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In her film The Divide, a documentary adaption of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Katharine Round has taken a fairly analytical book and tell a set of stories around it. This is not a criticism. Film and book are different media, and The Divide works as a companion piece to the book, pulling out the experience of inequality at a visceral level.

So let me just rewind a bit, if The Spirit Level passed you by. It’s almost impossible now to look at the politics and economics section of a bookshop without books on inequality jumping out at you. Spirit Level was one of the first of these, taking that academic analysis and putting it into a format that was designed for the politically interested as well as the academic reader.

Social cost

The argument it made was three-fold.

First, that the effects of unequal income extended far beyond income to a whole range of life effects, including health and longevity; second, that inequality adversely affects the rich (its apparent beneficiaries) as well as the poor, thus answering that question about why the rich should care about inequality; and third, hat more unequal societies had far worse social outcomes than more unequal

The impact of these social outcomes is perhaps seen most starkly in the prison data. More unequal societies spend far more of their public revenues incarcerating a higher proportion of their population, which is counter-productive in a myriad of systemic ways.

‘Inequality costs money’

And it’s worth just pointing out the political effect of this. In a recent interview, the new Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, recounted to John Harris a conversation he’d had with a developer about affordable housing before he was elected:

“I said to them, ‘If you build a development with no affordable housing, it has an impact. It’s not a neutral act. It’s actually harmful. And if I become mayor, I’ll end up spending money on the social consequences of you doing a development that compounds our inequalities. Inequality costs money, right? So what you’re doing is asking me to support something I think will hurt Bristol.’”

It’s hard to imagine an elected politician having that kind of focus on the social costs of inequality before The Spirit Level was published.

One of the strengths of The Spirit Level is that it backed up its argument with data, lots of it, some of which got chewed over by critics and friends alike. But data, generally, does not make for a good film, which is one of the reasons that almost the only thing we remember about An Inconvenient Truth is the controversial animation of a polar bear swimming from ice floe to ice floe.

Unpeeling inequality

So Katharine Round, the director, has built her film around people whose lives could illustrate the book, as a complement to it.

From the UK, there’s a care worker in Newcastle, and an unemployed man in Glasgow. In the US, a fast-food worker, a Walmart employee, and a prisoner, as well as a woman who lives in a gated community and a psychologist who works in Wall Street with bankers who suffer from stress.

Does it work? I think so. The stories unpeel the impact of inequality on the lives of its subjects. In some, this is seen in more obvious ways, though no less real for that: the Walmart worker is about to lose her home, the careworker is way over her head in debt.

Pimping golf carts

But, as with the book, it shows that inequality affects the better off as well. The woman who has moved to the gated community thinking it would be better for her kids finds that status manifests itself in ways that are surprising (pimping the golf carts that are the everyday transport inside the community, for example) and that she doesn’t have enough to keep up. The psychologist can maintain the lifestyle he aspires to through punishing hours that mean he barely sees his children (“he seems to have insight into everyone except himself”, said a member of the audience in the Q&A at the screening I went to.)


14601180515707a223a59beThe unemployed man in Glasgow was full of insight—he contributed some of the few laugh out moments in the film—but had a long history of addiction.

“If only I was addicted to bananas,” he says at one point, and I may not have this quote down exactly. “I’d be ringing my counsellor to tell him I was on a potassium high and needed something to bring me down.”

Standing up

In the book, the Anglo-Saxon world is compared with the Nordics and other more equal countries, where they currently do things differently (though the surge of the right across Europe may yet unravel these more inclusive policies despite the actual benefits they confer on their societies.) The film avoids this route, with good reason. It’s hard to make “compare and contrast” stories work as narrative without seeming didactic.

Is there hope for change? Katharine Round suggests so, but I’m not going to say how (because, spoilers). But there are a couple of moving sequences at the end. Another world might be possible, but you have to stand up for it.

The images are courtesy of The Divide, and are used with thanks. The Spirit Level chart is taken from Ben Baumberg’s blog post on the book, also with thanks.