Take your pick

James C. Scott

  • The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century by Walter Scheidel
    Princeton, 504 pp, £27.95, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 16502 8

It is by now common knowledge that income inequality has grown by leaps and bounds as a result of the neoliberal policies of the past half-century. The United States is a case in point – eight hyper-rich Americans today own as much as the entire bottom half of the nation’s households – but it is not an anomaly. Such massive inequalities are a global phenomenon. In 2015, Walter Scheidel writes in The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century, ‘the richest 62 persons on the planet owned as much private net wealth as the poorer half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people.’ The disparity is stupefying; it would be hardly less stupefying if Scheidel were off by a factor of, say, two or three, and 124 or 186 individuals had as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

That the rich have grown both absolutely and comparatively richer in recent decades has been evidenced in great statistical detail by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century. While the two world wars and the world depression of the first half of the 20th century entailed a massive destruction of accumulated wealth which, however catastrophic, did reduce inequality, the postwar peace has restored the advantage of the very wealthy. The perverse price of peace, Piketty finds, is that in peacetime the return to capital (interest, dividends and profits) routinely exceeds the rate of economic growth (and therefore of income growth). Year by year, as long as this apparently invariable relationship holds, mounting inequalities in income distribution are inevitable. Piketty, like the good social democrat he is, has any number of suggestions for state policies that would interrupt this logic, or at least mitigate it. He proposes a global tax on wealth and believes that a top income tax rate of 80 per cent would be optimal. He recognises that such policies stand little chance of being enacted, let alone enforced, but that doesn’t stop him exploring the ways in which state policy might redistribute income with a view to improving the life chances and wellbeing of the poorest.

No such optimism, however far-fetched, is allowed to enter the dark precincts of Scheidel’s deep history of inequality and its remedies. He leaves no doubt that ever since the origin of farming – and hence of landed property – the default setting of economic evolution has been growing inequality. The book’s quantitative bulldozing and vast temporal and geographical reach are designed to substantiate two seemingly straightforward propositions: first, that technological and economic development, abetted by state-formation, are the chief drivers of ever growing inequality; second, that ‘effective levelling required violent shocks that at least temporarily curtailed and reversed the disequalising consequences of capital investment, commercialisation, and the exercise of political, military and ideological power by predatory elites and their associates.’

Periods of lessened inequality, Scheidel aims to show, have rarely, if ever, been the result of a simple improvement in the income of the poorest sectors of a population. Instead, they have been the result of a near cataclysmic destruction of the accumulated wealth of privileged elites, often accompanied by the deaths of large numbers of people, poor and rich alike. Levelling is not the result of a policy to redistribute wealth and life chances, but the unforeseen consequence of social and economic disaster. The poorer half of the population may end up, after a war or a plague, with a larger relative share of the national income and wealth, but only at the cost of surviving a catastrophe. It seems that the only satisfaction they stand to gain from such levelling events is the thin gruel of Schadenfreude.

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