Michael Bond reviews The Divide for New Scientist:
In the US, the richest 0.1 per cent of people own roughly the same as the bottom 90 per cent; in the UK, the 1000 richest are wealthier than the poorest 40 per cent. On both sides of the Atlantic, inequality is at its highest level since 1928.
Surprisingly, these are about the only statistics in Katharine Round’s film The Divide. You would expect more, seeing as it was inspired by the 2009 book The Spirit Level, a graph-heavy manifesto linking wealth and social outcomes by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
Instead, Round dwells on the human story behind the numbers, and tells it very effectively. The film follows seven people in the UK and the US as it explores what happens to everyone when the rich get richer.
We meet a Wall Street psychologist desperate to be part of ‟the 1 per cent” (at least of psychologists), and who aspires to own a second home in Florida. Then there’s a homeless Glaswegian rapper who just aspires to stay sober, a KFC worker in Virginia worried about the ‟pure rage” felt by some towards those with more, and a Walmart employee who is struggling to keep her home. She has no problem with businesses making a profit, so long as they don’t do it at the expense of their staff (which, in her case, they do).
The fifth story is of a carer in Newcastle who feels under appreciated by employers and community alike. But at least she’s free. Number six is in jail for 25 years after he was caught with 1.5 grams of ‟dope”, a victim of California’s three-strikes law. At the other end of the spectrum, though she doesn’t seem to realise it, a new resident of an upscale gated community in Sacramento worries that her neighbours won’t talk to her because they consider her ‟too poor”.
“Noam Chomsky points out the rich can run to the nanny state if institutions – notably banks – crash” The Sacramento outcast is one of the most startling examples of the film’s real story: social division. Describing how the residents are pushing for a second security gate, she asks: why do we need it? There are guards on the first gate, and half have guns.
Psychologist Paul Piff, one of the film’s talking heads, draws on studies by his team to explain this. They show people become less empathic as they grow richer. They prioritise their own interests and pay less attention to others, because they can afford to. As the rich become more self-interested, they don’t want to be bothered by riff-raff who might threaten their security or complacency. They can never have enough gates.
This is what makes inequality so hard to dismantle: the people who benefit most are insulated from those who suffer, and so feel no wish to change anything. And because the people who benefit are usually those with the most influence, nothing changes. As Piff says, despite their hard work, most people aren’t achieving the American dream. So who is? Often those born into wealth.
This message gets a typically iconoclastic screen endorsement from Noam Chomsky, who argues that the rich – contrary to their free-market or libertarian sentiments – are protected by the nanny state: they can run to it if institutions, notably banks, crash. In other words, the system is rigged in their favour. There are bad apples, but the real problem is the rotten barrel.
As well as being insightful, the film is a fascinating social portrait. Cynics may grumble that it lacks a theoretical arc, in that it is hard to unpick cause from effect. The stories depict poverty, stress, debt, addiction, homelessness, anxiety, frustration, injustice, violence, crime: are we meant to conclude this is all due to inequality? Round doesn’t say, though there is plenty of evidence, gathered largely by Wilkinson and Pickett, that social ills ascribed to poverty in fact derive from the stress of living in a society where the haves have so much more than the have-nots.
Round is hoping her stories will be ‟a powerful wake-up call to those who believe that economics has no bearing on the way we live”. Such success will depend on who is watching, how open they are – and, no doubt, how rich.
Read the full article here