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Walter Scheidel: The Great Leveler

August 30, 2017

Having myself written a book on civilization spanning inequality (Capitalism as Oligarchy: 5,000 years of diversion and suppression), I was naturally interested in reading what Harvard historian Walter Scheidel had to say in his new book The Great Leveler: violence and the history of inequality from the stone age to the twenty-first century.

Before starting, though, I want first to suggest that the word ‘inequality’ in our political / economic discourse is problematic. This is so because it expresses only an end-point condition that lacks any sense of human agency. It’s a cold, neutral term that ignores the hot and violent dynamism underlying it. In my view, the essence of inequality is best understood as a structure of power, the concentrated power of a small minority over the majority. It’s a system of minority rule and not a stale statistic or a mere side-effect of something else. It’s structural violence, a direct conflict of interest on the same plane as predator against prey or parasite against host. The opposite of inequality, i.e. minority rule, isn’t equality per se; it’s majority rule—democracy.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the book. While I found it a well-written summary of the history of inequality, the core of the work is deeply ideological. By tightly associating equality with violence and suggesting it’s best to submit to inequality, Scheidel puts his Harvard brand in service to the interests of the powerful.

Scheidel begins by examining what we know about our evolutionary pre-history. He observes that contrary to our closest nonhuman relatives—the gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos—we humans seem to have evolved as egalitarians. Throughout the entire Paleolithic age spanning from 2.6 million to 10 thousand years ago inequality was, “for all we can tell”, “sporadic and transient”. “Human biological and social evolution had given rise to an egalitarian equilibrium” which was “predicated on the deliberate rejection of attempts to dominate”. What differentiated us from our closest primates, he says, was our brain size which enabled greater cooperation and coalition building among lower status members and gave them the ability to confront budding alpha males. This was significantly aided by the development of language.

Minority power was thusly constrained for over 99% of human history. About ten thousand years ago, however, the defense mechanism collapsed in what Scheidel refers to as the “Great Disequalization” and massive inequality has been the norm almost continuously ever since. The cause, he says, was the great surge in surplus production enabled primarily by the tremendous expansion in agriculture and domesticated livestock. Two crucial determinants of rising inequality were the securing by the elites of ownership rights in land and livestock coupled with the ability to transmit wealth to the next generation. Domestication increased coercive capacities and encouraged predation while the power of newly budding states and “entrenched structures of hierarchy, exploitation, and property ownership” gave such an “enormous boost” to inequality that substantial leveling became almost impossible. The “original 1 percent” were “made up of competing but often closely intertwined elite groups in which political and material inequality “evolved in tandem”. “The upper classes separated themselves from commoners by their lifestyle and worldview, which were frequently martial in nature and defined leaders as the exploiters of inferior agrarian producers. Conspicuous consumption served as an important means of manifesting and reinforcing power relations”.

The remainder of the book is devoted to documenting both the deep continuity and occasional shakeups of inequality since the Great Disequalization. He shows that massive inequality was the equilibrium condition, maintained by such mechanisms as the appropriation of land by affluent owners, elite enrichment by fiscal extraction, intensive economic growth in which the main benefits were captured by the elite, commercialization, urbanization, relative peace, globalization, and protection of private property. What a ten thousand year spree it has been for the propertied few, undoubtedly the best since their ancestors were alpha male apes, but Scheidel presents three significant ruptures that temporarily put a damper on the party. They were the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, and the World Wars and communist revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century. Inequality temporarily declined sharply during and after each of these.

It is in the interpretation of these events that the book transforms itself from interesting history into ideology. From the historical facts that inequality declined after these episodes and that they were violent, he concocts something of a law of inequality—that inequality has been and likely can only be reduced through extreme violence. Substantial reductions in inequality, he says, “depended on violent disasters” and “it is hard to think of a remedy to inequality that wasn’t dramatically worse than the disease”. He calls the violent shocks the “Four Horsemen of Leveling”—mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics—and makes the biblical reference clear: “Just like their biblical counterparts, they went forth to ‘take peace from the earth’ and ‘kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth’”. He closes the book with the dire warning that we “would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it [reduced inequality] was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.”

In grappling with Scheidel’s ‘law’, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind the point made earlier about the opposite of inequality being not equality but democracy. Institutional rule by empowered minorities can be countered only by institutions of democracy. Violent events may disrupt the established hierarchies, but they will quickly return unless strong democratic institutions are in place. This is as true today as it was ten thousand years ago as it was throughout the entire Paleolithic.

The empowered minority had crushed all democratic institutions by the time of the Roman collapse and the Black Death and, while inequality temporarily declined after these events, it’s not surprising it quickly recovered. This is all quite interesting in and of itself, but it’s merely academic at this point in time—two unrelated violent events many hundreds of years ago shook up the established hierarchy, inequality declined temporarily and then recovered. I fail to see any possible relevance to the key issues facing us today. Except, that is, in service to right wing ideology by outlandishly associating equality with the plague!

The wars and revolutions of the twentieth century are also not relevant in the way Scheidel tries to make them. True, inequality declined after these events to the same degree as they did after the Roman collapse and the Black Death. But so what? Extreme violence shakes up hierarchies and temporarily reduces inequality. This is a timeless self-evident fact. But, as we can see from history prior to the twentieth century, violence hasn’t been an existential threat to the established order; inequality suffered only temporary setbacks but quickly recovered.

There’s only one existential threat to minority power and it’s not the Four Horsemen of Leveling—it’s democracy. That the World Wars and the communist revolutions helped solidify democracy in much of the world is beside the point; what’s crucial is that for the first time in the recorded history of civilization, the empowered minority is forced to deal with such widespread democratic cultures and institutions, however imperfect they still may be. Concentrated wealth rightly fears democracy more than any other threat and has achieved remarkable successes over the past decades in turning back the advances made since the wars. This to Scheidel is merely the return to the equilibrium unequal norm. But while the minority may have subverted and greatly undermined the institutions of democracy, they continue to exist and still represent an existential threat.

Scheidl wants us to associate equality with violence and reject any hope for democracy, itself a mere temporary by-product of war and revolution. “There does not seem to be an easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality”. We may as well just give up and accept subservience as our endless fate.

This deeply anti-majoritarian argument is predictably getting rave reviews throughout the establishment media. Democracy has many powerful enemies. The New York Times review is entitled “A Dilemma for Humanity: Stark Inequality or Total War” and concludes that “maybe we should just learn to stop worrying [about inequality] and love it”.

Here’s a sample from the Amazon page:

“In [Scheidel’s] magisterial sociopolitical history The Great Leveler, inequality is shown as preferable to the alternative: society levelled by vast upheavals.” Nature

In Scheidel’s account the lessons of history are clear: only war, revolution, state collapse or catastrophic plague–or a combination of such disasters–destroy the wealth of the rich. I wish the argument were wrong, but suspect it is not. . . . Very powerful.” Martin Wolf, Financial Times

“Reducing inequality by peaceful means looks harder than ever, giving Mr. Scheidel’s arguments even greater resonance.” Economist

“Tight labor markets shrink income inequality by causing employers to bid up the price of scarce labor, so policymakers fretting about income inequality could give an epidemic disease a try. George Will, Washington Post

Fascinating. Huffington Post

“Mr Scheidel’s evidence is so persuasive that readers will find themselves cheering on the Black Death as a boost to median wages.”–Janan Ganesh, Financial Times

The only viable option for humanity beyond unending subservience is democracy and, given it’s the sole existential enemy to minority power, it has always been hated and feared by establishment interests. Scheidel speaks on behalf of them and his book should be thoroughly rejected by all who value widespread freedom.

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