We used to think that we could solve inequality. In a democratic society, as income gaps widened and the rich got richer, an average Joe (or a median voter) would demand redistribution and vote for a government that pledged to do so. This theory — known as the Meltzer-Richard model — was a straightforward but widely accepted story. It made “rational” sense. Earlier propositions mooted that some growth in inequality was even necessary for economic development, but market forces would eventually reduce inequality to a sustainable or palatable level.
Unfortunately, the experience of recent decades has widely disproved these theories. Today, in the UK, the richest 1 percent of households hold more wealth than entire bottom 70 percent, and FTSE CEOs take home 109 times the salary of an average worker. In the last three years alone, the wealthiest two hundred families in Britain increased their wealth by £175 billion — just half of this increase would have financed a real-terms pay rise for all 5.5 million public sector workers. By some estimates, inequality will now reach a record high over the coming years. A similar story is playing out across the globe, as extreme poverty and extreme wealth increase simultaneously for the first time in twenty-five years.
Yet despite living in this era of crisis, there is no transformative political project on the horizon in the UK. The associated psychic toll of economic and political instability is now so crushing that even the top 10 percent of earners are worried, or at least that is the message of Marcos González Hernando and Gerry Mitchell’s new book, Uncomfortably Off: Why the Top 10% of Earners Should Care about Inequality. As members of this group become subject to increasing uncertainty themselves, can they become allies in the fight against inequality?
Don’t Look Up
The message of Uncomfortably Off is ultimately a very simple one: things are unsustainably bleak. By the authors’ recollection, the UK’s “sinking ship” has been battered by Brexit, the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, precarious work, unaffordable housing, wealth inequality, climate change, crumbling public services, and a wider crisis of democracy. As a once-rosy liberal consensus based on equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and the rule of the market fragments, the top 10 percent are increasingly concerned. It is now in their interests, argue Hernando and Mitchell, to push back against growing inequality — “if economic structures are not working for the most privileged in our society, then this is a sign that the wider system of reward is not working for anyone.”
However, this plea for the top 10 percent to “care about inequality” faces a number of significant hurdles. First of all, those in the top 10 percent don’t necessarily appreciate that they are rich. In the UK, to break into the top 10 percent, you need an income of around £60,000. This is certainly comfortable, yet is only a third of the income necessary to make it to the top 1 percent. To get to the top 0.1 percent, you need to be earning significantly above half a million. Inequality within the top 10 percent is therefore greater than inequality outside of it. The subjects of Uncomfortably Off are objectively doing well, but their perception of inequality and their assumed place within it is deeply skewed by the structure of inequality.
This observation is integral to understanding public attitudes toward inequality. An individual’s objective place in the income distribution does not determine their attitude to inequality; it is, instead, their perceived place and their local exposure to inequality. Given then that the rich overwhelmingly socialize with, marry, live beside, and work with those of a similar socioeconomic status, their reference points for what is “normal” or “rich” are misplaced. This is hinted at among some of Hernando and Mitchell’s interviewees. As one director at a Big Four accounting firm put it:
I feel fairly middle of the road and average, but objectively I know this is completely untrue. I know I am at the top of the income percentile, but I also know I’m miles away from the very rich. Everything I earn goes at the end of the month. Whether it is school, holidays . . . I never feel cash-rich.
This is a good example of what Wendy Bottero has called a “sense of inequality,” where perspectives on inequality emerge within various kinds of social settings and are shaped by practical capacities for action. Those in the top 10 percent are often aware of their privilege, but their social settings naturalize these disparities. Of particular note is the workplace, where there is always somebody further up the chain, and meritocratic discourses (known to legitimize inequalities themselves) prevail.
Despite recognizing some of these constraints, Uncomfortably Off relies on a simple information-deficit model to tackle inequality. Simply appealing to the top 10 percent to back wider progressive reform (public ownership, wealth taxes, and decarbonization are some of the proposals mentioned) fails on a number of fronts. Firstly, the provision of information alone is often insufficient to tackle preexisting misperceptions about inequality.
Information provision, as the authors of one recent paper note, is more likely to exacerbate the distance between social groups than close it. “The reason is that different societal groups exhibit differing reactions to truthful and accurate information, in ways that often strengthens [sic], rather than mitigates [sic], existing preference schisms.” This may seem irrational, but as social and political psychologists have long argued, human decision-making is exactly that.
Secondly, and more importantly, if the genesis of people’s perceptions of inequality is the social structures that they inhabit, then it is these structures that need to be changed. Uncomfortably Off is completely silent on this reality. The most pertinent example is, of course, work. The book’s interviewees are cognizant of the limited positive social impact their work has and, in some instances, recognize that “work won’t love you back.” Yet there is no mention of the potential to organize around these issues.
Highlighting the obscene concentration of income and wealth distribution is crucial to building a wider movement that dismantles our current system and works toward a model of public wealth. In the UK and across the globe, this movement can only come from below, not the top 10 percent. Yet the premise of Uncomfortably Off is that it is important to influence those in the top 10 percent, as they “have a disproportionate influence on policy.” While this may be true, accepting the disengagement of the majority of society from electoral politics and trying to tackle inequality within this deliberately restricted set of parameters will not work. Instead, what is needed is a much wider political project that moves away from elite advocacy and actually organizes working-class communities around the distinction between those who work for a living and those who live off the work of others.