In Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State, Danny Dorling proposes that the United Kingdom has been so damaged by forty years of neoliberalism that it could soon evolve into a dystopia. Though the book presents a detailed picture of a nation in crisis, it stops short of probing exactly how the UK has entrenched such deep inequality, writes Larry Patriquin.
Danny Dorling will be speaking at a public event at LSE to launch Shattered Nation on Monday 16 October. Find out more and register here.
Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State. Danny Dorling. Verso. 2023.
In the 1970s, most people in the United Kingdom lived in safe neighbourhoods, attended good schools, and had access to high-quality housing and health care, in an economy which generated something close to full employment. In the 2020s, however, the nation is afflicted by homelessness, pawn shops, food banks, low-paying jobs, insecure pensions, paltry welfare benefits and declining physical and mental health. The picture painted by Danny Dorling is not pretty.
The UK is now a shattered society, the sick old man of Europe. It is a victim of decades of austerity for the middle class, working class and poor, a casualty of policies that have simultaneously enhanced the immense wealth of society’s upper crust.
The UK is now a shattered society, the sick old man of Europe. It is a victim of decades of austerity for the middle class, working class and poor, a casualty of policies that have simultaneously enhanced the immense wealth of society’s upper crust. And this shattering is the result of the policies enacted by the UK’s three major political parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who have shown little interest in the struggles now faced by so many.
Dorling convincingly demonstrates that the UK is a failing state. Even more disconcerting, the British have apparently accepted this situation, perhaps because large numbers of them are feeling burned out. Their exhaustion also helps to explain why they are disgruntled voters, moving between parties, “casting around for a solution, any solution, confused in the morass of decline” (45).
Dorling ends by suggesting that the situation could even worsen, potentially culminating in a dystopia, a European version of America, especially if governments believe they can solve the long list of Britain’s wicked problems by merely plugging holes in the dam.
This is a book overflowing with interesting facts, and that is both its main contribution and its main drawback.
Setting out the rationale for the book in the acknowledgements, Dorling mentions that his editor “wanted a manifesto, not a description,” but it ended up being “a mixture of both,” because “seeing the change that is needed is only possible if you have a better idea of what it is you are trying to change” (244). In the conclusion, he observes that the “preceding chapters have been full of statistical examples of how the UK currently fares badly” on a number of outcomes (225). Indeed, this is a book overflowing with interesting facts, and that is both its main contribution and its main drawback.
Overall, Shattered Nation incorporates too much description and not enough manifesto (or perhaps analysis), and the existing analysis was rather nebulous at times. For instance, Dorling emphasises, more than once, that people must “ask why Britain in particular is so shattered as compared to nearby countries” (194). I assume, in contrast, that plenty of academics, journalists, and inquisitive citizens have asked that question (and will be familiar with much of what the book covers) – so surely that’s not what’s holding us back.
In a democracy, tiny minorities, almost by definition, should be easily overruled […] if ordinary people have effective control of governments. So what’s happening, then?
Dorling gets closer to an effective argument when he suggests that housing precarity “has been allowed to become so bad in the UK because it is in the interests of a small but very powerful minority of people” (82-83). This is an important point, but it needed further development, because in a democracy, tiny minorities, almost by definition, should be easily overruled. Their selfish desires should have almost no chance of becoming law if ordinary people have effective control of governments. So what’s happening, then?
The durability of neoliberalism should force us to shine a spotlight on that absence of popular control. I’m now 61 years old. I was 17 when Margaret Thatcher was elected the UK’s prime minister. I have spent 44 years under neoliberalism – most of my life – and I don’t see many signs that this social and economic train wreck is going to end anytime soon. Neoliberalism now appears to be permanently entrenched in the UK, the USA, and (to a lesser extent) Canada, with politicians everywhere claiming they are unable to challenge the rich, unable to solve social problems, unable to ensure that everyone has food, clothing, and shelter.
We are in a quandary, yet Dorling contends (and I agree) that there is no ‘transformative’ agenda in the works.
We are in a quandary, yet Dorling contends (and I agree) that there is no “transformative” agenda in the works. This is especially the case in the UK since Keir Starmer took over the leadership of the Labour Party. Under his tutelage, Labour has been throwing many of its more progressive pledges overboard, like unwanted refuse weighing down a ship. This includes announcing that if his party forms the government, it will maintain the loathsome Conservative policy of denying families the child benefit for third and subsequent children. Labour has also made it clear it will not introduce a wealth tax to raise badly needed revenue. These pronouncements are not only “not transformative”; they are more like the continuation of the endless loop of good old-fashioned austerity.
At one point Dorling observes that books like his are often expected to provide “detailed proposals for real change” (159). That’s true, but what I’d prefer to see is not more proposals (which are already so numerous they’re weighing down library shelves), but some insight on how those proposals could be implemented. Creating positive change will mean tackling the rich head on – raising their taxes, making them pay new or expanded ones (on wealth and estates), reducing their options for gouging (through rent controls, supports for unionisation, and the like), and bringing necessities like electricity, gas, and water back into the public sector.
Why can’t we implement policies that the citizenry desperately needs? And why does neoliberalism continue to roll along, decade after dreary decade, almost unimpeded?
This book does not adequately address the fundamental questions: Why can’t we implement policies that the citizenry desperately needs? And why does neoliberalism continue to roll along, decade after dreary decade, almost unimpeded? Given the urgent need to answer those questions I hope, based on his thirty years of research on inequality, that Danny Dorling will write a sequel to Shattered Nation, where he tackles a number of concerns, including: How has a tiny group of people been able to control the UK government for almost half a century, enabling them to deposit massive amounts of wealth into their bank accounts, while millions of others suffer “diseases of despair”? Despite enduring the odd setback here and there, how have the rich been able to accomplish their thievery so easily, in what must surely be the political equivalent of taking candy from a baby? And perhaps, most importantly, how could we remove systemic barriers to policies that benefit the many, not the few?
I suspect that answering those questions would require a critical interrogation into the origins and practices of this thing we call democracy.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.
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