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Inequality or death

In his deep history of inequality, Walter Scheidel tells a story that is irredeemably grim, should we allow him to convince us. From the dawn of civilisation until today, human history has been an unstoppable death march of inequality, with handfuls of people growing richer and richer at the expense of the destitute multitudes. The only force that has ever managed to slow this march down is the destruction of human life on a cataclysmic scale, destruction brought about by four natural or man-made catastrophes: pandemics, state failure, the terror of revolutions and total war. When life returns to normal, however, so does inequality’s onslaught. Peace, prosperity, technological progress, economic development and population growth only spur inequality on; and the longer they last, the less equal people become, to the point where a country’s eight richest people may own as much as its entire poorest half, as is now the case in the United States. Following economist Thomas Picketty’s argument (2014), Scheidel holds that the compression of inequality in Europe in recent decades is not the outcome of progressive taxation, nationalisation or the work of trade unions. Rather, it is the result of the mass-slaughter of the two world wars. The one shaft of light in the depths of Scheidel’s dark history is that, despite soaring levels of inequality around the world, ours are far from the most unequal of times. Current top income shares in the United State have only just caught up with 1929 levels. A century ago in England, 92% of all private wealth was held by a tenth of its households, which today own only half. Looking two thousand years back, the biggest fortunes in Ancient Rome were 1.5 million times average imperial incomes.

Why should the world be doomed to staggering, unrelenting inequality of this kind? Because humans are greedy predators who hoard and steal, and who will brutalise anyone who tries to get in their way. 12,000 years ago, when they domesticated animals and settled down to cultivate crops for the first time, their greed was given free rein. They could store what they did not eat and so began the march of inequality. Some were stronger than others and could hoard more effectively. Eventually, some people realised that one does not get rich by working, but by getting others to work for you, and by taking their wealth by force. States were created as instruments of predation, which empowered the rich and the powerful to extract even more from the poor and the weak. As populations grew and technologies developed, so did the extractive opportunities increase, along with the Gini coefficient (this is the calculation of the dispersion of income and wealth that Scheidel uses as his measure of inequality). Monetisation, commerce and capital all accelerated accumulation by the elites. Cities, which concentrated people and technology, became hubs of extreme inequity, where palaces and cathedrals rose alongside hovels and filth.

So far, so Marx: a world of haves and have-nots, the exploitation of labour, the terror of capital, population and technology as drivers of inequality, the state as a weapon of mass extraction. Unlike Marx, however, Scheidel does not think that the oppressed are bound to rise, throw off their yoke and start to build a fairer, more equal future. Nor does he see any viable alternatives to inequality. Alternatives there are, but each is quite literally non-viable: each involves a massive annihilation of human life. Indeed, in the long history of humanity, attempts to overturn the order of inequality are virtually non-existent. Tax revolts, peasant uprisings and anti-corruption riots, yes, but almost none that were opposed to inequality as such. Modern revolutions that did occur under the egalitarian banner, and in some cases did manage to compress inequality, did so not through a structured redistribution of wealth, but rather through the destruction and bloodshed they left in their wake. The choice is thus, Scheidel insists, not between greater and lesser inequality, but between drastic inequality and death.

Fortunately, Scheidel’s research does no more to support his conclusions than it does to refute them. His 500-page doorstopper includes a list of exceptions to his argument, which, to his credit, Scheidel does not hide from view, but that is surely far too long to leave his thesis intact. Some pandemics compressed inequality, while others did not; some failed states led to temporary compression, but most did not; some revolutions levelled societies and others did not; and the total wars that ravaged the twentieth century had a greatly varied economic effect on the different societies caught up in them. While the Black Death, Scheidel’s showcase pandemic that killed every third person in Europe, did reduce income and wealth inequality – with hardly any labourers left, Europe became a labourer’s market and median wages rose – most other pandemics had no such effect. Not the Great Plague of London (1665-66), which killed twenty per cent of the population; not the third plague pandemic in China and India in 1855, when ten million people died. Nor did the waves of cholera that swept over Russia throughout the nineteenth century, claiming several million lives. Nor did the smallpox that devastated the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes Native Americans in 1763-64. Nor did the recent outbreaks of Sars and Ebola. So it is with failed states. While the fall of the Roman Empire compressed disparities of income and wealth, the failure of many modern states in fact often exaggerates inequality. Think of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the astronomic inequality it produced. Or think of Syria, Somalia or South Sudan: hardly bastions of newfound, post-state equality.

And what of revolutions and total wars? While the Bolshevik Revolution did compress inequality in Russia, the French one failed to have any such effect. During World War I both Germany and France saw a rise, not a fall, in top income shares, as did Germany during WWII. Conversely, the US and Canada, whose people and wealth remained virtually untouched by the second World War, underwent extensive levelling during that era. Several European countries that maintained neutrality, which ought to have seen no compression, were in fact substantially equalised. The Portuguese top 0.1%, for example, lost 40% of their share of wealth. And today, a number of neutral countries, such as Sweden, are among the most equal in the world.

The trouble with Scheidel’s argument is not its simplicity – there is nothing wrong with stylising an argument for clarity’s sake – but rather that he looks for sources of history outside history itself. Inequality is the product of greed, a primal motivation; violence and destruction are effective levellers because the rich lose more since they have more to lose. It is as if violence is a force in nature that has the same predictable effects, no matter the political and social order it strikes. As a matter of fact, we know that violence is a very choosy predator indeed, which usually claims much more from the poor, both in absolute and relative terms, than it does from the rich. Epidemics, earthquakes and wars almost always devastate the poor, who lack access to healthcare and safe homes, and who are the first to be drafted or join armies to make ends meet. Disaster can, no doubt, level, but only under particular circumstances. Pandemics may compress inequality where the elite relies on a large labour force to expand its fortunes, and they are likely to have the opposite effect where elites don’t depend on this. Elites can only be made to pay for total wars, and so be brought more in line with others, if governments have the mandate, the will and the means to do so. And it would have to be a particular kind of state, one that extracts from the poor for the rich, whose collapse would prompt compression. Revolutionary violence may well level societies briefly, but its lasting effect depends on the distributive policies that the new government will adopt. Compare the Soviet, Chinese and Chilean states.

One thing that Scheidel’s account illustrates vividly is that inequality is the baseline of human history, already there at its very dawn, in the Upper Paleolithic, long before the domestication of food and the storage of surplus. The 30,000-year old burial site in Sungir contains a grave of a man buried with 3000 mammoth ivory beads, which would have taken one person working 40 hours a week nearly five years to carve; another contains the remains of a young girl buried with the teeth of seventy-five arctic foxes. Clearly, from the very beginning and even before it – bonobo, chimpanzee and gorilla societies are intensely hierarchical too (Boehm 2001) – people have not been born equal. Rather, most everywhere at most times people have celebrated inequality, often quite extravagantly.

Even more strikingly, Scheidel’s research (if not his argument) shows no correspondence between cultural and political endorsements of inequality and levels of actual material inequity. If anything, the relation often appears to be inverted. In late-medieval England and late Shogunate Japan – elaborately hierarchical settings – the Gini coefficient was substantially lower than in contemporary France or the United States, where ‘all men are created equal’, but where top income shares now match those of late imperial Rome. Attempts at material levelling in societies any bigger than a kibbutz or a band of hunter-gatherers have almost always ended in terror. This is easy to see today, with the hindsight of history, but it was already in plain view in eighteenth-century France, where most revolutionaries and famous egalitarians, from Rousseau to Robespierre, were terrified of radical equalisation. For they knew all too well that the only true leveller is indeed Death.


Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the forest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Picketty, Thomas. 2013. Capital in the 21st century. Trans. by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scheidel, Walter. 2017. The great leveler: Violence and the history of inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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