The Great Leveler: Review (Part 3)

“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” – James Thurber

Part One
Part Two

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:

The Only Thing, Historically, That’s Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe (Atlantic)

And you can see some of his lectures on YouTube:

LSE Events | The Great Leveler: violence and the history of inequality (YouTube)

Dr. Walter Scheidel — The Great Leveler (Science Salon # 13) (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 fact 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-held idea that ethnically homogeneous, collectivist societies will always be “naturally” more equal than others. This is a common reactionary argument. This fact contradicts this: political decisions and institutions matter, even in ethnically homogeneous societies like Japan:

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 top bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths… 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 partly due to the nature of the revolts. Most of these revolts 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 more or less accepted 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 alter or abolish the underlying social relations, as the Communist revolutions did. Rather they merely sought to unseat corrupt local officials or redress specific grievances. The social logic of farming society was taken for granted:

…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” Scheidel covers—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…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…

…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

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.

In premodern, agrarian societies, plagues leveled by changing the ratio of land to labor, lowering the value of the former (as documented by land prices and rents and the price of agricultural products) and raising that of the latter (in the form of higher real wages and lower tenancy rents). This served to make landowners and employers less rich, and workers better off, than before, lowering inequality in both income and wealth. At the same time, demographic change interacted with institutions in determining actual shifts in prices and incomes. Depending on workers’ ability to bargain with employers, epidemics produced different outcomes: the existence of price-setting markets for land and especially labor was a fundamental precondition for successful leveling. Microbes and markets had to operate in tandem to compress inequality. Finally, as we shall see, any leveling that did occur tended not to last and, except in rare circumstances, was ultimately undone by demographic recovery that resulted in renewed population pressure. pp. 292-293

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? Is Nuclear War the Only Cure for Inequality? (Scientific American)

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.

Resentment of Crazy-Rich Americans Isn’t Just Envy (Bloomberg)

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.

You’re not imagining it: the rich really are hoarding economic growth (Vox)

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.

Final thoughts

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:

– Unions.
– 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)

A Nobel Prize-winning economist thinks we’re asking all the wrong questions about inequality (Quartz)

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.

The Great Leveler: Review (Part 2)

The Rise of the “Original One Percent”

Part One

With the rise of more complex protostates with hereditary leaders, bureaucratic institutions and a monopoly of violence out of sedentary, kinship-based societies, inequality took a major step up. No longer did customary kinship, rights, duties, debts, obligations, affinity and social ties bind people together, but rather things like class, occupation, place of residence, assets, and so on. No longer was the extended clan (gens) the basic unit of society, but households under the organs of a state. What had started out as voluntary redistributive authority soon became compelled and confiscatory, as the newly formed managerial class asserted their rights over what once been held in common. New laws permitted this. Inheritance rights allowed wealth to be passed down through the generations. Reciprocity, redistribution and corvée labor were replaced by taxation, slavery, usury, and wages.

Protostates first formed in the great river valleys of the world where some form of domesticated grain was the primary foodstuff. This led to the “cereal hypothesis”–that cereal cultivation, especially under irrigation, was the most conductive to state formation (all quotes from the book unless noted otherwise).

A new global survey suggests that the cultivation of cereals played a critical role in the development of more complex social hierarchies. Unlike perennial roots, which are continuously available but rot quickly, grain crops are gathered en masse only at specific harvest times and are suitable for longer-term storage. Both of these features made it easier for elites to appropriate and hold on to surplus food resources. States first arose in those parts of the world that had first developed agriculture: once plants–and above all cereals–and animals had been domesticated, sooner or later humans shared their fate, and inequality escalated to previously unimaginable heights. p. 42

Not all early states were alike, and centralized polities coexisted with more “heterarchical” or corporate forms of political organization. Even so, centralized authoritarian states commonly outcompeted differently structured rivals. They appeared independently around the world wherever ecological preconditions allowed, in the Old World as well as the Americas and across a wide range of environments from the alluvial floodplains of Egypt and Mesopotamia to the highlands of the Andes. Defying this considerable diversity of context, the best-known among them developed into strikingly similar entities. All of them witnessed the expansion of hierarchies in different domains, from the political sphere to the family and religious belief systems–an autocatalytic process whereby “the hierarchical structure itself feeds back on all societal factors to make them more closely into an overall system that supports the authority structure.” Pressure in favor of increasing stratification had an enormous effect on moral values, for the residue of ancestral egalitarianism was replaced by the belief in the merits of inequality and acceptance of hierarchy as an integral element of the natural and cosmic order. p. 44

Irrigation works have also been associated with state formation, as observed long ago by Wittfogel:

During the four thousand years before Christ, in the great river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, the state took on the function of building grand hydraulic works, which in turn required centralized managerial bureaucracies to operate. Whoever controlled those means of production–in such cases it was a group of agromanagerial experts–became perforce the effective ruling class. The common techno-environmental basis in all those ancient Oriental civilizations, giving rise to similar social structures in them, was water control, mainly a program of irrigation made necessary by inadequate or unseasonal or undependable rainfall…

WigWams, Wittfogel, and Joan Didion: All in One Post (The Atlantic)

Another critical factor is writing, or at least some form of permanent recordkeeping. Ran Prieur comments: “It’s suspicious that we have no written record of a non-repressive large scale society. Did the world get fucked up by writing?” More than likely, the answer to that question is “yes”. Ownership and debt could now be preserved, far beyond the limits of human memory (where generalized reciprocity is based), and those who did the preserving–the literate cultural elite–became the rulers of society.

it would not be too strong to assert that it is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping, even if it took the Inka form of strings of knots (quipu). The first condition of state appropriation (for whatever purpose) must be an inventory of available resources—population, land, crop yields, livestock, storehouse stocks… As appropriation proceeds, continuous record keeping is required—of grain deliveries, corvée labor performed, requisitions, receipts, and so on. Once a polity comprises even a few thousand subjects, some form of notation and documentation beyond memory and oral tradition is required. The earliest administrative tablets from Uruk (Level IV), circa 3,300–3,100 BCE, are lists, lists, and lists—mostly of grain, manpower, and taxes… James C. Scott; Against The Grain, pp. 121-122

In addition to the servile class at the bottom, a literate managerial class formed at the top. Everywhere slavery, laws and writing come into place, the kinship-based society is weakened in favor of the chiefdoms. Now class, occupation, and place of residence take precedence old ties of kinship. The new state coalesces under some sort of priest-king.

Almost always, one member of the new elite made himself a king over all the others, but to hang onto his throne, he invariably had to form broader coalitions, turning would-be rivals into supporters. To coopt these near-peers, the ruler normally confirmed them as aristocrats with legal title to huge estates, and to make themselves indispensable to the ruler, his noblemen normally repackaged themselves as useful specialists in religion, law, letters, or war. Working together, these different kinds of elites could coordinate the larger society’s activities by raising taxes, enforcing laws, performing rituals, fighting neighbors, suppressing uprisings, and all of the other government activities that fill the annals of ancient and medieval history. Ian Morris; Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, pp. 65-66.

What is the state? Fukuyama defines it with these characteristics: (1) There is a centralized source of authority, whether in the form of a king, president or prime minister. (2) That source of authority is backed by a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion, in the form of an army and/or police. (3) The authority of the state is territorial rather than kin-based, (4) States are more stratified and unequal than tribal societies, and (5) States are legitimized by much more elaborate forms of religious belief, with a separate priestly caste as its guardian. The form this state takes varies: “Sometimes [the] priestly caste takes power directly, in which case the state is a theocracy, sometimes it is controlled by the secular ruler, in which case it is labeled caesaropapist, and sometimes it coexists with secular rule under some form of power sharing.” (Origins of Political Order, p. 81). As Napoleon noted, “I do not see in religion the mystery of the incarnation so much as the mystery of the social order. It introduces into the thought of heaven an idea of equalization, which saves the rich from being massacred by the poor.” (i.e. Religion keeps the poor from killing the rich.)

Scheidel describes it thus:

Modern scholars have come up with a wide variety of definitions that seek to capture the quintessential features of statehood. Borrowing elements of several of them, the state can be said to represent a political organization that claims authority over a territory and its population and resources and that is endowed with a set of institutions and personnel that perform governmental functions by issuing binding orders and rules and backing them up with the threat or exercise of legitimized coercive measures, including physical violence.

There is no shortage of theories to explain the emergence of the earliest states. The putative driving forces are all in some way predicated on economic development and its social and demographic consequences: gains that the well-positioned reaped from the control of trade flows, the need to empower leaders to manage the problems arising from growing population densities and more complex relations of production and exchange, class conflict over access to the means of production, and the pressures created by military conflict over scarce resources that favored scaling up, hierarchy, and centralized command structures p. 43

Whatever the fundamental cause of state formation, everywhere it happened the effect was the same: “Premodern state formation separated a small ruling class from the mass of primary producers.” (p. 46):

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, both by providing a measure of protection for commercial activity and by opening up new sources of personal gain for those most closely associated with the exercise of political power. In the long run, political and material inequality evolved in tandem…p. 43

In principle, institutions could have flattened emerging disparities through interventions designed to rebalance the distribution of material resources and the fruits from labor, as some premodern societies are indeed reputed to have done. In practice, however, social evolution commonly had the opposite effect… p. 5… 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 became a given–a fundamental feature of human social existence…p. 10

Everywhere they occurred, centralized states led to greater and greater inequality over time. The managerial class set themselves apart and diverted large portions of their society’s surplus to themselves. If there is one overriding theme throughout the book, it is that early elites converted political power into private wealth. Very generally, in modern society, wealth leads to status, which leads to power. In ancient societies, status led to power, which led to wealth. There was no merchant or producer class that was able amass huge fortunes before mercantilism and mass-production industrialism:

In smaller and less hierarchical polities such as tribes or Big Man collectivities [sic], the status of leaders depended in no small measure on their ability and willingness to share their bounty with the entire community. The ruling classes of agrarian states and empires generally enjoyed greater autonomy.

Notwithstanding occasional and well-publicized displays of largess, the flow of redistribution tended to be reversed, further enriching the few at the expense of the many. The elite’s collective capacity to extract surplus from primary producers determined the proportion of overall resources that was available for appropriation, and the balance of power between state rulers and various elite groups decided how these gains were apportioned among state coffers, the private accounts of state agents, and the estates of the landed and commercial wealth elite. p. 49-50

For a book that has often been touted by right-wingers, Scheidel is not sympathetic at all to the original one percent, portraying them as rank opportunists misusing their power to fleece society through means such as rent-seeking, graft and corruption. At times his analysis is almost Marxist in tone. In some of the more memorable passages of chapter one, he writes:

Reduced to essentials, history has known only two ideal typical modes of wealth acquisition: making and taking…The advent of surplus-production, domestication, and hereditary property rights paved the way for the creation and preservation of personal fortunes… p. 48

Political integration not only helped expand markets and lowered at least some transaction and information costs: the pervasive power asymmetries that commonly characterized premodern polities all but ensured an uneven playing field for economic actors. Fragile property rights, inadequate rule enforcement, arbitrary exercise of justice, the venality of state agents, and the paramount importance of personal relationships and proximity to sources of coercive power were among the factors likely to skew outcomes in favor of those in the upper reaches of the status pyramid and those profitably connected to them. This would have been true in even greater measure of various forms of “taking” that were available to members of the ruling class and their associates. p 48

Rents from access to political power are not exclusive to low levels of development. A recent study of dozens of super-rich entrepreneurs in Western countries shows how they benefited from political connections, exploited loopholes in regulation, and took advantage of market imperfections. In this respect, the difference between advanced democratic market economies and other types of states is a matter of degree…In the most general terms, there can be little doubt that personalized political connections and favors made a much larger contribution to elite wealth than they do in developed countries today…Russian credit card tycoon Oleg Tinkov’s description of his peers–“temporary managers of their assets–they are not real owners”–applies in equal measure to the precarious standing of many of their predecessors from ancient Rome and China to the monarchies of early modern Europe . p. 51

With the rise of the managerial state, Schiedel determines one critical source of income inequality: Rents from access to political power. Wikipedia describes rent-seeking activities this way:

…Rent-seeking implies extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. The classic example of rent-seeking…is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is not adding value in any way, directly or indirectly, except for himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free.

In agrarian societies a pattern emerges. Asymmetries in wealth and property become institutionalized. This goes hand-in-hand with political office. Based on Schiedel’s account, those who ascended to positions of political power and influence were able to appropriate the society’s productive surplus. That is, elites were able to use their authority and rule-making powers to allocate wealth and property to themselves. Most of this was not due to inventiveness or increased productivity, or even through “hard work” (that was done by the farmers), but through some form of rent-seeking activity. As he notes:

The more that personal fortunes depended on access to political rents, the more income from labor–at least if we can define corruption, embezzlement, extortion, military plunder, vying for benefactions, and taking over the assets of rivals as forms of labor–would have mattered than it did for entrepreneurial or renter investors of capital in more orderly and pacified societies …income of this nature could be a major, and at times perhaps even the principal, determinant of elite standing. This was true in particular of early, archaic states whose upper classes relied more on state-sponsored claims to rents in goods and labor services than on returns on private assets. These entitlements qualify the conventional distinction between income from capital and income from labor and once again underline the critical importance of political power relations in creating the original “1 percent.” p. 52-53

Based on Scheidel’s descriptions throughout the book, I would categorize the the major means by which “the original one percent” was created this way:

1. Privatization, Appropriation/Expropriation and Enclosure/Dispossession: As Emil de Laveleye expressed, “There is no doubt that, in primitive societies, the soil was regarded as the collective property of the tribe.” As kinship societies became class-based, however, land gradually became privatized. This was accomplished by a number of ways: seizing common land, acquisition by debt and foreclosure, privatization of ownership rights, or simply taking over rival territories and parceling out the land to politically connected insiders or military veterans. Creeping normality would do the rest.

The terms are quite similar, but there are a few distinctions. Appropriation means to set aside something for a specific use, such as an appropriations bill, which sets aside money for a specific purpose. Temple lands in ancient Sumeria, for example, were appropriated, as was corvée labor. However, appropriation does not necessarily mean changing ownership. For example, I can appropriate someone else’s writing style, but that does not mean the original owner cannot use it anymore.

Expropriation does mean depriving someone of possession of an asset. For example, a government expropriating land to build an airport. Often appropriation is a preliminary step to expropriation.

Privatization is the transfer in ownership of an asset that was formerly publicly held and commonly managed to being owned by a specific individual, family, or corporation. This can be done by expropriation, or through agreement or legislation. Enclosure can be thought of as a specific type of privatization. It is the closing off of formerly public lands by the assertion of individual ownership rights. This process is described in Marxism as “primitive accumulation.” Michael Hudson notes in Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient World:

The irony is that the most archaic urban areas evolved out of gathering sites, which were the prototypical public spaces–public in the sense of not being controlled by any individual, family, or clan (or even “the state” ). Yet by the end of antiquity, urban real estate was well on its way co the modern situation in which it has become the largest privately owned economic asset. pp. 64-65

Growing expropriation is already observed as far back as ancient Sumeria, where the management of temples estates soon led the way to using religious office as a way to accumulate wealth and trap people in debt repayments. Priests ran temples as their personal estates along with their extended family. This transfer of land from public to private is summarized by Scheidel:

Fairly egalitarian modes of land ownership were once common in many of the regions that later came to host large empires. Among the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia, one of the earliest civilizations known from written sources that date back more than 5,000 years, much farmland used to be controlled by extended patrilineal families of commoners who worked it as communal holdings. This type of ownership was also typical in early China, in the Shang and Western Zhou periods in the second millennium BCE, at a time when private land sales were supposedly inadmissible.

In the Valley of Mexico in the Aztec period, most land was held and cultivated by calpotin, corporate groups whose holdings combined family fields with common land. The former were sometimes periodically reconfigured to take account of changes in family size. The same was true of the ayllukuna in the Peruvian highlands of the Inca period, endogamous groups that assigned parcels at different altitudes to individual member families and regularly adjusted them to ensure an equitable distribution. Arrangements such as these imposed a powerful constraint on the concentration and commercial exploitation of land.

Over time, however, inequality grew as capitalholders acquired land and political leaders superimposed tributary structures on existing holdings. By the time Sumerian documentation expanded in the course of the third millennium BCE, we already encounter temples that held large amounts of land and worked it with their own institutional labor force, and we see nobles who had somehow amassed larger holdings as well.

Privatization of lineage land was possible as long as other group members agreed to it. Debt served as a potent instrument of converting surplus income into additional land: high annual interest rates of up to a third frequently compelled customary owners who had taken out loans to cede their holdings to creditors and might even condemn them to servitude if they had pledged themselves as collateral. This process created both large estates and a landless workforce to cultivate them...Privatization, in turn, reduced traditional social obligations to clients and supporters: the fewer costly social responsibilities were attached to private property, the more attractive it would have become to investors.

A variety of social statuses developed to cater to the labor needs of capital owners, such as sharecroppers and debt bondsmen, with slavery, a more primordial type of subordination, added to the mix. Analogous processes could be observed 4,000 years later, but at a comparable level of socioeconomic development, among the Aztecs, where rural debt and recourse to landless serfs and slaves sustained growing inequality.

The practices of state rulers provided both a model for, and also often the means or, encroachment. Sumerian kings sought to obtain land for themselves and their associates and insinuated themselves into the operation of temple estates to gain control over their assets…p. 54

Land was commonly parceled out by victorious leaders and warlords to their followers as a reward for service (see also, booty capitalism, below), as Schiedel notes:

…Considered the first “true” empire in history if we define empire in terms not merely of size but also of multiethnic heterogeneity, asymmetric core-periphery relations, and abiding local traditions of distinction and hierarchy, [the Akkadian kingdom] exercised power over diverse societies from northern Syria into western Iran… Local citystate kings were replaced by Akkadian governors, and large amounts of land ended up in the hands of the new rulers and their senior agents. Because much of the most productive farmland was held by temples, rulers either had it confiscated or appointed relatives and officials as priests to assume control of these resources. A new imperial ruling class that transcended the internal divisions of this far·flung realm accumulated large estates. Appropriated land, handed over to officials, was used to support them and to reward their own clients and subordinates, some of whom were known as “the select.” Later tradition expressed loathing for “the scribes who parceled out farmland in the steppe,” The beneficiaries of state grants further added to their holdings by purchasing private land…

…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.

The delegational nature of rule in premodern stares required rulers to share gains with their agents and supporters as well as with preexisting elites…Land grants were an almost universal means of rewarding key associates, being handed out by the chiefs of Hawai’i and the god-kings of Akkad and Cuzco, by Egyptian Pharaohs and Zhou emperors, by the kings of medieval Europe and by Charles V in the New World. Attempts to make these prebendal estates hereditary within the families of the initial beneficiaries and eventually tum them into private property were an almost inevitable consequence. p. 57

On that note, it’s not just land, but labor, too, that was commonly appropriated by various local elites, as Michael Hudson describes:

Throughout history local authorities have sought to divert labor for their own purposes. Sometimes the central authority deters this power grabbing, as in England’s Star Chamber in the 16th and 17th centuries against aggressive local nobility. But the Bronze Age “Intermediate Period” saw central power wane vis-a-vis that of local clan heads, cheiftains and “big-men” …Palaces remained dependent on local officials or contractors to supply labor, resulting in a political tug of war. Assyriologists have found a similar reliance of Ur III and Babylonian rulers on local clan heads or lu-gal “big-men” acting as contractors to supply labor and military support, especially in Mesopotamian “intermediate periods.” Labor in the Ancient World PP. 654-655

The land ownership pattern in England today dates back to patterns laid down during the Norman conquest:

…when confronted with years of rebellion after his initial victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror switched to a policy of systematic expropriation.The ensuing massive transfers greatly increased the crown’s share of all land and placed fully half of all land in the hands of some 200 nobles, half of it held by ten close associates of the new king. Despite their privileged position, the latter ended up somewhat less extravagantly rich than the previous earls had been, whereas the other barons were on average much better off than most of the previous thanes had been. This violent redistribution reached deep into the ranks of the English elite: by the time of the Domesday Book survey of 1086, landowners who can unambiguously be identified as English held only 6 percent of the land by surface or 4 percent by value, and although their actual share may well have been greater, there is no doubt that Norman nobles had largely taken over…pp. 200-201

2. Graft, bribes, corruption, extortion, and political favors from holding high office: In ancient times, positions were based on one’s personal relationship to the ruler; there was no distinct “office” apart from the individual who held it. Your position in the hierarchy determined how much you could exploit those beneath you:

Participation in governance opened up access to income from formal compensation , benefactions of rulers and other superiors, and the solicitation of bribes, embezzlement, and extortion, and it often also provided shelter from taxation and other obligations. Senior military positions might be rewarded with a share of war booty. What is more, direct service for the state was not even a necessary prerequisite. Ties of kinship, intermarriage, and other alliances with officeholders could yield commensurate benefits. Moreover, considering the often rather limited infrastructural power of the state, personal wealth and local influence made it easier to shield not only one’s own assets from state or community demands but also those of friends and clients–in exchange for other benefits. If necessary, tax quotas could be met by shifting additional burdens onto the powerless. p. 49

Religion has been used as a means to wealth from ancient times. From the money changers of the Hebrew temple, to the indulgences of the Catholic Church to today’s “prosperity gospel” televangelists in the U.S., religion has always been a money-making enterprise. Corruption was endemic in ancient Sumeria, the very first extensively recorded civilization:

Temple administrators intermingled management of institutional assets with their own. Graft, corruption and force were already well-established means of appropriation. Sumerian cuneiform records from the city of Lagash in the twenty-fourth century BCE show that the local kings and queens took over temple land and the workers attached to it; that aristocrats acquired land by foreclosing on high-interest loans; that officials misused state assets such as boats and fishing grounds, overcharged for basic services such as funerals and sheep shearing, withheld wages from workers, and generally filled their pockets through corruption; and that the wealthy stole fish from poor men’s ponds. Whatever the merits of some of these allegations, the overall impression is that of a particular type of governance that encouraged encroachment aided by the exercise of power for personal benefit. p. 54

Similarly, in the Roman Empire:

The richest provincials joined the central imperial ruling class, eager to claim rank and attendant privilege and capitalize on the opportunities for further enrichment they offered. A survey of Roman literature has found that epithets of wealth were almost exclusively applied to senators of consular rank, who enjoyed the most favor and the best access to additional riches. Formal status ordering was grounded in financial capacity, and membership in the three orders of the state class-senators, knights, and decurions-was tied to staggered census thresholds. pp. 75-77

And in Han Dynasty China:

Great wealth accrued from favoritism and corruption: several imperial chancellors and other very senior officials were said to have accumulated wealth on par with the largest recorded fortunes overall. In the later stages of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the lucrative nature of top offices came to be reflected in the prices at which they could be purchased. Legal privilege shielded corrupt officials with growing generosity. Officials above a certain pay grade were not to be arrested without prior approval of the emperor, and similar protections extended to sentencing and punishment. p. 65

3. Military conquest and war profiteering: War for private profit has a long pedigree. Ancient Near Eastern rulers conquered new lands and enslaved the populations. Alexander the Great claimed he invaded Persia for revenge, but in reality, it’s likely he needed the money. Julius Caesar, too, needed to pay off his debts. James Scott desrcibes Max Weber’s theory of “booty capitalism”:

“Booty capitalism” simply means, in the case of war, a military campaign the purpose of which is profit. In one form, a group of warlords might hatch a plan to invade another small realm, with both eyes fixed on the loot in, say, gold, silver, livestock, and prisoners to be seized. It was a “joint-stock company,” the business of which was plunder. Depending on the soldiers, horses, and arms that each of the conspirators contributes to the enterprise, the prospective proceeds might be divided proportionally to each participant’s investment. The enterprise is, of course, fraught, inasmuch as the plotters (unless they are merely financial backers) potentially risk their lives…In many cases—in early Southeast Asia and in imperial Rome—war was seen as a route to wealth and comfort. Everyone from the commanders down to the individual soldier expected to be rewarded with his share of the plunder…James C. Scott; Against the Grain, p. 144

Similarly, in ancient Greece and Rome, conquering foreign lands was a route to wealth:

…Warfare was a similarly, if not more, important source of elite income. Roman commanders enjoyed complete authority over war booty and decided how to divide it among their soldiers, their officers and aides who had been drawn from the elite class, the state treasury, and themselves. Based on the number of military theaters and wars, it has been estimated that in the years between 200 and 30 BCE. at least a third of the 3,000- odd senators who lived in this period had a chance to enrich themselves in this fashion. p. 73

The Pentagon Can’t Account for $21 Trillion (That’s Not a Typo) (TruthDig)

4. Usury, foreclosure and loan-sharking: David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is the definitive book on this topic. In it he wonders how something as amoral as enslaving people with debt is commonly seen by most people as moral“surely one must pay one’s debts,” after all. Perhaps it comes from the hijacking of our innate notions of reciprocity and fairness by elites through a twisting of moral logic. In any case, Graeber writes of the origin of debt:

We don’t know precisely when and how interest-bearing loans originated, since they appear to predate writing. Most likely, Temple administrators invented the idea as a way of financing the caravan trade. This trade was crucial because while the river valley of ancient Mesopotamia was extraordinarily fertile and produced huge surpluses of grain and other foodstuffs, and supported enormous numbers of livestock, which in turn supported a vast wool and leather industry, it was almost completely lacking in anything else. Stone, wood, metal, even the silver used as money, all had to be imported. From quite early times, then, Temple administrators developed the habit of advancing goods to local merchants-some of them private, others themselves Temple functionaries-who would then go off and sell it overseas. Interest was just a way for the Temples to take their share of the resulting profits. However, once established, the principle seems to have quickly spread.

Before long, we find not only commercial loans, but also consumer loans-usury in the classical sense of the term. By c. 2400 BC it already appears to have been common practice on the part of local officials, or wealthy merchants, to advance loans to peasants who were in financial trouble on collateral and begin to appropriate their possessions if they were unable to pay. It usually started with grain, sheep, goats, and furniture, then moved on to fields and houses, or, alternately or ultimately, family members. Servants, if any, went quickly, followed by children, wives, and in some extreme occasions, even the borrower himself. These would be reduced to debt-peons: not quite slaves, but very close to that, forced into perpetual service in the lender’s household-or, sometimes, in the Temples or Palaces themselves. In theory, of course, any of them could be redeemed whenever the borrower repaid the money, but for obvious reasons, the more a peasant’s resources were stripped away from him, the harder that became.
David Graeber; Debt, the first 5,000 Years, pp. 64-65

In fact, the earliest texts make no distinction between servants (who work for pay), bonded labor (who work to pay off a debt, real or imagined), and chattel slaves (who are owned outright). Perhaps there really was no distinction to be made.

5. Tax farming and the holding of high political office: Tax farming was the practice of privatized tax collection in the ancient world that persisted until relatively modern times. This “entrepreneurial” approach to collecting taxes was rife with corruption and entitlement. Scheidel describes the role this played in elite wealth accumulation:

In addition to grants of land and labor, participation in the collection of state revenue was another important pathway to power-based elite enrichment. This process is so well attested that a long book could, and indeed should, be devoted to it. To name just one lesser-known example, in the Oyo empire, a large Yoruba state in West Africa in the early modern period, petty kings and subordinate chiefs gathered at local tribute-taking centers before they converged on an annual festival at the capital. Tribute in the form of cowrie shells, livestock, meat, flour, and construction materials was presented to the king through the intermediation of officials who had been appointed to act as patrons for particular groups of tribute-bearers and who were entitled to a share of the proceeds in exchange for their troubles. Needless to say, formal entitlements frequently accounted for only a modest portion of the personal income that fiscal agents derived from their service. p. 58

Governance was a key route to riches in the highly privatized Roman Empire:

Great wealth accrued from state administration outside Italy, and Roman-style governance was highly conducive to exploitation. Provincial administration was highly lucrative, and rent-seeking behavior was only weakly constrained by laws and courts set up to prosecute extortion: alliance-building and rent-sharing among the powerful provided insurance against indictment.

Moreover, at a time when annual interest rates of 6 percent were common in Rome itself, wealthy Romans imposed rates of up to 48 percent on provincial cities, which were in desperate need of money to satisfy the demands of their governors. Members of the equestrian order benefited from the widespread practice of tax farming, as the right to collect certain taxes in a particular province were auctioned off to consortia that then proceeded to do what they could to turn a profit.

This intimate association of personal wealth and political power was faithfully replicated at the local level. The mature Roman empire consisted of some 2,000 largely self-governing urban or differently organized communities that were loosely overseen–and opportunistically fleeced–by itinerant governors and small cares of elite officials and imperial freedmen and slaves who were mostly concerned wiht fiscal matters. Each city was normally run by a council that represented the local wealth [sic] elite. These bodies, whose members were formally constituted as decurions, were in charge not only of local taxation and expenditure but also of assessing their communities’ wealth for Roman state taxation, and they were responsible for raising funds that were to be handed over to collectors and tax farmers…The net result was an intensely stratified society in which the richest 1 percent or 2 percent absorbed much of the surplus beyond bare subsistence…pp. 75-77

7. Government-awarded monopolies and the sale of offices: Schiedel does not mention this, but I should note that one common form of rent-seeking for archaic governments were national monopolies. The most famous of these was probably to Royal salt monopoly in France, and the Gabelle tax it created:

Government monopolies, such as salt (which was part of the general farms) and recently introduced tobacco, were…farmed out…Indeed, the ability to create monopolies was one of the king’s resources; one of the more outlandish examples being the exclusive right to sell snow and ice in the district of Paris, sold for 10,000L per year in 1701. Francois R. Velde; Government Equity and Money: John Law’s System in 1720 France, p. 4

Another common method used throughout the Middle Ages was the creation and auctioning off of high political offices to aristocrats. They could then use their position to charge fees and nickel-and-dime the populace (the sale of religious offices was called Simony).

An officer was someone who held a government position not on commission or at the king’s leave, but as of right, and enjoyed various privileges attached to the position (in particular the collection of fees related to his activities). Offices were sold, and the king paid interest on the original sale price, which was called the wages of the office (gages). A wage increase was really a forced loan, requiring the officer to put up the additional capital. Officers could not be removed except for misconduct; however, the office itself could be abolished, as long as the king repaid the original sum….From 1689 to 1712 over 3,000 offices were created to supervise the markets of Paris in the minutest details, including “inspectors-gourmets of wines”, inspectors of pig’s tongues, and distinct officers in charge of respectively loading, unloading, and rolling barrels. Francois R. Velde; Government Equity and Money: John Law’s System in 1720 France, p. 6

Another factor not mentioned by Schiedel was seignorage, or profits derived from the government monopoly over the issuance of valid currency.

Medieval sovereigns had few ways of raising revenue apart from the proceeds of their personal domains: levying direct or indirect taxes was far beyond most feudal administrative capabilities. Seigniorage was therefore a uniquely attractive and uniquely feasible source of income-and medieval sovereigns happily indulged in it. Under normal circumstances, when seigniorage’ was levied only on the gradual increase in the coinage supply demanded by a growing monetary economy the revenues were relatively modest. But when the need arose, a sovereign could raise enormous sums by crying down or even demonetising altogether the current issue of the coinage and calling it in for re-minting off a debased footing. In 1299, for example, the total revenues of the French crown amounted to just under £2. million: of this, fully one half had come from the seigniorage profits of the Mint following a debasement and general recoining. Two generations later, the recoinage of 1349 generated nearly three-quarters of all revenues collected that year by the king. When such large sums could be raised, it is hardly surprising that there were no fewer than 123 debasements in France alone between 1285 and 1490. Felix Martin; Money: The Unauthorized Biography, pp. 88-89

9. Offhshore tax havens, tax avoidance and regressive taxation: This is only obliquely referred to by Scheidel, but is deserves more attention. Throughout history there is a pattern of the wealthiest individuals being able to hide their income form the state and avoid paying taxes—something that is usually considered to be a modern phenomenon. Because the wealthy had political power due to their status, they frequently exempted themselves from taxes and shifted the burdens of paying for the state to those less politically powerful. Not only has the so-called “Tytler calumny” promoted by libertarians never happened (where the rich allegedly have their assets confiscated via democratic popular vote), but in fact the exact opposite has been the trend throughout recorded history!

Primarily associated with modern times, Michael Hudson has documented how even in antiquity certain favored “tax havens” and “duty-free zones” existed outside of government juristdiction which allowed for elite accumulation of assets free from paying duties and obligations to the state, a method smaller and more local producers could not take advantage of. He makes an analogy between the Panama Canal Zone and the Greek island of Delos during Roman times:

The last thing the Delian merchant class wanted was a public authority to regulate its entrepot trade in captured cargoes, slaves or, for that matter, honest goods….Delos was for them not their home but their business residence. What they cared for most was not the city or the temple but the harbors, the famous sacred harbor, and especially the three adjoining so‑called basins with their large and spacious storehouses. It is striking that while these storehouses are open to the sea there is almost no access to them from the city. ..This characteristic of Delos’s warehouses being only open outwards, not inland, finds a parallel in modern Panama’s Canal Zone, whose warehouses likewise are bonded and set aside from the local economy (save for the National Guard’s pilfering and shakedowns). Panama’s imports from Asia are destined for other Western Hemisphere countries rather than for local consumption. Drug and arms shipments provide another analogue to Delian contraband. Finally, Panama’s sizeable Oriental and European population working as brokers and bankers recalls the adventurers who made their way to Delos. Both that island and Panama became what are now called “dual economies”: The Delian export trade involved the native population only minimally, much as is the case in Panama and other modern enclaves.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple City (Michael Hudson)

Similarly, it appears that the rich and powerful were disproportionately able to shelter their income and assets from taxation, while shifting the burden onto the debt donkeys of the middle classes and the poor.

It is striking that the wealthiest members of the [Roman] citizenry were not taxed proportionate to the size of their fortunes, let alone in a straightforwardly progressive manner. The scheme placed the heaviest burden on the upper reached on the commoner population instead of on the wealth elite. Even in an acute emergency, Rome’s oligarchic ruling class made as few concessions as it could get away with, in marked contrast to a democratic political system such as that of classical Athens, which…heavily taxed the rich to cover war expenditures. p. 187

Meanwhile, in Imperial China:

State capture of private resources was unlikely to contain a rise in private wealth inequality in the face of intensifying military mass mobilization. The system may even have been effectively quite regressive, considering that it imposed a very heavy double tax –military labor and agricultural products–on those least able to afford it, the farmers, whereas other forms of wealth may have been easier to shield from state demands. Infantry warfare as practiced at the time was relatively low-cost, relying as it did above all on conscription, mass-produced weapons (presumably involving forced labor by convicts and other state workers, as in later centuries), and the food that the farmers themselves produced. p. 185

Privilege derived from holding high state office fueled personal enrichment, a process that was tempered only by interfamilial rivalries and eventually more violent factionalist struggles that checked or reversed the rise of individual families but that failed to undermine their collective grip on the most lucrative positions of public service. Wealth accumulation was greatly aided by the fact that even distant relatives of the imperial family, as well as all families endowed with noble titles and all officials and holders of official rank, were exempt from taxation and labor services, an eminently regressive system that openly favored the powerful and well-connected. Members of the same group engaged in private purchase of public land, a practice repeatedly but unsuccessfully prohibited by their rulers. p. 260

One interesting historical trend is peasants who put themselves under the “protection” of a well-connected member of the elite class in order to shield themselves from increasingly burdensome taxation during the latter stages of state breakdown. The indebtedness that results is thought to be a contributor to the various feudal systems that emerge when centralized power falls apart.

…Instrumental in returning the Han to power, the great landowning families brought more and more land under their control and subordinated its cultivators through debt. Sources of the period refer to the elite practice of falsifying census accounts in order to conceal taxable assets. The decline in the number of registered households from more than 12 million in 2 CE to fewer than 10 million in 140 CE–at a time of expanding settlement in the southern reaches of the empire–thus reflects at least in part worsening noncompliance as landlords converted freeholders into landless tenants and shielded them from state agents. pp. 67-68

As a result, elite landownership expanded at the expense of the state, and attempts to implement land equalization schemes ceased after political instability commenced in the mid-eighth century CE. The growth of large estates sheltered peasants from state taxation, allowing landlords to convert the agricultural surplus into private rent. Linked to long-distance trade, these commercialized estates helped sustain an increasingly rich elite. Those who disposed of sufficient capital to run mills diverted water from peasants, a practice that prompted complaints but only sporadic state intervention. pp. 260-261pp

…In diffferent part of the later Roman Empire, we hear of farmers who sought protection by powerful landlords (as well as officials) who assumed responsibility for their dealings with the outside world, most notably imperial tax collectors. In practice, this interfered with the gathering of state revenue and strengthened landlords’ grip on the agrarian surplus.

This in turn not only weakened the central authorities but also shifted fiscal burdens to less powerful parties, much to the detriment of middling property owners. Once again, further polarization between rich and poor was an almost inevitable outcome, and just as in late Han China, private armies and incipient warlordism were not always far behind…pp. 79-80

Tax evasion and inequality (VoxEU)

10. Slavery and forced resettlement: Chattel slavery is older than recorded history, and in many cultures, including the “freedom-loving” West, slaves were the largest asset the wealthy possessed after land. Slavery, and numerous other forms of compelled labor (corvée, bonded labor, prison labor, migrant labor, indentured servitude, etc.) obviously was a huge factor in inequality in ancient times:

…In many premodern societies, the enslavement or deportation of outsiders …also raised overall inequality. The Neo-Assyrian empire in the Fertile Crescent was notorious for engaging in forcible resettlement on a huge scale, mostly from subjugated peripheries into the imperial heartland in northern Mesopotamia…Over the following century or so, the continuing inflow of deportees allowed Assyrian kings to build, populate, and provision several capital cities… Shorn of their former assets, [the deportees] could typically expect nothing better than an existence at the margins of bare subsistence. Their position may even have deteriorated as the empire reached the leak of its power. For along time, there had been no sign in the record that resettled subjects had been formally differentiated from the indigenous population: they were “counted together with the Assyrians.” This phrase disappeared in the final phase of Assyrian conquests, from about 705 to 627 BCE, when great victories and ongoing expansion fostered a heightened sense of superiority. Deportees were downgraded to the status of forced laborers and employed in large public works projects. Forced migration not only augmented the ranks of the poor but also added to the wealth and income of the upper class…

Slavery produced similar results. The enslavement of outsiders was one of the few mechanisms capable of creating significant levels of inequality in foraging societies of small size and low or moderate complexity, not only among the aquatic foragers of the Pacific Northwest but across a wide range of tribal groups. Yet once again, it took domestication and state formation to boost the use of slave labor to new heights. Under the Roman Republic, several million slaves entered the Italian peninsula, where many of them were bought up by the wealthy to toil in their mansions, workshops, and agricultural estates…pp. 60-61

The capture of slaves was a major reason for military operations, especially by the Romans, where human property was a major way the wealthy made their fortunes:

…Economic development grounded in market relations certainly picked up in the later stages of the Republican period. The use of slaves in cash crop production and manufacturing, as well as rich archaeological evidence for the export of wine and olive oil, points to the success of Roman capital owners. Yet this was only part of the story. Simple estimates of the likely scale of supply and demand suggest that landownership and related commercial activities could not have generated nearly enough income to make the Roman elite as rich as we know it became. And indeed, our sources emphasize the paramount significance of coercion as a source of top incomes and fortunes. p.73

Imperial unification and connectivity facilitated the expansion and concentration of personal wealth. Under Nero, six men were said to have owned “half” of the province of Africa (centered on modem Tunisia), albeit only until he seized their properties. While clearly hyperbolic, this claim need not have been dramatically far from the truth in a region where large estates could be described as rivaling city territories in size. p. 75

11. Assortative marriage, cronyism and nepotism: Wealthy families commonly made ties with other wealthy families in every culture, exacerbating the concentration of wealth. Things like dowries and bride-prices encouraged the trend of wealthy families to intermarry into other wealthy families. Nearly every hierarchical society has had ways to ensure that elites marry one another rather than commoners, from cousin marriage, to cotillions, to arranged marriages to the university system today. Tang Dynasty China offers some of the most extreme examples:

The most extravagant disparities were created at the very top, by families that back in the sixth and seventh centuries had closely cattached themsleves to the imperial court by abandoning their local bases and relocating to the capital cities of Chang’an and Luoyang, where close proximity to the throne ensured the most immediate access to political power and attendant lucre. This spatial clustering helped them secure access to senior government positions and provincial offices. Distinct from a provincial upper class that rarely ascended to state offices, these families formed a closed cultural elite that was increasingly interconnected by marriage. The most detailed study of this group and the numerous tomb epitaphs it left behind finds that by the ninth century CE, at least three-fifths of all known members of the resident imperial elite of Chang’an were linked by ties of kinship and marriage, including the majority of senior officials such as ministers and most top-tier officials in charge of provincial administration. What has been called a “highly restricted marriage and kin network” had thus come to control the Tang state, in no small part for the personal benefit of its members. p. 261

Similarly, during the Han Dynasty:

These dynamics both favored and constrained familial continuity in wealth holding. On the one hand , the sons of high officials were more likely to follow in their footsteps. They and other junior relatives were automatically entitled to enter officialdom and benefited disproportionately from the recommendation system employed to fill governmental positions. We hear of officials whose brothers and some six of seven–in one case, no fewer than thirteen sons–also came to serve as imperial administrators. On the other hand, the same predatory and capricious exercise of political power that turned civil servants into plutocrats also undermined their success…The top tier of the Han elite…did not last for much more than a century and was removed alongside the remnants of the ruling houses of the Warring States period. New favorites took their place… pp. 66-67

12. Wage Suppression and theft: Rather than simple “supply and demand” as promoted by professional economists, a cursory glance at history shows that the wealthy have always gone to great lengths to hold down wages as low as possible since the very first appearance of paid labor by using every legal (and some illegal) means at their disposal. In some cases this succeeded, in other cases it failed, depending on the prevailing sociopolitical conditions:

Elites had a powerful incentive to contain the leveling effects of the Black Death and its recurrences. The success of such measures varied widely between different societies depending on their power structure and even their ecology. Employers lost no time pressuring the authorities to curb the rising cost of labor… The actual effect of these ordinances appears to have been modest. (p. 299)… Within a generation, however, these measures had failed.p. 300

In western Europe, workers benefited because gains from labor scarcity were usually passed on to them. Not only did restrictions on wages and mobility fail, but the demographic shock of the plague also largely killed off the earlier medieval institution of serfdom…peasants asserted their mobility, moving to other manors if they offered better work conditions. This drove down rents and led to the commutation and eventual elimination of labor services that had been a standard feature of the manorial economy. Tenants ended up paying only rent and had the opportunity to work as much land as they could manage. This fostered upward mobility and led to the creation of a yeoman class of prosperous peasants…

On occasion workers resorted to violence in resisting elite attempts to deny them their newfound gains…popular rebellions in the form of peasant uprisings such as the Jacquerie in France (1358) and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England were the result. In the short term, the uprising was put down by force. But although new restrictive statutes were passed…the movement did deliver concessions to peasants: poll taxes were abandoned, and peasant bargaining expanded over time…By and large workers managed to benefit from labor scarcity, at least while it lasted.

Yet in other regions landlords were more successful in suppressing worker bargaining. In eastern European countries–Poland, Prussia, Hungary–serfdom was introduced after the Black Death.…central and eastern Europe faced the same problems of depopulation, abandoned land, and falling land and grain prices as were experienced farther west. The landed nobility resorted to legal measures to stem a decline in revenue, imposing ceilings on wages and the price of urban goods. Unlike in western Europe, the powerful strove mightily to increase labor obligations instead of reducing them, especially labor dues, cash payments, and restrictions on freedom of movement. In various countries, such as Prussia, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Livonia, tenants were prohibited from leaving without permission or without paying a large fee or all arrears, or except at a certain time, or in some cases at all.

Poaching of workers was forbidden by law or lordly agreement; cities could be ordered to reject migrants, and rulers entered treaties for their return to their native countries. Tenant debt was a powerful instrument of retention. Obligations and restrictions continued to expand in the sixteenth century. A number of factors conspired to constrain workers, perhaps most importantly the growing political power of the nobility who held increasing jurisdictional sway” over the peasants on their manors, alongside unfavorable developments in commercialization and urbanism. As nobles expanded their powers at the expense of the state and cities failed to provide a counterweight, workers were trapped in increasingly coercive arrangements. … outcomes for workers differed much from those in western Europe. pp. 310-311

All told, this pattern holds across all ancient and preindustrial societies: Political leadership is channeled to wealth inequality. Or, to take the inverse: Large fortunes were the result of political power and influence. As Scheidel concludes:

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 co 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. p. 84

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. Building on mechanisms of capital investment and exploitation that had first been developed thousands of years earlier, these empires raised the stakes ever higher. Greater profits were to be had from state office; lowered transaction costs for trade and investment over long distances benefited those who had income to spare. In the end, imperial income inequality and wealth polarization could be terminated and reversed only by dismemberment through conquest, state failure, or wholesale systems collapse, all of them intrinsically violent upheavals. The premodern historical record is silent on peaceful ways of combating entrenched imperial inequalities, and it is hard to see how any such strategies could have arisen within these specific political ecologies. p. 80

All of this is to answer the fundamental question I posed a few posts ago: How did private property originate? I guess we now know how. Rather than the happy fairy-tale and just-so stories told by libertarians like Brian Caplan (many of whom are on the payroll of the plutocrats), the above demonstrates in exhaustive detail how elites took control of the political apparatus of ancient states and used them to create vast inequalities of wealth and power.

The story Scheidel tells is quite the opposite of today’s Ayn Rand-inspired model of the mass of “takers” stealing the wealth of the tiny sliver of superhumanly-talented “makers” through government and the welfare state. I’ts pretty clear from this book that rather than wealth being created by a tiny minority and appropriated by the majority, in fact wealth is collectively produced and privately appropriated, and has been throughout history.

In societies that relied exclusively on solar power, there was no way to quickly and dramatically produce larger output, so there was no “economics” which endorsed things like privatization and trickle-down. The reason why these ancient societies did not function as modern societies do is explained by Francis Fukuyama by something he calls “the iron law of latifundia”:

There is something like an iron law of latifundia in agrarian societies that says that the rich will grow richer until they are stopped-either by the state, by peasant rebellions, or by states acting out of fear of peasant rebellions.

In premodern agrarian societies, disparities in wealth do not necessarily reflect natural disparities in abilities or character. Technology is fixed and no one is rewarded for being entrepreneurial or innovative. Before the mechanization of agriculture, there were no particular economies of scale to be had, either, that would explain the growth of large latifundia in terms of efficiency. Even large landowners had their fields worked by individual peasant families farming on small plots. But small initial differences in resources reinforced themselves through the mechanism of debt peonage. A wealthier peasant or landowner would lend money to a poorer one; a single bad season or crop failure would then reduce the debtor to serfdom or slavery, with the forfeiture of his family’s property. Over time, the advantages of greater wealth became self-reinforcing, since larger landowners could then buy influence in the political system to protect and expand their holdings.

This is why the anachronistic application of contemporary property rights theory to historical situations leads to fundamental misunderstandings. Many economists believe that strong property rights promote growth because they protect private returns to investment, thereby stimulating investment and growth. But economic life in Han Dynasty China resembled the world described by Thomas Malthus in his Essay On the Principle of Population much more than the world that has existed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the last two hundred years…In a Malthusian economy where intensive growth is not possible, strong property rights simply reinforce the existing distribution of resources. The actual distribution of wealth is more likely to represent chance starting conditions or the property holders’ access to political power than productivity or hard work. (Even in today’s mobile, entrepreneurial capitalist economy, rigid defenders of property rights often forget that the existing distribution of wealth doesn’t always reflect the superior virtue of the wealthy and that markets aren’t always efficient.)

Left to their own devices, elites tend to increase the size of their latifundia, and in the face of this, rulers have two choices. They can side with the peasantry and use state power to promote land reform and egalitarian land rights, thereby clipping the wings of the aristocracy. This is what happened in Scandinavia, where the Swedish and Danish monarchs made common cause with the peasantry at the end of the eighteenth century against a relatively weak aristocracy. Or the rulers can side with the aristocracy and use state power to reinforce the hold of local oligarchs over their peasants. This happened in Russia, Prussia, and other lands east of the Elbe River from the seventeenth century on, as a generally free peasantry was reduced to serfdom with the collusion of the state. The French monarchy under the Old Regime was too weak to dispossess the aristocracy or remove their tax exemptions, so it ended up placing the burden of new taxes on the peasantry until the whole system exploded in the French Revolution. Which course the monarch chose-to reinforce the existing oligarchy or to lean against it-depended on a host of contextual factors like the cohesiveness of both the aristocracy and the peasantry, the degree of external threat faced by the state, and rivalries within the court. pp. 142-143

However, Schiedel takes a dismal view of the possibilities for non-violent political reform. Sure, they happened from time to time, he says, but mostly they were just a blip on an overall inexorable trend line towards more and more wealth in the hands of a few—small anomalies that did nothing to exacerbate the overall historical trend. As noted above, the French Revolution managed to equalize incomes–largely by executing the aristocracy and expropriating their (and that of the largest landowner–the Catholic Church’s) property.

We’ll take a look at some of Scheidel’s “Great Levelers” next time.


The Great Leveler: Review (Part 1)

The Beginnings of Inequality.

While doing my research into Jordan Peterson and the Alt-Right more generally, one troubling thesis kept coming up again and again: that hierarchies and extreme inequality of wealth and income is inevitable, and that furthermore there is nothing that we can do about this. They are simply a product of basic human social instincts that we inherited from our primate (and lobster) ancestors. Anything we do to restrain these phenomena or rein in inequality will only end up making us worse off (as Communist states allegedly proved); that any cure would be worse than the disease (the ‘perversity thesis’); and that nothing will make a dent (the ‘futility thesis’). Here’s Peterson on FOX News, for example:

“The point that I was trying to make in that chapter which was … the first one among others is, the Radical Leftists have a proclivity to blame hierarchy and inequality on Western culture and Capitalism. And look, inequality can be a real problem because people stack up at the bottom and that can destabilize your entire society. And no one likes poverty. No one’s in favor of poverty. ”

“The problem is that the reasons for inequality are much older than human society itself. And so when the Radical Leftists play their linguistic games, let’s say, and blame all of that on Capitalism, then they’re not treating the problem with its requisite seriousness. We actually don’t know what to do about radical inequality. And demolishing the Western system, well, unless you bring everyone down to zero which is something that’s happened before, is not going to address the issue. And so that is the point I was making.”

One book that kept coming up in discussions was ‘The Great Leveler’ by Walter Schiedel. The thesis of the book has been well documented by now: that only war, revolution, plague, state failure or financial collapse, or some combination of these, has reduced the historical trend towards more and more inequality. Absent one of these conditions present, inequality inevitably trends upward without bound. He writes in the Introduction:

Material inequality requires access to resources beyond the minimum that is needed to keep us all alive. Surpluses already existed tens of thousands of years ago, and so did humans who were prepared to share them unevenly. Back in the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers found the time and means to bury some individuals much more lavishly than others.

But 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. Social norms evolved to define rights to these assets, including the ability to pass them on to future generations.

Under these conditions, the distribution of income and wealth came to be shaped by a variety of experiences: health, marital strategies and reproductive success, consumption and investment choices, bumper harvests, and plagues of locusts and rinderpest determined fortunes from one generation to the next. Adding up over time, the consequences of luck and effort favored unequal outcomes in the long term… p. 5 (Emphasis mine)

Of the Great Levelers, he writes:

“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. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. 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. .. Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one anomer, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake. And by the time the dust had settled, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.” p.6 (Emphasis mine)

David Graeber summarized Scheidel’s main thesis like this:

…historian Walter Scheidel has taken [Thomas] Piketty-style readings of human history to their ultimate miserable conclusion in his 2017 book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, concluding there’s really nothing we can do about inequality. Civilization invariably puts in charge a small elite who grab more and more of the pie. The only thing that has ever been successful in dislodging them is catastrophe: war, plague, mass conscription, wholesale suffering and death. Half measures never work. So, if you don’t want to go back to living in a cave, or die in a nuclear holocaust (which presumably also ends up with the survivors living in caves), you’re going to just have to accept the existence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

This thesis disturbed me greatly. Is there really no hope? Is that what history and social science have decisively proven? I decided to pick up the book and give it a read.

The first part of the book is in many ways the most interesting. It is three chapters in which Scheidel gives a brief history of human inequality. This part is a great historical overview, and I recommend reading it if nothing else. The rest of the book looks at historical examples of the ‘four horsemen’ and attempts to back up his core assertion.

What follows is a review of the book combined with my own previous research and blogging about the history and nature of persistent social inequality. We’ll start with Scheidel’s early history of the rise of inequality.

The First Great Leveling

Scheidel begins his survey with our primate ancestors, who exhibit a very strict hierarchy. Silverback gorillas are at the extreme end, lording over harems of females and dominating subordinate males with displays of aggression and brute force. Sexual dimorphism (how much bigger males are then females) is pronounced.

Chimpanzees live in larger, more cooperative bands, but nonetheless occupy a strict hierarchy based on aggression and bullying. Despite this, lower-status male chimps are unable to leave the group, as a solitary chimp is vulnerable to attack from other bands, meaning they must either compete or submit. Bonobos are less violent and aggressive then their chimp cousins, yet there is still a strict hierarchy where status rank is inherited from the females. Gibbons and orangutans branched off earlier and evolved into more solitary creatures. However, these species are confined to Asia, while all African great ape species live in large social groups exhibiting strict ranking hierarchies, including, Scheidel contends, our own:

Hierarchy is a function of group living…Chimpanzees, especially but not only males, expend tremendous energy on status rivalry. Bullying and aggressive dominance displays are matched by a wide array of submission behaviors by those one the lower rungs of the pecking order. In groups of fifty or a hundred, ranking is a central and stressful fact of life, for each member occupies a specific place in the hierarchy but is always looking to improve it…Across these species, inequality is expressed in unequal access to food sources—the closest approximation to human-style income disparities—and, above all, in terms of reproductive success. Dominance hierarchy, topped by the biggest, strongest, and most aggressive males, which consume the most and have sexual relations with the most females, is the standard pattern… p. 26

Several important changes occurred in the human species (genus Homo) after it branched off from the common ancestor some six million years ago. Protohumans, who walked upright, learned how to fashion stone tools and weapons with their free hands. Some two million years ago, the shoulder evolved to hurl projectile weapons, something no other great ape can do. They harnessed fire perhaps as early as one million years ago. As brain size grew, coalition-building by less dominant males and the use of artificial weapons, such as hand-axes and spears with fire-hardened tips, tamed the power of alphas. No longer could aggression and brute force alone keep and hold onto power. Humans swapped brawn for brains.

Cooperative hunting strategies and raising vulnerable offspring also limited the ability of the few to dominate the many. Intelligence, including social intelligence, became much more important for status than just brute strength, and some have speculated that it is was this need for social intelligence which was the primary driver of rapid brain growth. As our brains grew, we began to evolve culturally instead of just biologically. Sexual dimorphism became less pronounced, indicating greater cooperation between males and females in child rearing. Food provisioning, too, became cooperative, with males hunting and defending territory, and women gathering and tending the children. This allowed us to expand out of Africa, and to survive and outcompete all other Homo species as well as archaic humans:

…a gender- and age-based division of labor, emerging around 40,000-50,000 years ago, resulted in H. sapiens adopting a wider resource base, i.e. the hunting of smaller prey. Thus, a shift from a narrow reliance on large game that continued to characterize Neanderthal subsistence, to a marked increase in the exploitation of small game provided a demographic advantage and an expanded population of H. sapiens throughout Eurasia. In this scenario, males and females, whether Neanderthal or H. sapiens, both were engaged in narrowly focused economies; the labor of men and women, of both hominins, was closely aligned…An emerging reliance on smaller animals, and a greater reliance on vegetal and seed resources, is believed to signal a gendered division of labor. Men hunt large prey; women and children hunt small animals and forage for consumables. This initial division of labor by gender and age in turn contributed to the evolutionary success of H. sapiens. C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky; Labor, Social Formation and the Neolithic Revolution in Labor in the Ancient World

Humans developed a variety of cultural strategies to keep domineering aggrandizers in line, as Scheidel describes:

Numerous means of enforcing egalitarian values have been documented by anthropologists, graduated by severity. Begging, scrounging and stealing help ensure a more equal distribution of resources. Sanctions against authoritarian behavior and self-aggrandizement range from gossip, criticism, ridicule and disobedience to ostracism and even physical violence, including homicide. Leadership consequently tends to be subtle, dispersed among multiple group members, and transient; the least assertive have the best chance to influence others. This distinctive moral economy has been called “reverse dominance hierarchy”: operative among adult men (who commonly dominate women and children), it represents the ongoing and preemptive neutralization of authority. p. 29

One of the basic building blocks for this was envy as James Suzman notes:

Ju/’hoansi egalitarianism was not born of the ideological dogmatism that we associate with 20th-century Marxism or the starry-eyed idealism of New Age ‘communalism’. There was no manifesto of ‘primitive communism’. Rather, it was the organic outcome of interactions between people acting explicitly in their own self-interest in a highly individualistic society. This was because, among foraging Ju/’hoansi, self-interest was always policed by its shadow, envy – which, in turn, ensured that everyone always got a fair share, and that those with the natural charisma and authority to ‘lead’ exercised it with great circumspection.

Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon)

For those groups without large-scale top-down hierarchical systems or omnipotent gods, cooperation was instead fostered by shared stories spun by storytellers, who were most likely the ancestors of the first priests and shamans. Instead of organized religions with hereditary priesthoods, the stories held the tribe together, and storytellers were accorded a correspondingly high degree of status:

Storytelling promoted co-operation in hunter-gatherers prior to the advent of organised religion, a new UCL study reveals. The research shows that hunter-gatherer storytellers were essential in promoting co-operative and egalitarian values before comparable mechanisms evolved in larger agricultural societies, such as moralising high-gods. Storytellers were also more popular than even the best foragers, had greater reproductive success, and were more likely to be co-operated with by other members of the camp…

Storytellers promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers before advent of religion (

The nomadic foraging lifestyle prevented any great accumulation of material goods. Wealth could not be hoarded nor passed down. Land could not be claimed by any specific individual. The main “production” of the economy was big-game hunting, and the best place to store excess meat was in the belly of one’s friends and neighbors. The main social “unit” was not the individual family but the band or tribe, and the maintenance of social ties was crucial. Cooperation was paramount, taming the bullying power of would-be elites. Cultural norms like meat sharing and taboos helped maintain equality and allow humans to cooperate as Peter Turchin explains:

As an example of cooperation, consider meat-sharing, which is the norm in most foraging societies. Meat-sharing has numerous benefits for the group within which it is practiced. First, any particular hunter, no matter how skilled, is not always successful in bringing home game. Sharing ensures that everybody has a moderate amount of meat every day. Not sharing results in long spells of famine, interspersed with feasts (with a portion of the kill spoiling, or being wasted in other ways).

Second, put yourself in the moccasins of a hunter. You have an interest in the well-being of others in your tribe. There is that old-timer who is not as spry as he used to be, and can’t chase the game in the bush. But he is an amazing repository of knowledge that can save the whole tribe when a drought strikes. Or that pregnant woman, whose husband was killed in a hunting accident. When her son grows up, he will stand together with your children against the tribe’s enemies.

Thus, the whole tribe, including you and your descendants, benefits from meat sharing. But when you bring that yummy warthog from a successful hunt, there is a terrible temptation not to share it with others. It’s the Cooperative Dilemma all over again. The benefits of meat sharing are spread thinly over all. Its consequences are often deferred into distant future. Meanwhile, pigging out on the juicy warthog steak is here and now.

This is why you need social norms to help you stick to the straight and narrow. Such “cultural-institutional technologies” make sharing psychologically easier and prevent free-riding. One kind of such a social technology is meat taboos. Among some Kalahari foragers, for example, “the hunter himself could only eat the ribs and a shoulder blade; the rest of the animal was taboo for him. The hunter’s wife received the meat and fat around the animal’s hindquarters, which she had to cook openly and share with other women (only). Taboos prohibited young males from eating anything except abdominal walls, kidneys, and genitals.” These taboos essentially guaranteed that a large carcass would be widely distributed across the whole band.

How Social Norms are Like Chili Peppers (Cliodynamica)

Another technique observed among contemporary hunter-gatherers is the “shaming” or “insulting” of the successful hunter and his kill, as James Suzman describes:

Skilled Ju/’hoansi hunters needed a thick skin. For while a particularly spectacular kill was always cause for celebration, the hunter responsible was insulted rather than flattered. Regardless of the size or condition of the carcass, those due a share of the meat would complain that the kill was trifling, that it was barely worth the effort of carrying it back to camp, or that there wouldn’t be enough meat to go round. For his part, the hunter was expected to be almost apologetic when he presented the carcass. Of course, everyone knew the difference between a scrawny kill and a good one but continued to pass insults even while they were busy filling their bellies. Hunters rarely took the insults to heart, and those dishing them out often did so through broad grins. This was a performance in which everyone played well-rehearsed roles. But it was also a performance with a clear purpose, as beneath the light-hearted insults lay a sharp and potentially vicious edge.

It’s also the expectation in hunter-gatherer societies that even items considered “private property” would be offered up for the good of other people, and not hoarded. All one had to do was simply ask:

Insults and mockery weren’t the only tool that hunter-gatherers had in their bags to maintain egalitarianism. Another that was explicitly linked to the expression of envy was ‘demand sharing’. Where we usually consider it rude for others to ask unashamedly for something that we own or to just expect to receive it, the Ju/’hoansi considered this normal. More so, as far as they were concerned, denying someone’s request ran the risk of being sanctioned for selfishness. Demand sharing did not lead to a free-for-all that ended up undermining any sense of private ownership. Instead, demands for things were usually – though not always – carefully considered. The net result of this was that, while private property was respected – after all, if there is no private property, how could you enjoy giving or receiving a gift? – material inequalities were quickly ironed out. However, the system was challenging for relatively well-resourced outsiders such as myself, which often resulted in a month’s supply of tobacco and food for a field trip being exhausted within a very short period of time.

…how envy functioned in societies such as the Ju/’hoansi suggests that, even if [Adam] Smith’s hidden hand does not apply particularly well to late capitalism, his belief that the sum of individual self-interests can ensure the fairest distribution of the ‘necessaries of life’ was right, albeit in small-scale band societies. For hunter-gatherers, the sum of individual self-interest ultimately ensured the most equitable ‘distribution of the necessaries of life’ because it discouraged profitable exchange, hierarchy, wealth-accumulation and significant material inequality.

Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon)

Not only was food sharing used to create social bonds, but so was gift-giving. Rather than bartering, negotiation or formal contracts, goods were primarily exchanged reciprocally to create social bonds between individuals and, especially, corporate groups. Exchange was not designed to “profit,” although there were circumstances in some very materially abundant cultures where gifts were expected to be returned “with interest,” to perpetuate what James Carse calls “infinite games” where the goal is not to “win” but to keep playing the game.

As with cultural norms and taboos, norms of reciprocity ensured sharing and prevented hoarding, as Tim Johnson describes:

One of the most famous stories illustrating the role of reciprocal exchange has concerns an anthropologist who after spending some time with bushmen [sic], gave one of them his knife. When visiting the group some years later, anthropologists discovered that the knife had been owned, at some point in time, by every member of the community. The knife had not been communally owned, its ownership had passed from one person to the next and its passage was evidence of a social network in the community, just as the motion of planets is evidence of an, otherwise invisible, gravitational field.

One of the most studied examples of these sorts of systems was that of indigenous people around Vancouver in Canada. A young man would lend five blankets to an older, richer person, for a year and they would be repaid with ten blankets. A similar situation existed in the Southwestern Pacific were strings of shells, whose value was purely ceremonial, were lent by a young man, sometimes to an unwilling borrower, at very high rates of interest. Many cultures had similar systems where by a gift had to be reciprocated by a greater gift in return these systems played a critical role in gluing society together by establishing bonds between the rich and poor, the old and young.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

A similar logic stands behind the idea of religious sacrifice in general. In this idea, a reciprocal relationship is instead established between the tribe and its deities or ancestors. Reciprocity means that the deity will “pay back” the sacrifice. Appeals were made to the ancestors to intercede on your behalf with the gods who presided over nature. Without science, this was the only method early humans saw to exercise any control over the vagaries of life.

I’ll note at this point that food-sharing feasts and reciprocal gift exchange both contribute to what I called the “feasting theory” of inequality’s origins. In superabundant conditions, aggrandizers (those especially attuned to status) promote surplus production through carrots and sticks (mostly carrots), and then use the resulting surpluses during feasts to generate material inequalities using debt and interest, which they then convert into status inequalities. To recap:

Brian Hayden…proposes that through the lure of feasts, with their free meals, delicacies, dances, exciting entertainment, and ambitious organizers, “triple A” personalities draw others into contractual agreements that generate debts and thereby confer social leverage.

In other words, through competitive feasts, surpluses are produced and converted into wealth and power by enterprising individuals, creating social inequalities. He takes a step back in time and proposes that during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods in resource-rich environments, triple-A individuals manipulated relationships through competitive feasting in such a way as to dodge the leveling hammer of egalitarian ethos.

This leads him to the proposal, supported by compelling evidence, that the need for certain amounts of rare delicacies for competitive feasts may have been a significant factor in the domestication of certain plants and animals, and thus may have given impetus to early agriculture.

The Feasting Theory

All of these foraging groups can be broadly characterized as immediate return hunter-gatherers. They do not store significant surpluses. They do not have a concept of private property and there is no transmissible wealth to be passed down through the generations. Natural resources cannot be “owned” by individuals, and there is often no concept of “ownership” or “private property,” or very loose and flexible ones at least. Population density is low, so resources are not scarce, and so do not need to be rationed by markets or elites. Such groups invariably have very “flat” (although not totally nonexistent) hierarchies. Scheidel concludes:

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. p. 30

Taken together, the evidence indicates a long-term reduction in inequality thanks to these developments–what Scheidel calls “The First Great Levelling.”

There is, however, some intriguing evidence that some degree of inequality was present even as far back as the Ice Age. The most famous example comes from Sungir (Sunghir) in Siberia, about 120 miles north of Moscow. Here, archaeologists found the remains of three burials–a man and two children– from the climatically moderate period of the last Ice Age. They were buried about 30-34,000 years ago during the Gravettian period of the Stone Age (named after a tool kit found widely in Eurasia). Similar burials have been found around Eurasia, such as in Dolní Věstonice, in the modern Czech Republic, which indicates cloth and ceramic manufacture on a large scale.

The Sungir society was a group of hunter-foragers who hunted bison, horse, reindeer, antelope, fox, bears, wolf, and especially mammoth. The burials were adorned with extensive decoration, including 10,000 beads carved from mammoth tusks and fox teeth, and prestige items such as art objects and spears made from straightened mammoth tusk were found in the graves. Archaeologists estimated that it would have taken:

…anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes to carve a single bead, which translates to a total of 1.6 to 4.7 years of work for one person carving forty hours a week. A minimum of seventy-five arctic foxes needed to be caught to extract the 300 canines attached to the belt and headgear in the children’s grave, and considering the difficulty of extracting them intact, the actual number may well have been higher… p. 31

Similar enigmatic burials are found all over Eurasia from the Ice Age, as David Graeber and David Wengrow point out:

Comparably rich burials are by now attested from Upper Palaeolithic rock shelters and open-air settlements across much of western Eurasia, from the Don to the Dordogne. Among them we find, for example, the 16,000-year-old ‘Lady of Saint-Germain-la-Rivière’, bedecked with ornaments made on the teeth of young stags hunted 300 km away, in the Spanish Basque country; and the burials of the Ligurian coast – as ancient as Sungir – including ‘Il Principe’, a young man whose regalia included a sceptre of exotic flint, elk antler batons, and an ornate headdress of perforated shells and deer teeth. Such findings pose stimulating challenges of interpretation… What, then, are we to make of all of this?

One scholarly response has been to abandon the idea of an egalitarian Golden Age entirely, and conclude that rational self-interest and accumulation of power are the enduring forces behind human social development. But this doesn’t really work either. Evidence for institutional inequality in Ice Age societies, whether in the form of grand burials or monumental buildings, is nothing if not sporadic. Burials appear literally centuries, and often hundreds of kilometres, apart. Even if we put this down to the patchiness of the evidence, we still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy: after all, if any of these Ice Age ‘princes’ had behaved anything like, say, Bronze Age princes, we’d also be finding fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states. Instead, over tens of thousands of years, we see monuments and magnificent burials, but little else to indicate the growth of ranked societies. Then there are other, even stranger factors, such as the fact that most of the ‘princely’ burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks, or dwarfs.

How to change the course of human history (Eurozine)

From this, it is reasonable to conclude that as far back as the Ice Age, many societies may have already been transegalitarian societies–defined as societies where some inequality existed, but was not likely institutionalized, probably because of the extreme difficulty of intergenerational wealth transmission. That’s probably why all that wealth was buried in the first place–to prevent it from being passed down.

Anthropologists generally differentiate between achieved status and ascribed status. Achieved status is generally status earned during one’s own lifetime via one’s personal qualities such as being a wise leader, a fierce warrior, a successful hunter, a skilled craftsman, a creative artist or storyteller or some other intrinsic quality. The “Big Men” of Polynesia are an example. Ascribed status comes from occupying a specific niche in the society which is passed down, such as the Egyptian Pharaoh. Since the buried children were too young to have acquired achieved status, their elaborate burial seems to indicate that some level of ascribed status must have been present as early as the Ice Age.

This need not be the case, however. Some have speculated that the children were sacrificial victims. Child sacrifice was surprisingly common in a variety of very ancient cultures. Because the children were giving up their lives for the good of the tribe, they were accordingly ascribed very high status. This may be the reason why they were so elaborately buried. There is some evidence for this–genetic testing has shown the individuals in the grave were not related. The children were buried on ochre pigment, very similar to the child sacrificial victims found in various South American cultures:

Peru child sacrifice discovery may be largest in history (BBC)

The Sunghir Burial Site: Were these Two Children Sacrificed in a Form of Prehistoric Scapegoating? (Ancient Origins)

The ancient Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice. It persisted in the New World until European arrival. It is thought by many religious scholars that the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible is an allegorical tale representing the replacement of child sacrifice with animal sacrifice in ancient Hebrew monotheistic cults as animal domestication became commonplace. Scholars also believe that human sacrifice itself contributed to hereditary inequality:

Despite being scarce today, ritualised human sacrifice was performed in early human societies throughout the world. During the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the graves of Pharaohs were accompanied by ‘retainers’ or human sacrifices who were believed to provide assistance in the afterlife. In Europe, mutilated bodies are found buried in peat pits, some of which are up to 8,000 years old and are accompanied by religious paraphernalia such as crucibles, idols and sacred plants. Aztec high priests extracted the beating hearts of victims in front of visiting dignitaries from competing communities. Often the victims were themselves captives from one of the competing communities, and the dignitaries returned home trembling in fear.

While it was relatively scarce in egalitarian societies, human sacrifice was practised in the majority of cultures with strictly inherited class systems. This suggests that there is a relationship between social inequality and human sacrifice, but it doesn’t tell us whether human sacrifice leads to social inequality or vice versa. Using a language-based family tree and statistical methods developed by evolutionary biologists, we were able to model how human sacrifice and social inequality evolved in the prehistory of Austronesia…We found strong support for the social control hypothesis: human sacrifice helped to build strictly inherited class systems, and prevented cultures from becoming more egalitarian.

How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality (Aeon)

Peter Turchin, however, points out that over a certain level of complexity, human sacrifice becomes maladaptive, which likely led its disappearance among larger, more complex societies, especially in Eurasia:Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level? (Cliodynamica)

Surveying these, and other Ice Age burials, Scheidel concludes:

It is tempting to interpret these findings as the earliest harbingers of inequalities to come. Evidence of advanced and standardized craft production, time investment in highly repetitive tasks, and the use of raw materials sourced from far away offers us a glimpse of economic activities more advanced than those found among contemporary hunter-gatherers. It also hints at social disparities not normally associated with a foraging existence: lavish graves for children and adolescents point to ascribed and perhaps even inherited status.

The existence of hierarchical relations is more difficult to infer from this material but is at least a plausible option. But there is no sign of durable inequalities. Increases in complexity and status differentiation appear to have been temporary in nature.

Egalitarianism need not be a stable category: social behavior could vary depending on changing circumstances or even recurring seasonal pressures. And although earliest coastal adaptations, cradles of social evolution in which access to maritime food resources such as shellfish encouraged territoriality and more effective leadership, may reach back as far as 100,000 years, there is-at least as yet-no related evidence of emergent hierarchy and consumption disparities. For all we can tell, social or economic inequality in the Paleolithic remained sporadic and transient. p.32

Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow, however, have argued against the view that human history is a linear progression from less to more inequality, which tracks perfectly with the scale of societies. Instead, they argue, the Upper Paleolithic was a time of experimentation with different modes of subsistence, which led to experiments with different modes of living. They argue that even large, complex societies functioned much of the time with a flat, anarchistic structure, often varying at different times of the year. Furthermore, these varying modes persisted far after the agricultural revolution, which was not the “phase change” as often depicted by many historians. The earliest large cities such as Çatal Höyük were quite egalitarian, with no palaces or temples and equally-sized dwelling units. They note that in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, “cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen’s lives.”

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian…Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.

How to change the course of human history (Eurozine)

The Great Disequalization

As the Ice Age ended and the Holocene dawned, it became possible to ramp up food production, and no doubt inequality became more pronounced due to the surpluses in both food and material goods. The New Stone Age (Neolithic) is characterized by stone tools designed for food processing such as saddle querns, and buildings expressly built for food storage such as granaries (which predate domestication). Early societies still seem to have gotten much of their meat from seasonal hunts, though.

Pretty much all scholars agree that significant equality began with two crucial conditions in place: consistent and reliable surpluses and a sedentary habitation pattern. Both of these factors interplayed with and promoted each other:

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 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 formerly 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. p.33 (Emphasis mine)

However, neither surpluses nor sedentism were confined to just societies that relied upon domestication or food production as previously thought. In particular ecological niches such as fishing and riverine cultures of North America, signs of sedentism and hereditary inequality have been found, despite the absence of domestication. In some superabundant natural environments, sedentism could be practiced even without food and animal domestication, because certain foodstuffs—such as smoked meat and tree nuts—could be processed and stored for long periods of time. Anthropologists call these delayed return (or complex) hunter-gatherers.

However, domestication of plants and animals was not an indispensable prerequisite. Under certain conditions, foragers were also able to exploit undomesticated natural resources in an analogous fashion. Territoriality, hierarchy, and inequality could arise where fishing was feasible or particularly productive only in certain locations. This phenomenon, which is known as maritime or riverine adaptation, is well documented in the ethnographic record.

From about 500 CE, pressure on fish stocks as a result of population growth along the West Coast of North America from Alaska to California encouraged foraging populations to establish control over highly localized salmon streams. This was sometimes accompanied by a shift from mostly uniform dwellings to stratified societies that featured large houses for chiefly families, clients and slaves.

From about 400 to 900 CE, the site of Keatley Creek in British Columbia housed a community of a few hundred members near the Fraser River that capitalized on the local salmon runs. Judging from the archaeological remains, salmon consumption declined around 800, and mammalian meat took its place. At this time, signs of in equality appear in the record.

A large share of the fish bone recovered from the pits of the largest houses comes from mature chinook and sockeye salmon, a prize catch rich in fat and calories. Prestige items such as rare types of stone are found there. Two of the smallest houses, by contrast, contained bones of only younger and less nutritious fish. As in many other societies at this level of complexity, Inequality was both celebrated and mitigated by ceremonial redistribution: roasting pits that were large enough to prepare food for sizable crowds suggest chat the rich and powerful organized feasts for the community.

A thousand years later, potlatch rituals in which leaders competed among themselves through displays of generosity were a common feature across the Pacific Northwest. Similar changes cook place at the Bridge River site in the same area: from about 800, as the owners of large buildings began to accumulate prestige goods and abandoned communal food preparation outdoors, poorer residents attached themselves to these households, and inequality became institutionalized. p. 33-34 (Emphasis mine)

These cultures may have existed as far back as Cro-Magnon Europe, as Richard Manning notes in Against the Grain:

Sedentism…requires proximity to water. Particular groups of hunter-gatherers became skilled fishermen and settled in stable communities near river mouths. Their dependence on migratory fish such as the salmon was particularly pronounced, then and to the present.

Salmon show up in Cro-Magnon paintings—and their skeletons in Cro-Magnon sites—throughout Europe. Cro-Magnon peoples stayed in one place and had enough leisure time to paint, and they painted salmon because salmon were important to them. The rise of art much later among Northwest American Indians is unique among North American hunter-gatherers, suggesting something parallel in the two salmon cultures—a correlation between salmon, sedentism, and art. Fishing a migratory species allows all this. You simply stay put at streamside and the salmon come. Throughout the world, sites along rivers, seas, estuaries, and lakes show layers of shellfish and fish bones below (and thus older than) layers containing evidence of agriculture. These early sedentary people did not have to wander seeking game; currents, the habits of their prey, and the enormous productivity of marine systems like estuaries brought the prey to them.

Agriculture did not arise from need so much as it did from relative abundance. People stayed put, had the leisure to experiment with plants, lived in coastal zones where floods gave them the model of and denziens of disturbance, built up permanent settlements that increasingly created disturbance, and were able to support a higher birthrate because of sedentism.
pp. 30- 31 (Emphasis mine)

It’s interesting to note that the Shigir Idol, found in Siberia and over twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, has been compared to the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest. As one of the archaeologists remarked of the idol‘We can say that in those times, 11,000 years ago, the hunters, fishermen and gatherers of the Urals were no less developed than the farmers of the Middle East.’ However, because this civilization built from perishable materials and had no writing, we cannot say for sure what levels of inequality or complexity it possessed.

In addition to fish, harvesting tree nuts and seeds also contributed to ancient sedentism during the Ice Age, as Brain Fagan notes:

More work to process food–some nuts, such as certain acorns, contain high levels of tannins, which have to be leached out by boiling or soaking, while other compounds make certain grasses and nuts either mildly toxic and less digestible, again requiring endless processing. Parching, grinding, or boiling starchy plant foods required great investments of labor daily before they could be eaten or stored. Such activities tied bands down to one location for longer periods of time…storage in a pit or aboveground means that food can be rationed out through the lean months, but at the price of drastically reduced mobility. Brain Fagan, The Long Summer pp. 70-71

Because these foods took considerable time to harvest and prepare, more work == more wealth. A connection between work and wealth was established. Households became differentiated. Hunter-gatherers were dependent upon nature’s bounty and could not easily increase the food supply. Processed foods, by contrast, could be expanded and stored. A shift to a wider variety of food sources than just big game—plant-foods particularly—has been called the broad spectrum revolution, and was encouraged by a milder, more predictable climate along with the extinctions of megafauna such as aurochs, bison, elk, wild horses, and especially mammoths and mastodons.

In addition, population growth meant that for the first time resources became scarce, so some sort of rationing method was called for. Into that void stepped the Triple-A aggrandizers:

As scarcity transitioned to plenty…aggrandizers were freed to pursue their goals. Their selfish behavior was no longer grounds for excommunication, because everyone was able to get enough to eat—if they were willing to work. Slowly, through a variety of strategies such as bride prices and competitive feasts, aggrandizers consolidated their power. They developed new sorts of relationships based on debt and obligation. Eventually these strategies led to establishment of private property rights over valuable resources, such as the fishing rocks in the Fraser Canyon.

Seeing Fairness Evolve (Pacific Standard)

Once there was something to defend, violence increased because you needed to defend it from others. Investments in fields, granaries, irrigation ditches and so forth, led to investments in walls, forts and weapons to defend them. This brought forth the need for military and managerial elites.

Two basic theories about the establishment of hereditary inequality are common: managerial (functional) and military (conflict) theories. Managerial elites are exemplified by redistributive chiefs and priests who store and distribute surpluses among geographically dispersed populations by fiat.

In groups dispersed over diverse ecosystems with specialized labor and different modes of subsistence, managerial elites ensure the wide distribution of differentiated resources which are not available in all areas, knitting people together in complex relationship webs, often using religion. These elites draw upon their social networks to do this, often using rare ‘prestige goods’ to signify their status and forming long-distance trade networks. Such societies practice two different kinds of feasts: differentiated (which excluded commoners and enforced elite solidarity) and redistributive/communal (which mobilized labor and reinforced overall group solidarity).

…a relatively benign process lay behind the simple class structure—that the wealthier and more powerful attained their rank because they provided valuable services that benefited the community at large. For instance, they might have been adept at organizing the fishing and preservation process to create a bigger salmon pie for everyone in the community. Since everyone’s share is bigger, the community would not begrudge the benefactor a slightly larger slice. Also, the high-status benefactors presumably would come to the aid of the community in times of need—to share their surplus as well as their managerial talents to get everyone through the hard times.

Two paths To Inequality (Pacific Standard)

Functionalist theories (called so because they assume that complex societies arose to fulfill some important function) explain evolution of the state as a solution to organizational and redistributive problems. For example, in an influential book, The Evolution of Human Societies: from Foraging Group to Agrarian State, Allen Johnson and Tim Earle argue that complex societies arise (1) to reduce production risks, (2) to manage resource competition, (3) to allocate resources efficiently and to make capital investments, and (4) to conduct interregional trade. Conflict enters their theory as a relatively unimportant factor, under (2) resource competition.

Evolution of the Egyptian State: the ‘Managerial Model’ (Cliodynamica)

The other model presupposes warfare and conflict. Those best able to organize and lead troops in battle become the new elites. These military warlords became perforce the ruling power. Note that that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. I suspect that warfare became more important with the Bronze Age and horse domestication.

Kings (and Queens) of the Stone Age

Scheidel cites what scholars have found to be the three most crucial determinants of inequality:

    • Ownership rights in land and livestock
    • The ability to transmit wealth from one generation to the next.
    • The transmissibility of material wealth.

Let’s take a look at those one at a time. Different types of wealth are more or less important in various societies. To determine this, researchers divided wealth into three broad categories:

  • Embodied (body strength and reproductive success)
  • Relational (partnerships in labor and trade)
  • Material (household goods, land and livestock)

What they found was that among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, embodied endowments were the most important for status, while material goods were the least important. This condition was reversed among herders and farmers: material wealth was the most important, embodied wealth the least:

Physical constraints on embodied wealth are relatively stringent, especially for body size and somewhat less so for strength, hunting returns, and reproductive success. Relational wealth, though more flexible, was also more unevenly distributed among farmers and pastoralists, and measures of inequality in land and livestock in these two groups reached higher levels than those for utensils or boat shares among foragers and horticulturalists. p.37

Transmissibility of wealth was also crucial. Material wealth is much simpler to pass down than either embodied wealth or relational wealth. In farming and herding societies, the degree of intergenerational wealth transmission was twice as high as foraging and horticultural societies, because the prime material assets were more suitable for transmissivity than the assets of foragers and horticulturalists. Social mobility–that is, moving from one quintile to another in the status hierarchy–was correspondingly lower in farming and herding societies than in foraging ones. In other words, it was much easier to pass down achieved status to your lineal descendants in societies with a lot of transmissible wealth, such as fields and herds, especially if the culture recognized some form of private property rights.

It’s important to note that transmissible wealth was primarily passed down within families, and not to specific individuals. Individual property rights and private contracts came much, much later, and is in fact a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, ancient laws did not even acknowledge the existence of such a creature as the ‘individual’, nor did it permit contracts to valid between lone individuals, only between corporate kinship groups such as families. This was the conclusion of Henry Sumner Maine in his magisterial review of ancient legal codes:

Ancient Law, it must again be repeated, knows next to nothing of Individuals. It is concerned not with Individuals, but with Families, not with single human beings, but groups. Even when the law of the State has succeeded in permeating the small circles of kindred into which it had originally no means of penetrating, the view it takes of Individuals is curiously different from that taken by jurisprudence in its maturest stage. The life of each citizen is not regarded as limited by birth and death; it is but a continuation of the existence of his forefathers, and it will be prolonged in the existence of his descendants. p.152

Scheidel concludes:

According to this analysis, inequality and its persistence over time has been the result of a combination of three factors: the relative importance of different classes of assets, how suitable they are for passing on to others, and actual rates of transmission. Thus groups in which material wealth plays a minor role and does not readily lend itself to transmission and in which inheritance is discouraged are bound to experience lower levels of overall inequality than groups in which material wealth is the dominant asset class, is highly transmissible, and is permitted to be left to the next generation. In the long run, transmissibility is critical: if wealth is passed on between generations, random shocks related to health, parity, and returns on capital and labor that create inequality will be preserved and accumulate over time instead of allowing distributional outcomes to regress to the mean.

In keeping with the observations made in the aforementioned survey of Native American societies, the empirical findings derived from this sample of twenty-one small-scale societies likewise suggest that domestication is not a sufficient precondition for significant disequalization. Reliance on defensible natural resources appears to be a more critical factor, because these can generally be bequeathed to the next generation. The same is true of investments such as plowing, terracing, and irrigation.

The heritability of such productive assets and their improvements fosters inequality in two ways: by enabling it to increase over time and by reducing intergenerational variance and mobility. A much broader survey of more than a thousand societies at different levels of development confirms the central role of transmission. According to this global data set, about a third of simple forager societies have inheritance rules for movable property, but only one in twelve recognizes the transmission of real estate. By contrast, almost all societies that practice intensive forms of agriculture are equipped with rules that cover both. Complex foragers and horticulturalists occupy an intermediate position. Inheritance presupposes the existence of property rights. pp. 38-39 (Emphasis mine)

One speculation is that the idea of private property is the very reason why farming was maintained over foraging, despite all of its apparent disadvantages in both health and nutrition over foraging:

…The first farmers emerged in less than a dozen spots in Asia and South America…they were already living in small villages. They owned their houses and other objects, like jewelry, boats and a range of tools, including fishing gear.

They still hunted and foraged, but they didn’t have to venture far for food: They had picked fertile places to settle down, and so food was abundant. For example, one group in what is present-day Iraq lived close to a gazelle migration route. During migration season, it was easy pickings — they killed more animals than they could eat in one sitting. They also harvested more grain from wild plants than they knew what to do with. And so, they built “pantries” — structures where they could store the extra food.

These societies had seen the value of owning stuff — they were already recognizing “private property rights,” says [Samuel] Bowles [the director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico]. That’s a big transition from nomadic cultures, which by and large don’t recognize individual property. All resources, even in modern day hunter-gatherers, are shared with everyone in the community.

But the good times didn’t last forever in these prehistoric villages. In some places, the weather changed for the worse. In other places, the animals either changed their migratory route or dwindled in numbers.

At this point, Bowles says these communities had a choice: They could either return to a nomadic lifestyle, or stay put in the villages they had built and “use their knowledge of seeds and how they grow, and the possibility of domesticating animals.”

Stay put, they did. And over time, they also grew in numbers. Why? Because the early farmers had one advantage over their nomadic cousins: Raising kids is much less work when one isn’t constantly on the move. And so, they could and did have more children.

In other words, Bowles thinks early cultures that recognized private property gave people a reason to plant roots in one place and invent farming — and stick with it despite its initial failures.

Bowles admits that this is just an informed theory. But to test it, he and his colleague Jung-Kyoo Choi built a mathematical model that simulated social and environmental conditions among early hunter-gatherers. In this simulation, farming evolved only in groups that recognized private property rights. What’s more, in the simulations, once farming met private property, the two reinforced each other and spread through the world.

Bowles’ theory offers a more nuanced explanation that ties together cultural, environmental and technological realities facing those first farmers, says Ian Kuijt, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in the origins of agriculture. But, he says, the challenge is to figure out who owned the property back then and how they ran it. “Was it owned by one individual?” Kuijt says. “Was it a mother and father and their children? … Does it represent community or village property?”

Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like To Own Stuff (NPR)

If this speculation is valid, the very concept of private property is what caused sedentary societies to form in the first place. Most likely those people that remained in such societies were okay with this idea, and the ones that weren’t took off. The ones that remained, although shorter and sicker, produced more offspring, so we are predominantly the descendants of the greedy materialists who remained. No doubt this caused changes to the social order, and possibly genetic changes as well.

Eventually, pantries became attached to specific households instead of being publicly available, indicating that some households were prospering more than others. Specialized resources–such as fishing rocks in Keatley Creek or arable farmland–became the property of certain privileged families, possibly due to their connection with a shared ancestor or a special ability to communicate with the gods and ancestors. Burials also become more elaborate at this time, indicating the emergence of elite individuals. Even before the emergence of protostates in places like China and Mesopotamia, children are buried with signs of inherited rank, such as cylinder seals, indicating transmissibility of status. Some of these may have been priests. Very commonly ancestors are buried under the floors of houses, such as in ancient China and Mesoamerica, indicating a hereditary ownership claim to certain plots of land passed down through generations.

Early elites tended to emphasize their descent from a particularity renowned ancestor, or even a spirit, and the leaders from this favored clan became the paramount leaders of the tribe. Their claims were based on appeals to the supernatural, a concept which does not exist in any other animal besides humans. This is the thesis of The Creation of Inequality by anthropologists James Flannery and Carol Marcus:

The Creation of Inequality [moves] more or less progressively from history’s relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Caribou and Netsilik Eskimos and the !Kung of southern Africa, to the multi-level administrative empires of the Aztec and Inca. Along the way, [authors] Flannery and Marcus dedicate lengthy sections to discussion of the various “clues” which reveal how the “social logic” of more equal societies, manifested in practices such as meat-sharing partnerships, gift-exchange, and prestige-based, non-hereditary leadership (i.e., Melanesian “big men”), gave way to the logic of inequality in societies with—among other things—taxes, bureaucracies, separate burial practices for nobles and commoners, and, importantly, hereditary formal power. Key to their analysis is their conception of the unique role of the “sacred” in human societies.

Looking to chimps, who compete and assemble themselves hierarchically into alphas, betas and gammas, Flannery and Marcus observe that even outwardly egalitarian hunter-gatherers preserve hierarchy by making their supernatural beings the alphas, their ancestors the betas, and themselves the undifferentiated gammas. Moving toward institutionalized social inequality has thus often involved certain gammas’ claiming power legitimated by special—and often hereditary—relationships to these sacred alphas and betas. Clearly, European kings were not the only ones who invoked the divine right to rule.

Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2014, Volume XLI, Number 1, pp. 161-162 (PDF)

Interestingly, many human cultures have arranged themselves into a tripartite hierarchy of nobility, priests and commoners. Sometimes a warrior or a merchant/farming caste is included as well. Examples range from Ancien Régime France just prior to the Revolution to the caste systems of India until British rule (Brahmins, Kshatrys, Vasyas). Indeed, the very word ‘hierarchy’ comes from ‘hiero-‘ meaning sacred and ‘archos’ meaning ruler (as in anarchy, patriarchy, etc.).

…The combination of surplus extraction from defensible resources and personal or familial property claims to these resources that included the right to transfer them to descendants or other kin laid the foundation for growing socioeconomic stratification. New forms of political and military power contributed to and amplified the resultant inequalities in income and wealth.

Much like the shift to food domestication, the evolution of political hierarchies was a slow and gradual process and was highly contingent on ecological conditions, technological progress, and demographic growth. In the long run, the overall direction of change was from the small family-level groups of a few dozen people that were typical of simple forager economies to local groups and collectives whose members typically numbered in the hundreds and on to larger chiefdoms or protostates that controlled thousands or even tens of thousands. This was not always a linear progression, and not all environments supported more complex forms of social organization.

As a result, complex state-level societies based on agriculture eventually came to share the planet with bands, tribes, and chiefdoms of herders, horticulturalists, and what remained of the ancestral population of hunter-gatherers. This diversity has been vital to our understanding of the driving forces behind the emergence of inequality, allowing us to compare the characteristics of different modes of subsistence and their consequences for the accumulation, transmission, and concentration of wealth as already summarized. p. 41 (Emphasis mine)

The documented range of variation in sociopolitical organization around the world has been similarly broad, making it possible to relate inequalities of power and status to inequalities in wealth. From a global perspective, agriculture is closely correlated with social and political stratification. In a sample of more than a thousand communities, more than three-quarters of simple foraging communities do not display signs of social stratification, as opposed to fewer than a third of those practicing intensive forms of farming.

Political hierarchies are even more strongly dependent on sedentary agriculture: elites and class structure are virtually unknown among simple foragers but are attested for the majority of agrarian societies. Once again, however, it was the scale of the economic surplus rather than the mode of subsistence as such that served as the critical variable. p. 42 (Emphasis mine)

Indeed, James C. Scott estimates that up to 60 percent of humans lived outside of state-level societies until as late as 1600 CE. Today, I would estimate that number is probably under 2 percent, despite the human population exceeding seven billion.

With the advent of protostates came hereditary rank—high priests, kings, potentates, generals, taxes, bureaucrats and so forth. We’ll take a look at those new forms of hierarchy stemming from differential access to political and military power—and how they contributed to the next stage of inequality—the emergence of “The Original One Percent”—next time.