On not reducing ‘inequality’ to income differentials or social class.

Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, UK. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of The Spirit Level (2009), a now famous book translated into 23 languages. She gave the annual John Hamilton Memorial Lecture to a packed auditorium at the University of Liverpool (30 10 2013), her chosen title: ‘Inequality: The Enemy Between Us’.

Kate Pickett is an excellent speaker: clear, probing, nuanced and expressive. I have heard her speak on the Spirit Level work three times now. The themes and issues raised by this body of research support such in depth scrutiny and reiteration. It is clearly one of the most important books published in the last several years. Mine is a 2010 copy and is well thumbed and festooned with post-its!

At the end of her talk, she responded thoughtfully to questions and comments from the floor. I raised my concern that The Spirit Level evidence was being used by men on the Left as a basis for an economistic definition of equality, where inequality is understood as simply equating to poverty, i.e. economic disadvantage.

While many may argue persuasively, on the basis of the available evidence, that “Poverty is the cause of causes”, for example in relation to psychosis,[i] the danger is that this in fact simplifies and ‘disappears’ the inequalities, disadvantage (including stigma) and injustice consequent upon power differentials rooted in and serving to perpetuate, racism, homophobia and misogyny, which in turn are not bound, determined or explained by social class.

For example, the fact that 48% of women who experience psychosis have previously suffered sexual abuse, 48% physical abuse and 69% one or the other,[ii] evokes an inequality and injustice insufficiently captured by an economistic focus on income differentials, poverty indices or social class statistics. The social determinants of (mental) health / public health include racism, homophobia and misogyny. These each produce bullying, intimidation, violence, fear and trauma:[iii] psychic and social disorder of a high order with severe personal and societal consequences. Damage.

Given that for many men on the Left in particular, an economistic analysis, emphasizing poverty and social class, is a familiar comfort blanket, grounded in their interpretation of Marxism, the challenge to stop these other significant determining factors from dropping further out of sight becomes harder but even more urgent.  Not least because they are all historically well established justifications worldwide, not just for discrimination, but for violence, abuse, even annihilation.

Poverty and social class are being ‘re-discovered’ as sociologically and politically relevant. To counter the accompanying political cover up taking place, the Left needs more holistic, qualitative, intellectual and political approaches, that incorporate, rather than deny, the insights of the identity politics and liberation movements that have contributed to the greater visibility of the social and political needs and rights of those affected by these inequalities, violations and violences.

val walsh / 19 11 2013

[i] John Read (18 11 2013) ‘The Social Causes of Psychosis: From Heresy to Certainty.’ ISPS UK (The International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis) Evening Event. Liverpool Quaker Meeting House.

[ii] Ibid. See also John Read & Jacqui Dillon (eds.) (2013, 2nd edition) Models of Madness: Psychological, Social and Biological Approaches to Psychosis. East Sussex, Routledge.

[iii] As Derry Hunter’s gendered autobiographical narrative of sexual violence, oppression and psychosis testifies (18 11 2013): ‘Madness and uncivilisation’. ISPS UK Event, Liverpool.


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