Danny Dorling's Injustice demonstrates that social inequality is bad for everyone, and that its justifications can all be shown to be entirely incorrect, finds Orlando Hill
Danny Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists (Policy Press 2015), xxi, 474pp.
The first step to changing the world is to change your way of thinking. This book not only does that, but also inspires you to get your eyes off Facebook and Twitter and onto the streets. Dorling has been criticised for preaching to the converted. The intention of this book is not to convert those like Peter Mandelson, and other Blairites, who are intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich and still believe in the trickle-down effect of markets. This book is for those who feel that injustice and social inequality are wrong, but after decades of being told that they are necessary and there is no alternative do not quite know how to put their anger into words.
Social structures are held in place by subjective elements that justify its wealth distribution and inequalities. Five years from the book’s first edition there has been a growing opposition to the beliefs that support these elements. Few people today advocate that injustice and social inequality are necessary evils. However, those in power, albeit ever more careful with their words, still believe in the elements that hold our social structure together. Danny Dorling in this book demolishes the five tenets that sustain and justify the persistence of social inequality. These are elitism is efficient, exclusion is necessary, prejudice is natural, greed is good anddespair is inevitable.
Elitism is a belief that the most able of society get to the top on merit. This is the fundamental stone that supports the social structure and is a pretty hard one to shake. We all like to think that we, and our family and friends, are special and whatever we have is due to our talents and hard work. If most of those who have made it to the top are from affluent backgrounds, the problem is not with the concept of elitism, but with the opportunities that are offered to everyone. Gifted and talented children should be spotted at an early age and resources should be allocated to help them achieve their potentials.
Dorling argues, however, that despite the politicians, business leaders and celebrities who truly believe they are specially gifted, people are remarkably similar. Furthermore, ranking people according to their abilities harms both those at the bottom and those at the top. Education becomes more about sorting and dividing people through testing rather than actual learning. Society suffers from having less people qualified to improve lives. If more people were taught well enough to become researchers in all fields, then the chances of solving the problems we face today would greatly improve. Elitism generates fear and anxiety. What if our children are proved not to be that special? Do they get relegated to the bottom of the pile without the right to a broad education which includes sport, art and music?
Elitism is based on the idea that human achievements are a consequence of individual efforts. However, that is simply not true. Knowledge is a result of collective effort. A child today knows more about the universe than the philosophers of antiquity. It is not because the child is more capable, but the environment is richer. The environment is not the creation of specially gifted human beings, but a collective effort.
Dorling defends a slow approach to learning instead of the ‘get-qualification-quick’ marketplace of today as a way of ending elitism. We need universal tertiary education with a more comprehensive outlook. Universities should teach a broad range and not concentrate on a few antiquated subjects. That is something the board of SOAS should consider instead of cutting subjects.
Elitism is incredibly inefficient. In unequal societies people do needless work. In a more egalitarian society with less exclusion, there is less need to employ cleaners and guards: ‘people would clean their own houses (with fewer spare rooms) and there would be less risk and fear of burglary with fewer low-paid jobs’ (pp.159-60). In other words elitism and exclusion is bad for everyone.
The result of accepting elitism is the justification of the exclusion of many people from normal social activity. Obviously, the poor are the ones who most suffer from this. However, a common theme throughout the book is that the elite also suffer from the ideology that sustains the social structure. Exclusion generates an insecurity of being excluded. Debt is built up just to keep up appearances. It becomes harder to remain in your small exclusive group. Any small financial knock can expel you from the group and drop you down to a lower ranking. Mistrust towards your friends, spouses, lovers and children rises. Do they have true feelings for you, or do they only want your status and money?
Exclusion leads to segregation which in turn erodes the democratic ideal of shared citizenship and fosters even more prejudice. Most people today would disagree that prejudice is natural; at least to your face. Openly prejudiced people, such as Donald Trump and loud mouthed people on public transport caught on camera and posted on YouTube, are frowned upon and considered a joke. But as inequality and elitism grows so does prejudice. It justifies why people are excluded. They do not deserve more because they are lazy scroungers, or they do not want to adapt to our way of life. If only they worked harder. Dorling is confident that prejudice, be it Islamophobia, racism or against the poor, will pass with time;
‘But its passing must be aided, and we must be vigilant for what spite will next be promoted by those who fear a world in which they and theirs are no longer supreme. Human beings are easily prone to prejudice, and can easily fall under the spell of a single charismatic individual. We have seen this often enough to learn from our collective experience’ (p.231).
Greed is good. It is what drives us forward. Adam Smith tells the story of the baker who sells you a loaf of bread not because he wants to satisfy your hunger, but for your money. The myth goes that as long as everyone looks after themselves, society as a whole benefits. Car ownership is a good illustration of how looking after yourself can be detrimental to your and everyone else’s wellbeing. Many of the car journeys are not necessary. You do not really need more than one car. Those who most need cars, single mothers with children who live far from shops, mostly do not have one. We produce enough cars for those who really need one to have one. Congested streets with engines pumping out fumes and no one getting anywhere is a consequence of individual greed encouraged by the mantra of personal freedom.
It is easy to despair as inequality, exclusion, prejudice and greed grow and the media is very good at promoting stories that encourage this feeling. We know it is bad, but what is the alternative? The outcome is the growth of mental illness which feeds the pharmaceutical industry. Humans need stable and equitable societies for their wellbeing; ‘Humans have evolved to respond well when treated with respect’ (p.352).
Dorling is confident that this age of inequality will come to end sooner or later, simply because it cannot carry on forever. It becomes more apparent when the subjective elements do not even guarantee the best life for those at the top. Change will necessarily happen when the upper classes cannot carry on with the old way. To keep the social structures together so that the old way can continue there needs to be a belief in the subjective elements that hold it together. Dorling’s book points out weak these elements are. That is why change will come. However, it will only come if we act collectively to end and no longer tolerate the greed, prejudice, exclusion and elitism that foster inequality and despair. Read the book, but most importantly join the People’s Assembly, a trade union, a political organisation and act collectively so that social inequality can no longer persist.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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