The thesis of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017) is easily stated: “Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality, but did little if anything to bring it under control. Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks” (391).
In particular, Scheidel says there are four kinds of “violent shocks” (he calls them the four horsemen): war, plague, system or state collapse, and violent revolution. But it turns out that not even all instances of those four can do the job of reducing inequality. The violent shocks, it turns out, must be massive. Only “mass mobilization” wars reduce inequality, so (perhaps) only World War I and, especially, World War II actually count as doing the job. The Napoleonic Wars clearly do not–and it is harder to tell with the possible mass mobilizations in the ancient world.
Similarly, except for the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century (both of which caused, at the minimum, fifteen million deaths), revolutions rarely seem to have significantly altered the distribution of resources. The Black Death (lasting as it did, in waves, over at least eighty and perhaps 120 years) and perhaps similar earlier catastrophic plagues (of which less is certainly known) stand as the only examples of leveling epidemics. For system or state collapse, we get the fall of Rome—and not much else that is relevant since then, with speculations about collapses prior to Rome and in the Americas (Aztecs and Incas) where (once again) the available evidence leads to conjectures but no firm proofs.
Where does that leave us? In two places, apparently. One is that inequality leveling events are rare, are massive, and are, arguably, worse than the disease to which they are the cause. Also, except for the revolutions, the leveling effects are unintentional by-products. Which leads the second place: the very conservative conclusion (much like Hayek’s thoughts about the market as being beyond human control/calculation or T. S. Eliot’s similar comments about “culture” being an unplanned and unplannable product of human actions) that, although the creation of inequality is very much the result of human actions that are enabled and sustained by the state (i.e. by political organization), there is little that can be done politically (and deliberately) to reduce inequality. Scheidel is at great pains to show a) that even the great shocks only reduce inequality for a limited time (about 60 to 80 years) before inequality starts to rise again; b) that the various political expedients currently on the table (like a wealth tax of the kind Elizabeth Warren is proposing or high marginal tax rates) would lower inequality very slightly at most; and c) that the scale of violence required to significantly lower inequality (as contrasted to the marginal reductions that less violent measures could effect) is simply too horrible to deliberately embrace as a course of action.
So the conclusion appears to be: bemoan inequality as much as you like, but also find a way to come to terms with the fact that it is basically irremediable. Scheidel is good at the bemoaning part, portraying himself as someone who sees inequality as deplorable, even evil. But he is just as resolute in condemning violence aimed at decreasing inequality. So his unstated, but strongly, implied recommendation is quietist.
In line with my ongoing obsessions, the book appears to reinforce what I have deemed one of the paradoxes of violence: namely, the fact that the state is undoubtedly a constraint upon violence even as states are also undoubtedly the source of more violence than non-state actors. In the new version of this paradox that Scheidel’s book suggests, the formulation would go like this: the state enables greater economic activity/productivity while also enabling far greater economic inequality.
Yet the state’s enabling of inequality doesn’t work the other way. It seems just about impossible to harness the state to decrease inequality—except in the extreme case of war. World War II certainly bears that out in recent (the past 300 years) history. The US (in particular) adopted (in astoundingly short order) a very communistic framework to conduct the war (with a command economy in terms of what was to be produced and how people were to be assigned their different roles in production, along with strict wage and price controls, and rationing). It would seem that the war proved that a command economy can be efficient and, not only that, but in times of dire need, a command economy was obviously preferable to the chaos of the free market. The war effort was too important to be left to capitalism. But outside of a situation of war, it has seemed impossible to have the state play that kind of leveling role, strongly governing both production and distribution. Why? Because only war produces the kind of social solidarity required for such centralized (enforced) cooperation? To answer that way gets us back to violence as required—because violence is a force of social cohesion like none other.
To phrase it this way gets us back to an ongoing obsession of this blog: the problem of mobilization. How to create a sustainable mass movement that can exert the kind of pressure on elites that is required to shift resources downward? If violence as teh source of cohesion for that movement is taken off the table, what will serve in its place? Which also raises the thought of why nationalism is so entangled in violence and in rhetorics/practices of sacrifice. The means by which social cohesion is created. Maybe that’s the “numinous” quality of violence to which Charles Taylor keeps gesturing. A kind of Durkheimian creation of the collective, a way of escaping/transcending the self.
A different thought: Scheidel makes a fairly compelling case (although it is not his main focus) that the creation of inequality is itself dependent on violence. Sometimes the violence of appropriation is massive–especially in the cases of empires which are basically enterprises of either outright extraction (carting off the loot) or somewhat more indirect extortion (requiring the payment of “tribute” in return for peace/protection). Or sometimes the violence of appropriation is less massive and less direct. But appropriation still requires a state that, in the last instance, will protect appropriated property against the claims of those who see that appropriation as either unjust or as inimical to their own interests. In short, the power of the state (a power that resides, to at least some extent, in its capacity for violence and its willingness to put that capacity into use) is necessary to the creation and maintenance of inequality. So, in one way, it seems like a “little” violence can get you inequality, but it requires “massive” violence to dislodge that inequality in the direction of more equality. And it is this difference in scale that places the exploited in such an unfavorable position when it comes to remedial action.
Of course, the growth in inequality since 1980 in the US was grounded in legal instruments and institutional practices. The increasing power of employers over employees, the prevention of the state from intervening in massive lay-offs or equally massive outsourcing, the onslaught of privatization and deregulation (or lax enforcement of existing regulations), the legalization of all kinds of financial speculation and “creative instruments” etc. etc. was all accomplished “non-violently” through a classic “capture of the state.” This is what inspires the most radical leftist visions; the left seems utterly paralyzed as it witnesses all these court cases, new laws, revisions of executive practice, a paralysis generated by the fact that the shifts of power and wealth to the top 10% are all “legal.” The radical claims there is no “legal” room left for the radical egalitarian to occupy. The system is so corrupt that it offers no remedies within its scope. But the distaste for massive violence (here is where Scheidel is relevant) appears to take extra-legal methods for change off the table.