Inequality leads to dysfunctional societies | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:04 AM, May 27, 2017

Inequality leads to dysfunctional societies

On a mild morning last February, I summoned my Deputy Giuseppe Semenza for the rehearsal of a joint performance to be staged next day at Shilpakala Academy on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day. Being Giuseppe, a true Neapolitan, we chose to recite “A Livella” (“La Livella” in Italian, “Spirit Level” or “Bubble Level” in English), a poem written in Italian and Neapolitan by his fellow citizen Toto, a towering figure of the Italian comedy.

The poem is set in a graveyard. A person accidentally locked inside its gates overhears a conversation between two shadows: a marquis and a garbage man. The marquis is complaining about the garbage man's tombstone being right next to his, but the garbage man remarks that it is not his fault, as it was his wife who had chosen where to bury him. Since the marquis keeps complaining, the garbage man loses his temper and tells him that, no matter what people are or do in life, once one is dead, he is equal to all others, at the same level.

Whilst in the February performance what we wanted to share with the audience was just the humorous aspect of the story, today I would rather like to dwell on the underlying message of that poem and its implications.  Since death is seen as the leveler of all wealth and social status, let's adopt the message in the 'Spirit Level' in our own lives by addressing inequalities that are more than ever damaging the social fabric of the whole society.

Growth has been and is still universally valued above equality, the underlying assumption being that inequality mattered only if it increased poverty. But the effects of inequality -- health and social problems alike -- are not confined to the poor, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett rightly pointed out in the book The Spirit Level (2009). Since their book, an impressive body of data demonstrated how accurate was their description of unequal societies becoming more and more “dysfunctional” for the poor as well for the rich.

There is enough evidence also in contemporary Italy that “consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety” are causally associated with less equality. According to the last annual report released by the Italian National Institute for Statistics (Istat), social inequality is no longer just the distance between the different classes, it can be found within each class. “The current state of professions in Italy,” the report goes on, “shows a growing complexity resulting in an increased diversity not only between professions but also within the same professional roles and in intensified inequalities between and within social classes.”

“We find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, driven to consume and with little or no community life”, so reads the opening pages of the book The Spirit Level. This grim feeling, apparently also shared by the younger generations of Italian workers and professionals, could be left behind only by removing -- as correctly argued by Wilkinson and Pickett -- economic impediments to feeling valued such as, for instance, low wages, low benefits and low public spending on education.

What about Bangladesh? Just ten days ago Syed Yusuf Saadat wrote in The Daily Star an interesting article, “The threshold of inequality”. “If we look at the data,” he wrote, “we can easily observe that the level of inequality today is unbelievably high. The incomes of the poorest 10 percent of people increased by less than USD 3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1 percent increased by 182 times as much.” After a long academic digression about the views of the Greek philosopher Aristotle on inequality, Saadat concludes that the degree of inequality, rather than inequality itself, is the fundamental stumbling block, “the real question in the inequality debate is how much income inequality is the best for society.”

Personally, I would rather reformulate the question by also taking into consideration the wealth gap resulting from economic growth not having been fairly shared: how much income inequality and what degree of wealth gap could be tolerated in order for us to have a better society?


This is an excerpt from Ambassador Mario Palma's address at the Italian National Day reception.  (Dhaka, May 22, 2017)

The writer is Ambassador of Italy to Bangladesh. 

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