Saturday 13 February 2010

A Dispiriting Level Of Tedium

I managed to get away from work a little earlier than usual yesterday and caught a screening in Stratford of The Wolfman, which wasn't a complete howler - and I don't mean that in a good way. The less said about it the better. Then it was off to Wanstead Library for a Newham Bookshop event with Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

The book argues that almost every social problem common in developed societies - reduced life expectancy, child mortality, drugs, crime, murder rates, mental illness and obesity - has a single root cause: inequality. I'd been looking forward to hearing Wilkinson for a while - the teaser video for the book looks great and Matt Sellwood had interviewed him in Red Pepper in December 2009.

Unfortunately, I haven't read the book yet so I can't review it, but on the strength of yesterday evening's discussion, one of the most tedious and disappointing literary events I have witnessed, I can't pretend I'm now looking forward to doing so.

That Richard Wilkinson came across as an academic delivering a Monday morning university lecture was only part of the problem. As a retired professor of social epidemiology, I suppose he can hardly be blamed for seeming rather dry and precise. But when the audience - predominantly middle-aged, middle-class and members of the Newham branch of the Fabian Society - gave the impression from their questions that they were taking notes in preparation for writing an essay, Wilkinson had precious little to work with.

Here we are, facing the impact of the international banking crisis and the recession that has meant the middle ground in politics has not so much shifted as collapsed. The past 'certainties' of neoliberalism now seem so fragile that it feels like a point of generational change in attitudes, where the pursuit of profit is no longer seen as the profession of heroes but of villains. At the same time, the mainstream parties have little to offer as an alternative to the politics they have been tied to for so long and yet the traditional extra-parliamentary left is as weak as it has ever been. No wonder people are looking around for new answers and why books like The Spirit Level have attracted such wide publicity.

Sitting at the back of the hall at Wanstead Library, desperately trying not to nod off, I could imagine what a genuine activist audience would have made of Wilkinson's evidence. If, for example, giving people greater control over the institutions where they work has a positive impact on reducing the consequences of inequality that even the better-off are unable to insulate themselves from, how do we use this information to argue for a transformation of the workplace? Perhaps a move not just towards more cooperatives but to workers' control starts to seem less far-fetched and outlandish. If there is a link between consumerism's 'status competition' and drug problems, mental illness or violent crime, how can we incorporate this into a popular and more effective message about the way that rampant consumerism is also environmentally unsustainable - particularly at a time when climate change denial is growing in acceptance?

Wilkinson's conclusions potentially provide a tool, it appears, for those who wish to put them to good use. Unfortunately, the audience last night seem to treat them as little more than a fascinating intellectual exercise.


Anonymous said...

I can't big that book up enough Kevin and you must read it. I have heard Richard Wilkinson speak a couple of times (LEAP conference and at a TUC social forum on welfare reform) he is very interesting.

Anonymous said...

PS: it sounds like Wilkinson was having an off night maybe... :)

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