Roll Up! Roll Up! Welcome To The Kickdown: how inequality protects itself

One of the major difficulties in tackling inequality is the way it coerces many people into accepting and even promoting it. In a steep social hierarchy people will often choose to shore up their own precarious social position by kicking down on poorer, weaker folk rather than challenging the richer more powerful folk above them. 

This point has been well documented in The Spirit Level and in Richard Wilkinson’s previous book The Impact of Inequality. It draws on work of distinguished primatologist Volker Sommer based on his observations of monkeys who tend to prostrate themselves before the dominant monkey while kicking down on the weaker monkeys in displays of displaced aggression – so Alpha slaps Beta, Beta slaps Gamma and so on down the social scale. This has been termed the “bicycling reaction”, since it resembles someone leaning forward (bowing before power) on a drop-handlebar racing bike while pedalling furiously (kicking down).  
As we know, the UK is one of the most unequal countries outside of the developing world and there is, shamefully but unsurprisingly, a lot of kicking down going on at the moment. For all our evolutionary progress, it seems we are still not that far removed from our monkey ancestors. We protect ourselves by preferring to pick fights we think we can win. The current recipients of most of the kicks seem to beimmigrants and people on benefits but other targets for downward social discrimination (or prejudice, or hate, if you prefer) are displayed daily across the press and broadcast media from teen mothers to working class people and even the disabled. And, of course, Alpha monkey sleeps easy when all the other monkeys are fighting each other. 

So what do we do about it?  Well, it’s quite straightforward if not at all easy; we have to reduce economic inequality. It is material differences that create social distances. To narrow social distances we have to reduce material differences. If this all sounds rather abstract just consider your own social life. Chances are your friends are pretty much like you in terms of material status. How many of us can genuinely say that we have friends that range widely across the income spectrum?  Generally, we mix with people not too dissimilar to ourselves. We usually stick to our socio-economic hefts – where we feel comfortable and where reciprocity is likely if not guaranteed; in other words, where we feel safest and most secure, free from judgement or reproach by others. And sometimes, when our hefts are invaded by those not quite PLU (People Like Us) we can feel uneasy.

Unless we reduce the material differences between us, our society will continue to fracture and the quality of our social relations will deteriorate. Those at the top of the income and social spectrum will continue to weave myths about their own talents and falsehoods about the shortcomings of others. Those in the middle who believe (erroneously it seems) that they have the chance to join the top table will increasingly buy in to these twisted ideas and those at the bottom will likely feel the need to fight harder amongst themselves for status and respect at the bottom. Not a pretty picture and one that can be avoided if we act to reduce inequality and start to build social solidarity instead.

Bill Kerry, Secretary of the Equality Trust