Book Review: Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists by Daniel Dorling, Policy Press (2010)
Over the last two decades or so, scholars concerned with social justice have offered a number of different frameworks for helping us to analyse the problem. These have included the extensively discussed two-dimensional approach that classifies issues under the headings of redistribution and recognition (recognition is the political philosopher’s term for what many others call identity politics). Scholars at UCD, led by Professor John Baker, have had two bites at the cherry with a different framework. In 2002, they supplied the philosophical content of A Strategic Policy Framework for Equality Issues for the now-defunct National Economic and Social Forum. That framework consisted of four domains. The first two are the economic and the socio-cultural, which map to redistribution and recognition in the standard language of political philosophers, and the remaining two are the political domain and the affective domain. (The affective domain “connotes those activities involved in developing bonds of solidarity, care and love between human beings; it refers to the socio-emotional relations that give people a sense of value and belonging, of being appreciated, loved and cared for in their personal, community, associational and working lives”.) In 2004, they published an expanded discussion of their framework in Equality: From Theory to Action. And the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (recently prominent in the debate on Islamic dress codes for women) has sought to apply Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities by developing a list of ten ‘central human functional capabilities’ (a task that Sen himself has refused to undertake).
In Injustice, Daniel Dorling takes this idea of developing a framework for analysing social injustice in what looks like a very interesting direction. Instead of using a philosophical model of domains of life as the basis of analysis, Dorling uses core five beliefs that uphold injustice: that elitism is efficient, that exclusion is necessary, that prejudice is natural, that greed is good, and that despair is inevitable. These five beliefs form the basis for the five central chapters in the book. His thesis is that these beliefs are used to justify the way in which western societies are run, and they are at the root of the injustices we see in the World.
He certainly presents a body of evidence that show that elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair are deeply serious problems. Page after page provides criticisms of shortcomings in society: how the provision of universal education in the UK is riddled with inequalities driven by the presence and status of competition and elite schools; how a sixth of the populations of rich countries live in poverty; that those who are in employment get into unsustainable debt in order to ‘keep up with Joneses’ (I was unaware until I read the book that more is spent on cars and replacing them every few years than on mortgages); or the higher levels of mental illnesses in affluent societies. Reading his book, you are left in no doubt that the way the UK and the USA (the main focuses of his attention) function is seriously problematic. Over the few weeks I took to read the book, I noticed the contrast between Dorling’s engaged, angry writing about the dire situations he refers to and the detached, almost unconcerned reports in the Irish newspapers on the numbers of house repossessions and the unemployment figures. However, a whole book of Dorling’s argument did leave me feeling that I had been thoroughly pummeled by a champion boxer.
A more serious problem with the book is the quality of the arguments Dorling makes. At key places, the argument relies on the use of words like “may” and “can” when discussing how people behave or developed and linking that to observed changes in society. For example, Dorling notes that in the past, children were to be seen and not heard, often abandoned, regularly beaten and systematically terrorised to such an extent that the majority of children were what we would now consider abused. Note the speculative verbs he uses as he develops the point:
Children who were abused can, in adulthood, make good, sometimes racist, bullies. Now in affluent countries far fewer children are brought up in these ways, but sadly many still suffer trauma, not just from abuse, but from events such as having the misfortune of experiencing the death of one of their parents early in their childhood, with insufficient care taken over their welfare subsequently. That can harden people. When the poor are hardened they teach their toddlers to fight, to harden them in turn, and often find ideas such as racism attractive. When the powerful are hardened in these ways, they may be far less sympathetic to the poor (or anyone else) later in life. And they may find it easier to behave in ways that are also racist. Upbringing of a particular type, regardless of wealth, is what later leads to racist beliefs.
[pages 204-205, in Chapter 5 '"Prejudice is natural": A wider racism']
The ‘cans’ and ‘mays’ in that passage are backed up with evidence in a footnote, on the sentence about the effects of hardening on the poor. The footnote cites Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, and says that the evidence in that book is of a [my emphasis] poor family who were jailed when video evidence was found of them teaching their toddler children to fight each other. [I do not know what point Wilkinson and Pickett were making with the information.]
It is a pity that the editing process was not more ruthless in weeding out this kind of passage, for there are great nuggets scattered throughout the book, and it would have been greatly enriched if they had been given more space and developed more. For example, Dorling continues his discussion on prejudice by noting that research shows that people with psychopathic tendencies tend to do well in business. And he notes that ‘business ethic’ requires people to behave in ways that are seen as immoral in personal life.
Throughout the book, Dorling draws on evidence on health, education, housing, employment and income inequalities — the hardy perennials of analyses of social injustices, and the core concerns in international human rights instruments on economic, social and cultural rights. He complements that with some very interesting insights from his own academic specialty, geography.
However, the development of a new framework is the feature of the book that is the most interesting. The framework has two potentially important strengths. First, it is accessible: elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed, and despair are terms that are readily understood (unlike the ‘recognition’ of political philosophers). Those terms provide labels to critique what is wrong with how we run our states, economies and societies, in the way that ‘freedom’ or ‘efficiency’ are often invoked by many on the Right to justify the injustices and the systems that cause them. The second strength of the framework is that it does not require those of us who want to bring about change to supply a utopian vision, a complete and correct alternative model. I hope that Dorling develops the framework. And I hope others join him in that task, and give it widespread purchase in both scholarly and popular ideology.
Other discussion of the book and the ideas in it can be found
- in The Guardian
- on The Enlightened Economist
and in audio or video on
- BBC Radio 4′s Thinking Allowed (in which Dorling is interviewed (after a feature in naturism and nudity))
- The Skeptic
- Indymedia UK (Daniel Dorling speaking about the book in Sheffield in February 2010)
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