A Matter of Life and Death

Göran Therborn, The Killing Fields of Inequality

Polity, 180pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780745662596

reviewed by Andrew Blackman

Inequality kills.

With these two powerful words, Göran Therborn opens his latest contribution to the equality debate. What follows is an avalanche of statistics from all corners of the globe, detailing the ways in which millions of people’s lives are stunted, damaged and prematurely ended by the crushing effects of inequality.

To pluck a few from the huge number offered: life expectancy is 46 years longer in Japan than in Sierra Leone; a college-educated 50-year-old white man has 6 more years to live than a college drop-out; almost half of all Indian children under 5 are physical stunted due to undernourishment; UK child poverty trebled under Margaret Thatcher; the restoration of capitalism in Russia and the Ukraine, with its resulting spike in inequality, caused an extra 2.6 million deaths between 1990 and 1995.

All of this and more comes in just the first chapter, barely 10 pages. Therborn is relentless in piling fact on top of fact, outrage on top of outrage, leaving little room for doubt that inequality is a central and brutal feature of today’s world. At first, the book’s title seems a little sensational; by the end of Chapter 1, it seems entirely apt.

But is it really news to anybody? Much has been written in the past few years on the subject of inequality, notably The Price of Inequality (WW Norton & Co, 2012) by Joseph Stiglitz and The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Allen Lane, 2009) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Therborn himself has been here before, too, with his 2006 book Inequalities of the World. We’ve also had the Occupy movement, and other protesters around the world attacking the excesses of the richest 1%. What does this new book have to add, other than statistical ammunition?

One thing that distinguishes The Killing Fields of Inequality is its attempt to shift the debate beyond outrage at the top 1%. While it’s easy to attack the mega-rich, and while the mega-rich do deserve to be attacked, Therborn shows that inequality runs much deeper than that.

A particular study seems to be his favourite, as it crops up several times throughout the book. It’s a large-scale analysis of mortality among Whitehall civil servants, from the porters and messengers up to the permanent secretaries. The somewhat chilling finding is that the carefully graded hierarchy of the bureaucracy persisted in death, with those at the bottom dying first and those at the top living longest – even after taking smoking and other risk factors into account.

His conclusion:

The portrayal of inequality as only a picture of the 1 richest per cent vs the rest is closer to the Disney world of Scrooge McDuck than to the grim realities of human life under contemporary inequalities.

Often when assessing detail-laden books, the word ‘academic’ is immediately preceded by the word ‘dry’, but as the appearance of Scrooge McDuck suggests, the two can safely be separated here. The book is certainly academic, and sometimes the level of detail can slow down the pace of the argument, but it never becomes turgid. Readers of Therborn’s many essays over the years in New Left Review will be familiar with his ability to combine meticulous research with an engaging, sometimes even playful style.

He also has an eye for illuminating comparisons. In a section on the squandering of wealth, he begins with the familiar examples of African dictators and the oligarchs of post-Communist Russia, but then points out that their extravagances look ‘cheap’ in comparison with the Pentagon’s astonishing $4.7 billion annual spending on public relations, and the $3 trillion cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shifting the focus away from the mega-rich is an interesting approach. At first, it seems to mean giving them a free pass or neglecting their impact, but that is not Therborn’s intention. Instead, he wants to highlight the impact of inequality on ‘a London boy in Tottenham Green who, if not unusually unlucky, has seventeen years fewer to live than a fellow Londoner in Chelsea and Kensington; or a Mancunian pensioner who at 65 can expect her retirement to end nine years earlier than that of the ladies of Chelsea at the same age.’

By doing so, he liberates the debate about inequality from the middle class frame of envy and perceived unfairness, and makes it something much more urgent –literally a matter of life and death.

Another aim of the book is to present a broader picture of inequality, going beyond wealth and income to look at inequalities of gender, health, race and other categories, as well as tracing the historical trends in inequality, its theoretical underpinnings, and its practical causes. We learn about the historical theories predicting that inequality would rise in the early years of industrialisation, before falling later, and see how this prediction came true for a while. Inequality did start to fall in many countries in the mid-twentieth century, but then rose again from about 1980 onwards.

Therborn also takes us around the world to survey inequality in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, giving a refreshing break from the predominant US focus in the work of Stiglitz and others. The results are sometimes surprising. Sweden, for example, is often held up as an example of a more equal system, but Therborn’s data show that, while it’s ‘a significantly less indecent country than most in the rich OECD world’, it has seen rising inequality in the last couple of decades. The cause: strong capital income for the rich thanks to a soaring stock exchange, while the less affluent 80% of the population saw their share of national income decline.

The broad scope of the book is both its strength and its weakness. It extends the argument about inequality into new territory and gives a much fuller, more rounded picture of it. But at the same time, the breadth of coverage, and the depth of detail that Therborn supplies to substantiate his points, make it difficult to follow the argument sometimes. Whereas a book like The Spirit Level has a sharp focus that can easily be summed up in a sentence (‘Inequality harms both those at the bottom and those at the top’), The Killing Fields of Inequality doesn’t. It bites off a lot more data, more history, more theory and more ideas, and although it chews over it all quite successfully, the result is not always easily digestible.

Where it excels is in its analysis of ‘possible futures’. Sometimes in books that present a very grim picture of the world, the last chapter feels like a token effort to cheer the reader up by offering a few half-hearted suggestions for improvement, but that’s not the case here. Therborn is a committed egalitarian, and gives a clear-sighted picture of how we could change course.

Current inequalities are no fatality. They can be changed, increased as well as reduced. They have been in the past. What perspectives of change are there? What are the key issues? What is the line-up of social forces? Where are the likely decisive battlefields?

He begins by looking at the demand and supply of equality. In the twentieth century, much of the demand came from the working class and organised labour, while there was some supply impetus from Western governments’ need to compete with Communism. Now, the ‘supply’ has diminished, while the demand must come from a much broader, more fragmented coalition of social groups.

Therborn finds hope in identity movements, which have secured solid gains in equality for women, ethnic groups, homosexuals and others, but argues that a broader appeal will have to be made to win the allegiance of the middle class, not only in developed nations, but also and more especially the emerging middle classes of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

While acknowledging the difficulty of preaching the dangers of consumerism from a position of privilege, Therborn sees hope for winning people over to the cause of equality. He proposes several lines of argument, such as focusing on the social cost of other people’s misery, the unpleasantness of living with barbed wire and bodyguards and the possibility of a better life in a more equal society. Another plausible strategy is to tap into resentment of the oligarchs, the ‘1%’ who have cut themselves off from the middle class by sidestepping existing norms and regulations. A third is more idealistic but very attractive: appealing to the ‘positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her capabilities.’ This aligns with the classical middle-class self-image, and an egalitarian society might actually give it a chance of becoming reality.

Given how much has been written about inequality already, it’s not worth reading this book simply for all the grim statistics about how unequal the world is. But it is worth reading it for its broad perspective, its historical analysis, and its cogent suggestions for possible, better futures.

The facts and stories in this book leave no doubt that the killing fields of inequality are real. People are dying because of inequality, and they are numbered not in the thousands but in the millions. If an army, a dictator or a terrorist group were causing even a fraction of the loss of life detailed by Therborn in this book, we’d be signing petitions, writing articles, and demanding sanctions, air strikes or humanitarian missions. Why don’t we treat the daily grind of an unequal economic system with the same urgency? As Therborn concludes:

The battle is about to start. Nobody knows how it will end. Which side will you be on?
Andrew Blackman is a freelance writer living in Crete, and author of the novels A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.