The Lib Dems need a big idea and it should be a transformation of society

This is an article that was printed in the April edition of the Liberator magazine that I wrote such a long time ago I forgot all about it!

In the UK it is culturally rude to ask how much someone earns, but it may be a more important question than we have previously realised. So how much do you earn? Does it afford you the things that you want to afford such as pay the bills, feed the family, go on holiday, or live in an area you want to live in? How do you feel about how much you earn and what are the effects of this on you and your family? Perhaps these questions seem a little strange but they are questions which give us a window in to the society we currently live in and the problems that we face as a result.

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ is a book that has caused a great deal of excitement and controversy in equal measure and the idea that societies with less income inequality have better outcomes for their citizens is an important one for all political parties. The responses have been typical with many in the Labour Party pushing for greater state involvement to reduce inequality while many in the Tory Party deny the idea; there was a quick response from the political right with ‘The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything’. But for the Lib Dems this is possibly an even bigger issue.

To Support the Spirit Level or Not?

The Social Liberal Forum was set up fairly quickly following The Spirit Level’s publication and endorses the ideas held within the book. They have had a growing influence within the party with senior Lib Dems attended the SLF’s first conference. Others in the party have felt that the influence of these ideas has come at the expense of other ideas and so more economically minded members have sought to form a new grouping. A united party agrees on the direction and vision of the party and internal groupings can bring valued ideas and policies to achieve this. However, internal groupings also have the potential for schisms and splits and so this is an important issue for the Lib Dems.

Due to the debates relating to the effects of income inequality the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned an independent review by Karen Rowlingson of the University of Birmingham. She acknowledges that this is a highly complex area both theoretically and methodologically and there is still some disagreement among academics on many related issues, but the main conclusion is that there is some evidence that income inequality has negative effects and there is hardly any evidence that it has positive effects. The report states that the evidence suggests that there is a correlation between income inequality and health and social problems while there is very little evidence that income inequality promotes growth or that individual incomes at the top provide incentives to work.

The report has some interesting conclusions but one which is perhaps the most interesting is this: That “the most plausible explanation for income inequality’s apparent effect on health and social problems is ‘status anxiety’. This suggests that income inequality is harmful because it places people in a hierarchy that increases status competition and causes stress, which leads to poor health and other negative outcomes”.

Status Anxiety and the State of our Society

Status anxiety is an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. The philosopher Alain De Botton claims that chronic anxiety about status is an inevitable side effect of any democratic egalitarian society. He suggests that the causes of status anxiety are lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence. So if we go back to our original questions about how you feel about how much you earn, this will depend upon what you can afford and how this compares to other people. The closer you are to the bottom of the income scale, the more you are considered a failure or a loser within society: Think of how you (or others) view different people in society – people like teachers earn an average wage and are seen as hard workers, the Tesco shelf-stacker is a low earner and the job is seen more negatively, while people not in work and in receipt of jobseekers allowance are often derided. So what is the effect of this?

We have all had feelings of being judged, ridiculed, humiliated and shamed. The experiences that create these feelings vary from person to person but we all know what they feel like and the effects they have on us. The research by Brene Brown in the USA has found a common theme among all of us. We all have feelings of not being good enough, this may be that we don’t feel rich enough, safe enough, attractive enough, intelligent enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough, whatever it is for us personally. The sad thing is that these experiences are all too common, just look in our schools, workplaces, families and friends. Just look at the most watched TV shows: X-factor, Big Brother, and other reality TV shows which shame people through humiliation, ridicule and judgement. A sad reflection of our society which breeds a need to be better than others, to be seen to be better and if we are not then we can put someone else down to make us look better. Nowhere is this seen more acutely than in Parliament. Ministers have been brought to tears following a debate in the commons. Politicians have given up or potential politicians have not wanted to go into politics for fear of being shamed by other politicians or the press.

These experiences leave us feeling disconnected from the world and we search for ways to deal with these feelings and perhaps it is telling that we are the most obese, in debt, medicated and intoxicated population our country has ever seen. And what is the pattern the further down the socio-economic grouping you go? The worse it gets.

The anxiety created by how you think others perceive you is really only the beginning of the problem. It lays the foundation for more difficult emotions. An example could be weight: Today society values people who are thin and so many people are trying to get thin. If someone who is overweight is called something derogatory, it can create devastating feelings of shame. The anxiety of being overweight, or more accurately how you are perceived by others, lays the foundation for feelings of shame when those anxieties are proved to be accurate. For someone who is at the bottom of society’s ladder i.e. not seen as a success in life, the number of potential shaming experiences is significantly greater than for someone who is seen as successful.

This phenomenon actually creates a barrier to social mobility as it does not give an incentive for people to move up the social ladder without certain emotional safeguards. There is a feeling of safety when with people who experience/have experienced similar things to you, as the anxiety of how you are perceived is reduced. But move up the social ladder and the anxiety is increased. Just think of a time you were in a social situation that you are not familiar with, there is a level of anxiety that is not there when in your usual social group. Ask someone from a disadvantaged area about going to University and see what they say about how they would feel being there. Moving up the social ladder creates more opportunities to be ridiculed, humiliated and shamed, which is what we all try to avoid in different ways.

So if status anxiety is a significant factor in creating health and social problems then surely the Lib Dem position to inequality should be to address the cause of the anxiety. If there was no status anxiety then perhaps there would be no health and social inequality in our society? Even if this were not true, would it not be a good thing for us to work towards a change in our society to one where fear is better managed, people have less shaming experiences, and people feel supported in doing what they want?

We Need to Move Away from ‘Self-Esteem’

A major factor in the creation of this fear and anxiety is the focus on self-esteem. Higher self-esteem is associated with less anxiety, and with greater happiness and life satisfaction and so we have given it prominence in our schooling of children and working with communities – particularly disadvantaged communities where the last government spent a lot on improving areas, which included working with communities to improve self esteem. However, the work of Kristin Neff, a US researcher, has shown that it is also associated with the need to feel superior to others in order to feel okay about oneself; a distorted self-view, self-centeredness, and a lack of concern for others; a maintenance of an unrealistically high view of ourselves in comparison to others. This has a particularly devastating effect when we face failure; and a dismissal of negative feedback, trivialisation of failures, and less accountability for their own harmful actions.

The whole concept of self-esteem is intrinsically linked to status anxiety and these negative aspects associated with it lay the foundations for greater social problems than they do creating community. Community politics should not be just about politics in the community, but about politics building community. Without such a focus on competition between people, a culture of envy of those with more, within a society of fear of being shamed, status anxiety would not be such a problem and would not cause the health and social inequality that we see today. There are many ways of doing this such as switching from a focus of self-esteem to one of self-compassion in education, which has the same benefits but none of the negative effects. It means supporting communities and networks, not just families. It means a change in the way Government is run, the way our institutions are run, they way they are regulated. It means educating differently, and it means a more caring, understanding society.

Seven out of 10 people believe the gap between those at the top and everyone else is too wide and bad for ordinary people (The Independent) and so tackling this would be a popular move. But it would not necessarily do anything for the underlying problems when it comes to health and social inequalities. While there has been a focus to improve public services and regenerate poorer areas, it has not resulted in an improvement in health and social inequalities. We should also focus on reforming that which potentially causes so much damage: status anxiety and shaming experiences. The focus on the personal and cultural as well as the structural will mean a different set of policies which will be very different to what is on offer from politics today. This would do more for social mobility than all the Coalition’s plans put together. Changing society may be a big idea, but it is one people join political parties for, not to tinker around the edges of the current system.

2 Responses to The Lib Dems need a big idea and it should be a transformation of society

  1. Charles Beaumont says:

    I think that status anxiety is a red herring – there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the UK is no longer the class-obssessed society it once was (such as football being enjoyed by people of all classes, widespread informality, use of first names etc.). This is very different from inequality, which in the UK is very severe and debilitating. But I think we should be looking at the factors which create a “demand” for inequality: for example, years of over centralisation have created a situation in which the economy of the UK is totally skewed towards the southeast. This, with crazily restrictive planning laws and loose mortgage lending has fuelled a property boom that makes life in the south-east unaffordable and incentivises people to seek super-high salaries. Similarly, having some of the world’s most expensive childcare further stratifies our society unnecessarily.

    Shouldn’t the Lib Dems be focussing on the issues that distort our society, leading to a demand for high salaries and results in the UK having a low quality of life, rather than trying to fix something as intangible as status anxiety?

  2. Pingback: social animals and cultural evolution of herds « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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