Continuing my engagement with Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017).
A colleague of mine who teaches about the dynamics of violence was very dismissive of Scheidel’s book. He claimed it was simply wrong—and explained he hadn’t read the book because its thesis was so patently absurd. He reasoning: there has never been violence on a scale massive enough to effect the kinds of redistributive effects that Scheidel reports. Unfortunately, our conversation then got sidetracked by another colleague who was present and disputed Scheidel’s thesis by pointing to rural electrification. Poverty in the American South was greatly reduced by the watershed event of introducing electricity—and that had nothing to do with violence.
So what does all this lead me to say? First, if technology makes something like electricity cheaper and thus more widely available, that doesn’t mean that inequality (which is always relative, not absolute) was lessened. My colleague’s response to that was: then why does inequality matter? A good question. It is the case that, as Branko Milanovic is fond of pointing out, even the poorest person in the United States is better off than 40% of the world’s population. So, if extreme poverty doesn’t exist, why care about the distribution of goods and wealth?
The response comes in two varieties, it seems to me. First response: I do think there is what I have come to think of as “bottom-line minimalism.” That is, prior to worrying about equality per se, there should be the establishment of a “floor” below which no one is allowed to live. The floor would be a package of basic goods, including food, shelter, health care, access to education, old age pensions and the like. Since the funding for such a universal floor would have to, in large part, come from taxation, it seems likely that a robust social democracy will have less inequality than a less robust one—as well as lower levels of poverty. Such is demonstrably the case in the contrast between European countries like France and Norway with the UK and the US. But, once the floor is adequately funded, we could wipe our hands and have no further interest in reducing inequality.
The second response is to consider the social ills attendant upon inequality. Now it may be hard to separate those ills out from absolute, as opposed to relative, inequality. So, for example, the poor have a much shorter life expectancy than the rich in the US for a host of reasons. Perhaps a basic package of guaranteed goods would close that gap. It also seems demonstrably true to me (although I haven’t seen anyone make this argument—and thus prove my intuitions here) that inequality of the sort now prevalent in the US is a major cause of homelessness. The reasoning goes like this: it obviously makes sense for any industry (in this case real estate and home construction) to go for the customers who have money. At the same time, the more disposable money the people at the top have to spend, the more likely they are to spend it on real estate. The rich now regularly have five homes or more. Furthermore, as is well attested, global inequality leads to foreign money coming into the housing markets of Vancouver, Auckland, London, New York, and Los Angeles. Housing prices are driven up; those providing housing have every incentive to concentrate on the high end of the market, while those whose income and wealth in increasingly a smaller fraction of the top earners are priced out. The same sort of argument—attuned to the differences in the market in each case—might be made about health care and higher education.
Now I believe that in all of these goods—health care, higher education, and housing—we have markets that produce “artificial scarcity.” There is no reason quality health care, quality education, and decent housing could not be widely available, instead of rationed as they currently are. But when that scarcity (or, in the case of housing and education, the willingness, even desire, of the rich to pay very high prices for the luxury version) skews the market, we should fully expect that market to pay little attention to providing goods at the low end. That task is left to “public education,” “public housing,” and “public hospitals,” all of which have been starved for funds ever since the neoliberal counter-revolution began in the mid-1970s. It is impossible to decouple the US’s inability to solve its housing crisis, and to reverse its horrible health care record (when contrasted to every other “rich” country in the world) from the fact of the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth since the 1970s. The two are certainly correlated even if the exact causal relation between them can’t be fingered.
None of this is exactly news. What my first colleague’s objection to Scheidel’s thesis puts into question is how and why “the great compression” of 1914 to 1970 occurred. Basically, given the size of the world’s population post-1800, the amount of violence required to substantially lower inequality is just about impossible to achieve. World War I, along with the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, killed approximately 50 million people. The population of the world in 1900 is reported as 1.6 billion people. Therefore, the death toll is about 3% of the world’s population. Compare that to the 33% decrease in population Scheidel attributes to the Black Death. (As a side note, it is precisely the huge increases in population after 1800 that underwrite Steven Pinker’s insistence that violence has greatly decreased in the modern era. The numbers required to show that a large percentage of people die violently are now simply massive.)
So: the violence of the 20th century does not seem large enough to create the kind of labor shortages that Scheidel associates with the Black Death. In that case, his argument is that laborers are placed in a better bargaining position when they are in short supply and, thus, inequality drops because wages go up. (A kind of reverse of Marx’s notion of the vast reserve army of the unemployed.)
But Scheidel’s argument about the effects of 20th century violence, in fact, seems to go in another direction. The key feature of the 20th century wars is mass mobilization. Thus the leverage the poor acquire stems from the need for their whole-hearted support of the war effort. Governments feel compelled to assure that wages outstrip the inevitable war-time inflation and that government regulation tamps down “wartime profiteering.” Such measures to equalize (if only moderately) rewards across the board then carry over into peacetime—for at least a period of time (about 30 to 40 years in the aftermath of World War II). The dynamic is perhaps best represented by the famous Beveridge Report of December 1942 in the UK . But there was also FDR’s “second bill of rights” in his 1944 state of the union address. (Of course, the Beveridge Report was, to a large extent, implemented, whereas FDR’s ambitious program died aborning.) So it is not the number of deaths that is so crucial as the scale of mobilization, which then exerts pressure to heighten national solidarity by moving the nation in a demonstrably more equal direction. The issue then becomes whether there is anyway, short of war, to produce the kind of impetus toward lowering inequality. The depressing evidence is No. Climate change certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—even though a goodly majority now say they favor a “green new deal.” William James’s hope for a “moral equivalent of war” keeps resurfacing in different guises.
Which now leads us back to another argument against relative inequality, even where absolute poverty has mostly been eliminated. The top 1% in the US now (according to some reckonings) pay 40% of the cost for American electioneering. Although goodly majorities favor increased taxes on the wealthy, the political likelihood of raising taxes is fairly slim. We don’t have a democracy, but a plutocracy. And that has deleterious effects in all kinds of ways, including an inability to respond to things like climate change and our housing crisis. It is the inequities in power that unequal wealth breeds that are one possible objection to economic inequality.
I will end here today. The question Scheidel poses is whether, apart from historic moments of great violence, there is some other form of pressure that would move a state to adopt measures that distribute economic goods more equitably. I assume the history of the establishment of social democracy in Scandinavia would be most relevant here—and will admit to total ignorance of that history. Sweden did not participate in either World War I or World War II. The goal remains some non-violent alternative, some form of concerted democratic action, that could change the economic order—with its relentless (over the past 40 years) increase of inequality. The civil rights movement which, in so many ways, serves as the model for such democratic action was fairly successful is winning increased political rights for African-Americans. But it was a dismal failure in its efforts to improve the economic standing of blacks. By all measures (except for the existence of a small black upper and middle class), blacks in the US today are no better off than they were in 1960.