Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century is, in all the ways that matter, a very big book. Its scope is nothing less than the entire arc of human civilization, from its prehistory in the hierarchies of bonobos and other primates, to the emergence of agriculture and the first states, to the great wars of the 20th century.
Scheidel’s subject is material inequality, its development over time, and the ways in which it can be effectively countered. It is this last part that most concerns him, and his findings will give anyone interested in the dynamics of inequality—or, for that matter, anyone interested in the long-term viability of stable liberal democracies—plenty to think about. Given its aims, the book’s length—a mere 500 pages!—seems modest in comparison.
If anyone is well situated to produce a study of such breadth, it’s probably Scheidel, a classicist currently serving as Dickason Professor in the Humanities at Stanford, with appointments in Classics and History and a fellowship in Human Biology. He weaves economic and historical data together with insights from evolutionary biology, literature, and sociology to address the link he sees between material inequality and civilization.
His account begins with the “Great Disequalization,” the process through which relatively egalitarian foraging societies slowly shifted to organizing around agriculture and herding, thereby opening the door to previously unknown levels of inequality. Scheidel here fleshes out a story told most memorably by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the second half of the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755) but most recently by James Scott in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017): Ownership in land and livestock allows for property-transmission across generations, thereby exacerbating inequality. Material wealth increases as property rights and trade develop; and an organized elite emerges, eager to consolidate its position through a variety of extractive methods—including early attempts at state-building.
Despite locating this disequalization far in our civilizational past, however, Scheidel finds that the process itself appears altogether stable. He writes that “intensive economic growth, commercialization, and urbanization” (alongside “appropriation of land by affluent capital owners and elite enrichment sustained by fiscal extraction and other state activities”) have “boosted inequality” since the days of the Sumerians.
The possibility that inequality will breed more inequality—that, absent a calamity like the Second World War, the rich will get inexorably richer—emerged, with considerable fanfare, in a book that Thomas Piketty published to wide acclaim in 2013, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty argued that as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth (as long as r > g ), inequality under capitalism will grow steadily and relentlessly. For Piketty and Scheidel, stable markets mean more inequality; for both, the wanton destruction of wealth undertaken in the First and Second World Wars represented a leveling event of singular power.
But whereas Piketty hoped that a variety of state interventions (including, most notably, a globalized tax on capital) might chasten and even control runaway inequality, Scheidel is considerably more pessimistic. According to our author, the only force that has consistently equalized fortunes is, as his title suggests, that “great leveler”—mass violence.
He divides it up into four categories, what he calls, in an allusion that structures the narrative to good effect, “The Four Horsemen of Leveling.” The conflicts of 1914-1919 and 1939-1945 are the perfect example of the first horseman, which is “mass mobilization warfare.” Scheidel walks us through thousands of years of wars and their outcomes, arguing that only certain kinds end up producing much of a leveling effect. Wars of plunder—seemingly, most wars would fall into this category—only exacerbate inequality by opening up new avenues for extraction by elites. Civil wars, particularly those in which one set of elites triumphs over another, have similar though more ambiguous effects on inequality. Only in the aftermath of unusually destructive civil wars—in the American South after 1865, for example—or the aftermath of total war does Scheidel find significant leveling. “Whenever the war effort permeated all of society,” he writes, “capital assets lost value, and the rich were made to pay a fair share.”
The second horseman is “transformative revolution.” Here again, Scheidel emphasizes that only revolutions of a certain character demonstrate real leveling effects—only those upheavals we might call “total revolutions.” Such events—Scheidel’s main case study is the communist revolutions of the 20th century—acquire a unique leveling power through an unholy combination of radical ideology and sheer capacity to murder. As levelers, the Bolsheviks outperformed the Jacobins. The former’s ideology was more easily disseminated and contained more radically egalitarian elements, and they had at their disposal methods and instruments of destruction simply unavailable to preindustrial revolutionaries. Yet even among the blood-soaked revolutionaries, Scheidel argues, the victory over inequality is short-lived. Once market mechanisms are again allowed to operate, inequality comes roaring back. “One thing is certain,” he warns, “whatever [communism] so bloodily bought in terms of greater material equality is now well and truly gone.”
The other two horsemen are state failure and pandemic. Surveying the history of systemic state failure from the 9th century Tang dynasty collapse, to the fall of Western Rome, to 20th century Somalia, Scheidel documents the leveling effects of societal disintegration. As with the other horsemen, this leveling results primarily from the downward tumble of elites. Because states serve to protect land and other capital, on the one hand, and to open and maintain other means of top-down wealth-extraction, on the other, the collapse of a state hits elites particularly hard.
Finally, plague, the last of the horsemen. Scheidel devotes a chapter to the Black Death, the cataclysm that struck Europe in the 14th century. As historians have long noted—but as economists, demographers, and others have more recently begun to flesh out—the unimaginable death toll yielded a perverse Malthusian windfall for the working classes, who gained considerably from the drop in labor supply. As one 14th century chronicler put it, “such a shortage of labourers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent for triple wages.” The author finds similar leveling effects resulting from similar plagues, famines, and the like, but again the equalization is short-lived; once the disaster passes, order returns, and markets swing back into gear, at which point inequality rapidly returns.
The abiding connection between equalization and violence—and that between stability, trade, and inequality—should come as no surprise to students of political thought. Thomas Hobbes famously describes our “natural condition” as a state of near-total equality, characterized not by anything so egalitarian as equal moral worth, but rather by equal destructive capacity. “The weakest,” Hobbes tells us, “has strength enough to kill the strongest,” through some combination of “secret machination” and “confederacy with others.” It is precisely this equality that renders the natural state so inhospitable; even the simplest of us will recognize that creating inequality of power is necessary for safety, stability, and “commodious living.”
Nearly a century and a half later, Edmund Burke would develop a similar account to make sense of French revolutionary leveling. Civilization and inequality are not merely intertwined; they are, in some sense, identical. The primal, equalizing force of revolutionary violence strikes at the roots of both. Yet even Burke worried incessantly about the wealth, influence, and power that had already begun to flow to globalized capital and the “moneyed” interest; as he demonstrated over the course of his decade-long pursuit of William Hastings, violence and great inequality often go together, too.
Scheidel is forthcoming about the limits of his study. His focus here is on material inequality—as his reliance on Gini coefficients throughout makes clear—so comparatively less space is devoted to the social and political means available to those wishing to attenuate inequality. While policies like land reform, education, and debt relief are considered in the last few sections, the takeaway is altogether pessimistic: Since the state so often develops as a means for elites to extract rents and other resources from their subjects, any attempts to develop effective leveling policies would seem to be playing a rigged game.
The Great Leveler manages to say something profound about inequality while resisting a different kind of epidemic, namely the widespread tendency to moralize. That we live in an increasingly globalized commercial society characterized by astonishing levels of inequality seems utterly clear. That this inequality will, absent some world-historical external shock, persist and continue to grow, is Scheidel’s prediction. Whether such inequality is morally objectionable, and whether it might in fact hasten the arrival of one of the Four Horsemen—these questions Scheidel leaves largely undisturbed. Anyone interested in these murkier issues, however, will be able to see and think far more clearly for his efforts.