PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS £19.99 (379pp) £17.95 (free p&p per order) from 0870 079 8897

More Equal Than Others by Godfrey Hodgson

How the rich stole the dream




This book is "an attempt to understand what has happened in the United States over the last quarter of the 20th century". It is a most successful attempt: the most thoughtful, thorough and sorrowful book imaginable on what has happened in these years. Godfrey Hodgson has been in the US as a British journalist for most of his career. He loves the older America and knows its history. He quotes Jefferson in 1812 - "And so we have gone on, and so we will go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man" - but gives us cause to dread those who are not puzzled.

He paints a clear picture of the triumphalism of recent years. Yes, a lot to be triumphant about: technological innovation or, even when imported, rapid implementation, and unprecedented national wealth. But within that wealth, the gap increased not just between rich and poor - in the Clinton period (despite the rhetoric) as much as in that of Bush senior - but also between the middle classes and the millionaires. From 1981 to 1993, the median US wage-earner's income fell by 5 per cent in real terms. The income of the top 5 per cent of taxpayers rose by 30 per cent. Clinton only slightly slowed the increasing disparity.

Myths abound. Has not the old ideal of the America of the common man been replaced by the reality of a share-holding capitalist democracy, Reagan-Thatcherism? Not so, or rather, that's almost exactly a half-truth: 48.2 per cent of Americans own stocks, but only 36.3 per cent own stock worth more than $5,000, even including pension schemes. In 1999, "average wages were actually 10 per cent lower than in 1973", and if the median family income was a princely $285 a year higher, that was only because more family members were working, and working longer hours.

Hodgson sees the whole period as a reaction to the days of Kennedy and Johnson's "Great Society". Now capitalism and democracy are synonymous to too many. Memories of the New Deal were once strong both in the Democratic Party and the public mind. Of course, the New Deal was there to save capitalism, from itself; but Hodgson shows in grim detail the gerrymandering of the tax system to benefit the rich and the dramatic bonfire of the controls needed to make free markets tolerable.

The older American beliefs may still have enough power, depending on election results, to turn the US back from what he sees as something very like the oppressive European class system of the 1920s. "This country", he quotes Theodore Roosevelt in a previous era of capitalist triumphalism, "will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for us all to live in."

It is a long time since Tocqueville could say in the 1830s that "nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among people". But Hodgson remembers from his long years in the US, as I do from a decade earlier, that this leavening myth was still current among both the plain people and the well-educated. He is both philosophically sceptical and statis- tically damning about the reality of "equality of opportunity". And he shrewdly ob- serves that one big restraint on liberal rhetoric aimed at the disadvantaged majority of Americans is the need to raise huge campaign funds.

Hodgson's sombre and profound book relates all this to the old unstable American oscillations of "final interventions" in the unwanted outside world, followed by isolationism. Our leaders should read More Equal Than Others if they still need convincing of the dangers of tying ourselves closely to the volatility of American politics, rather than to the long-term needs of our European economy, heritage and future.

Sir Bernard Crick's political essays, 'Crossing Borders', are published by Continuum

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones