On Thursday last week Bristol Pound hosted a showing of the film ‘The Divide, based on the widely acclaimed book ‘The Spirit Level- why equality is better for everyone’ – by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
In what aims to be a completely fact-based study, The Spirit Level authors purport to demonstrate that nations, states and regions, which are most divided between rich and poor also score lowest on a whole set of measures of well-being. Some of the particular statistical analyses they present have attracted some criticism, but the overall argument appears to have been vindicated over time. Kate Pickett has summarised their findings like this:
it became clear that, as well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.[i]
Their thesis is that living in a highly polarised society does something to people, making them less satisfied with their own lives and tends, especially among poorer people, to feelings of inadequacy or alienation. Their appeal is for a much stronger collective culture with the proliferation of co-operatives and other similar initiatives. Free marketeers hate such talk, seeing it all as an inhibition of ‘freedom’ – meaning the freedom of the individual to do as they like. Others might comment that such individualistic freedom should, indeed must, be checked in any just society and it is pandering to such ‘freedom’ that has allowed these polarities between rich and poor to arise with their ensuing dis- ease in society.
Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said this in May 2014 to a conference in London:
Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long term dynamism of capitalism itself…
Here he points to social capital, the value embedded in the very structure of relationships in a society, as something that must be protected for the good of all.
The big question then arises as to How this can be achieved? Making change is not so easy in a society built around the free market and working to its rules. This is what I said in my forthcoming book Rise up with Wings like Eagles.
I believe that the heart of a new approach to economics can be found in one simple idea. That is that wherever we are in the world, we should attempt to localize those parts of the economy that can be localized. This sort of shift has the potential to engender really positive social and political effects and provide a new resilience, especially to poorer economies. It is also an absolute necessity in terms of action on climate change.[ii]
This is the deep reason why we set out to deliver a city-wide currency in the Bristol region and why a team of us are now working to create a food co-operative, called Real Economy, based on sourcing from local producers. Creating our own systems locally, allows us to embed a set of social and environmental aims into our projects and then test and monitor their ‘success’ against progress on these aims. This creates a quite different feel to the culture, gathering participants who share the intrinsic values of the community and so building community life across the city. In terms of scale, of course, these projects are tiny in comparison to the global problems they set out to address, but they may have the potential to give people a taste of something different and so prove ‘There is an alternative’. Then people can respond.
[i] Kate Pickett (2014) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/09/society-unequal-the-spirit-level
[ii] From Chapter Six ‘Short-Sighted Economics’ in Rise up with Wings like Eagles – discover inner strength and wisdom to transform our relationship with the earth by Chris Sunderland (to be published by Earth Books in December 2016)