ISEA: Excerpt: The Inner Level

Chris McNutt
June 14, 2022
The following is an excerpt from The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone's Wellbeing by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, Chapter 9.

Greater equality is at the heart of creating a better society because it is fundamental to the quality of social relations in society at large. Social status systems among humans (like dominance ranking systems or pecking orders among animals) are orderings based on power; they ensure privileged access to resources for those at the top, regardless of the needs of others. The fact that humans, like members of any other species, all have the same basic needs means that there is always the question of whether or not to share access to scarce resources; whether to co-operate as allies or compete as rivals. Do we want to live in a society based on co-operation and reciprocity, or competition and rivalry?

In Chapter 5 we mentioned that in the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes placed conflict avoidance – the ‘warre of each against all’ – at the centre of his political philosophy. He believed that the only way to keep the peace was to have a sovereign with absolute power to enforce it. What Hobbes could not know is that in human prehistory, long before the development of government, societies were based on systems of food sharing and a high degree of equality. People engaged in these activities, as Marshall Sahlins has pointed out, to keep the peace and avoid the Hobbesian conflict for scarce resources. The reason he said ‘gifts make friends and friends make gifts’ is because gifts symbolize – in the most concrete terms – that the giver and receiver recognize, respect and respond to each other’s needs.

The result, as we saw earlier, was that for more than 90 per cent of human existence, we lived typically in societies with a level of equality which seems to modern eyes scarcely credible. But people today still share food and eat together socially because it is an expression of relationships built on sharing, rather than on competing for access to basic necessities. The same message is, as we saw, also enshrined in the major world religions.

In effect, we have deep within our psyche two fundamentally different social strategies (the two sides of human nature outlined in Chapter 5): one predicated upon friendship and the other based on ideas of superiority and inferiority. We all know how to make and value friends and we all know how snobbishness, downward prejudice and social climbing work. The extent to which we deploy and are subject to these strategies has repercussions throughout the rest of social life; it colours our psychology and social customs.

The strength of the social hierarchy and the importance of status serve as indicators of how far a society departs from equality. The further the departure from mutuality, reciprocity and sharing, the stronger the basic message that we will each have to fend for ourselves. We are pushed towards more antisocial forms, becoming more concerned with status and self-advancement, while community life, trust and our willingness to help each other all decline.

At the heart of progressive politics there has always been an intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. Now we have the internationally comparable data which proves that intuition true. Moving both towards sustainability and a society liberated from class divisions and status hierarchies is part of the same process: a transition to a society which is better for all of us. The challenge is to open up a new era of improvements in well-being – no longer the diminishing returns from economic growth, but real gains from what greater equality does for our confidence, our relationships with others and for the quality of the physical and social environment. By reducing the extraordinarily wasteful status competition that drives conspicuous consumption, we will also increase our willingness to act for the common good.

Let us now summarize the four key improvements in the quality of life which can take us towards a more fulfilling and sustainable way of life. First, through greater equality, we gain a world where status matters less, where the awkward divisions of class begin to heal, where social anxieties are less inhibiting of social interaction and people are less plagued by issues of confidence, self-doubt and low self-esteem. This would, in turn, reduce our need for the drink and drugs we so often use to cope with anxiety and ease social contact. There would be less need for narcissistic self-presentation, less need to overspend for the sake of appearances. In short, we move towards a more relaxed social life, with stronger communities, in which it is easier to enjoy the pleasures of friendship and conviviality and gain a society better able to meet our basic social needs.

Second, we move from a society that maximizes consumption and status, to a society that uses each increase in productivity to gain more leisure and reduce the demands of work. The New Economics Foundation has suggested that we should aim to work only twenty-one hours a week. Large international differences in working hours do not seem to affect GNP per head. We need more time for family and for our children, more time to care for each other, for friends, for the elderly and to enjoy community life. In future, increases in productivity should be translated into reductions in working hours instead of increased income and profit. If we had a long-term increase in labour productivity of 2 per cent a year, in ten years’ time all could enjoy the same material standard of living as we do now but with an extra day off work a week. And given that the average age gap between parents and children is around thirty years, the lives of our children would be transformed. But with more workplace democracy and shorter hours, the productivity growth rate – which has been so poor in the UK – might rise to 3 per cent a year. That would give us an extra day off a week within seven years, and the working week could be halved within twenty-four years. If, as some studies suggest, almost half of all jobs may be vulnerable to computerization and automation, cutting hours and sharing work will become increasingly important if we are to enjoy the benefits of technical progress. The alternative is likely to be a growing division between the unemployed and the overworked.

Third is the improvement in the quality of working life resulting from the extension of democracy into employment. The current anachronistic system, in which the control of companies – groups of people – can be bought and sold, must be phased out. The normal rigid ranking system, with line management and institutionalized hierarchies, excludes people from control over their work and any say in whose interests it serves. Working in democratic institutions such as co-operatives and employee-owned businesses (with or without community and consumer representatives), means that management becomes answerable to employees. Hierarchy would become overlaid with social obligations, and much smaller income differences would reduce status divisions. The next great stage in human development must therefore be the extension of democracy into working life. Work should be where we find a sense of self-worth and the experience of making a valued contribution. We can no longer accept a system of employment which reduces the lives of so many to a demeaning shadow of their potential.

Fourth are all the health and social benefits of living in a more equal society. More equal societies bring major reductions in almost all the problems that become more common lower down the social ladder. A more equal society would enjoy better physical and mental health, higher standards of child well-being, less violence, fewer people in prison, less drug addiction and more equal opportunities for children. A more equal society is conducive to the psychosocial well-being of whole populations.

As well as making real and tangible improvements to the quality of our lives, these improvements in the social functioning of our societies will put environmental sustainability within our reach. By reducing status insecurities we will reduce not only the most obvious conspicuous consumption, but also the huge volume of wasteful consumption driven more defensively by the attempts to maintain standards and avoid falling behind others. We may become more willing to repair goods instead of replacing them, and designs might facilitate that. With the decline of individualism and the strengthening of community life, we may feel less need for private cars and other forms of private provision. But above all, greater equality is likely to mean that our economic and political interests are less divergent and we find it easier to act for the common good.

The changes proposed are neither impractical nor idealistic; they are a necessary response to the damage inequality is already doing and the traumatic dislocation which climate change holds in store for us. Although recent decades have seen dramatic reductions in world poverty (those living on less than $2 a day) attributable to economic growth in developing countries, that progress will be seriously threatened if we fail to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment. And in the rich countries, where measures of well-being are no longer responsive to economic growth, present structures are evidently not an efficient way of producing human well-being.

A shared conception of a better society gives coherence to policy. A vision of a better future can also reinvigorate some of the idealism and principle which so often seems to have become submerged in a politics driven by opportunism and expediency. Whole populations have for too long been pushed around by unrecognized but extremely powerful social forces. We hope that a better, scientific and evidence-based understanding of them will help us address the very serious human and environmental problems they have created.

Change on the scale needed, however, can only be achieved if large numbers of people commit themselves to achieving it. Sometime after the late 1970s, it seems, progressive politics either lost its conviction that a better form of society was possible or lost the ability to convince people that politics was the route to achieving it. The result was the almost uncontested rise of neoliberalism. Now, facing the evidence of global warming and calamitous climate change, the world is in need of a radical alternative, a clear vision of a future society which is not only environmentally sustainable, but in which the real quality of life is better for the vast majority. Only then will people commit themselves to the long task of bringing that society into being.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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