Maybe, after all, there is an argument for saying that the world needs more violence not less if we are to make its societies more equal. This is one conclusion we can derive from Walter Scheidel’s important book, “The Great Leveller”.
He starts from what we all know by now: the richest 62 persons in the world own as much net wealth as the poorer half of humanity. This is the number that could fit inside a London double-decker bus.
This inequality appears to get worse by the year, although if we go back to 1929 it was then about the same. Two thousand years ago in Roman times the richest had fortunes about 1.5 million times that of the average citizen, roughly the same ratio as Bill Gates and the average American.
Plato, writing in the fourth century BC, was vexed by the fact “there were not one but two states, the one of the poor, and the other of rich men”. Later Jesus took up similar themes, as the pope does today. There can be no justification in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism for concentrated personnel wealth and the continuous ill-being of the poor. Any member of these faiths who justifies their wealth is de facto an apostate.
Scheidel’s case is that nothing changes without a great shock. The Black Death was one. It wiped out so many laborers that landlords in order to attract workers had to raise wages quite substantially.
However, the historical evidence shows that wars are no great levellers except in specific circumstances. Until the time of the First World War fighting was geographically localized. It didn’t penetrate deep into society. On the other hand, World War 2, which involved much of British society, forced the hand of the wealthier classes and they had to go along with the social reforms, including universal health care, that a Labour government introduced as a “pay back” to the rank-and-file soldiers who had borne the brunt of the fighting.
The Communist-led land reform in China was also an exception. But Mao Zedong’s revolution was eventually overturned by Deng Xiaoping and the great levelling process ended. It had only come into being because of a deep-rooted revolution. It worked best when it was associated with violence or the threat of violence.
So what about non-violent movements? The only sure evidence of achieving levelling without violence is the path most of Latin America took in the early 2000s. But this was fairly modest in scope. Will it be sustained? In Brazil the legacy of President Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party was undermined by the right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro. In Mexico, however, a socialist president has pushed reform forward. And Lula recently regained office.
Today inequality is worsening. In the post-Cold War world we see that unions have been tamed in the US and UK, top tax rates have been raised in some countries and globalization is hurting ill-trained workers. The Cold War itself wasn’t a war that penetrated deep into our social institutions.
With the end of communism, Russia, China and Eastern Europe have all become much more unequal societies; in Russia and China, grossly so.
By and large the introduction of democracy on its own hasn’t produced more equal societies, whether it be in Eastern Europe or South Africa. Nevertheless, because it has encouraged economic growth it has helped improve the wages, education, health and welfare of the poorer classes.
Does it matter if the world has inequality? It does. Study after study, including those published by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have demonstrated that inequality holds back economic growth.
But what can be done? The era of mass mobilization is over. Very few of us want to see bloody revolutions and the likes of Robespierre, Mao or Guevara. As Thomas Piketty and Steven Pinker have proved in recent books the world is becoming a less violent place. The probability of death from violent causes has been declining for centuries. Ageing societies- Europe, Russia, Japan and China- are likely to become less violent as older people are less tolerant of it or less drawn to it as a political solution.
The answer to this question, writes Scheidel, is not much. In the future “It will be a challenge for the social democracies of continental Europe to maintain and adjust their elaborate systems of high taxation and extensive redistribution or for the richest democracies of Asia to preserve their unusually equitable allocation of pre-tax incomes to stem the rising tide of inequality, which can only grow stronger as globalization and unprecedented demographic transitions add to the pressure”.
Throughout history most attempts to improve income equality radically, using force, have only brought forth sorrow. If we begin to think a revolution is necessary we should be careful what we wish for. Yes, gradualist attempts can work- as Lula’s Brazil and the states of Bengal, Kerala and Bihar in India have shown. That is the way to go. But at the moment in large parts of the world it is going the wrong way.