“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” – James Thurber
I’ve spent the most time focusing on the first two chapters of the book, which take a look at the history of inequality. I did that for a few reasons: 1.) I have not seen this material discussed in detail in other reviews, 2.) How inequality formed has been a significant focus of this blog, and 3.) I posed the question a while back of where private property came from, and I think it’s an important question. I think the book offers good answers here, and those answers are hardly complimentary to the specious libertarian arguments about “justice,” “fairness,” and lack of coercion.
I’m not going to really spend much time on the rest of the book, as it’s thesis is well-known by now: That only violent shocks have had any real, lasting impact on the overall levels of inequality in the historical record. Here’s Scheidel himself writing in The Atlantic:
And you can see some of his lectures on YouTube:
He couches these in the imagery of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state breakdowns, and disease pandemics. Instead of chronological order, he discusses these in order of historical importance, beginning with the time period in which these phenomena were most in evidence–for example, transformative revolution in the early Twentieth century and disease pandemics in late antiquity and medieval Europe. I have just a few notes:
1.) Mass-mobilization warfare. This is by-and-large a fairly recent phenomenon. The only historical precedents are places like the ancient Greek city-states, and those were islands of relative equality (and cultural flourishing) in the sea of poverty and despotism (despite the slaves). The modern history of mass conscription really begins in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Prior to that, armies relied on conscription and did not have the manpower to staff large professional armies for long periods of time. The big armies, he says, were products of large underlying populations and not mass-mobilization. Even these only featured maybe 2 percent of the population at any one time. For mass-mobilization, he uses the criteria of over 10 percent of the adult male population of a country. This only exists under industrialism, as less people are needed to produce food than in agrarian societies:
Military mass mobilization has largely been a modern phenomenon, at least in a sense in which this concept has been defined in the present pages: at least a tenth of the entire population had served in the military…Considering the prominent role of infectious disease as a source of attrition in premodern armies, prolonged mobilization even at this threshold level would gradually have claimed a very large share of the total effectively eligible population of able-bodied men. For that reason alone—not to mention economic, fiscal and organizational constraints—traditional agrarian societies were unlikely to sustain this kind of effort for any significant amount time.
That some imperial polities were capable of fielding very large armies was simply a function of their size and not a sign of mass mobilization. For instance, in the eleventh century CE, the Northern Song Dynasty maintained huge military forces to contain the threat posed by the Jin to the north. Reported troop totals of up to 1.25 million may reflect disbursement of stipends, some of which were pocketed by corrupt officers, rather than actual strength, but even an army of 1 million would not have exceeded 1 percent of a population of at least 100 million at the time. The mature Mughal Empire controlled well more than 100 million subjects and never mobilized even 1 percent of them. The mature Roman Empire kept maybe 400,000 men under arms out of a population of 60 million to 70 million, a rate of well less than 1 percent. Ottoman mobilization levels were even lower. pp. 181-182
Large periods of warfare do not always have a leveling effect, however. He mentions that warfare can be potentially associated with more inequality, not less. During the U.S. Civil War, for example, the freeing of slaves and destruction of assets made Dixie more equal, but the profits amassed from the conflict made the victorious Union more unequal.
One interesting factoid I didn’t know was that Japan was once one of the most unequal societies on earth prior to the Second World War. This contradicts the commonly attested idea that ethnically homogeneous, collectivist societies will always be “naturally” more equal than others. This is a common reactionary argument. It’s not true: political decisions and institutions matter.
Japan was once one of the most unequal countries on earth. In 1938, the country’s “1 percent” received 19.9 percent of all reported income before taxes and transfers. Within the next seven years, their share dropped by two-thirds, all the way down to 6.4 percent. More than half of this loss was incurred by me richest tenth of that cop bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths.
However rapid and massive these shifts in the distribution of income, they pale in comparison to the even more dramatic destruction of the elite’s wealth. The declared real value of the largest 1 percent of estates in Japan fell by 90 percent between 1936 and 1945 and by almost 97 percent between 1936 and 1949. The top 0.1 percent of all estates lost even more-93 percent and more than 98 percent, respectively. In real terms, the amount of wealth required to count a household among the richest 0.01 percent (or one in 10,000) in 1949 would have put it in only the top 5 percent back in 1936. Fortunes had shrunk so much that what used to count as mere affluence was now out of reach for all but a very few… p. 115
Mass-mobilization “total wars” have had a leveling effect during the Twentieth Century. The “all hands on deck” nature of such wars, Scheidel contends, was what underpinned the welfare state and relative equality of the first three decades after the Second World War, which, he concludes (along with Thomas Piketty), was an aberration in the historical trend towards greater inequality.
2.) Transformative Revolution. Of course, the poster children for this are the Communist revolutions, particularly in Russia and China, but which happened in other countries as well. One conclusion that people may find disturbing is the relative ineffectiveness of prior revolts against the elites throughout history. There were plenty of revolts and uprisings in agrarian societies, but they seem to have had little lasting effect on the overall social structure or level of inequality:
In Europe, reports of peasant uprisings begin to flow freely in the late Middle Ages. Complemented by numerous urban revolts, they continued well into the early modern period. One study counts no fewer than around sixty peasant rebellions and some 200 urban risings in late medieval Germany alone, and a broader survey of medieval Italy, Flanders, and France gathers a much larger number of instances. The Flemish peasant revolt of 1323 to 1328 was the biggest rural movement prior to the German Peasants” War of 1524 and 1525 and stands out for the unusual scale of its initial success.
Peasant armies, at first allied to urban constituencies, drove off nobles and knights; they also exiled aristocrats and officials. By the time the rebellious citizen of Bruges captured the Flemish ruler, Count Louis, in 1323 and had him locked up for five months, the rebels were in control of much of Flanders. Conflicting interests of the urban and rural elements of the movement and the threat of French military intervention subsequently led to a peace in 1326 that would have severely limited peasant autonomy and imposed fines and payment of arrears. Because peasant leaders, chosen by popular assemblies, were excluded from the negotiations, these terms were immediately rejected by rural rebels, who proceeded to re-establish authority over most of the country until they were defeated in battle by the French in 1328. Just how much leveling occurred under peasant control remains an open question. They seized and redistributed some of the land of the exiles and set up their own governance with taxation and courts. p. 245
However violent they may have been in practice, local risings of this sort stood no chance of addressing entrenched inequalities. Even partial exceptions were relatively few in number. The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, for instance, was ostensibly a failure. Triggered by the imposition of new taxes to fund the war in France, at a more fundamental level it was driven by the peoples’ desire to protect gains from the rising cost of labor triggered by the Black Death-gains the elite sought to contain with the help of labor statutes and feudal constrictions. The movement was quickly put down, although not before rebels had taken the Tower of London, ransacked palaces and mansions in the capital, personally confronted King Richard II, and executed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice, among other luminaries—and not before risings had occurred across much of the country, though mostly in the east. p.248
Just like their late medieval antecedents, early modern peasant revolts rarely had any discernible effect on the distribution of income and wealth. The German Peasants’ War brought the south German peasantry concessions that proved beneficial in the long run by constraining the spread of what is known as the “second serfdom”—protections that were to set them apart from rural populations to the north and east which had not joined the risings. The Swiss peasant war of 1653 more immediately resulted in lower taxes and debt relief. Although examples such as these suggest that violent resistance could on occasion make a difference, the general picture is nonetheless clear: more significant leveling was beyond the scope of premodern rural revolts. p. 250
This may be due to the nature of the revolts. Most of these were not looking to overthrow the social order, but rather to address specific grievances. Peasant farming societies were broadly accepting of inequality. All strata of society would have been broadly accepting of the social order memorably depicted by the Anglican hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful: “The rich man in his castle,The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate.” Ian Morris refers to this order as the “Old Deal”:
The Old Deal was at heart a circular argument, tying political and economic inequality together and justifying both. Virtue and power followed each other: because the gods loved the rulers, the rulers were rich, and the fact that the rulers were rich showed that the gods loved them. Hesiod, as usual, was explicit. “Virtue and reputation attend upon wealth; shame accompanies poverty and confidence comes with riches.” In the fifth century AD, more than a millennium after Hesiod, St. Augustine took it for granted that the poor in what is now Tunisia did not want to abolish inequality; they just wanted to join the ranks of the rich. “When the poor catch sight” of the upper classes, he said, “they murmur, they groan, they praise, and they envy, wanting to be their equals, grieving that they cannot make it. In between the praises of the rich, they say: ‘These are the only ones who matter; these are the only ones who know how to live.”
…economic inequality…seems to have struck most people as natural. When French peasants were given the opportunity to send cahiers de doléance outlining their grievances to the crown in 1789, remarkably few complained about wealth inequality; nor, when reformers went into peasant villages, did they hear many demands for the redistribution of property. Rather, to their evident surprise, they found that most peasants felt that the masses had to be poor while the few were rich.
Examples could easily be multiplied, and much of the time, the very language that people spoke reinforced the Old Deal. The rich and powerful were aristocrats, noblemen, and gentlemen; the poor and weak were base, vulgar, and villeins. In the twentieth century, when anthropologists were able to talk to members of farming societies, they regularly found that having a healthy respect for authority—knowing your place—was a key part of their informants’ sense of themselves as good people… Ian Morris; Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, pp. 73-74
Peasant revolts were in this context, according to Morris. They did not seek to be transformative, as the Communist revolutions did, rather they merely sought to unseat corrupt local officials or redress specific grievances:
…The most remarkable thing about the waves of leveling rage that periodically swept through farming societies, though, is how rarely the target of the protests was inequality as such: most of the time, it was limited to specific individuals among those who currently held power, whose wicked actions violated the Old Deal.
When protests and threats failed to change elite behavior, farmers sometimes took direct action, but when they did do this, they regularly insisted that they were attacking only the local authorities rather than the ultimate authority, be he king, emperor, or pope. The distant ruler, they asserted, remained virtuous, but his underlings were betraying him (“The tsar is good, but the boyars are bad” went a Russian saying). By attacking these wicked minions, the logic of peasant resistance said, rebels were actually helping the king maintain the Old Deal. Ian Morris; Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, p. 76
The first two “horsemen” are largely post-Enlightenment phenomena brought forth by what Marx would call “increasing productive capacity” i.e. industrialism. Indeed, mass-production was invented for making pulley blocks for the Royal Navy, and interchangeable parts were invented for supplying muskets for the French army. Transformative revolutions and mass-mobilization warfare are not attested to in the historical record; they are products of the Industrial Revolution and fossil-fuel-powered civilization. In contrast, the latter two “horsemen”–pandemic diseases and state collapse– have the longest historical tradition of leveling in traditional agrarian societies based on solar power. There are many examples.
3.) State collapse. Fans of collapse literature will enjoy this part of the book the most. It reads much like the “classics” of collapse literature–Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, William Orphuls, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Ronald Wright, Spengler, Gibbon, et. al.
Because the wealthy simply have more to lose, the loss of state capacity and its attendant trade flows affects them disproportionately. Instability also is bad news for them, as large fortunes rely on political stability. So leveling is effected more by the loss of elite income than by raising the living standards of the poor, which often fall as well, just not as much relative to where they started.
State failure was a powerful means of leveling because of the multiple ways it interfered with the enrichment of the ruling class…in premodern societies, elite wealth was primarily derived from two sources-the accumulation of resources through investment in productive assets or activities such as land, trade, and finance and predatory accumulation via State service, graft, and plunder. Both income streams critically depended on the stability of the state: the former because state power provided a measure of protection for economic activity and the latter even more so for the simple reason that scare institutions served as a vehicle for generating and allocating gains. State failure might lower returns on capital and completely erase profits derived from the exercise of or from proximity to political power.
As a result, established elites stood to lose on a grand scale. Political turmoil not only deprived them of opportunities for continuing enrichment but also threatened their existing property holdings. Significant reductions in elite income and wealth were likely to curtail inequality: although everybody’s assets and livelihoods were at risk in times of state failure or systems collapse, the rich simply had vastly more to lose than the poor did. A subsistence peasant household could afford to lose only a relatively modest fraction of its income and still get by. Greater shortfalls might threaten its members’ survival, but those who perished or fled no longer belonged to a given population and thus no longer played a role in that population’s distribution of resources. The wealthy, on the other hand, were able to survive even after having lost most of their income or property. Those among the formerly rich and powerful who weathered the storm, and those who replaced them in whatever diminished positions of leadership remained, were likely to end up far less wealthy not only in absolute but also in relative terms.
The compression of material disparities in the wake of state failure or systems collapse was a function of different scales of impoverishment: even if these events left most or all people worse off than before, the rich had farmer to fall. Moreover, we have to allow for the possibility that to the extent that political unraveling interfered with predatory surplus extraction, commoners may even on occasion have experienced an improvement in their living standards. In that case, leveling would not merely have been the result of a race to the bottom conducted at different speeds but might also have been reinforced by gains among the working population. However, owing to the nature of the evidence, it is generally easier-or at least somewhat less desperately difficult-to document the decline of elites than to identify concurrent improvements among poorer groups…
Scheidel takes a look at the following historical collapses: Tang Dynasty China, the Western Roman Empire, the Bronze Age collapse in the eastern Mediterranean, the Late Classic Maya in Pre-Colombian America, the ancient kingdoms of the Near East, and modern-day Somalia.
The fall of the western half of the Roman Empire and the resultant ruin of its wealth elite is a less bloody but no less revealing case of leveling through state collapse [than the Tang Dynasty]. By the early fifth century CE, enormous material resources had ended up in the hands of a small ruling class with intimate ties to political power. Very large fortunes are documented in the western half of the Mediterranean basin, which comprised the empire’s original Italian core and its extensive Iberian, Gallic (now French), and North African territories.
The senate in Rome, according to long-standing tradition populated by the richest and politically best-connected Romans, had come to be dominated by a very few grand and closely interconnected families that were based in the city of Rome itself. Those super-rich aristocrats were said to have “possessed estates scattered across almost the whole Roman world.”…The result of marriage and inheritance as well as officeholding, transregional landed wealth was sustained not only by the basic security provided by a unified imperial State but also by the state-sponsored movement of goods for fiscal purposes that allowed estate owners to benefit from reliable trade networks.
As in Tang China, senators’ immunity from surtaxes and service obligations that weighed heavily on lower elite strata further boosted their fortunes. In the end, the very richest families supposedly commanded annual incomes comparable to the revenue the state expected to draw from entire provinces and maintained palatial dwellings in the city of Rome and elsewhere. The wealthiest provincials, though unable to compete with the central elite, likewise benefited from imperial connectivity: two landowners from Gaul are known to have owned estates in Italy and Spain and in the southern Balkans, respectively.
…Between the 430s and 470s CE the Roman state lost control first over North Africa and then over Gaul, Spain, Sicily, and finally even Italy itself as Germanic kings took over. The eastern Roman Empire’s attempt to regain Italy in the second quarter of the sixth century caused major turmoil and soon failed due to renewed Germanic incursions. This dramatic breakdown of Mediterranean unity dismantled the extensive networks of estates owned by a Rome-based top elite that was no longer capable of holding on to possessions outside Italy and eventually in large parts of Italy itself.
Intensifying political decentralization effectively wiped out the uppermost tier of western Roman high society. A process that had begun in the hinterlands of the Mediterranean basin in the fifth century reached the Italian peninsula in the sixth and seventh. Holdings of landlords residing in the city of Rome largely came to be confined to the surrounding region of Latium, and even the popes were deprived of Church estates in southern Italy and Sicily…Aristocracies became much more localized in scope and far less wealthy than they had once been.
Decline manifested itself in various ways, from the downgrading or abandonment of fancy country villas to the unceremonious disappearance of the venerable senate from the record and the fact that no senatorial families can be traced beyond the early seventh century.
The writings of pope Gregory offer what is perhaps the most striking illustration of the depths to which formerly wealthy families had fallen. The Church’s leader repeatedly mentions destitute aristocrats whom he helped keep afloat with small acts of charity …
The demise of Rome’s super-rich could hardly have been more spectacular, and it foreshadowed the fall of the Tang aristocracy: the main difference was that murderous endings, albeit not unknown, appear to have been far less common in the Roman case. Violence had nonetheless been central to this process, generously applied in the carving up of the empire…pp. 264-266
James C. Scott argues that the loss of state capacity, rather than a tragedy, can often be seen as a liberating event. Yes, such periods mean more poverty, but without the yoke of the state, it can also paradoxically mean more freedom and happiness for the survivors of the collapse.
When the apex disappears, one is particularly grateful for the increasingly large fraction of archaeologists whose attention was focused not on the apex but on the base and its constituent units. From their findings we are able not only to discern some of the probable causes of “collapse” but, more important, to interrogate just what collapse might mean in any particular case…much that passes as collapse as, rather, a disassembly of larger but more fragile political units into their smaller and often more stable components. While “collapse” represents a reduction in social complexity, it is these smaller nuclei of power—a compact small settlement on the alluvium, for example—that are likely to persist far longer than the brief miracles of statecraft that lash them together into a substantial kingdom or empire.
Over time an increasingly large proportion of nonstate peoples were not “pristine primitives” who stubbornly refused the domus, but ex–state subjects who had chosen, albeit often in desperate circumstances, to keep the state at arm’s length…The process of secondary primitivism, or what might be called “going over to the barbarians,” is far more common than any of the standard civilizational narratives allow for. It is particularly pronounced at times of state breakdown or interregna marked by war, epidemics, and environmental deterioration. In such circumstances, far from being seen as regrettable backsliding and privation, it may well have been experienced as a marked improvement in safety, nutrition, and social order. Becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot.
Thus, the leveling effcts of “collapse” may be not as “disastrous” as we are led to believe.
4.) Epidemic disease. The Black Death is the poster child here, carrying off as much as a third or more of the European population. Unlike wars, plagues leave the productive infrastructure intact, so they are associated with periods of greater wealth; but also nutrition, mobility, less social stratification, greater economic development (e.g the end of feudalism in Western Europe), and so on, for the majority of people. This conclusion is pretty robust.
I’ve argued on numerous occasions that this fact is what lies behind the natalist philosophy of many reactionaries. A lot of times people are confused by the fact that such people are simultaneously opposed to birth-control, abortion, and aid to poor families. This position seems contradictory, or even nonsensical, until one realizes that a large, desperate, and starving population keeps wages at rock bottom. Those riding in the litter always want more litter-bearers. A smaller population means less wealth to extract and more competition for jobs, which raises wages–something the elites who own the means of production, whether in land or businesses, regard as bad. From that standpoint, a lower birth rate is a scare for elites, which is why they’ve taken to importing massive populations from all around the globe. The problem is that this has caused unintended consequences for them, which is why Trump, and the rise of populism more generally, has caused so much consternation among reactionaries.
Scheidel dimly concludes that most of the Great Levelers are no longer present at this point in history. Medical technology (especially antibiotics) have dulled the effects of pandemic deceases. Indeed, the Spanish Flu outbreak coincided with the greatest period of inequality in history (just prior to World War One) and killed more people in sheer numbers than any disease before it. Yet it failed to even make a dent in inequality.
Mass-mobilization warfare, at this moment, seems equally unlikely. There have been no massive world wars since the nuclear umbrella came into existence post-1945; only civil wars and skirmishes. Today’s high-tech armies rely less on manpower than technology. Indeed, in the modern-day U.S. with its all-volunteer force, poverty is actually the prime driver of people into the armed forces!
Centralized states are more resilient than in the past, dulling the potential for state breakdown. Indeed, the capacity of states to “print money” has gone exclusively to help the elites maintain their fortunes and position, while “austerity” for everyone else has helped them to privatize even more of the commons than they already had. Here, the peaceful secession of nations into smaller, more adaptable autonomous units holds more promise (e.g Scotland, Catalonia, etc.)
Thanks to modern economic growth and fiscal expansion, state institutions in high-income countries have generally become too powerful and too deeply entrenched in society for a wholesale collapse of governmental structures and concurrent leveling to occur. And even in the most disadvantaged societies, state failure has often been associated with civil war, a type of violent shock that does not normally produce equalizing outcomes. p. 440
And transformative revolution seems pretty unlikely in the aftermath of Communism’s demise. Indeed, “divide and rule” tactics have been honed to such a fine degree and deployed with such effectiveness thanks to corporate mass media and cybernetic control systems that it seems difficult to imagine any consensus ever forming on “what is to be done.” Hot-button social and “wedge” issues keep the electorate perennially at each other’s throats as the elites watch from above the fray in their gated country clubs and penthouse apartments. Both political parties are funded by the same transnational elite donor class. Both defenders *and* opponents of the status quo get their checks signed by the same people drawn from the same banks, much like a pro-wrestling tournament. Real alternatives are few in number, divided, underfunded, and lack cohesion and power. The media megaphone is denied to them. They can easily be co-opted and arranged into circular firing squads. The failure of things like Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the Syriza government in Greece, among others, reinforce this impulse to defeatism and cynicism.
Conclusion: The Rhetoric of Reaction
So is it hopeless?
One fact that matters is that mass-literate industrial societies have only been with us for a few hundred years. Thus, I’m not sure that history is as much of a guide as we might think. Even the questioning of inequality does not have a deep history, as we saw from the Ian Morris quote above. Ancient societies seemed broadly accepting of it. Modern industrial and post-industrial societies, however, are less so. The very presence of books like The Great Leveler as well as Thomas Piketty’s best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century point to the fact that modern inequality is indeed seen as a problem in need of a solution, or at least close examination, by a large segment of the population. Much ink has been spilled in papers and online about the “problem” of inequality, even by people who we would think might not care otherwise. If nobody cared, we would not be discussing books like this one, and you would not be reading this blog!
Any discussion of The Great Leveler raises the following question: is the historical record of inequality a justification for inequality? Rather than coming up with philosophical justifications for grotesque inequality, reactionaries are increasingly turning to a variant of the futility thesis: “nothing will work, so why bother trying?” Extreme inequality simply a “law” of history (just like the supposed inviolable “laws” of economics which somehow always benefit the One Percent).
As I mentioned, this view appears to be a staple of the new “Intellectual Dark Web” that’s forming—the brain trust the reactionary movement. I’ve already mentioned Jordan Peterson’s constant appeal to it, but he’s not the only one. Here’s Robin Hanson mentioning it in a discussion on the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris (after Harris makes an eloquent case for more intervention in the economy):
[ 01:55:14] Robin Hanson: “I want to recommend a book called ‘The Great Leveler’, which is about the history of inequality. And the summary point is that inequality basically consistently always increases except with big wars, famines, or civilization collapses. Hardly anything else matters for it. It’s one of those ropes that everybody is pulling on so it’s really hard to make much of a difference. Given that history, you kinda should hope that inequality increases, because the alternative is worse.”
Sam Harris: “It could also increase but the floor could keep rising as well.”
Robin Hanson: Yeah, absolutely.
Which makes me wonder to what extent this idea is intended by its boosters to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
…It is 20th-century sociologist Robert K. Merton who is credited with coining the expression “self-fulfilling prophecy” and formalizing its structure and consequences. In his 1948 article Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Merton defines it in the following terms:
“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”
In other words, a positive or negative prophecy, strongly held belief, or delusion—declared as truth when it is actually false—may sufficiently influence people so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false prophecy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy are effects in behavioral confirmation effect, in which behavior, influenced by expectations, causes those expectations to come true. It is complementary to the self-defeating prophecy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy (Wikipedia)
I wonder to what extent the constant echoing of “inequality has always been with us,” and “only massive violence ever solves it,” is a gambit to cow opponents of inequality. Interestingly, the deployment of such views seems to be directly correlated to the actual levels of inequality in the society at large. Hanson’s statement feels vaguely like a threat—it’s as if the rich are holding us hostage and we’re all strapped to a bomb that they will detonate at the slightest threat to their privilege. “Nice society you have here. Sure would be a shame if something happened to it…”
A useful book here was written a number of years ago. It’s called The Logic of Rhetoric and Reaction by Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman sorts reactionary rhetoric into three broad but useful categories (based on the Wikipedia article):
The perversity thesis: any purposeful action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the conditions one wishes to remedy. In other words, “The law of unintended consequences.” Indeed, the popular libertarian tract “Economics in One Lesson” is a book length exposition of this idea.
The futility thesis: attempts at social transformation will be unavailing or ineffective. That is, “They will simply fail to “make a dent.” In regards to inequality, this presents a classic fallacy of the excluded middle—since a society of complete equality is not achievable or even desirable, any attempts to mitigate or temper extreme inequality are futile. Peterson himself commonly deploys this thesis.
The jeopardy thesis: The cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious and important accomplishment. That is, “The cure is worse than the disease.” I note that this is the most common subtext when The Great Leveler is brought up in one of these conversations.
When we oppose proposals for change, we can argue from three basic positions: 1) the proposal will exacerbate the very problem it is designed to solve; 2) the proposal will have no effect on the problem; and 3) the proposal will put some other value or benefit of the status quo at risk.
Review by Michael P. Thompson; Social Science Quarterly, July 1, 1992
You’ll notice that nearly all of the rhetoric deployed by reactionaries like Peterson or Hanson or other YouTube stars like are simply variations on these themes. Hirschman argues that they are “rhetorics of intransigence”, which are expressly designed to shut down rather than to further debate:
In nineteenth-century England, for example, many members of Parliament argued that proposed legislation to extend voting rights to men outside the gentry would put individual freedom in jeopardy. In 1832, the reformers introduced the Reform Bill, which would grant about 10 percent of the male population the right to vote, based on demonstrated possession of at least ten pounds sterling. Opponents have argued that the involvement of the commercial and industrial classes in the political process would upset the delicate balance of “Royalty, Aristocracy, and Democracy.” (pp. 90-91) The costs would be too great. The specific arguments were that “democratization” of England would halt economic expansion by slowing industrial innovation; that the masses who held the vote would compromise the integrity of the nation’s judiciary; and that pressure created by mass opinion would squelch the creative and courageous energy of the enlightened minority, a minority which had triggered England’s greatest political, religious, and social reforms. Such arguments now seem rather strange, which is precisely the point Hirschman wishes to make.
…He [also] argues…that the perversity thesis and the futility thesis, when used to oppose the same proposal, often undermine each other. Some critics of welfare reform have traditionally argued that efforts to provide broader social benefits for the poor or disadvantaged would be impotent; other critics have argued that such efforts would, in fact, be overwhelming.
Review by Michael P. Thompson; Social Science Quarterly, July 1, 1992
Along with the above, here are some other commonly deployed arguments by reactionaries in defense of extreme inequality:
1) A desire for greater equality is really just a manifestation of *envy*, and not anything “wrong” with the current system per se. That is, the poor are “just jealous,” and irrationally resentful of people richer and more successful than they are.
Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon Essays)
On this note, I had originally intended to review The Great Leveler alongside The Spirit Level, since both books deal with the theme of inequality. But there is nothing much to say about the Spirit Level aside from pointing out its overwhelming conclusion: that extreme inequality is profoundly corrosive of societies. It makes everyone worse off, even the people on top of the wealth pyramid. That is, even the rich have worse living standards in highly unequal societies, let alone the poor. A more diamond-shaped social structure just works better. This fact can be robustly measured across countries across time. As Peterson might argue, “This is robust a conclusion as you can find anywhere in social science. The evidence for it is overwhelming!”
Life expectancy, crime, health, social cohesion, educational scores, economic growth, you name it—every single social variable is worse in unequal societies. Even ardent capitalist cheerleaders are increasingly realizing that as ownership concentrates, capitalism will no longer be viable, and can only be replaced with some form of feudalism (which for many reactionaries is a feature, not a bug, as they see themselves as the new overlords rather than the new peasants).
2.) Extreme inequality is an absolute necessity for economic development. You hear this one all the time.
It ignores the counterfactual: can we increase living standards without extreme inequality? If not, why not? I have never seen a convincing argument as to why we need extreme inequality for economic growth. Sure, there needs to be some motivation. But an aristocracy surrounded by moats as we see forming today in globalized capitalism has the opposite effect; is a demotivator. Rather than motivation, it fuels anger, despair, and resentment. If you have no way of bettering your situation, why try? And if there are no consequences for elite failure, if even the possibility is not there, then what motivation is there for competent management and pro-social behavior rather than incompetence, graft and looting at the highest levels of society?
Again, there is a classic false dilemma here: either we have widespread poverty or grotesque inequality. Broadly shared prosperity is not possible according to this line of thinking. The presence of societies like Denmark, for example, belies this. It’s clearly possible to have both. Reactionaries just don’t want you to think about this.
3.) We should instead focus on lifting up the poor and ignore the burgeoning rich. In other words, “it’s not a zero-sum game.”
Except for the fact that it is a zero-sum game. Statistics show that the engorged fortunes of the 0.01 percent have been accompanied by an almost identical decline in prosperity for the bottom 90 percent. Expenditure cascades have caused rising prices for the non-rich, especially for housing and education. Clearly the gains of the rich have come at the expense of the majority. To pretend otherwise is delusional.
Besides, even if we wanted to raise up the living standards bottom 90 percent, we’re currently doing the exact opposite: taking away stable employment in favor of contract and “gig” labor, effectively reducing the minimum wage; permitting unpredictable working hours and unpaid internships, requiring burdensome education, shredding the social safety net and making it ever more punitive, and not mandating vacation time or even basic health care (in the U.S.). Extreme inequality is not producing a society that’s lifting the lowest strata up, it’s producing a divided society of lords and serfs, a return to the Old Deal, with reactionaries coming up with new ideas to justify it like hereditarianism and meritocracy.
One thing that is on our side is that we know what brings down inequality. This directly contradicts Jordan Peterson’s oft-repeated assertion that “we simply don’t know what to do” about inequality. For example, here he is on the Russell Brand podcast:
102:07: Jordan Peterson: “If we could come up with a way to reliably flatten inequality, that would be a good thing. But the empirical evidence suggests [that] if you look at the attempts to alleviate inequality over the last 200 years, whether there were left-wing governments in power or right-wing governments in power made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the degree of inequality. The only things that have been reliably demonstrated to flatten out inequality are catastrophes: wars, revolutions, epidemics…there’s one other…the price of radical redistribution seems to be tremendous death, and no one has come up with a solution…”
105:38: Jordan Peterson: “I don’t think the Left-wingers are pessimistic *enough* about the problem. They say inequality is a problem. Inequality *is* a problem. It’s a terrible problem. But then they say it’s probably a function of our political and economic systems and we can fix those. No, it’s not a function of our political and economic systems. Or if it is, it’s at such a deep level that we don’t know what drives it and we certainly don’t know how to control it.”
Russell Brand: “But does that not mean, Jordan, that would you then reject attempts to alter systems in favor of fairness? Because it seems to me that the focus is, as it would be for a clinical psychologist, individual change. That’s been a part of my personal experience. Without individual change, social change is sort of irrelevant, and many great gurus would say…”
JP: “Well, you answered it right then and there. Because I am concerned with inequality and social instability. And I’ve thought about it for a long time. I knew the Left-wing approaches tended to fail catastrophically. And the Right-wing, of course, isn’t particularly concerned with inequality.”
RB: “The left wing fails, and the right wing don’t care.”
JP: Yeah, that’s right. They also don’t see the dangers sufficiently. And the Right wing also tends to think that *the spoils go to who deserves them.* That’s *kind of* true, but it’s not *completely* true. So that’s part of that classification.
RB: Because from a Leftist perspective, the Leftist perspective would be that were not starting with a level playing field.
JP: And the system isn’t perfect at selecting…107:04
108:19 I don’t think the solution to the problem of inequity is sociological. I think it’s psychological…I think the temptation towards resentment and destruction that’s associated with sociological approaches to inequality is too great, and that as a consequence those movements tend to inexorably become corrupt and destructive. I think Orwell put his finger on it when he said that middle-class socialists don’t like the poor, they just hate the rich. And I think that hatred gets the upper hand in sociological movements. I think the best approach to ameliorating inequality is to strengthen the individual. And that’s what I’ve concentrated on doing. 109:12
This is clearly wrong. If we simply “didn’t know what to do” about inequality, then how do we explain the three decades after World War Two–as an “accident”? They may be an aberration, but those decades clearly provide all the data we need. Peterson is lying through his teeth here. There is a difference between things that are politically difficult, and things that are impossible or unknown. It is reactionary rhetoric disguised as self-help, something Peterson excels at. As Hirschman observes in his book: “The perverse effect sees the social world as remarkably volatile, with every move leading immediately to a variety of unsuspected countermoves; the futility advocates, to the contrary, view the world as highly structured as evolving according to immanent laws, which human actions are laughably impotent to modify.” (p. 72).
In fact, some of today’s best economic minds have thought about the extreme inequality problem, and have come up with various ways to reduce it. To name just a few:
– Highly progressive taxation, especially of unearned wealth.
– Steep inheritance taxes.
– Regulations against financial speculation.
– Redistribution of financial assets.
– Breaking up monopolies.
– Decommodification of socially necessary goods and services.
– Better worker protections.
And that’s just for a start.
How 12 experts would end inequality if they ran America (WaPo via Reddit)
To once again quote Peterson from the FOX News interview I referred to at the beginning of this series of posts:
“I’m a traditionalist partly because of my social science training. One of the things I’ve learned as an active clinician and a social scientist is that most feel-good large-scale interventions end badly. It’s really hard to take a system that’s working reasonably well and make it better, but it’s easy to take a system that’s working reasonably well and make it worse.”
“And so, knowing that, and we know that’s the case, that should encourage you to scale back your ambitions, and if you want to make things better you could start by taking care of things that are within your control and also doing it in a way that’s least likely to cause harm to other people.”
The caution against large-scale interventions in society is advised. It might even be relevant except for these inconvenient facts:
1.) The system isn’t working well as it is. In fact, it’s measurably and dramatically breaking down, and some sort of intervention is clearly needed. More and more people of various political persuasions are coming to this realization.
2.) No one on the current mainstream Left is advocating for radical reform or violent overthrow of the existing system. In fact, the left is proposing common-sense incremental changes which work within the existing system such as higher minimum wages and universal health care. The “Radical Left” that Peterson constantly uses as a piñata is marginal and largely a figment of his own reactionary paranoia. The Left isn’t advocating seizing all the property of the rich, after all. We just want things like white-collar criminals who gamed the system and wrecked the economy to be put in jail. I think not doing that is the more radical thing, don’t you? Which brings up the point that:
3.) The costs of not reforming the system increasingly outweigh the dangers of change. In fact, Leftist interventions have a proven track record of success—the Liberal Reforms, the New Deal, Social Security etc. None of these interventions in democratic political systems have resulted in repression. So, the idea that “neither the Left nor the Right” have moved the needle on inequality is patently wrong. Leftist administrations have indeed reduced inequality historically. Peterson is either deliberately lying or obfuscating here.
4.) And besides, the changes that have actually passed by so-called “conservatives” over the last half century actually have been radical social interventions in the system. Where was the concern when Reagan lowered tax rates for the rich from over 50 percent down to 25 percent? Where was the concern when the inheritance tax was repealed? What about things like charter schools and privatizing the Post Office? Who are the real radicals here? Let’s stop pretending conservatives are “conservative.” And besides, they also have most of the real legislative power in the country right now.
5.) The changes proposed by Progressives are explicitly designed to stave off the types of radical “solutions” that Peterson warns against and that Scheidel depicts in his book—wars, revolutions, collapses etc., which is why Peterson’s opposition is so puzzling given his stated beliefs. For example, the New Deal actually prevented revolution and a potential dictatorship. It rescued—not ruined—capitalism. The reason Communism got a foothold where it did was that there were no constructive avenues for reform. The reason it was so bloody is because there were large amounts of poor and desperate people who were pushed too far and had nothing left to lose. As President Kennedy famously said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
I don’t want to believe that inequality just heads upward in perpetuity forever, and that we are condemned to be more and more miserable forever. I mean, I can’t dismiss it entirely. But I think acceptance is a sort of passive acquiescence. I think there’s a lot of room to maneuver. But I could be wrong. After all, one Progressive rhetorical tactic that Hirschman criticizes is the oft-quoted Leftist bromide that “history Is on our side.” Except maybe this time it isn’t. Maybe, as grim as it sounds, the arc of the moral universe bends not toward justice, but towards oligarchy. A boot stamping on the human face forever. But I certainly hope not.
Of course, pandemics, transformative revolutions, state collapse and world wars are just as unpredictable. And perhaps, in the greater scheme of it all, just as inevitable. Only time will tell if history will be written differently next time.