Protesters hold a sign reading "Equality is the best therapy" in 2016 © PA

Why austerity is bad for our mental health

The follow up to The Spirit Level rehearses the same argument but with a narrower focus
June 19, 2018

A decade of austerity hangs heavily over Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s follow-up to their successful 2009 book The Spirit Level. (Even David Cameron was a fan.) The authors’ argument—that the gap between relative levels of income produces social problems we ignore at our peril—remains unacted on. This time round, in The Inner Level, the authors look at how such inequality affects what happens in our heads.

Boris Johnson might think that inequality is “essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity”; but in unequal societies, the authors believe, watchfulness and insecurity drive display and positioning over collaboration and sharing. This self-perpetuating cycle is creating a mental health crisis of depression and anxiety that people cannot resolve on their own.

As if embarrassed by the new clothes in which they have dressed their old argument, the authors are at pains to say that The Inner Level is not a self-help book. They are sure-footed on class, social mobility and the fallacy of meritocracy. But their treatment of mental health never feels more than an original attempt to reaffirm the correctness of their thesis and comes close to accepting received wisdom—social media is about narcissism, consumerism is about status—rather than staking out a novel narrative.

Wilkinson and Pickett believe that only collective action can reduce inequality. Their concluding prescriptions are practically Bennite: levelling pre- and post-tax income; the development of more democratic business ownership; stronger social security protections; stronger unions; and the growth of ethical and co-operative enterprise.

The Inner Level is a battle-weary second attempt by Wilkinson and Pickett to reach a wider audience. It sets their well-rehearsed words to a new tune that, while more in keeping with current concerns, has the feeling at times of being sung through gritted teeth.

The Inner Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Allen Lane, £20)