Inequality, knife crime, and ressentiment

Much has been said in the last week about knife crime. But little has been said about the strong correlation between rising income inequality and violence. This correlation has been documented by many scientists, most notably by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their two best selling books, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level. However, as Peter Wilby correctly points out in the current edition of New Statesman: “cause and effect cannot be derived from a statistical correlation”. Such a correlation can, though, strongly suggest a relationship that should be explored further. It’s disappointing that this exploration has had such little press coverage. So what could explain this correlation?

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra uses the word ressentiment to describe an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” This isn’t jealously or envy of any particular person or situation, but a deep feeling that flows from the very core of our being, a feeling that leaves people feeling, well…angry. Angry at everything and everyone. We suffer, he concludes, “from an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future – the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful and goal-oriented.” And, like Wilkinson and Pickett, he points the finger of blame at the rocketing increase in inequality: “The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth, or a more extensive escape from material deprivation…But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed.”

Our current economic model has produced a very large increase in wealth, power and influence for those at the top of the income ladder, whilst leaving those at the bottom barely better off, in real terms, than they were several decades ago. Social mobility, the opportunity to climb the social ladder and live at a level above that of your parents, has ground to a halt. The unequal growth produced by this economic model is largely fuelled by consumerism – the promotion and enticement to purchase lifestyles and social status that, cruelly, will always be beyond reach. Consumerism, as someone once said (sorry, I can’t remember who) is the purchasing of goods we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know. This is criminally wasteful of resources, it pushes people into debt, and it fails to achieve the social respect we so desire.

For the vast majority (about 95%) of the last 200,000 to 250,000 of human history we have lived in egalitarian groups, groups in which co-operation and equality were essential to survival, and in which competition and status seeking were shunned. It is only since we left this hunter-gatherer life style and settled down in farming communities that humans have felt the need to revert to pre-human dominance hierarchies, a social format in which it was essential to know and adhere to your position in the hierarchy, to avoid eye contact with your superiors and to demand respect from your inferiors. Think of the famous Monty Python sketch at this point. This means, as Wilkinson and Pickett point out in The Inner Level, that there are two potentially opposed systems within our social brain, two rival sources of social anxiety – one acutely aware of our place in the hierarchy, and one that is assertively egalitarian.

As humans, rather than higher primates, we feel at our best, our happiest, when we feel connected, when we feel part of a community. This is the socially evolved result of our hunter gatherer lifestyle, a lifestyle that actively resisted any member of the community getting too dominant or too powerful, a lifestyle that respected everyone simply because it was acknowledged that every one was important and of value. However, during the course of the evolution of capitalism, and particularly during its most recent incarnation, neo-liberalism, we have been indoctrinated to believe that the purpose of our life is to create wealth for ourselves and compete with our neighbour in an attempt to ‘get on in life’, to accumulate wealth and status, to believe that we are all individuals who should pursue our own self-interest.

At best, this competition for status is a zero-sum gain. If you increase your status, power or wealth by moving up the hierarchy someone else must slip down. At worst (at the present moment) the problem is that the status, power or wealth of the vast majority of people rarely, if ever, changes. The lifestyles we aspire to, those that are sold to us by celebrities or marketing companies, are constantly out or reach. The result? Deep feelings of envy, humiliation and powerlessness, together with the need to make the pain go away. We feel anger. And if we don’t take drugs to take the pain away, we find groups of people to blame – so called elites, foreign immigrants or rival gangs. And we find ways to try and acquire the money we are told we need to gain the status we believe we deserve. And we find ways to gain respect within our own communities. Or if we feel ignored by our wider community we find respect within a gang. Knife crime, I can’t help thinking, is just one manifestation of an ever steepening social hierarchy, of ever growing inequality.