- The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
- Princeton University Press (2017)
Around 700 AD, one of the biggest communities in what is now Canada was at Keatley Creek, not far up the Fraser River from modern Lillooet. In those days it appeared to support 700 to 1,000 people — and it was a highly unequal society. Some of the pit houses were very large, able to hold many people, while others were much smaller. And the community carried on for centuries with a few rich and many poor.
Keatley Creek is just one of the many examples Walter Scheidel offers to back up his thesis: since the Stone Age, human societies’ default state is one of inequality. The rich use their advantages to get even richer, and to pass their wealth on to their families and friends.
An expert in ancient history, Scheidel takes Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and shows that its findings are applicable throughout human history (and prehistory).
Yes, we’ve seen periods where gaps in income and wealth shrank, but equality has a high price. Long periods of peace and development, like Europe in the 19th century, actually widen the gap between rich and poor.
“Throughout recorded history,” Scheidel writes, “the most powerful levelling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics.”
This was true in the wars of ancient Athens, he says, when the rich paid special taxes to build and equip warships, and then paid poorer citizens to crew them. The citizen-soldiers even elected senior generals.
Similarly, the developed nations saw a striking improvement in equality between 1914 and 1950: Two world wars and a global depression impoverished the rich as well as the poor. Total war had to be funded by near-total taxation and something like a command economy. Even the neutral nations in the world wars were affected: countries like Switzerland and Sweden had to mobilize on a gigantic scale or risk invasion.
The cost of a workers’ golden age
Ironically, such wars are good for democracy: to keep their workers’ support, governments have extended the franchise to more and more ordinary citizens. (Canada finally gave the Chinese and First Nations the vote after the Second World War.) Postwar societies used wartime powers to create welfare states. That’s why the U.S., Canada and western Europe are seen as having enjoyed a workers’ golden age from 1945 to 1980 — purchased at an unimaginable cost in violence and death.
Similarly, revolutions succeed or fail depending on their violence. Both in Russia and in China, communism imposed equality at the cost of millions of lives. Even then, inequality crept back in and had to be stamped out with still more violence (as in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s). Only with the death of Mao could the Chinese communists admit defeat and announce that “To get rich is glorious.”
The fall of egalitarian communism launched a surge in inequality that continues to this day: a few billionaire oligarchs ruling each country, and maintaining power with much more judicious use of violence. A murdered journalist here, an executed political rival there... pretty soon you have no opposition to speak of.
The fourth route to equality, Scheidel says, is state failure and systems collapse. It’s happened everywhere, from Tang dynasty China to modern Somalia. The climate shifts, revenues dry up, something goes wrong that the rulers can’t solve. The aristocracy or priesthood is overthrown and everyone scrapes along until wealth begins to accumulate again.
One key missing factor
Scheidel masses so much documentation for his argument that even the most zealous egalitarian must accept it. Yet he misses one key finding, and it’s especially odd because he includes pandemics as one of the triggers for an equal society, and vividly describes the Black Death of the 14th century. But nowhere does he mention the solid link between income and wealth disparity and public health.
A century of research in this field is easy to summarize: More equal societies are healthier and happier societies. Unequal societies suffer high levels of stress and “self-medication” problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, and violence. Scheidel seems to have missed this completely.
It’s even stranger because he describes the transformative revolution that the U.S. imposed on Japan after 1945. Until the 1930s, Japan had been one of the most unequal societies in the world. The invasion of China, and then Pearl Harbor, forced the government to tax its one per cent heavily. The U.S. Occupation then deliberately broke up the old economic order and created an egalitarian society.
The public health consequences were striking. In the 1960s, Japan still had a lower life expectancy than Britain, but after Thatcherism in the 1980s, Japan’s egalitarian society began to outlive the Brits — and most of the other Second World War victor nations. Living long has turned out to be Japan’s best revenge.
Health is politically boring
The ancient Greeks and British Victorians had no idea that they were inflicting misery and shorter lives on themselves by enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor. Even Jesus said we’d always have the poor. We know better — well, at least it’s beginning to sink in. Few governments want their policies set based on health priorities (you know public health is working when nothing happens, which is politically uninteresting).
But educated and informed citizens will increasingly realize that consigning the poor to disease and early death doesn’t put them ahead — it only endangers the rich as well.
Scheidel doesn’t like inequality, but he sees no way to achieve equality peacefully. Perhaps he’s right. It may be that the sure prospect of living a longer, healthier, happier life among equals isn’t good enough for those who want to be rich at any cost to others and themselves. If so, Scheidel has given them thousands of years of history to back them up.
But he has also shown them their inevitable fate: a few decades of doubtful glory, and then they and their children will topple into the darkness. When we know that equality is a simple public health measure, like washing your hands, we shouldn’t have to impose it by violence.
The Great Leveler is a fascinating and informative book, and likely to become a classic — as a warning about our fate if we accept inequality as a law of nature. But now we know better.
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