Book Review: “Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy”

A review I wrote of John Gurney’s recent book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.


‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’

– Gerrard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

For those familiar with the excellent (if rather odd) 1975 film Winstanley, these lines may ring out in actor Miles Halliwell’s serene, well-spoken, home-counties voice. While we can never know what Winstanley really sounded like, enough is known of his life to give a fascinating insight into much of his personal and political journey. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was of the ‘middling sort’, a cloth trader from Wigan who moved to London, lost his business and became one of the founders of a lasting radical tradition: that of the Diggers.

As John Gurney points out in the introduction to his recent book, the time seems ripe for a reappraisal and wider dissemination of the thought of Winstanley. Issues of gross inequality, pressure on the natural environment, the oppressive role of the state (and its favouring of the wealthy), and the alienation of people from the product of their labour all gripped Winstanley, and they of course remain key problems for the contemporary left. This volume cuts to the heart of Winstanley’s thought on these topics and many more, yet it goes beyond the work of one man and successfully puts the Digger movement in its historical context.

After a stirring introduction, the second chapter gives a good outline of the material links between Wigan (and Lancashire more generally) and London through the burgeoning textile industry and its associated guilds; this was the tumultuous world of early mercantile capitalism. Winstanley’s retreat from London, caused seemingly by failure in his chosen trade, led him to Cobham in Surrey. His radicalisation there took place during personal economic difficulties but Gurney sensibly declines to assign direct causality; we should not automatically assume that it was only because the system failed for Winstanley that he turned against it.

Indeed, Gurney’s excellent contextualisation of the religious (moral) framework embraced by Winstanley and others suggests that egalitarianism was a growing concern at this time. This is a similar line to that taken by Christopher Hill, whose work should probably be read alongside Gurney’s biography. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) paints a broad picture of the many contemporary political and religious radicalisms which erupted in seventeenth-century Britain. While Hill covered the Diggers only relatively briefly, Winstanley emerged, according to Gurney, as ‘the real hero, and the true revolutionary’ (p.7).(1)

The third chapter traces intellectual parallels and antecedents relating to Winstanley’s ‘Digger’ writings, but again Gurney declines to speculate on direct influences, instead pointing to the more general milieu of common radical and millenarian ideas. Gurney identifies two major innovations in the Digger movement, both important strands of Winstanley’s works: the consistent complaint that the English were still living under the Norman Yoke (that is, an aristocratic, arbitrary elite imposed from without), and the failure of that elite to honour the social contract. Winstanley argued that the common people had opposed the king with both money and blood, and had paid a disproportionately high price in both.

There follows a very useful summary of the longstanding historical debate over the precise relationship between the Diggers and the Levellers. Gurney’s approach is rather unusual but refreshing; he essentially tells us that the issue is not all that important, and certainly should not obscure the radical demands of either group. Much of the confusion centres on a particular Winstanley pamphlet called The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). Note the lack of apostrophe; Gurney suggests that it refers (in the singular) to Christ, the True Leveller. This would negate a great deal of historical debate over why the Diggers (who did not seem to refer to themselves by that name either) had given themselves a name so close to that of an already-existing radical movement, the Levellers. Gurney also brings out very well the viciousness of the attacks on Winstanley himself, on his livestock, and on the land used by the Diggers.

Leftist traditions are divided over whether Winstanley represents a true precursor to later incarnations of socialism or communism, but Gurney makes a powerful case for the Diggers as genuine proto-communists. It is difficult to argue with this, though some leftist traditions of course do; Winstanley favoured a national strike, attacked wage labour, believed that all things are held in common and railed against the clerical and secular authorities and their wealthy masters. That said, readers may find it a step too far when Gurney insists that Winstanley’s final important work, The Law of Freedom (1652), fits with this radical set of ideals. There are bold attempts to smooth the differences between the earlier and later Winstanley but those extracts from The Law of Freedom included (in a very fair and even-handed manner) by Gurney still convey a retreat into a more conservative and patriarchal line of argument.

Finally, we should remember to look a bit further afield. The context of the outbreak of radicalism is not only the ‘English Revolution’, as Christopher Hill dubbed it, but a wider series of economic and social upheavals ranging across Europe during the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism (c.1350-c.1700). However, the intricacies of these conflicts are often lost to modern leftist traditions because of their close ties to religious conflict. Beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the Wycliffe-inspired Lollard movement, the continuing outbreaks of rebellion by the poor, often supported by radical dissenting clerics, spread across Europe and reached a numerical peak in the enormous (but relatively little-known) German Peasants’ War of 1524-26. In this conflict we may find many strands of egalitarian and millenarian thought which later were fused with the specific English complaints about the Norman Yoke to form a hotbed of radicalism in the 1640s. It is very hard to read Winstanley’s work without thinking of Thomas Müntzer, for example. Müntzer, a cleric, was beheaded in Thuringia in 1525 having proclaimed ‘omnia sunt communia’ (‘everything is common’, usually taken to mean ‘all things belong to all people’); a Winstanleyian sentiment to be sure.


1. Hill went into greater detail in The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1976).

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Holiday Reading

Monsters, fascists, slaughterers and liberal parents

I took what seemed a ridiculously ambitious six books away for the two weeks in Fiji. In the end, there was enough hammock, beach and early bed time to necessitate an additional seventh. Above you can see what constituted my holiday reading; hereafter, a few thoughts on those volumes.

First out of the hemp knapsack was John Wyndham‘s The Kraken Wakes (as an aside, the recent Penguin editions of Wyndham’s fiction are rather lovely). I’ve written about my admiration for Wyndham before, here – and some of you may have noticed that this blog is in fact named after one of his first stories.* Wyndham, for me, is a bona fide genius; a follower of H G Wells, certainly (though less of a Huxleyite than often presumed, I would suggest), he is the antecedent of J G Ballard, Allan Moore, Margaret Atwood, P D James – and China Miéville, of whom more shortly. Wyndham’s overarching project was the utterly plausible depiction of disruptions to parochial (even where nominally metropolitan) petit bourgeois daily life caused by exogenous shocks of a non-economic kind, expertly weaving in the Cold War context. Allied with an anachronous penchant for strong woman characters and a devilish eye for social satire, some of which is every bit as biting as Isherwood and even early Waugh, Wyndham’s major works are both time capsules and timeless stone tablets; they contain snapshots of his era but illustrate eternal human processes and interactions. The Kraken Wakes is exemplary in this regard: an alien threat manifests itself and nations are rendered inactive by mistrust and petty jealousies, while human-scale responses are undermined by entirely surmountable fractiousness and attitudinal inertia. Whereas other of his works progress steadily, TKW follows a more episodical path, with separate ‘phases’. This invites the reader to fill in the lacunae, which one may attempt neatly, logically and without colouring over the edges, or abstractly, ranging into the future as darkly or optimistically as a prevailing mood permits.

From dystopian fiction (of a sort) to the dystopian reality of Arundhati Roy‘s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. Roy’s retreat from fiction (or rather her preoccupation with factual reportage and advocacy) is well-documented and, in my view, deeply admirable. To be outspoken not only on regional disasters such as the Sri Lankan genocide but also specifically on the Indian tinderboxes of Kashmir and Naxalism (which she weaves together as part of a wider thesis on India’s crassly brutal ‘development model’) is brave beyond belief. Many of the essays contained in Listening to Grasshoppers concern the mishandling of the investigation into the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, though there are also detailed sections on genocide in Gujarat and some explorations of peasant resistance to state-sponsored barbarity in the rural northeast. The flagrant perversion of Indian democracy leads Roy to question the value of such a concept at all. It is an uncomfortable and courageous line of enquiry, and one which we should be brave enough to follow here in the UK too, where the real government so clearly extends to media moguls and police chiefs. The writing is at once characteristically elegant and abrasive: a call to arms without hectoring; clear, unanswered questions without the pretension of easy answers.

Moving back to fiction, I finally got around to one of the ‘buzz books’ (ugh) of the decade, Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I must say I found this unusually irritating. I thought it was pretentious, mind-numbingly middlebrow and mostly unconvincing. It was far too long to sustain interest, and while I was gripped by the last sixty or so pages – by that stage I wanted the details of the denouement, much of which was guessable early on – the preceding four hundred were annoying in the extreme (and I am too stubborn to abandon a book half read). None of the main three characters was vaguely sympathetic. The mother, and ‘author’ of the letters which make up the book, was a cold, vain, arrogant borderline sociopath; the father a wet, patronising, irresponsible, myopic – and in his own way equally arrogant – dupe. Kevin himself is a sadistic non-entity; I don’t feel that the author herself really ‘knew’ him. A bitch, a bore and a little bastard, to put it crudely. None of the relationships in this triangle (later square) were particularly realistic, or rather there were enough jarring disjunctures to make them seem phony. I am intrigued to see whether the film can breathe some life into them.

Interestingly, as the immigrant of the piece, the mother (of Armenian heritage) embodied much of America’s cold, robust, enterprising side. The father was homely, faux-warm and empty. Kevin was perhaps meant to embody some version of post-modernity. Absurd or surrealist violence as annotated by Baudrillard. The whole thing was depressing but more aesthetically than emotionally, as so little of it rang true at a gut level. The story was all-too plausible of course – the banality of the high-school massacre being one legacy of the last fifteen years – but the characters were constructs or ciphers. The writer seems as cold as her proxy, the mother, and it shows on each page. I would perhaps recommend it as a point of interest for discussion – after all the book has gained some cultural currency – but I’m not sure it’s a healthy intervention into the debate on contemporary child-rearing; more a sad commentary on one person’s interpretation thereof.

I was relieved to be able to tuck into Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Eating Animals – though I shouldn’t have been. I’ve teetered on the edge of some degree of meat rejection for a long while, and this book feels like the permission I needed to move properly to what the author terms ‘selective omnivorism’ – that is, the eating of meat only when its rearing and slaughtering meet ethical minimums (assuming one is comfortable with the ethics of eating meat in the abstract, which I think I still am). The book has so many fascinating and horrifying parts; too many to describe really, I would simply urge all to read it. There is an Emperor’s New Clothes element to it: I’m sure at heart most of us know how degraded and disgraceful the meat industry is, but we are very good at closing our eyes and ears to the facts. Really though, as Safran Foer expertly argues (and from an everyman position – this is not simply about middle-class guilt), the game is up. We are well on the way to creating Atwoodian ChickieNobs. Something has gone horribly wrong with our flesh consumption (not least the ridiculous underpricing of meat – where externalities are ignored and will only be costed later, in future antibiotic uselessness and dangerous genetic monopoly). And fish. Yes, fish is just as bad, if not worse. Even if you think his fiction to be too clever, too arch, too portentous, this is a different kettle of line-caught sustainable tuna.

After the travails of Kevin and the grimness of the meat industry, a book offering a snapshot of a transition to fascism might not seem like light relief, but every moment of Antonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains was a joy. This was given to me with high recommendation by friends of impeccable literary taste, and the anticipation was ramped up further by (what seemed) a rather gushing introduction by Mohsin Hamid. However, the superlatives were spot on. Rarely have I read a book with such economy of language; an efficient prose which loses no richness in its trimming. In just a couple of hundred double-spaced pages, the dawning of the fascist state in Portugal is unveiled, with excursions into the worlds of the Spanish Civil War, Portuguese literature (and wider culture),  and that great inter-war institution: the health retreat. Oh, the heat! Oh, the lemonade! Oh, the hidden communists! Pereira himself is both a fully-rounded character and a representative of a substantial section the population at large; not only in Portugal, but more broadly in a Europe descending into the grip of various fascisms. The literary device used to frame the entire narrative is risky but successful, leaving an element of doubt as to the story’s (in)conclusion. A wonderful book, and one I am very glad to have encountered.

Next stop: China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station. At around eight hundred and fifty pages it was a bit of a doorstep – at one point so unwieldy that it ended up in the sea. Its enormous scope and effortless grappling with a myriad of metaphysical concepts belie the precocious author’s then twenty six years of age. The city of New Crobuzon is highly evocative of London, though on an alternative development path lacking digital technology and dependent upon steam-driven machinery (and pseudo-computers). Not precisely analogous to our world due to the existence of many non-human sentient races and something akin to magic, the city nonetheless has areas and communities which feel familiar. Isaac, the main protagonist, could easily be working in the Imperial or University College science labs as conducting his Universal Force Theory experiments in Brock Marsh; were it not for her insectoid head, his partner Lin might be at home exhibiting at the White Cube. Actually, the insectoid head might be fine there too.

The themes – loyalty, community, democracy, censorship, the criminal-state nexus – are universal, and the size of the book allows genuinely thoughtful exploration of each. There are brief moments which induce a wince, but in general the writing is playful, provocative and very smart. In some places it reminds me of a less self-satisfied Iain M Banks; in others, a humbler Will Self. The warts’n’all urbanophilia of Iain Sinclair is also coursing through Miéville’s veins like the rivers Tar and Canker (and, by extension, Thames). Perdido Street Station was compulsive and challenging; in fact, its page-turner nature worked against it somewhat as I occasionally felt as though I hadn’t enough time to process all the ideas. A great read; while I had followed Miéville as an activist and commentator it was my first engagement with his fiction and certainly won’t be my last.

Finally, on the plane home I hoovered up Bolaño‘s Last Evenings on Earth. A rich collection of haunting, wistful and melancholy short stories, often deploying the author’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego Arturo Belano (see also The Savage Detectives). As with other of Bolaño’s triumphs the ebb and flow of the text is captured beautifully in a sympathetic translation. While many of the stories are, prima facie, bathetic wanderings through the minor circles of literary purgatory – was a writer ever as playfully obsessed with the taxonomy and hierarchy of other writers as Bolaño? – there are the usual revelations of life in Spain, Mexico and Chile. As always, the interstices of political and cultural landscapes are the key scenes of Bolañoverse dramas, but it is easy to extrapolate broader human themes from these micro-level tales. Much like the Tabucchi, a wonderful and lasting reward for just a few hours of reading.

So, in sum: Wyndham continued to impress me with prescience and precision, ditto Bolaño with wist and wit; Roy was precisely as promised by a friend, ‘articulate and bracing’; people really need to talk less about Kevin, notwithstanding the fascinating wider subject matter; Safran Foer broke free of portent and pretension to offer something deeply affecting and painstakingly researched (which I realise is what fans think of his other books); Tabucchi dealt an absolute ace; and my first Miéville was entrancing: the course is set for Embassytown.

Two weeks off from the doctoral writing-up and a few months’ worth of pleasure reading caught up on. Now back to work.

The first entry here was a quotation from The Kraken Wakes and encapsulates much of my intellectual reaction (if not my emotional instinct; or is it vice versa?) when confronted with the likely collision of climate change, resource security and energy depletion.

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 11:27 am  Comments (1)  

A Momentous Week? Perhaps

It is too early to tell what might be the outcome of this week’s political and media scandals. It is certainly too soon to be overly optimistic about the long-term consequences. But to me there seems to be something afoot. Are the hazy filters being lifted from peoples’ eyes? Are there folk up and down the country joining the dots marked police, media, politicians?

Most bizarrely of all, I find myself asking whether it really takes Hugh Grant to catalyse such logical leaps. He is no radical; he’s a privileged somebody who was stung by the machine. Yet his experience has enraged him to the extent that he is no longer afraid to bite the hand that once fed him.

And through such fearless proclamations as we heard in that hour of Question Time tonight more and more people will recognise that what we have before us is a vile, corrupt, deceitful and thuggish snake which constricts us in so many ways. Not so much a snake, perhaps, as a hydra – as pointed out by Stavvers here – since this creature’s heads are manifold, assuming the form of the Metropolitan Police, the Westminster regime, the print media and the pathetic regulatory bodies which supposedly guard our liberties.

And as always in such moments, Shelley calls out from the past, urging:

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you – 

Ye are many – they are few.

Published in: on July 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

British Colonialist Broadcasting Service

Three things about BBC coverage of the North African uprisings have really disappointed and angered me…

1) The implicit assumption that Arab peoples (and probably most non-white people generally) cannot exist without a charismatic leader. In the reporting of each of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan uprisings, a question that BBC journalists came back to again and again was along the following lines: ‘the people have legitimate grievances, but if Dictator X were to go, who would replace him!?’ The most obvious answer is ‘none of your goddam neo-colonialist business’. But that lets them off the hook, because what that question really says is: ‘we think one of two things: either you are not sufficiently mature as a society to be treated to this thing we call democracy unless you have a charismatic broker to explain it to you’ or – and I think it’s much more a case of this – ‘a democratic expression of your discontent with hundreds of years of exploitation by us and our proxy thugs might turn out not to preserve our significant material interests in your country’. Whether this is simply ingrained ideologically from an early age in most of us (probably), or whether there is an implied party line at the BBC (possibly), I don’t know. Either way it is pretty sickening.

2) Last night, on The World Tonight, the presenter asked whether Libya might turn into a failed state because of the popular uprising. Please excuse my doubting its current status as a paradigm of successful statehood. This is another meme which pervades all the BBC coverage: that a power vacuum is much worse than a grossly repressive dictatorship. A power vacuum is precisely what most of these popular uprisings want – a period uninfluenced by corrupt kleptocrats or the threat of army violence to decide how they want to proceed. Worries about future ‘failed states’ are entirely fatuous: these states have completely failed already. Of course, this merely exposes the fact that the West views a ‘failed state’ as one which does not work for supranational elite interests, rather than one which does not work for its people. As we know, this applies as much at home as abroad.

3) This morning, in an interview about Gaddafi’s stockpiled weapons, the Today programme interviewer raised concerns that mustard gas stocks could fall into the ‘wrong hands’. This completely exposes the fact that the BBC has to share the views of the ‘Great Powers’ (a horrible colonialist term which sadly is being shown to have ongoing relevance). To my mind, and surely this is rather obvious, they are in the wrong hands now – those of Gaddafi. They were in the wrong hands when we  (broadly-speaking) sold them to him. To worry about them falling into the hands of a more legitimate (though potentially less Western-friendly) government is entirely pernicious.

Now, I’m not saying this is unique to the BBC; rather that I expected much better. But now I know not to.

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 9:01 am  Comments (2)  

A pointer…

…towards this fascinating interview with Arundhati Roy. Her characterisation of the elite mentality seems as relevant in this country as it clearly is in India. The standout quotes for me (though in one sense they don’t ‘stand out’, since the text is incredibly rich throughout) were these:

Finding out about things, figuring out the real story—what you call research—is part of life now for some of us. Mostly just to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda, of being lied to all the time, if nothing else.

and most pertinent in light of the current struggles across the Middle East:

It would be immoral of me to preach violence to anybody unless I’m prepared to pick up arms myself. But I think it is equally immoral for me to preach nonviolence when I’m not bearing the brunt of the attack.”


Published in: on February 17, 2011 at 5:42 pm  Comments (2)  

Four months until…

… HBO’s adaptation of the Fire and Ice books begins. Very excited, though as always with adaptations of treasured stories I’m rather wary of the changes that the medium will no doubt force onto the narrative and characters. The cast looks ideal though.

First trailer here

Longer HBO preview here


Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 8:52 am  Comments (2)  

A Few Literary Songs

I’m about to spend two days on trains and such journeys always warm the epic literary cockles of my heart…

This can begin in only one place: out on the wiley windy moors with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”. Deeply strange even though it is so familiar, the song and dance in tandem are like nothing before or since as far as I can tell. It’s all beautiful, but at the same time quite unsettling.

From Emily Brontë to Victor Hugo, as odd-men-out of punk The Stranglers perform “Toiler on the Sea” live in 1983. The album version is much quicker and edgier, but this more leisurely interpretation is hypnotically intoxicating. I’d never noticed quite how many keyboards Dave Greenfield used – no wonder he was derided as being proggy!

Down the hole to Wonderland for Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” now, which obviously draws out many of the parallels between Alice’s adventures and the effects of recreational hallucinogens. It’s a bit portentous and induces a few cringes now, but equally the lack of self-reflection is charming. This version runs into “Somebody to Love” and has a weird introduction.

Oscar Wilde was referenced implicitly here by The Smiths, but “A Picture of Dorian Gray” was put into song by the Television Personalities. It’s also been a live staple for The Futureheads, whose more muscular version is here (accompanied by rather jarring movie footage).

No-one brings “A Rose for Emily“, in the Zombies’ haunting (and way ahead of its time) Faulkner-inspired curiosity. This version is from the recent re-formation tour which I am looking forward to catching later in the year at the ATP Bowlie.

And finally, an old favourite: John Henry Bonham, playing the drum solo from Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick”. 2:00-2:08 is simply breathtaking. Drawing on the same literary source, an honourable mention must go to Mountain’s sadly under-rated “Nantucket Sleighride”.

Oh alright, one more. I couldn’t leave this out, since its probably the most well-known rock-lit interaction. The less said about this, however, the better.

Published in: on August 26, 2010 at 9:56 pm  Comments (7)  

Democracy, Socialism and Dissidence

A day at the Museo Casa León Trotsky

I spent the day at the ‘Democracia, socialismo y disidencias’ conference at the Instituto del Derecho de Asilo-Museo Casa de León Trotsky. It was the first of three days of events to mark the 70th Anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination, and one of the most moving aspects of the day was the presence of Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov.

There were many interesting talks today, beginning with a discussion of dissent in the Israel-Palestine conflict (via Skype) by Dani Filc of Ben-Gurion University. He highlighted the increasing political pressure on universities, especially social science departments, in the current climate dominated by the twin pillars of ‘security and order’. He also noted the profound crisis of the Israeli left despite the basic continuity of the right and sharply increasing inequality in Israel. He thinks a one-state solution is a non-starter, though he felt there may be hope for a future confederation of two sub-states. Alan Benjamin, one of the founders of Socialist Organizer, then spoke largely about the dissident trends on the U.S. right, most prominently the Tea Party movement (which he believes is ‘proto-Fascist’).

Afternoon Panel

In the afternoon, there were two panels: one on Trotsky with talks from Olivia Gall (on the Dewey Commission) and Gabriel Garcia Higueras (on dissident socialism in Eastern Europe), and one on Victor Serge, where biographer Suzi Weissman and Claudio Albertani (UACM) spoke on the life, legacy and relevance of the author. All were fascinating, exploring a wide range of issues including exile and asylum, dissidence in the face of both democracy and totalitarianism, and some meandering personal political journeys.

Published in: on August 19, 2010 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Doubt is their Product

A few words on the resurgent (and utterly predictable) attacks on “The Spirit Level”

The title and sentiment of this piece actually anticipate a much longer piece (on climate change) which has ground to a halt precisely because of the difficulty of navigating such a politically-charged debate. [David Wearing, tweeting about “The Spirit Level”, drew a parallel between the ‘doubt’ lobbies in both cases.] That piece should be ready soon, but today I just wanted to write a couple of paragraphs on the Glenn Beck-eqsue pounding that rightwing think-tanks and commentators have recently been giving Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Spirit Level”.

A Guardian article yesterday reported that “if The Spirit Level were a punchbag, the stuffing would be coming out at the seams.” This interpretation of what has gone on (mainly, and not coincidentally, since the accession to power of the Conservative government in May) may be well-intentioned, but it gives a great deal of credence to criticisms which have been strongly refuted. Kate Pickett feels that the criticisms of the book are being given far too much weight given the scrutiny of peer review and more general critical reception when it came out in 2009. So while the Guardian is probably right to pick up on the fact of the coordinated assault on the book, using terms like “ideas wreckers” simply plays into the hands of its foot-soldiers – some (probably) honourable academics, some intellectually specious hacks. Here is what the authors had to say:

“It was inevitable that these attacks would appear sooner or later. But it is important that people are aware of how ill-founded and easily rebuffed they are. That three sustained attacks from those opposed to greater equality can be dealt with in relative ease should increase our confidence in the case for a more equal society.”

Bold stuff, but it is worth examining the criticisms more closely. The first is Christopher Snowdon’s book, “The Spirit Level Delusion”. The specific answers to the questions posed by Snowdon are given here. They show that most of the points are related to case-level technicalities and I don’t see that any threaten the overall conclusions. These rebuttals have been answered by Snowdon at his blog. Some of the contested points are quite interesting (the validity of family breakdown across cultures needs further explanation, for example, and the answer to Q.12 is handled poorly by both W&P and Snowdon in my view), but in the main I find the criticisms take very little away from the general conclusions. The issue of correlation and causation is again dwelled upon (esp. for the social/communal activity question); Wilkinson and Pickett are sometimes demonstrating the former, but where a claim for the latter is made it is done so in a rigorous framework. (Things like the omission of certain cases even to the detriment of the authors’ conclusions seem ridiculous to harp on about, for example the Portugal teen birth rate.)

The second major set of criticisms comes from the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Ordinarily I would be inclined to dismiss anything that comes from the TPA on the grounds that it is obfuscatory hard-right propaganda. Far from representing the ordinary, hard-working citizen as its name implies, the Taxpayers’ Alliance is a tiny pressure group which does not disclose its funding sources and takes a dogmatic approach to public spending and constitutional ties to Europe. If we were to find out where its money came from, I suspect a more accurate name would be the tax evaders’ alliance. Anyway, enough grousing. The TPA covers much of the same ground as does Snowden; in fact some of the same text and questions are used, underlining the collaborative nature of the attempt to discredit the book.

While there are certainly legitimate gripes with the way the book’s conclusions have been spun into a ‘grand theory’ (not something the authors claim, mind), time and again it comes down to either a) correlation vs causation, b) the ‘notoriously unreliable’ nature of whole-country studies (despite much of the book being backed with state-level data from the U.S., conveniently dismissed again as an unrepresentative case), or c) valid but minute claims relating to questionable technical or selection decisions. The authors responses to the TPA criticisms are here. Much like the climate change debate, opponents of the troubling (troubling for defenders of the status quo at least) propositions repeatedly cite the same few studies which disagree. The illusion of some sort of balanced debate is thus created by multiplying the ‘anti’ voice by presenting the same retort from different sources. (Admittedly in the case of climate change this is much, much more widespread, but I think the opponents of Wilkinson and Pickett have learned a lot from that ‘debate’. One common tactic is to refer constantly back to an older article which contradicts the authors’ findings and to ignore the many subsequent studies which support them).

The third set of criticisms directly addressed by Wilkinson and Pickett is this report by Peter Saunders, produced by the Policy Exchange. Though endorsed by an unabashedly ideological institution, this document is probably the most weighty of the attacks on “The Spirit Level” covered here. It should be clear why the Policy Exchange would commission a report which had the sole purpose of debunking “The Spirit Level”; if the claims of the book were unambiguously correct, then the Policy Exchange would simply have no reason to exist, its mission being to promote “free market and localist solutions to public policy questions.” (It is interesting, if a little tangential, that Wilkinson and Pickett have attempted to portray themselves as distinctly non-partisan, and prior to the election of the Cameron government, their findings were supported by members of all major parties, if only out of convenience. Even vocal Policy Exchange supporter Boris Johnson has got behind a hike in the minimum wage to around £8.00 p/h, if only in London.)

One direct untruth in the headline summary of Saunders’ findings is that only one of the claims made in “The Spirit Level” stands up. Wilkinson and Pickett counter that fifteen of their original twenty major claims have been manipulated by Saunders (apparently through the extremely selective removal of certain case studies) to reduce their statistical significance. Not only that, there is plenty of other data-kneading alleged against Saunders, such as splitting the data into sub-groups, dismissing whole groups of culturally-homogeneous case-studies, and inconsistent application of his own ‘rules’ for a fair test. Despite being an apparently serious academic report, “Beware False Prophets” seems to be the most underhand of the three.

There are critics beyond those directly answered by the authors, both on the right and the left. The Adam Smith Institute’s dismissal of the book foregrounds the claim of an Australian Labor Party candidate (a party which has recently changed its leader in order to be more palatable to the mining industry among other rightward panderings) that ‘inequality has no impact on growth’, a piece of information which is pretty tangential to the substantive claims of the book.

Gerry Hassan’s more detailed critique of “The Spirit Level” rests on a fundamental assumption: that “the debate between greater equality and inequality involves winners, losers and choices”; this is precisely the truism that Wilkinson and Pickett implicitly try to debunk. Those of Hassan’s criticisms which come from the left do tend to hit home – especially the charge that the reason for the inequality, i.e. neoliberalism, gets an easy ride from Wilkinson and Pickett (surely I can’t be the only person who keeps thinking of them as Wilson-Pickett). However, in the most recent discussions of their work, the link between the spread of neoliberal doctrine and detrimental societal trends is made explicit (see answers to TPA, linked above.)

In summarising that “things are a little less clear-cut than the thesis put forward by the authors”, Hassan hardly lands the death blow that is being claimed elsewhere. Part of his criticism rests on the use of outliers, but I don’t see that one can argue that the U.S. is irrelevant to the debate – particularly when the state-by-state analysis within the U.S. supports all of the main findings. The United States is by common consensus the capitalist paradigm. Besides being the biggest economy in the world, it is also a model to which many developing nations aspire. After saying that the U.S. and Japan cannot be usefully included because they are outliers, Hassan then declares all such comparisons useless when the nations in question are “very different in their cultures, values and histories”. If you don’t accept the precepts of any comparative study (which is the reductio ad absurdum of what he is saying), then clearly this book is not for you. But then nor is virtually any work of social science, nor many of history. If we are reduced to region specific studies of small timescales, there is not much hope of tackling a huge topic like inequality.

Finally on Hassan, his list of “successes aided by our unequal societies” is laughable, and I must assume that it is made with tongue firmly in cheek: from “Chelsea FC to Tiger Woods to Tony Hayward and Fred Goodwin” we have a football team whose captain is so out of control that children voted him the worst role model in the game; a golfer who by his own admission had let success drive him away from “a life with integrity”; and two of the most unpopular human beings in their fields. Are they really “winners whose lives flourish”? I’m not so sure. If this was a serious point (and it might be), the choice of examples is extremely odd.

In many ways, though, Hassan’s critiques are the most pertinent, but (I feel) for the wrong reasons. He sees the book as the defining text of a generation which sums up the bleeding-heart liberal ennui tied up with a crisis of consumerism. As such it is easy to dismiss it as “deep, moralising, middle class liberal superiority” – but this frequently is an instinctive reaction by the more partisan elements of the left when really they are being presented with evidence that supports their own arguments. Instead of castigating Wilkinson and Pickett for not going the extra mile and espousing revolution, it might be more constructive to take this small (but very significant) contribution to the debate on what makes a good society and use its substantive content to bolster current political positions. Perhaps the most useful section of Hassan’s review is the part which points the reader towards Daniel Dorling’s “Injustice” – but surely this is best read as a companion to “The Spirit Level” rather than in its stead?

The best critique I have read of the book was the review in the London Review of Books by David Runciman. It explains one issue with the book which is that essentially two different claims are being made on behalf of increased egalitarianism – sometimes that everyone would do better, sometimes that the average person benefits. Sometimes the “disadvantages of inequality are distributed across the social scale” and sometimes “they cluster at the bottom”. Wilkinson and Pickett needed to be clearer about this. But, and it’s the proverbial ‘big but‘, Runciman finds that the evidence for their central claim – that inequality is detrimental to society in a number of important ways – is nonetheless “overwhelming”. The title of his review sums this up perfectly : “how messy it all is”. Runciman, in the second half of his piece, explains why this is so problematic: from education to health, the politics of redistribution are a minefield, and without irrefutable arguments, policies will be torn apart by vested interests.

Above and beyond the criticisms, Malcolm Clark at Left Foot Forward does a great job of pulling together some parallel evidence in support of the more general claim that inequality is an undeniably bad thing in society, even when it underpins growth (which is dealt with somewhat ambiguously by Wilkinson and Pickett in their quest to be politically neutral). The ding-dong in the comments section is worth a look, though I suspect your reaction will entirely depend on your point of departure (ideologically-speaking). In spite of the methodological flaws, David Runciman could still conclude that “The Spirit Level does contain a powerful political message. It is impossible to read it and not to be impressed by how often greater equality appears to be the answer, whatever happens to be the question.”

I will conclude with a link to this piece by Greg Philo of the University of Glasgow, who proposes an (extremely) progressive one-off tax to pay the deficit, in contrast to the plans of the current government to disproportionately put the burden on the poorest (and especially poor women). Inequality? Clearly not a problem.

Published in: on August 15, 2010 at 6:37 pm  Comments (4)  

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

It has been announced today that historian Tony Judt has died. He had been “confined to an iron suit” by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which he was diagnosed with in 2008; he wrote about his experience of sclerosis here and spoke about it here. He was rightly lauded for his great contributions to both modern history and to the public intellectual discourse of our time. He saw the breakdown of social democracy happening before his eyes. His work – particularly the conceptual basis of “Postwar” – was greatly influential on me, even though I disagreed with some of his more vehement proclamations (on modern French philosophy for example). His excoriation of the whole current/recent generation of political leaders in the LRB earlier this year was wonderfully and constructively bitter. As a disappointed former Marxist-Zionist, his criticisms of the Israeli state – “an anachronism” – held particular weight and stimulated a serious debate (but also drew disproportionate ire and aggressive questioning).

He described himself as follows: “I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney tunes leftie, self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university, I’m regarded as a typical, old-fashioned, white male liberal elitist… I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.” An admirable position for an historian, to be sure.

Guardian obituary here, New York Times here .

Published in: on August 7, 2010 at 1:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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