The religion of inequality

December 21, 2014 0 Comments


The other day, for no apparent reason, I pulled off the shelf my old second-hand copy of R.H. Tawney’s book Inequality.

It still has a ragged and discoloured dust jacket, with a tea stain on the front, and it was well used before I bought it, for £1, on a date, unusually, I failed to note. It contains a bookmark headed ‘Important dates for you and Labour in 1994’ – the year I left the Party, as soon as Tony Blair became its leader (I wrote him a letter, resigning and explaining why, but never had a reply).

The book, with its simple, arresting title, was first published in January 1931. It was based on the Halley Stuart Lectures that Tawney, then a reader at the London School of Economics, delivered in autumn 1929 – a date that coincided precisely with the Wall Street Crash. My copy describes itself as the ‘revised, second and cheaper edition, November 1931’.

Inequality must have sold well on its first publication. Today Tawney is barely remembered, except by a diminishing number of older Labour politicians like Roy Hattersley, who has acknowledged his profound intellectual debt to him. And yet to open the book and begin reading is to fall under the spell of a powerful and persuasive thinker, whose ideas retain their moral and philosophical force over eighty years later. His prose is stately and rotund in a Victorian way, but his arguments in favour of economic and social equality are laid out in a way that isn’t hard to make out.

Tawney 1

What drew my attention straight away was the title of Tawney’s first main chapter, ‘The religion of inequality’. On religion Tawney knew what he was talking about. A Christian himself, he’d first made a name for himself with an earlier book, Religion and the rise of capitalism (1926), and he came to feel that capitalism – the acquisition of wealth for its own sake or for the benefit of a narrow class of people – was fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.

That phrase ‘the religion of inequality’ struck me with some force, because it’s a credo that’s still alive and well today. But it was not Tawney’s phrase. As he says, it was first used by Matthew Arnold, in a speech in the Royal Institution in 1878:

On the one side, in fact, inequality harms by pampering; on the other by vulgarizing and depressing. A system founded on it is against nature, and, in the long run, breaks down.

Tawney admits that gains have been made since Arnold’s day, but still regards what he calls ‘the existence of inequality on the scale of a national institution’ a major problem, and he imagines Arnold returning from the grave and being astonished by the persistence, in different forms, of huge inequalities in wealth.

Tawney plaque

Contemporary Continental writers are quoted to support Tawney’s belief that

Englishmen are born with La mentalité hiérarchique, and that England, though politically a democracy, is still liable to be plagued, in her social and economic life, by the mischievous ghost of an obsolete tradition of class superiority and class subordination which naturally leads … to paralysis and confusion in practical affairs.

The ruling classes behave ‘like the public schoolboys of the universe’ – they ‘frisk politely into obsolescence on the playing fields of Eton’, and are completely unable to play a part in what Tawney regards as the ideal, a ‘common culture’. Extreme inequality ‘pads the life of its beneficiaries with a soft down of consideration, while relieving them of the vulgar necessity of justifying their pretensions, and secures that, if they fall, they fall on cushions’.

But indifference to inequality, Tawney continues, is not confined to the rich and powerful. It’s ‘a common temper and habit of mind which throws a bridge between [classes]’. Even those committed to seeking measures to relieve poverty are seldom confident enough to advocate reducing inequality also by making the rich poorer: ‘they make war on destitution, but sometimes turn, it seems, a blind eye on privilege’. ‘We are all barbarians’, he says, and especially ‘professional man’ happy to earn an income ‘five times as large as that of the average working-class family’.

Lords 1937 Jimmie Sime

Lords (Jimmie Sime, 1937)


Tawney argues for a more equal society, but not simply to achieve a better distribution of wealth for its own sake. He aims beyond that. He’s critical of the labour movement for failing to counter the underlying assumption that additional income and wealth are themselves sufficient. Instead, it should develop ‘faith in the possibility of a society in which a higher value will be set on human beings, and a lower value on money and economic power’. Even when their collective action secures improvements in wages,  workers ‘are too much disposed to believe that the minority which has exercised authority in the past possesses the mana, a mysterious wisdom, and can wield a karakia, a magical influence bringing prosperity or misfortune’.

They denounce, and rightly, the injustices of capitalism; but they do not always realize that capitalism is maintained, not by capitalists, but by those, like many of themselves, would be capitalists if they could, and that the injustices survive, not so much because the rich exploit the poor, as because the poor, in their hearts, admire the rich.

Inequality thus comes to be seen as ‘natural’ by almost everyone in society, ‘a cluster of ideas at the back of men’s minds’, accepted almost unconsciously, though it doesn’t benefit anyone but a minority.  Here Tawny seems to come close to Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony as a means of preserving the interests of a ruling class.

The ‘common culture’ that Tawney advocates is especially needed at the present time of economic crisis, which calls for co-operation and ‘the mutual confidence and toleration upon which co-operation depends’. But gross inequality leads not to a common culture but to ‘servility and resentment, on the one hand, and patronage or arrogance, on the other’. A common culture is only possible once a large measure of economic equality has been gained – and equality ‘of environment, of habits of life, of access to education and the means of civilization, of security and independence’.


Royal Ascot (Ian Berry, 1975)


To argue for greater equality, Tawney says, is not to deny individual differences of aptitude and need. But it is to argue that gross inequality denies many people the ability to flourish and live well. Almost all people accept that the legal system, in theory at least, should treat all people equal, but may are still reluctant to admit that the economic system should also set a common ground so that everyone is able to take part in it:

… men possess in their common humanity a quality which is worth cultivating … a community is most likely to make the most of that quality if it takes it into account in planning its economic organization and social institutions – if it stresses lightly differences in wealth and birth and social position, and establishes on firm foundations institutions which meet common needs, and are a source of common enlightenment and common enjoyment.

Finally, Tawney returns to the question of the need to strip inequality of its status:

And a society which is convinced that inequality is an evil need not be alarmed because the evil is one which cannot wholly be subdued. In recognizing the poison it will have armed itself with an antidote. It will have deprived inequality of its sting by stripping it of its esteem.

If we could recall Tawney from the dead, as he did Matthew Arnold, he would surely be astonished at the persistence, indeed the entrenchment, of gross inequality in wealth and power in Britain today. He would find it hard to believe that the income differences between the very rich and the poor are approaching those last prevalent in Arnold’s age. He would goggle at the fact that the ‘public schoolboys of the universe’ are still in power. He would read with admiration the research of scholars like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (The spirit level, 2009) and Thomas Piketty (Capital in the twenty-first century, 2014) that detail meticulously the dire social, educational, health and cultural effects, for everyone, of gross inequality. And he would be distressed at how the inevitability of inequality is still taken for granted by the vast majority of people.

Tawney is still worth reading, though. His case is nowhere near as well substantiated with evidence as Wilkinson & Pickett and Piketty, and he fails to elaborate on his ‘common culture’ and its virtues, but he correctly identifies the magnitude of the problem of gross inequality and the impediments to overcoming it. It and they are still with us today.

Tawney 2

As I put Equality back on the shelf, it occurred to me why it had probably leaped out at my eye. I remembered an excellent Channel 4 television programme earlier in the year about the Battle of the Somme. R.H. Tawney was one of the soldiers featured in it. Like the poet David Jones he’d joined the army, deliberately, as a private. He was severely injured on the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916, and left for dead on the battlefield. He was very lucky to be rescued and returned to health, and later published a remarkable factual account in the Westminster Gazette about his experience. Tawney was no armchair intellectual: not only had he devoted many years to serving the educational needs of working class people through the WEA, he had experienced with them the worst that war could offer. He knew at first hand the effects of inequality.

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