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Book Review | Poetic justice

Book Review | Poetic justice
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First Published: Fri, Aug 20 2010. 06 23 PM IST

Injustice: Policy Press, 387 pages, Rs1,500.
Injustice: Policy Press, 387 pages, Rs1,500.
Updated: Fri, Aug 20 2010. 06 23 PM IST
Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists is a book-long inquiry into the attitudes that refuse to let injustice go away. In what is a very original, angry and at times self-indulgent expose from a lifelong UK Labour Party supporter, some stark truths are revealed about how the privileged carry on believing in the five notions that perpetuate injustice: Elitism is efficient; exclusion is necessary; prejudice is natural; greed is good; and despair is inevitable.
Author and social commentator Daniel Dorling identifies these as having replaced the five social evils—squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease—identified by British wartime economist and reformer William Beveridge. He also puts forward the fairly obvious idea that the privileged in unequal societies see inequality and the suffering which arises from it as self-perpetuating, and then conveniently become blind to it. However, what stands out about Dorling’s arguments is that he sees this lack of fully considered thought or action to be as much at fault as the lack of any real policy intervention.
Injustice: Policy Press, 387 pages, Rs1,500.
Over the course of 320 pages, it is our laissez-faire attitudes that bear the brunt of Dorling’s criticism. He shows us how irresponsible our beliefs are: whether it is the belief that children who go to Britain’s public schools are brighter (elitism); that the poor are those who are unable or unwilling to try hard enough (exclusion); that it is right for the wealthy to hand material and social advantages down to their children because they deserve it more than poorer children (prejudice); that it is normal to live your life with debt and that riches are achieved by those who are somehow superior and possess extraordinary vigour, not an advanced lack of scruples (greed); that the human condition is such that we cannot be happy unless we consume more and more and then confuse these wants with needs (despair).
This work could be called timely considering a Conservative-led government recently came to power in the UK. As Dorling has always believed, New Labour was just conservatism in a new chamber pot.
He assembles some remarkable statistics to show that inequality in Britain is as harsh as it was when Dickens was writing Hard Times in the Victorian era. And given that a substantial number of Delhi’s and Mumbai’s citizens live in slums, we cannot say we have no lessons to learn from the West. As India’s economy grows, and if inequality is allowed to grow unchecked, we could quite feasibly end up in the sort of situation Dickens wrote about.
We may think we’re avoiding some pain—or guilt, or a feeling of powerlessness to help. Dorling suggests the opposite is true, and draws upon multiple studies and statistics that prove wealthy nations are not becoming happier as they get richer. Our exposure or proximity to injustice actually makes us less healthy—both physically and mentally.
He cites the spike in depression levels among teenagers across the developed world in the 1990s as wealth disparity grew—those old enough will remember the anthem for that generation, Kurt Cobain’s song Lithium. In addition, many diseases which afflict the rich (but not the rich alone), such as cancer, could by Dorling’s reckoning be dramatically reduced, or even made curable, if everyone had an equal shot at education.
As such Injustice seeks to shock us into feeling that there has never been a better time for fairer income distribution in richer societies. He points out that the world’s population has peaked and will begin to drop in our lifetime—one of the many interesting facts that he uses to support his view.
It is perhaps a natural consequence of this that Dorling slips into pontification at times, which can grate. At other times it can sound like a shameless plug for the ideology of the (old) Labour Party, now long dead. However, while the course of action he offers is certainly potted with ethical conundrums, it is a change of attitude he seeks first and foremost.
Injustice does not provide all the answers, but it does suggest we could spend more time seeking them—to that extent the sermon is a welcome one.
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First Published: Fri, Aug 20 2010. 06 23 PM IST