Pickett and Wilkinson show how inequality erodes our mental health - and is improved by feeling our own power
We have been charting and profiling the work of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson on the D.A. for a while now - particularly around their sequel to The Spirit Level, The Inner Level, which finally came out this summer.
The reason we regularly circle around P&W's work is because it makes such strong claims about the poor psychological, emotional and health consequences of structural and economic inequality. In terms of our own framework, they draw very definite connections between the I, We and World realms.
Though for them, the direction certainly goes from a global model of harsh capitalism > barely mitigated by institutions and policies at the national, regional or municipal level > distressing bodies and minds at the individual or interpersonal level.
Our question might be: Is there any potential for change "trickling upwards"? Where a strengthened I and We, subjectivity and community, could amass enough willpower and strategy to present viable alternatives to the current system?
This Open Democracy piece lays out Pickett and Wilkinson's case with crystal clarity. Some extracts:
In our new book, The Inner Level, we bring together a robust body of evidence that shows we were on the right track [with the preceding book]. Inequality eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world, and the vast majority of the population are affected by the ways in which inequality becomes the enemy between us.
What gets between us and other people are all the things that make us feel ill at ease with one another, worried about how others see us, and shy and awkward in company—in short, all our social anxieties.
For some people, these anxieties become so severe that social contact becomes an ordeal and they withdraw from social life. Others continue to participate in social life but are beset by the constant worry that they have no small talk or come across as boring, stupid or unattractive.
Sadly, we all tend to feel that these anxieties are our own personal psychological weaknesses and that we need to hide them from others or seek therapy or treatment to try to overcome them by ourselves.
But a recent Mental Health Foundation Survey found that 74 percent of adults in the UK were so stressed at times in the past year that they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. One-third had suicidal thoughts and 16 percent had self-harmed sometime in their lives. The figures were much higher for young people.
In the USA, mortality rates are rising, particularly for white middle-aged men and women, due to ‘despair’, meaning deaths due to drug and alcohol addictions, suicide, and vehicle accidents. An epidemic of distress seems to be gripping some of the richest nations in the world.
Socioeconomic inequality matters because it strengthens the belief that some people are worth much more than others. Those at the top seem hugely important and those at the bottom are seen as almost worthless. In more unequal societies we come to judge each other more by status and worry more about how others judge us.
Research on 28 European countries shows that inequality increases status anxiety in all income groups, from the poorest ten percent to the richest tenth. The poor are affected most but even the richest ten percent of the population are more worried about status in unequal societies.
Another study of how people experience low social status in both rich and poor countries found that, despite huge differences in their material living standards, across the world people living in relative poverty had a strong sense of shame and self-loathing and felt that they were failures: being at the bottom of the social ladder feels the same whether you live in the UK, Norway, Uganda or Pakistan.
Therefore, simply raising material living standards is not enough to produce genuine wellbeing or quality of life in the face of inequality.
Although it appears that the vast majority of the population are affected by inequality, we respond in different ways to the worries it creates about how others see and judge us. As we show in The Inner Level, one way is to feel burdened and oppressed by lack of confidence, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem, and that leads to high levels of depression and anxiety in more unequal societies.
A second is to try to flaunt your own worth and achievements, to ‘self enhance’ and become narcissistic. Psychotic symptoms such as delusions of grandeur are more common in more unequal countries, as is schizophrenia. As the graph above shows, narcissism increases as income inequality rises, as measured by ‘Narcissistic Personality Inventory’ (NPI) scores from successive samples of the US population.
A third response is to find other ways to overcome what psychologists call the ‘social evaluative threat’ through drugs, alcohol or gambling, through comfort eating, or through status consumption and conspicuous consumerism. Those who live in more unequal places are more likely to spend money on expensive cars and shop for status goods; and they are more likely to have high levels of personal debt because they try to show that they are not ‘second-class people’ by owning ‘first-class things.’
It's an extraordinarily powerful charge-sheet. P&W go on to say that such societies are further disabled, because with these psychological maladies, people find it hard to join together to solve problems.
And one of their chosen remedies is to support "the increase of all kinds of economic democracy—everything from more cooperatives and employee-owned companies to stronger trade unions, more workers on company boards and the publication of pay-ratios. We believe that extending democratic rights to workers embeds greater equality more firmly into any culture."
As our close associations with Open Coop, CtrlShift, Transition Network and the ReEconomy would show, A/UK are particularly interested in how different forms of work, enterprise and ownership can bring more meaning, purpose and satisfaction to our lives. Which then gives us strength and resources to be more "awakened" citizens.
Our only questions would be:
1) is it more motivating for the majority to be motivated as much by visions of their intrinsic human worth and potential, and the extraordinary possibilities for its realisation in this technological age, as by their anger at being made unequal by this particular system? We have such an appetite for science-fictional dystopias... How can we change the quality of our visions, which then shape our actions?
2) As our comrade Indy Johar often writes, can we be bold enough to reimagine and refashion the bigger economic, political and administrative systems in entirely new language - a language that assumes the huge potential of humans as they come into the world?
The work of his Dark Matter Labs with Impact Hub in Birmingham, on their Radical Childcare proposal, is a great example. Starting from the premise of a child-friendly city, what other massive and multi-factoral changes are implied by this goal? How do priorities and opportunities just completely change?