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From Now on, Equality Needs to Be Our Organizing Principle

In the smoking rubble of market fundamentalism, we are all being forced to rethink the principles that order our societies - and one small, shining idea is rising from the wreckage. It is the idea of human equality.

The need for us to return to this, our best and most basic instinct, is spelled out in a new book by Professor Richard Wilkinson and Dr. Kate Pickett called 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.' It is the culmination of twenty-five years of scientific research. The truths it contains provide us with a compass to rebuild our societies - and a reason to be profoundly optimistic. There is a way we can make our societies dramatically better - and the impulse to do it is hard-wired into each of our brains.

It starts with a stark realization. For millennia, there was one obvious and necessary way to improve human life: raise material living standards. If you are hungry, you will be made a lot happier by food. If you are thirsty, you will be made a lot happier by water. The human impulse for self-improvement was simple: give us more, and give it to us now. But we now know from reams of studies that once your basic needs are met - once you pass the magic number of $25,000 a year - something changes.

We carry on accumulating and accumulating, because it's what we've grown to think will give us happiness, but it works less and less. And after a while, this unhindered chasing of More More More by the very richest begins to make us miserable - and corrodes some of the other basics we need as humans.

One of our most basic psychological needs is for status - to feel that we are a valued member of our tribe. We evolved in small, very egalitarian tribes of hunter-gatherers, and have only lived outside them for a few minutes in evolutionary terms. So when we feel our status is threatened - or there is no way of becoming respected by the rest of the tribe - we begin to malfunction in all sorts of ways.

Indeed, other than being chased by a wild animal or worrying that our supplies of food, water and shelter will be cut off, nothing makes humans more anxious than panic about our status. Endless clinical trials show what happens to our bodies when we feel we are going to lose our status and could end up being looked on as inferior. Our bodies lock into a "fight-or flight" response, where our heart and lungs work harder, our blood vessels constrict, and we burn up our energy stores fast. Our systems flood with a hormone called cortisol.

If this lasts only a short period, it can be good for us: it helps us escape that growling lion, or pull ourselves out of the wreckage of a crashed car. But if it goes on for weeks or months, we begin to suffer all sorts of dysfunction - as we'll see in a moment.

Yet we have built our societies on exaggerating this status panic - and we have been ratcheting it up over the past thirty years. The more unequal a society is, the more intense it becomes. Even if you slip to the bottom in Sweden, it's not so very different from the top. But when there is a long social ladder and the bottom rung means humiliation and poverty, everyone at every rung feels a sweatier need to cling to their place - and the society starts to go wrong. This isn't left-wing speculation: it is an empirical fact.

Japan and Sweden are very different societies, but they are consistently at the top of the charts for every indicator of social success. They have low violence, low mental illness, low teenage pregnancy, low drug addiction, low obesity, low prison populations, high life expectancy, and high levels of friendship and trust. They are economically highly equal societies. The US and Portugal are also very different societies, but they are consistently at the bottom of the charts. They are highly unequal societies. If you plot countries on a graph, you see the causal relationships with striking clarity. Increase inequality, and every one of these dysfunctions shoots up with it.


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How can this be? When we are locked in stress, we get sicker. High cortisol levels corrode our insides and massively increase the risk of heart-attack. We eat more - and our bodies store fat differently. It hugs them to our middles, rather than storing them lower down, in our hips and thighs. We are far more likely to break down into depression or mental illness, or to snap and attack somebody. James Gilligan - the psychiatrist running the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School - explains that acts of violence are "attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation - a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable or overwhelming." He adds that he has "yet to see a serious act of violence that did not represent an attempt to undo this 'loss of face.'"

And when we are locked in stress, we become more suspicious of the people around us. In highly equal Sweden, 66 percent of people feel they can trust their fellow citizens - and as a result have the highest levels of friendship in the developed world. In highly unequal Portugal, only 10 percent of the population trust the rest: see the bars on the windows.

It can be easier to see how this model of stress and humiliation affects us by looking at our evolutionary cousins. In a recent study, scientists at the University of North Carolina took twenty macaque monkeys, divided them into groups of four, and put them in separate enclosures. In each little group, they formed hierarchies, with some at the top, and some at the bottom. They then made it possible for the monkeys to give themselves a dose of cocaine by pulling a lever. The dominant monkeys took very little cocaine - while the subordinate, humiliated monkeys took huge amounts. They were, in effect, compensating themselves for being at the bottom of the pile with no way out. Now think about the rates of drug addiction in Detroit, or South Central Los Angeles, or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Our elites have adopted an ideology - the extreme inequality of market fundamentalism - that simply doesn't suit our species. It makes us sick and aggressive and anxious. This doesn't just affect the poor: the studies show the disastrous effects of inequality run right up the ladder.

It doesn't have to be this way. By democratically taxing the rich and using the money to lift up the poor, we can make life better for all of us. Of course there must be some income differentials - but nothing like our own grotesque rates. Plato suggested the richest person should be allowed to earn fives times the wage of the poorest person, which seems fair to me. The evidence is in, and it is plain: a more equal society is a happier, safer, and healthier one. (The obvious exception to this rule is Communist societies. They were incredibly miserable: if equality is imposed by crazed tyrants, at the expense of freedom, then it has none of these positive effects.)

Wilkinson and Pickett explain how the US would change over time if we taxed and invested our way to the same levels of economic equality as social democratic Sweden: "The proportion of the population feeling they could trust others might rise by 75 percent - presumably with matching improvements in the quality of community life; rates of mental illness and obesity might similarly be cut by about two-thirds, teenage birth rates could be more than halved, prison populations might be reduced by 75 percent, and people could live longer while working the equivalent of two months less a year."

It's a shining vision - and not utopian. It exists now in a free, democratic country. Most Americans intuitively want it: over 80 percent say the income gap is too high. It is only the undemocratic, concentrated power of the wealthy that holds us up.

And there is another, even more sombre reason why we need to democratically equalize our societies. We are now highly likely to face a series of destabilizing and dangerous climate shocks. In his book 'Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Survive', looks at the societies throughout history that have faced similar shocks. The difference between the ones that died out and the ones that survived was relative equality. If the elite stands far above the population and can insulate itself from the effects of the shock - for a while, at least - then the society doesn't make it through. We need to reorganize ourselves now, while we can.

At the end of the failed age of market fundamentalism, the long-suppressed democratic cry for equality is emerging once again. Its glow should be at the core of how we move beyond this cold, cold depression.

Johann Hari

Johann Hari

Johann Hari was a columnist for the London Independent until 2011. He reported from Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Venezuela, Peru and the US, and his journalism has appeared in publications all over the world. 

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