For almost as long as human beings have existed, some have had more than others. In the early hominoid days, physically stronger proto-people might have secured more meat than other proto-people, and those who lived near water replete with fish could benefit from the extra calories. As time went on and what most of us know as society emerged, status and power became more complicated, and a basic truth came into focus: Some have a lot, and others have almost nothing.
More recently—really in the past few hundred years—experts and advocates have begun to discuss this phenomenon of economic inequality as a problem that might be fixed. But Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, author of the recently-released book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, has bad news for those who might like us to live in a more equal society: The surest way to do that is to unleash hell on your fellow human beings.
Scheidel takes readers on a brutal tour of inequality throughout human history, drawing on everything from wheat wages in ancient Egypt to the size of houses in the Middle Ages to modern tax records. Consciously building on the work of celebrated French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 2014 (in English) bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century predicted yawning income gaps would continue to get even larger in the decades ahead, Scheidel looks to history to find out what humans can actually do about it.
The answer, unfortunately, seems to be that short of a horrific plague or famine, another world war, total state collapse, or violent revolution, we may be shit out of luck. Those "Four Horsemen," as Sheidel calls them, account for most of the major reductions in material inequality over the course of human history. Plague in medieval Europe, for instance, massively increased the clout of workers, as they were suddenly a prized commodity and could demand higher wages. And it's not exactly breaking news that revolutions, state collapse, and warfare can all destroy (literally, in many cases) wealth, which is one reliable way to reduce the gap between rich and poor—albeit with plenty of misery along the way.
For some perspective on how we can apply the lessons of history to our modern struggle with inequality—and what Donald Trump means for this whole mess—I called up Professor Scheidel for a chat. Here's how that went.
VICE: Is inequality, in and of itself, a bad thing, something that we should desire to reduce?
Walter Scheidel: I think the answer is that it's not the worst thing ever, but it's arguably a bad thing. So if you compare it to poverty, obviously that's a much more pressing issue, not just in the US but anywhere in the world. But if you just look at inequality as such—how the available resources are distributed regardless of whether people are poor or not, there are various dimensions to it: an ethical dimension, a moral dimension. Is it fair if the gains that are generated by an economy are distributed in a highly uneven way? It might be fair, but it arguably needs to be justified, at least in a democratic system. And an economist would say, Well it might have negative effects on economic growth. For instance, if you have a very unequal society, it could depress the ability of a large part of the population to consume and invest. So it might actually retard economic development.
You have the aspect of perpetuating this kind of inequality over time. If you have a high level of inequality, it's more likely that parents will pass on those advantages to their children. In the long term, it might be seen as unfair if you live in a kind of social democracy—or meritocracy, if you will.
You lay out pretty early in the book the Four Horsemen—four phenomena, basically—that have historically succeeded, in your estimation, in massively curtailing inequality. They are mass warfare, violent revolutions, state failure and plagues/diseases/epidemics. Can you explain the intellectual history of that concept—is it your own creation?
It just occurred to me because it turned out to be four major factors that I could distinguish and so I thought of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Had it been a different number, I might have settled on some different phraseology.
I did start out probably with Piketty's articles where he talked about World War II and so on. I thought, Well, how about most of history? I had done work myself on plagues, published research looking at the development of real wages and inequality, what happens when a very big plague hits. And I had this in the back of my mind. So if you put two and two together, you have mass mobilization wars that Piketty talks about, and you have these other phenomena. Socialist revolutions are pretty much a no-brainer—they're obviously a violent leveling force. And I had also done some work on state collapse and it sort of coalesced into this. I thought, Well, if there are all these forces are out there, they all look very violent to me; let's see if there are others. But I couldn't find any others that are equally powerful. And I said, Let's look at this systematically over the course of history. And as I was doing this, it really crystalized that really these are four distinctive factors and there's not much more out there in the long term.
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There's been a fair amount of talk in radical circles in the United States, going back centuries, about literally killing rich people. When you talk about your Four Horsemen, though, rounding up a few Wall Street guys or whatever fantasies some of us might entertain doesn't seem like enough. You point to the French Terror as a failed example of a more targeted purge that was followed by a restoration of monarchy. Can you explain that?
I mean, one of the problems is that during this period, nobody really took measurements. We don't have proper data from right at the peak of the Terror, the beginning of Napoleon. It's a little hard to disentangle the effects of the restoration from what had happened before. Maybe it's a little unfair of me to have said, "Well, they didn't get very far," because much was undone later on.
But the revolution was relatively shallow, right? They killed a few thousand rich people, which certainly made a difference, but it was ultimately a bourgeois revolution. If you have a bourgeois revolution, it's not going to be very redistributive unless you really appeal to the lower income half of the population and say, "This is really for you and nobody should have more than other people," which is what you get on left. But the French Revolution was very keen on private property—they had no particular desire for collectivizing everything, as it was very much a middle-class phenomenon.
So the distinction you're making here is between more modest political revolutions and a truly violent upheavals?
You can think of the American Revolution, which was a war against a foreign power, a civil war, any number of things at the same time. And there was certainly violence against rich loyalists who would be kicked out or lose their assets. But it wasn't a wholesale revolution that really equalized on a large scale. And the French Revolution was a step up from that, but if you look at the Communist revolutions, everything else pales in comparison to that because nobody had tried to do this [society-wide restructuring] before.
Can we talk a little about actual violence versus the threat of violence? Could one not argue that the latter is sufficient to reduce inequality? In the 1930s, for instance, we saw the erection of massive welfare programs in the US before World War II, at least partly because of the broader political dynamic in the world and anxiety about the appeal of socialism at home, right?
It's a little tricky because the US never really had any strong leftist movement. But if you look at Europe, after 1917 people were really scared about Communism in all the western European countries. You have all these poor people, they might rise up and kill us and take our stuff. That wasn't just a fantasy because it was happening next door. And that, we can show, did trigger steps in the direction of having more welfare programs and a rudimentary safety net in response to fear of Communism. Not that they [the Communists] would invade, but that there would be homegrown movements of this sort.
American populism is a little different because it's more detached from that. But it happens roughly at the same time, and people in America are worried about Communism too—not necessarily very reasonably. But that was always in the background. And people have only begun to study systematically to what extent the threat, real or imagined, of this type of radical regime really influenced policy changes in Western democracies. You don't necessarily even have to go out and kill rich people—if there was some plausible alternative out there, it would arguably have an impact on policymaking at home. That's certainly there in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s and 60s.
And there's a debate, right, because it becomes clear that the Soviet Union is really not in very good shape, and people don't really like to be there, and all these movements lost their appeal. That's a contributing factor, arguably, that the end of the Cold War coincides roughly with the time when inequality really starts going up again, because elites are much more relaxed about the possibility of credible alternatives or threats being out there.
"There's surprisingly little work, if any, that looks at whether inequality is behind certain kinds of violent shocks."
Aren't those social welfare programs sort of a partial rebuttal to your theory, though—that the threat of violence was enough to curb inequality, rather than the thing itself?
That's true, but you could argue that there was need for the violence [to happen somewhere]. So if people in Russia go and kill all the rich people, that doesn't mean violence occurred in other countries, but they know it can happen and did happen. That happened with the French Revolution too—the monarchies of Europe said, "That's really terrible, they're cutting off the heads of aristocrats, we have to snuff this out and invade France and put it down."
There are very powerful indirect effects—it doesn't have to happen at home, but as long as it happens somewhere out there, it provides a credible template. Think of Cuba: If Fidel Castro comes in and he takes over Cuba and expropriates the rich, all the rich people in Peru and Chile and Mexico are going to say, This could happen to us. What should we do? Should we opt for oppression, should we maybe embrace reform? In many cases they did because, again, they are spurred on by something like this happening out there. And all of a sudden this becomes a much more credible threat to them.
How do you untangle correlation are causality here—the extent to which inequality might be affected by major shock events and how it might help bring them about?
The problem is it's very difficult to construct some kind of complete feedback loop with violence and inequality. People haven't studied this intensely enough—there's surprisingly little work, if any, that looks at whether inequality is behind certain kinds of violent shocks. You'd expect that people would have done this systematically; turns out they haven't. I hope what I did and what others have done will inspire people to work more on this in the future. But as of now I can't see any kind of systematic relationship going the other way—from high inequality to violent shocks.
I don't know if you noticed that George Will, the conservative Washington Post columnist, referred to your book approvingly as sort of validating his worldview. That is, if violence is the only way to reduce inequality, why bother with the social welfare state? Do you agree that these programs are sort of pointless?
No, no I don't. The historical evidence can be read in a huge range of different ways. You can do the Will thing and say, "OK, let's just throw our hands up and do nothing." You could go to the opposite end and say, "Well, maybe violence is a good thing, maybe we should go out and kill the rich." I don't advocate either one of those positions! There is certainly room for incremental change, that's what the example of Latin America shows in the last 15 years or so. But if you look at really substantial reductions that really made a difference overall, well, there the picture seems to be different. It's actually very hard to do that unless there is—not just violence happening but has happened in a way that meaningfully influences policymaking and other developments the way we just discussed.
"If you expect some really big change for the better in terms of inequality over the next five or ten years, you probably need something like, not necessarily nuclear war, but some really big shock or big disaster of that sort."
There was a lot of hype for Obama when he took over in 2009. The New York Times called his first budget plan "bold" and said it sought "to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years." And there was of course a massive right-wing rebellion against his agenda. Yet when we step back, eight years out, there was a little bit of a boost for the lowest incomes and a tiny bit of compression, maybe, at the top. But Obama didn't actually move the needle much. Do you see that as validation for your approach and maybe an indication that perhaps Obama wasn't forceful enough—or even violent enough?
Inasmuch as something happened, it happened not because of his policies initially but because of the recession. The recession really hit the rich pretty hard, initially, because of their exposure to risky investments and so on. And within the next four years or so, that recovered. And so it wasn't really driven so much by whether his policies worked or not but forces beyond his control.
You can say, well, What if Bernie Sanders had been elected instead of Obama? The answer is probably, well, the right-wing insurgency would have been a lot more powerful, right? That's always an interesting issue, because it seems at least in the US that inequality is closely tied up with political polarization. So when it was high way back when in 1900, the country was also pretty polarized. And then, again, because of all the bad things that happened—the populism, the Great Depression, World War II—polarization really went down dramatically because people figured: We really have to get our act together and make things happen. That was exactly at the time when you could implement really radical policies.
But ever since, polarization has been going up—quite rapidly, especially since the 80s. And inequality has been going up, quite rapidly, again, since the 80s. And those two things are not entirely unconnected. Because if you have political stalemate, one side trying to undo everything the other side is putting in place, nothing much is going to work.
I have to ask about the nuclear war thing—your suggestion near the end of the book that, in theory at least, that is perhaps the most potent way to massively reduce inequality in a way that would really dramatically reshape the world. How are we not to lose hope for the prospect of a more equal or even more stable society if it seems like deadly catastrophe is the only way out of where we are?
Well, it may be the only shortcut out of where we are. If you expect some really big change for the better in terms of inequality over the next five or ten years, you probably need something like, not necessarily nuclear war, but some really big shock or big disaster of that sort. That doesn't mean incremental change isn't possible—there's lots of low-hanging fruit, especially in the American system, because some things are just so egregious and have been pointed out many times: certain features of the tax code, the money that goes into politics, and so on. So if those could be addressed—and they are in principle addressable—then improvements could be made at the margins. That may become more sustainable in the long term, there's at least some hope.
But if the hope is very big—if the hope is to say what Trump says, "I'm going to take you back to the way things were 40 years ago," which implicitly he's saying—that's just not going to happen unless something extraordinary happens. And that extraordinary thing would probably have to be something very bad at the same time.
I wanted to ask about Trump. Does the elevation of a figure like him make the prospect of one of the Four Horsemen more plausible and therefore—like it or not—make a massive reduction in inequality more likely?
I think we probably overestimate Trump's ability to really do things. We're already seeing how much pushback he gets from within the bureaucracy, and it can only get worse over time. So I think it's easy for him to stir things up at the surface. God willing, it's far less likely that he will stir things up in a more profound fashion.
And even in terms of his policies, on the one hand he poses as a populist for the working class, and [wants to bring back] manufacturing jobs and so on, and at the same time he allies himself with a party that is always pushing for tax cuts. Which is not really compatible with what he claims he wants to accomplish.
There's been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about "punching Nazis" and violence against white supremacists. I realize opposing Donald Trump and wanting to reduce inequality are not identical, but can your book and its theory be brought to bear here? Are anti-fascists, some of whom express openness to violence, onto something?
Once you have a society in which inequality reaches very high levels, all else being equal, you might expect a greater propensity to call for these [acts of violence] or even engage in them in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. That has been a problem in Latin America for a very long time, where you have a much higher degree of violent dissent and insurgency. So you could ask: "Is punching Nazis just the beginning of some kind of fringe response to certain social conditions like polarization and very high inequality?" I would see it as a possible outgrowth of these conditions.
So what's your prognosis for the next five to ten years, given the populist insurgencies afoot in much of the West, the turn toward xenophobia in some corners, growing inequality, and the like? Where are we headed here? How does this human story pan out?
I don't believe that any of the traditional Four Horsemen are going to come back any time soon for any number of reasons. So I think in the short term, ten to 20 years, will probably see a worsening of the political climate and more polarization, more (rhetorically or otherwise) violence, more populism, more movement at the margins, at fringes. But I think the economic system that we have now is sufficiently resilient to weather this reasonably well. And as long as it does that, there is no good reason to believe inequality's going to change massively, either.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Learn more about The Great Leveler here.
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