Given that I predominantly review books on biology, you may wonder why a book on the history of economic inequality would be reviewed here. All I can say in my defence is that this biologist is nothing if not inquisitive.
Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler is a global deep history of inequality. Having taken a long, hard look at a huge range of historical evidence, Scheidel contends that only extreme violence and catastrophe have historically been able to bring more economic equality into the world.
Economic inequality has been a trending topic. By now it is unlikely that you have not heard of phrases such as “the 1%” or “the 99%”. But such inequality has a long and illustrious history. Scheidel argues that it was born after the last Ice Age, the unusually stable climate of the Holocene providing conditions favourable to increased resource extraction. It is tempting to think it all started with the domestication of animals and plants and a transition to sedentary farming, which replaced the egalitarian society of foragers with a more stratified, hierarchical society. But that’s not necessarily true. As Scott also argues in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, that narrative is outdated. Scheidel, it seems, agrees and points out how, given the right circumstances, foragers could exploit undomesticated natural resources so as to accumulate wealth and create inequality. Fish, as Fagan recently highlighted in Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, is one good example of a concentrated resource that can be exploited seasonally in certain areas (think of salmon runs). Nevertheless, farming became all the rage and subsequently played a disproportionately large role in the history of inequality. And state formation invariably led to the few enriching themselves at the expense of the many.
What, then, causes inequality to decline? If history is anything to go by: extreme violence. Scheidel puts forward the “Four Horsemen” of levelling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and pandemics (neatly referenced on the book’s cover by a suitably apocalyptic woodcut by Albrecht Dürer). Scheidel explicitly does not claim that inequality causes these violent upheavals, a fact lost on some reviewers. It might contribute to some, but there is simply no clear-cut pattern in history. The bulk of this book is dedicated to reviewing the evidence in support of his claim.
” […] farming became all the rage and subsequently played a disproportionately large role in the history of inequality.”
The nature of the evidence is diverse. Since we do not have direct data on wages and taxes prior to 1800, the study of inequality has to rely on archaeological proxies such as patterns of land ownership, variation in house size, distribution of inheritance shares and dowries etc.
The scope of the book is global. The two World Wars were big levellers and are considered in detail, but Scheidel also looks at the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the Warring States Period in China, and war in Ancient Greece. The part on transformative revolutions considers the horrors of communist Russia and China, the French Revolution and various other rural revolts. The part on state collapse considers ancient China, the Roman Empire, the Mycenaean culture of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and the Mayan societies of Pre-Columbian South and Central America. Finally, the part on plagues looks at the Black Death in mediaeval Europe, the pandemics in the Americas in the wake of the Columbian exchange, and the Justianic and Antonine Plagues in Ancient Rome (also see my review of Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire).
This part of the book is dense and heavily annotated with footnotes at the bottom of most pages. Personally, I prefer this annotation style, it saves you from having to flip back and forth to the back of the book. The amount of data and research Scheidel draws on is vast. It is also very interesting. War, including civil war, often does not decrease inequality, but merely shifts it from one party (the losers) to another (the winners). The two World Wars, however, were global and exceptionally violent. Similarly, the other factors considered here need to reach a threshold level before really impacting inequality. And, depressingly, the effects have never been permanent. Even in our time, the levelling effect of the World Wars and their aftermath seems to be wearing off, and inequality is once again on the rise.
“Even in our time, the levelling effect of the World Wars and their aftermath seems to be wearing off […]”
Are there no peaceful alternatives? Scheidel considers land reform, debt relief and economic crises (the peaceful variants of these three, i.e. those not rooted in violent shocks), democracy, economic development, and education. But history teaches us that none of these has the same dramatic levelling effect of the violent shocks considered so far. Finally, Scheidel looks at the future, concluding that, for now, the four horsemen have dismounted. Warfare has moved beyond the infantry-driven mass-mobilization of the early twentieth century, and Scheidel thinks that future warfare, even nuclear, will likely not have the same levelling effect. Communism has gone out of fashion, making transformative revolution of the kind we have seen unlikely. State failure is also deemed unlikely as states, a bit like banks, have become too big and interconnected to fail. Finally, pandemics are also deemed less likely to be a future leveller. Hundreds of millions would have to die to reach the same effect, and he thinks our medical science is nowadays better equipped to understand, detect and combat pandemic outbreaks early on.
Although I am on board with Scheidel’s analysis so far, I do have questions regarding future scenarios. Our failure to continue development of new antibiotics is increasingly putting us at risk of a new superbug (there are many books on this topic, see most recently Superbugs: An Arms Race Against Bacteria). And, surprisingly, Scheidel does not at all consider the future effects of climate change. The effects of this on agriculture alone could create new violent shocks, and, I fear, become a new type of horseman. Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future provided a cautionary tale that I feel ill at ease ignoring.
“The Great Leveler makes for grim reading, but presents a fascinating idea that is shored up with a wealth of data.”
The Great Leveler makes for grim reading but presents a fascinating idea that is shored up with a wealth of data. It is not a light read that you pick up on a free afternoon – expect to put in several days to digest this. Nevertheless, the book remains accessible and readable. My only point of criticism is that some of the figures are hard to decode as they plot twelve or more datasets in one panel, all in black-and-white. No doubt Scheidel’s peers will find much to disagree with. I feel ill-equipped to point out the flaws in his argument, but this provocative book is sure to generate further debate, and I would be curious to see it unfold.
Back in 2013, the French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a book on the evolution of economic inequality during the last two centuries. When it was picked up by Harvard University Press and translated into English as Capital in the Twenty-First Century it became an unexpected runaway bestseller, selling well over 150,000 copies so far. If you liked Piketty, you will want to read The Great Leveler. It provides a revealing historical context over a larger stretch of time.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
The Great Leveler paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: