of the political, social and economic situation that capitalism as a social system is in today.

injustice book cover

Daniel Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists (Policy Press 2010), 400pp.

This book presents an explanation why many defining features of our society and societies around the world are in the state that they are. It joins Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better in presenting a huge range of robust sociological evidence against the right-wing consensus that social inequality is necessary and even desirable.

Dorling’s book is at least the equal of The Spirit Level, and in its focus on the injustice of inequality it provides essential arguments against the idea that there is anything deserved or natural in the massive wealth gaps in societies across the world.

The book is a balance of data and argument from published research combined with Dorling’s acute evaluation of the evidence. The author has a facility for showing how isolated information makes sense within the overall context of present day society. As Dorling put it well himself in the introduction, referencing a poem collected during the Second World War, ‘I have only made a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the thread that ties them together’. By this he means that the majority of the analysis and information presented was already available and his role was simply to ‘string it together’. This is, in my opinion, modest – as this is no small feat in the first place, and he contributes more than just a string of analysis.

Injustice is in effect a critique of what Marxists would term ‘ruling class ideology’, which is presented as the main inhibitor of social change, as well as what maintains social inequality between classes, borders, age, race and gender. These ideas are broken down into five key chapters, containing several subsections; ‘Elitism is efficient’, ‘Exclusion is necessary’, ‘Prejudice is natural’, ‘Greed is good’ and finally ‘Despair is inevitable’. In the course of these chapters each of these ideas is very firmly debunked.

In many ways what Dorling presents is a semi-Marxist analysis of ruling class ideology and how it is propagated over time and across continents. Dorling’s analysis is strengthened by its international perspective, as well as being grounded in the centrality of class to exploitation and inequality. If Marxism can be described as the theory and practice of international working-class revolution, then Dorling’s analysis is in many ways the theory, but not the practice. Despite his passionate outrage at the effects of inequality, he ultimately fails to offer practical solutions or understand the way in which activity can change the world and ideas.

It is not a revolutionary analysis, in that no working-class led change is presented as a possible solution. Rather, the explanation for changes in ruling ideology over time is ultimately left as an abstract decision of the ruling class. He notes the crucial economic context of the 1970s crisis, but seems to accept the turn to neo-liberalism as the acceptance of a set of ideas and arguments. Instead conflict should be seen as rooted in rival class power, the balance of which determines which ideas are the most ‘convincing’ at the time.

Dorling’s analysis is nonetheless of immense value, and does show a keen sense of how ruling ideas have changed over time in this country and across the world. He makes the point that in 1945, at the end of the Second World War and the birth of our welfare state, the dominant ideas in Britain were very different regarding what were thought to be the great social evils that needed to be addressed. Health care, housing and education for the working classes were accepted as priorities, at least to an extent, in an economy with arguably far fewer immediate resources than exist today. The ideology of inequality today however, as Dorling shows, only benefits the super rich, and reflects how the super rich themselves see their position in society.

Dorling also does an excellent job of outlining what is effectively the class basis of the oppression of minorities on the basis of race or ethnicity, as well as that of women. There is a strong emphasis on racist ideas, particularly the history of immigrant scapegoating, being used not only to divide us but to justify gross injustices in wealth. There is also some exploration of the oppression of women and how that also structures inequality. Dorling outlines in detail how, for example, two people being married or single, with children or without, or someone being paid less because she is a woman, affects them and maintains power structures in society. These points are always backed up with a range of persuasive and indeed conclusive statistics.

However, Dorling’s analysis, though of a very high quality in terms of its critique of existing society, does fall down on the issue of how that might be changed. The material basis of social change is largely ignored. For instance, he attributes the fall in union membership since the 1970s simply to changing ideas, rather than to the experience of battles against and defeats inflicted by Thatcherism.

This leads Dorling to offer some very abstract explanations of social change. As a result, he does not explore how we could change things from a grassroots level. Though he is certainly not a supporter of top-down power structures or ideologies, he ignores our ability to change our society collectively. The lack of a sense of the impact that activism can make leads him also to discount the fact that we are not always entirely subject to what the media tells us to believe. He does describe the conflict between ruling ideas and our own experiences, but does not take this to its arguably natural conclusion. The balance can be tipped in favour of the truths experienced by working people and lead to change.

Despite its shortcomings, which overall are few in the face of the book’s strengths, Injustice without a doubt presents a powerful argument that our world is unjust. Not very many books are able to challenge dominant ideas so consistently and so well. This book is an indispensable tool for argument. If you were to argue with someone professing any of the ideas which Dorling challenges, all you would need would be to present the relevant passage from this book. It would be a rare instance where there was a word left that could be said in response.