Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, by Daniel Dorling

Policy Press, 2010, xii + 387 pp, hbk, 978 1 84742 426 6, £13.99

Review by Daniel Whittall

The editorial for the Citizens Income Newsletter 2010, issue 1, in praise of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level, argued that we need to ‘go deeper into the causes of inequality than the authors have been able to.’ In Malcolm Torry’s substantial review of that book, carried in the same issue, he noted that The Spirit Level should serve as a ‘call to action’ and that it was ‘full of proposals for action.’

I begin with these points because, in many ways, they serve to frame the contribution made by geographer Daniel Dorling in his new book Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. The study of social inequality has been irreversibly altered by The Spirit Level, and in many ways Dorling’s book should be read as a complement to Wilkinson and Pickett’s. Yet it is, at heart, a fundamentally different sort of book. If, as Torry argued, The Spirit Level stands as a ‘call to action,’ then Dorling’s book stands alongside it as a ‘call to contemplation.’

Explaining the title of his book, Dorling writes that ‘If you had to choose one word to characterise the nature of human society as it is currently arranged worldwide, there is no better word than ‘injustice” (p. 5). He proceeds to set out what he calls ‘the five faces of social inequality.’ These are, in turn, that ‘elitism is efficient’; ‘exclusion is necessary’; ‘prejudice is natural’; ‘greed is good’; and ‘despair is inevitable’. Dorling argues that each of these beliefs has now become naturalised amongst a large proportion of the populations in the wealthiest, most unequal countries in the world, foremost amongst which he places the USA and Great Britain.

Following a short introduction and a subsequent chapter outlining the relationship between injustice and inequality, Dorling devotes lengthy chapters to each of his five faces of inequality. In turn, he exposes how elitism is bred through the structure of education in unequal societies, how social exclusion – normally targeting the poor and immigrants – has become the norm, how prejudice and a ‘wider racism’ are spreading thanks to inequality, and how the belief that ‘greed is good’ is leading to over-consumption and increasing waste within unequal societies. Backed up by detailed evidence, more of which can be found on the website accompanying the book, Dorling’s arguments are – with the possible exception of his over-generalised use of the word ‘racism’ – persuasive.

Dorling goes beyond the analysis offered in The Spirit Level by offering an exacting critique of the ideas which sustain unequal societies. His book offers a trenchant assault on the elitist ideas structuring society, departing from the scholarly prose of Wilkinson and Pickett to offer an analysis tinged with real passion and anger. At times, this means that Dorling’s analysis can seem a little simplistic – it is frustrating, for example, that despite his attention to the importance of ideas, Dorling makes no attempt to engage with the wide variety of theoretical work on justice and injustice. Yet, in a sense, this is a result of Dorling’s overall approach, which argues that grand theories and projects are of little interest, and that instead we should be focussing on the way in which everyday ideas about injustice permeate society, become normalised, and result in unjust outcomes for particular groups of people.

Relating to the question of a Citizen’s Income, Dorling’s book makes two important contributions. Firstly, he calls for a ‘living wage’ in all affluent countries, drawing on the work of the Basic Income Earth Network to advance his case (p. 154). There seems to be some confusion here, given that a living wage and a Basic (Citizen’s) Income are two different things, but Dorling does, later, make an explicit, although somewhat brief and uninspiring, argument in favour of a Citizen’s Income as a means for making life in affluent countries ‘less wasteful and more fulfilling’ (p. 267). Whilst it is good to see a prominent academic arguing in favour of a Citizen’s Income, it is a shame that Dorling’s discussion of the pros and cons of the policy, as well as the undoubted difficulties which would stand in the way of its implementation, should be so short as to seem superficial. However, the second and perhaps more important point of relevance to the Citizen’s Income cause is the argument for ‘heterodox economics’ which Dorling advances throughout the book. Drawing on exciting new economic thinking, such as Molly Scott Cato’s Green Economics, Dorling makes the case for a steady-state economy – something for which The Spirit Level also argued. Throughout, Dorling engages productively with the idea that there might be limits to sustainable economic growth. It is this sort of economic thought – focused on people not profit – which can take us beyond the impasse reached by neoliberalism, and which might be a precursor to the establishment of a Citizen’s Income.This reader disagrees with Dorling’s prioritisation of ideas over and above political action, believing instead that a more intricate combination of the two is required. However, Dorling is surely correct to argue that ideas have material consequences, and as such his work needs to be taken up by those working to change both the ideas which structure society, and the very structures themselves. Certainly, at a time when David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, with Nick Clegg as their willing accomplice, are launching their assault on the welfare state, the challenge to conventional thinking offered by Dorling is more important than it has been for a generation. This book deserves a wide readership, and ought to be engaged with by anybody hoping to contest the ideas which underlie social injustice