Book Summary: “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality” by Walter Scheidel

Title: Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twentieth Century
Author: Walter Scheidel
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Schiedel explores the causes of changing levels of inequality and their relationship to violence.

If you would like to learn more about human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

The message of this book: Inequality is here to stay. Everything that reduces inequality is worse than inequality.

Key Take-aways

  • Ever since the invention of agriculture, human societies have been very unequal.
  • The typical pre-Industrial society had a:
    • tiny, but extremely wealthy, elite
    • larger group of relatively prosperous government, church and military officials
    • huge mass of peasants living at subsistence levels.
  • Modern societies have much higher standards-of-living, but similar levels of inequality.
  • Periods of relative stability inherently lead to increasing inequality.
  • The only periods with declining inequality have been marked by:
    • Total wars, such as World War I and II
    • Revolutionary violence, particularly from Communist regimes
    • Complete collapse of the state
    • Lethal pandemics
  • Even most wars, civil wars, and peasant revolts have had no real impact on inequality.
  • Peaceful attempts to lessen equality have had little long-term impact, including:
    • Land reform
    • Democracy
    • Education and skills
    • Redistributive taxation and social spending

Important Quotes from Book

It was food production—farming and herding—that created wealth on an entirely novel scale. Growing and persistent inequality became a defining feature of the Holocene. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to accumulate and preserve productive resources.  Domestication of food sources also domesticated people. The formation of states as a highly competitive form of organization established steep hierarchies of power and coercive force that skewed access to income and wealth. Political inequality reinforced and amplified economic inequality. For most of the agrarian period, the state enriched the few at the expense of the many: gains from pay and benefactions for public service often paled next to those from corruption, extortion, and plunder. As a result, many premodern societies grew to be as unequal as they could possibly be, probing the limits of surplus appropriation by small elites under conditions of low per capita output and minimal growth. And when more benign institutions promoted more vigorous economic development, most notably in the emergent West, they continued to sustain high inequality. Urbanization, commercialization, financial sector innovation, trade on an increasingly global scale, and, finally, industrialization generated rich returns for holders of capital. As rents from the naked exercise of power declined, choking off a traditional source of elite enrichment, more secure property rights and state commitments strengthened the protection of hereditary private wealth. Even as economic structures, social norms, and political systems changed, income and wealth inequality remained high or found new ways to grow.

For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality.

Violent shocks were of paramount importance in disrupting the established order, in compressing the distribution of income and wealth, in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Throughout recorded history, the most powerful leveling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling.

For war to level disparities in income and wealth, it needed to penetrate society as a whole, to mobilize people and resources on a scale that was often only feasible in modern nation-states. This explains why the two world wars were among the greatest levelers in history.

The shocks of the world wars led to what is known as the “Great Compression,” massive attenuation of inequalities in income and wealth across developed countries. Mostly concentrated in the period from 1914 to 1945, it generally took several more decades fully to run its course.

The world wars spawned the second major leveling force, transformative revolution.

Violent societal restructuring needs to be exceptionally intense if it is to reconfigure access to material resources. Similarly to equalizing mass mobilization warfare, this was primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Communists who expropriated, redistributed, and then often collectivized leveled inequality on a dramatic scale. The most transformative of these revolutions were accompanied by extraordinary violence.

Violence might destroy states altogether. State failure or systems collapse used to be a particularly reliable means of leveling. For most of history, the rich were positioned either at or near the top of the political power hierarchy or were connected to those who were. Moreover, states provided a measure of protection, however modest by modern standards, for economic activity beyond the subsistence level. When states unraveled, these positions, connections, and protections came under pressure or were altogether lost. Although everybody might suffer when states unraveled, the rich simply had much more to lose: declining or collapsing elite income and wealth compressed the overall distribution of resources.

State failure takes the principle of leveling by violent means to its logical extremes: instead of achieving redistribution and rebalancing by reforming and restructuring existing polities, it wipes the slate clean in a more comprehensive manner. The first three horsemen represent different stages, not in the sense that they are likely to appear in sequence—whereas the biggest revolutions were triggered by the biggest wars, state collapse does not normally require similarly strong pressures—but in terms of intensity. What they all have in common is that they rely on violence to remake the distribution of income and wealth alongside the political and social order.

Human-caused violence has long had competition. In the past, plague, smallpox, and measles ravaged whole continents more forcefully than even the largest armies or most fervent revolutionaries could hope to do. In agrarian societies, the loss of a sizeable share of the population to microbes, sometimes a third or even more, made labor scarce and raised its price relative to that of fixed assets and other nonhuman capital, which generally remained intact. As a result, workers gained and landlords and employers lost as real wages rose and rents fell. Institutions mediated the scale of these shifts: elites commonly attempted to preserve existing arrangements through fiat and force but often failed to hold equalizing market forces in check.

Pandemics complete the quartet of horsemen of violent leveling. But were there also other, more peaceful mechanisms of lowering inequality? If we think of leveling on a large scale, the answer must be no. Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these four levelers. Moreover, mass wars and revolutions did not merely act on those societies that were directly involved in these events: the world wars and exposure to communist challengers also influenced economic conditions, social expectations, and policymaking among bystanders. These ripple effects further broadened the effects of leveling rooted in violent conflict.

Other factors have a mixed record. From antiquity to the present, land reform has tended to reduce inequality most when associated with violence or the threat of violence—and least when not. Macroeconomic crises have only short-lived effects on the distribution of income and wealth. Democracy does not of itself mitigate inequality. Although the interplay of education and technological change undoubtedly influences dispersion of incomes, returns on education and skills have historically proven highly sensitive to violent shocks. Finally, there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen. Yet shocks abate. When states failed, others sooner or later took their place. Demographic contractions were reversed after plagues subsided, and renewed population growth gradually returned the balance of labor and capital to previous levels. The world wars were relatively short, and their aftereffects have faded over time: top tax rates and union density are down, globalization is up, communism is gone, the Cold War is over, and the risk of World War III has receded. All of this makes the recent resurgence of inequality easier to understand. The traditional violent levelers currently lie dormant and are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. No similarly potent alternative mechanisms of equalization have emerged. Even in the most progressive advanced economies, redistribution and education are already unable fully to absorb the pressure of widening income inequality before taxes and transfers. Lower-hanging fruits beckon in developing countries, but fiscal constraints remain strong. There does not seem to be an easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality. From a global historical perspective, this should not come as a surprise. So far as we can tell, environments that were free from major violent shocks and their broader repercussions hardly ever witnessed major compressions of inequality.

Very broadly speaking, after our species had embraced domesticated food production and its common corollaries, sedentism and state formation, and had acknowledged some form of hereditary property rights, upward pressure on material inequality effectively became a given—a fundamental feature of human social existence.

Inequality either grew or held fairly steady for much of recorded history, and significant reductions have been rare. Yet policy proposals designed to stem or reverse the rising tide of inequality tend to show little awareness or appreciation of this historical background.

A foraging mode of subsistence and an egalitarian moral economy combine into a formidable obstacle to any form of development for the simple reason that economic growth requires some degree of inequality in income and consumption to encourage innovation and surplus production. Without growth, there was hardly any surplus to appropriate and pass on. The moral economy prevented growth, and the lack of growth prevented the production and concentration of surplus.

Inequality took off only after the last Ice Age had come to an end and climatic conditions entered a period of unusual stability. The Holocene, the first interglacial warm period for more than 100,000 years, created an environment that was more favorable to economic and social development. As these improvements allowed humans to extract more energy and grow in numbers, they also laid the ground for an increasingly unequal distribution of power and material resources. This led to what I call the “Great Disequalization,” a transition to new modes of subsistence and new forms of social organization that eroded forager egalitarianism and replaced it with durable hierarchies and disparities in income and wealth. For these developments to occur, there had to be productive assets that could be defended against encroachment and from which owners could draw a surplus in a predictable manner. Food production by means of farming and herding fulfills both requirements and came to be the principal driver of economic, social, and political change.

A survey of 258 Native American societies in North America suggests that the size of the surplus, not domestication as such, was the key determinant of levels of material inequality: whereas two-thirds of societies that had no or hardly any surplus did not manifest resource inequality, four in five of those that generated  moderate or large surpluses did. This correlation is much stronger than between different modes of subsistence on the one hand and inequality on the other.

A collaborative study of twenty-one small-scale societies at different levels of development—hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, herders, and farmers—and in different parts of the world identifies two crucial determinants of inequality: ownership rights in land and livestock and the ability to transmit wealth from one generation to the next. 

Unequal access to income and wealth preceded the formation of the state and contributed to its development. Yet once established, governmental institutions in turn exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones. Premodern states generated unprecedented opportunities for the accumulation and concentration of material resources in the hands of the few.

To an even greater extent than today, our species used to be concentrated in the temperate zone of Eurasia as well as in parts of Central America and the South American Northwest. This is where empire thrived: for thousands of years, most of humanity lived in the shadow of these behemoths, with a few coming to tower far above ordinary mortals. This was the environment that created what I call the “original 1 percent,” made up of competing but often closely intertwined elite groups that did their utmost to capture the political rents and commercial gains mobilized by state-building and imperial integration.34

Premodern state formation separated a small ruling class from the mass of primary producers.

These basic conditions profoundly shaped the distribution of income and wealth. Reduced to essentials, history has known only two ideal-typical modes of wealth acquisition: making and taking.

The violent takeover of rival polities and territories opened the door to more overt predation and the accumulation of riches unfettered by customary local constraints.  State-directed allocation of material resources to members of the political elite and administrative personnel converted political inequality into income and wealth inequality. It directly and immediately reproduced power asymmetries in the economic sphere…, assigned claims to surplus could be more important than formal property rights in productive assets. This was particularly true in societies in which labor services represented a major component of state and elite revenue. Corvee arrangements in the Inca empire were among the most extensive recorded in history, but use of coerced labor was also widespread in Egypt, the Near East, China, and Mesoamerica, to name but a few places.

In addition to grants of land and labor, participation in the collection of state revenue was another important pathway to power-based elite enrichment.

Underneath their institutional and cultural differences, the empires of China and Rome shared a logic of surplus appropriation and concentration that generated high levels of inequality. Imperial rule mobilized flows of resources that were capable of enriching those at the levers of power on a scale that would have been unimaginable in smaller settings. The degree of inequality was therefore at least in part a function of the sheer scale of imperial state formation.

Inasmuch as inequality could be contained within intact imperial polities, it was by means of violent recirculation of assets within the elite.

Many more cases from around the world could easily be added but the basic point is clear. In premodern societies, very large fortunes regularly owed more to political power than to economic prowess. They differed mostly in terms of their durability, which was critically mediated by state rulers’ ability and willingness to engage in despotic intervention. Intense resource concentration at the very top and high inequality were a given, and although wealth mobility varied, this was of little concern to those outside plutocratic circles. Sketched out in the opening chapter, the structural properties of almost all premodern states strongly favored a particular coercion-rich mode of income and wealth concentration that tended to maximize inequality over time. As a result, these entities were often about as unequal as they could be…

Rough estimates for twenty-eight preindustrial societies from Roman times to the 1940s yield an average extraction rate of 77 percent, a rate that measures the actualized proportion of the maximum amount of income inequality that was theoretically possible at a given level of per capita GDP. Exceptions were rare: the only reasonably well documented case is that of classical Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Thirty-six years and more than 100 million violent deaths later, much of Europe and East Asia had repeatedly been wrecked, and mass-murdering communists ruled a third of the world’s population. Between 1914 and 1945 (or the closest years on record), the income shares of the “1 percent” shrank by two-thirds in Japan; by more than half in France, Denmark, Sweden, and probably also the United Kingdom; by half in Finland; and by more than a third in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Inequality also collapsed in Russia and its imperial possessions, as well as in China, Korea, and Taiwan. The concentration of wealth in elite hands, although more resilient outside revolutionary settings and therefore slower to recede, generally followed the same pattern. In western Europe, the ratio of the stock of capital to annual GDP plummeted by about two-thirds between 1910 and 1950 and perhaps by close to half worldwide, a rebalancing that greatly diminished the economic preeminence of wealthy investors. Two of the four horsemen of violent leveling—mass mobilization warfare and transformative revolution— had been unleashed with devastating consequences. For the first time since the Black Death, and on a scale perhaps unrivaled since the fall of the western Roman empire, access to material resources came to be distributed much more equally—and, uniquely, across large parts of the globe. By the time this “Great Compression” had run its course, commonly in the 1970s or 1980s, effective inequality both in the developed world and in the most populous developing countries of Asia had plunged to depths that had been unknown since the transition to sedentism and food domestication thousands of years earlier.

Mass mobilization war served as one of the two principal means of leveling in the twentieth century. Transformative—communist—revolution was the other: but inasmuch as these revolutions were driven by the world wars, total war was the single ultimate cause. Returning to my simile of the Four Horsemen, war and revolution were as twins, charging side by side.

Although each case is defined by a specific configuration of circumstances, what Charles de Gaulle called “the drama of the thirty years war,” from 1914 to 1945, resulted in a significant and often dramatic deconcentration of income and wealth across the developed world.

The average percentage drop of top income shares in countries that actively fought in the war as frontline states (and that sometimes suffered occupation) is 31 percent of the prewar level, a robust finding considering that this sample consists of a dozen countries. (Exclusion of the somewhat marginal case of New Zealand would raise the mean farther, to 33 percent.) The median drop is 28 percent to 29 percent, and every single case registers a net decline.

The annual rate of decline of the top income shares in wartime was invariably several times, and indeed often a great many times, higher than in the postwar period, regardless of how the postwar rates are calculated.

In eight out of ten countries for which relevant evidence is available, the highest recorded degree of wealth concentration occurred right before the outbreak of World War I. The period between 1914 and 1945 witnessed a severe contraction of top wealth shares.

Conquest pushed state shares to astounding levels. In 1943 Germany secured the equivalent of 73 percent of GNP for the state, almost all of it for war and some of it squeezed out of subjugated populations. The following year, by one account, the Japanese state is thought to have spent as much as 87 percent of GDP, likewise drawing on the resources of its doomed empire.

Military mass mobilization, progressive graduation of tax rates, and the targeting of elite wealth on top of income constituted the three main ingredients of fiscal leveling.

The experience of the United States demonstrates that considerable war-induced leveling could occur in the absence of physical destruction and serious inflation. The country’s top 1 percent income share fell on three separate occasions, by almost a quarter during World War I, by the same proportion during the Great Depression, and by about 30 percent of what remained during World War II. Overall, this top bracket lost some 40 percent of its share in total income between 1916 and 1945. As in other countries, this trend was more extreme in the uppermost tiers: thus the share of the top 0.01 percent of incomes declined by 80 percent during the same period.

A common chain of events served to lower inequality and subsequently maintain or in many cases further reinforce wartime leveling: loss of capital to destruction, expropriation, or inflation; decline of returns to capital due to policy intervention such as tax policy and rent, price, wage, and dividend controls; and postwar commitment to continuing high and progressive taxation. Depending on political, military, and economic circumstances specific to individual countries, leveling could be sudden or more gradual, concentrated during the war years or deferred to postwar crises, or spread out across longer periods. Yet the outcome was always the same, regardless of whether countries lost or won, suffered occupation during or after the war, and were democracies or run by autocratic regimes. Mass mobilization for the purpose of mass violence was the engine of a transnational transformation of the distribution of income and wealth.

We can thank Piketty for an answer to the question of why inequality did not quickly recover after 1945 that is elegant in its simplicity. Capital accumulation is a process that takes time, and the nineteenth century, largely peaceful in much of the West, had offered favorable conditions. Once capital had been destroyed on a large scale in the period of the world wars, it proved much more difficult to rebuild as long as wartime measures such as progressive taxes on income and estates remained in place.

Key elements of this pattern were replicated across developed countries: very low rates of unionization prior to World War I, large increases in the later stages and immediate aftermath of that war, a partial decline and a strong recovery, and new peaks during World War II.

The Civil War was a hybrid, located at a particular juncture of social evolution, with one foot in modernity (represented by mass engagement and nationwide impact) and one in the past (represented by unconstrained profiteering among victorious elites and heavy depletion of elite assets only among the losers). Perhaps for the last time in history, inequality outcomes differed greatly between the winning and losing sides.

The overwhelming majority of wars in history were not conflicts of military mass mobilization across society. They were often fought by what Charles Tilly called “specialists in violence” and, reduced to bare essentials, were primarily competitions between ruling elites for the control of people, land, and other resources—“the sport of kings,” in Arnold Toynbee’s words. In wars in which only one side suffered major destruction, plundering or conquest were likely to increase inequality among the victors and depress it among the ravaged or defeated: the leaders of the winning side could expect to gain (more so than their followers, let alone the general population), whereas those on the losing side were exposed to losses or ruin.

Military conflict has long been a pervasive feature of human history, but only certain kinds of war attenuated another equally pervasive phenomenon—the unequal distribution of income and wealth. For winners and losers alike, modern mass mobilization warfare proved to be a potent means of leveling. Whenever the war effort permeated all of society, capital assets lost value, and the rich were made to pay a fair share, war did not merely “kill people and break things” but also narrowed the gap between rich and poor. In World War II, this effect was at work both during the war itself as well as in its aftermath, sustained by the persistence of war-driven policies. The citizens of developed countries owed a generation or more of declining inequality to the unprecedented violence of this global conflict. A similar compression of material disparities had occurred in or after World War I. Earlier instances of this particular style of warfare are rare and are not normally associated with leveling.

It was the sheer amount of violence that mattered most: just as the two world wars were the bloodiest wars in human history, so the most equalizing revolutions were among the bloodiest of all internal upheavals on record. My comparative survey of revolts and revolutions confirms the central importance of large-scale violence as a means of leveling.

The most relevant evidence once again comes from the twentieth century, when the major communist revolutions caused dramatic deconcentration of income and wealth.

The Cambodian experience, in all its surreal and rapidly self-destructive violence, is merely an extreme instance of a much broader pattern. Over the course of about sixty years, from 1917 into the late 1970s (and continuing into the 1980s in Ethiopia), communist revolutionary regimes successfully forced down inequality through expropriation, redistribution, collectivization, and pricesetting. The actual amount of violence expended in the implementation of these measures varied hugely between cases, with Russia, China, and Cambodia on one end of the spectrum and Cuba and Nicaragua on the other. Yet it would go too far to consider violence merely incidental to forcible leveling: even though it would in principle have been possible for Lenin, Stalin, and Mao to achieve their goals with much more limited loss of life, sweeping expropriations crucially depended on the application of at least some violence and a credible threat of escalation.

The underlying project was always the same: to restructure society by suppressing private property and market forces, leveling class differences in the process. These interventions were political in nature, representing violent shocks that rivaled those caused by the modern world wars discussed in earlier chapters. In this respect, leveling by mass mobilization warfare and by transformative revolution have much in common. Both of them critically relied on large-scale violence—whether latent or applied—to produce the observed outcome. The overall human cost of this process is well known: just as the world wars directly or indirectly claimed up to 100 million lives, communism has been held responsible for a comparable number of fatalities, mostly in China and the Soviet Union.

Short of capturing what Yves-Marie Bercel called the “totality of power,” no uprising could hope to flatten income and wealth inequality as such, even had this indeed been a goal— which it rarely was. The means of violent expropriation and control required for the great upheavals witnessed in the twentieth century were simply not available to premodern societies. Nor were there firm ideological commitments to this end.

Deliberate systematic leveling through violent revolt was therefore beyond preindustrial means. Only in the twentieth century do we encounter revolutionaries who wielded both machine guns and radical programs.

But there is a final twist to this story. Even when society was deeply penetrated by ruthless revolutionaries, enforced equality lasted only as long as these regimes were in power and stayed the course. The moment they fell, as in the Soviet Union and its satellites or in Cambodia, or changed track, as in China or Vietnam, inequality of income and wealth rapidly returned.

The kind of leveling brought about by “modern” and often blood-drenched transformative revolution could be maintained only as long as repression— latently or overtly violent in nature—constrained market forces. As soon as this repression is relaxed or removed, equalization is reversed.

[Societal] collapse may well have been the single most potent and reliable leveler in all of history. Though more common than one might think—many lesser-known cases could have been added—it was nonetheless relatively rare and mercifully so, considering the sheer amount of violence and suffering that accompanied such dramatic changes. By contrast, swift regeneration of state structures, often as the result of outside takeovers, has been a common outcome. The smoother the transition, the more readily inequalities would have been maintained or restored.

Famines have not normally been as lethal as major epidemics. So far as we can tell, food scarcity that at least doubled baseline mortality for two consecutive years—a conservative threshold for “famine”—has been uncommon in history, and much more serious events have been extremely rare.

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.

Reforms at the margins are unlikely to have a significant effect on current trends in the distribution of market income and wealth.

And yet history teaches us two important things about leveling. One is that radical policy interventions occur in times of crisis. The shocks of the world wars and the Great Depression, to say nothing of assorted communist revolutions, generated equalizing policy measures that owed much to these specific contexts and that may not have been feasible under different circumstances—at the very least, not on the same scale. The second lesson is even more straightforward: policymaking can take us only so far. Time and again the compression of material imbalances within societies was driven by violent forces either that were outside human control or that are now far beyond the scope of any viable political agenda. None of the most effective mechanisms of leveling are operational in the world today: the Four Horsemen have dismounted their steeds. And nobody in his or her right mind would want them to get back on.

Mass mobilization warfare has run its course… Transformative revolution has even more thoroughly gone out of fashion than mass mobilization warfare…. on the scene.

State failure and systems collapse on the scale discussed in have likewise become extremely rare… This leaves us with the fourth and final horseman: severe epidemics. The risk of novel and potentially catastrophic outbreaks is far from negligible. For thousands of years, history has alternated between long stretches of rising or high and stable inequality interspersed with violent compressions. For six or seven decades from 1914 to the 1970s or 1980s, both the world’s rich economies and those countries that had fallen to communist regimes experienced some of most intense leveling in recorded history. Since then, much of the world has entered what could become the next long stretch—a return to persistent capital accumulation and income concentration. If history is anything to go by, peaceful policy reform may well prove unequal to the growing challenges ahead. But what of the alternatives? All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.

If you would like to learn more about human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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