The largest American private fortune currently equals about 1 million times the average annual household income.
The “Four Horsemen” of leveling, mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues, have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich.
Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these four levelers.
There is no repertoire of benign means of inequality compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.
Environments that were free from major violent shocks and their broader repercussions hardly ever witnessed major compressions of inequality.
Will the future be different?
I wrote this book to show that the forces that used to shape inequality have not in fact changed beyond recognition. If we seek to rebalance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past. We need to ask whether great inequality has ever been alleviated without great violence, how more benign influences compare to the power of this Great Leveler, and whether the future is likely to be very different, even if we may not like the answers.
Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that it never dies peacefully. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling, mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues, have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich.
Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future. An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent, and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.
THE CHALLENGE OF INEQUALITY
”A DANGEROUS AND GROWING INEQUALITY”
How many billionaires does it take to match the net worth of half of the world’s population? In 2015, the richest sixty-two persons on the planet owned as much private net wealth as the poorer half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people. If they decided to go on a field trip together, they would comfortably fit into a large coach. The previous year, eighty-five billionaires were needed to clear that threshold, calling perhaps for a more commodious double-decker bus. And not so long ago, in 2010, no fewer 388 of them had to pool their resources to offset the assets of the global other half, a turnout that would have required a small convoy of vehicles or filled up a typical Boeing 777 or Airbus A340.
But inequaIity is not created just by multibillionaires. The richest 1 percent of the world’s households now hold a little more than half of global private net wealth. Inclusion of the assets that some of them conceal in offshore accounts would skew the distribution even further. These disparities are not simply caused by the huge differences in average income between advanced and developing economies. Similar imbalances exist within societies. The wealthiest twenty Americans currently own as much as the bottom half of their country’s households taken together, and the top 1 percent of incomes account for about a fifth of the national total.
Inequality has been growing in much of the world. In recent decades, income and wealth have become more unevenly distributed in Europe and North America, in the former Soviet bloc, and in China, India, and elsewhere. And to the one who has, more will be given: in the United States, the best-earning 1 percent of the top 1 percent (those in the highest 0.01 percent income bracket) raised their share to almost six times what it had been in the 1970s even as the top tenth of that group (the top 0.1 percent) quadrupled it. The remainder averaged gains of about three-quarters, nothing to frown at, but a far cry from the advances in higher tiers.
The “1 percent” may be a convenient moniker that smoothly rolls off the tongue, and one that I repeatedly use in this book, but it also serves to obscure the degree of wealth concentration in even fewer hands. In the 1850s, Nathaniel Parker Willis coined the term “Upper Ten Thousand” to describe New York high society. We may now be in need of a variant, the “Upper Ten Thousandth,” to do justice to those who contribute the most to widening inequality. And even within this rarefied group, those at the very top continue to outdistance all others. The largest American fortune currently equals about 1 million times the average annual household income, a multiple twenty times larger than it was in 1982. Even so, the United States may be losing out to China, now said to be home to an even larger number of dollar billionaires despite its considerably smaller nominal GDP.
All this has been greeted with growing anxiety. In 2013, President Barack Obama elevated rising inequality to a “defining challenge”:
“And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain-that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.”
Two years earlier, multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett had complained that he and his “mega-rich friends” did not pay enough taxes. These sentiments are widely shared. Within eighteen months of its publication in 2013, a 700-page academic tome on capitalist inequality had sold 1.5 million copies and risen to the top of the New York Times nonfiction hardcover bestseller list.
In the Democratic Party primaries for the 2016 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders’s relentless denunciation of the “billionaire class” roused large crowds and elicited millions of small donations from grassroots supporters. Even the leadership of the People’s Republic of China has publicly acknowledged the issue by endorsing a report on how to “reform the system of income distribution.” Any lingering doubts are dispelled by Google, one of the great money-spinning disequalizers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, which allows us to track the growing prominence of income inequality in the public consciousness (Fiq. 1.1).
Figure 1.1 Top 1 percent income share in the United States (per year) and references to “income inequality” (three-year moving averages), 1970-2008.
So have the rich simply kept getting richer? Not quite. For all the much-maligned rapacity of the “billionaire class” or, more broadly, the “1 percent,” American top income shares only very recently caught up with those reached back in 1929, and assets are less heavily concentrated now than they were then. In England on the eve of the First World War, the richest tenth of households held a staggering 92 percent of all private wealth, crowding out pretty much everybody else; today their share is a little more than half.
High inequality has an extremely long pedigree. Two thousand years ago, the largest Roman private fortunes equaled about 1.5 million times the average annual per capita income in the empire, roughly the same ratio as for Bill Gates and the average American today. For all we can tell, even the overall degree of Roman income inequality was not very different from that in the United States. Yet by the time of Pope Gregory the Great, around 600 CE, great estates had disappeared, and what little was left of the Roman aristocracy relied on papal handouts to keep them afloat. Sometimes, as on that occasion, inequality declined because although many became poorer, the rich simply had more to lose. In other cases, workers became better off while returns on capital fell: western Europe after the Black Death, where real wages doubled or tripled and laborers dined on meat and beer while landlords struggled to keep up appearances, is a famous example.
How has the distribution of income and wealth developed over time, and why has it sometimes changed so much? Considering the enormous amount of attention that inequality has received in recent years, we still know much less about this than might be expected. A large and steadily growing body of often highly technical scholarship attends to the most pressing question: why income has frequently become more concentrated over the course of the last generation. Less has been written about the forces that caused inequality to fall across much of the world earlier in the twentieth century, and far less still about the distribution of material resources in the more distant past.
To be sure, concerns about growing income gaps in the world today have given momentum to the study of inequality in the longer run, just as contemporary climate change has encouraged analysis of pertinent historical data. But we still lack a proper sense of the big picture, a global survey that covers the broad sweep of observable history. A crosscultural, comparative, and long-term perspective is essential for our understanding of the mechanisms that have shaped the distribution of income and wealth.
THE FOUR HORSEMEN
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.
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. Domestication of food sources also domesticated people. The formation of states as a highly competitive form of organization established steep hierarchies of power and coercive force that skewed access to income and wealth. Political inequality reinforced and amplified economic inequality. For most of the agrarian period, the state enriched the few at the expense of the many: gains from pay and benefactions for public service often paled next to those from corruption, extortion, and plunder. As a result, many premodern societies grew to be as unequal as they could possibly be, probing the limits of surplus appropriation by small elites under conditions of low per capita output and minimal growth. And when more benign institutions promoted more vigorous economic development, most notably in the emergent West, they continued to sustain high inequality. Urbanization, commercialization, financial sector innovation, trade on an increasingly global scale, and, finally, industrialization generated rich returns for holders of capital. As rents from the naked exercise of power declined, choking off a traditional source of elite enrichment, more secure property rights and state commitments strengthened the protection of hereditary private wealth. Even as economic structures, social norms, and political systems changed, income and wealth inequality remained high or found new ways to grow.
For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality. 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.
Just like their biblical counterparts, they went forth to “take peace from the earth” and “kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one another, 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 havenots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.
Only specific types of violence have consistently forced down inequality. Most wars did not have any systematic effect on the distribution of resources: although archaic forms of conflict that thrived on conquest and plunder were likely to enrich victorious elites and impoverish those on the losing side, less clearcut endings failed to have predictable consequences. For war to level disparities in income and wealth, it needed to penetrate society as a whole, to mobilize people and resources on a scale that was often only feasible in modern nation-states. This explains why the two world wars were among the greatest levelers in history. The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe out elites’ wealth and redistribute resources.
They also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing policy change, providing powerful impetus to franchise extensions, unionization, and the expansion of the welfare state. The shocks of the world wars led to what is known as the “Great Compression,” massive attenuation of inequalities in income and wealth across developed countries. Mostly concentrated in the period from 1914 to 1945, it generally took several more decades fully to run its course.
Earlier mass mobilization warfare had lacked similar pervasive repercussions. The wars of the Napoleonic era or the American Civil War had produced mixed distributional outcomes, and the farther we go back in time, the less pertinent evidence there is. The ancient Greek city-state culture, represented by Athens and Sparta, arguably provides us with earliest examples of how intense popular military mobilization and egalitarian institutions helped constrain material inequality, albeit with mixed success.
The world wars spawned the second major leveling force, transformative revolution. Internal conflicts have not normally reduced inequality: peasant revolts and urban risings were common in premodern history but usually failed, and civil war in developing countries tends to render the income distribution more unequal rather than less. Violent societal restructuring needs to be exceptionally intense if it is to reconfigure access to material resources. Similarly to equalizing mass mobilization warfare, this was primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Communists who expropriated, redistributed, and then often collectivized leveled inequality on a dramatic scale. The most transformative of these revolutions were accompanied by extraordinary violence, in the end matching the world wars in terms of body count and human misery. Far less bloody ruptures such as the French Revolution leveled on a correspondingly smaller scale.
Violence might destroy states altogether. State failure or systems collapse used to be a particularly reliable means of leveling. For most of history, the rich were positioned either at or near the top of the political power hierarchy or were connected to those who were. Moreover, states provided a measure of protection, however modest by modern standards, for economic activity beyond the subsistence level. When states unraveled, these positions, connections, and protections came under pressure or were altogether lost. Although everybody might suffer when states unraveled, the rich simply had much more to lose: declining or collapsing elite income and wealth compressed the overall distribution of resources. This has happened for as long as there have been states. The earliest known examples reach back 4,000 years to the end of Old Kingdom Egypt and the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia. Even today, the experience of Somalia suggests that this once potent equalizing force has not completely disappeared.
State failure takes the principle of leveling by violent means to its logical extremes: instead of achieving redistribution and rebalancing by reforming and restructuring existing polities, it wipes the slate clean in a more comprehensive manner. The first three horsemen represent different stages, not in the sense that they are likely to appear in sequence, whereas the biggest revolutions were triggered by the biggest wars, state collapse does not normally require similarly strong pressures, but in terms of intensity. What they all have in common is that they rely on violence to remake the distribution of income and wealth alongside the political and social order.
Human-caused violence has long had competition. In the past, plague, smallpox, and measles ravaged whole continents more forcefully than even the largest armies or most fervent revolutionaries could hope to do. In agrarian societies, the loss of a sizeable share of the population to microbes, sometimes a third or even more, made labor scarce and raised its price relative to that of fixed assets and other nonhuman capital, which generally remained intact. As a result, workers gained and landlords and employers lost as real wages rose and rents fell. Institutions mediated the scale of these shifts: elites commonly attempted to preserve existing arrangements through fiat and force but often failed to hold equalizing market forces in check.
Pandemics complete the quartet of horsemen of violent leveling. But were there also other, more peaceful mechanisms of lowering inequality? If we think of leveling on a large scale, the answer must be no. Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these four levelers. Moreover, mass wars and revolutions did not merely act on those societies that were directly involved in these events: the world wars and exposure to communist challengers also influenced economic conditions, social expectations, and policymaking among bystanders. These ripple effects further broadened the effects of leveling rooted in violent conflict. This makes it difficult to disentangle developments after 1945 in much of the world from the preceding shocks and their continuing reverberations. Although falling income inequality in Latin America in the early 2000s might be the most promising candidate for nonviolent equalization, this trend has remained relatively modest in scope, and its sustainability is uncertain.
Other factors have a mixed record. From antiquity to the present, land reform has tended to reduce inequality most when associated with violence or the threat of violence, and least when not. Macroeconomic crises have only short-lived effects on the distribution of income and wealth. Democracy does not of itself mitigate inequality. Although the interplay of education and technological change undoubtedly influences dispersion of incomes, returns on education and skills have historically proven highly sensitive to violent shocks.
Finally, there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.
Yet shocks abate. When states failed, others sooner or later took their place. Demographic contractions were reversed after plagues subsided, and renewed population growth gradually returned the balance of labor and capital to previous levels. The world wars were relatively short, and their aftereffects have faded over time: top tax rates and union density are down, globalization is up, communism is gone, the Cold War is over, and the risk of World War III has receded. All of this makes the recent resurgence of inequality easier to understand. The traditional violent levelers currently lie dormant and are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. No similarly potent alternative mechanisms of equalization have emerged.
Even in the most progressive advanced economies, redistribution and education are already unable fully to absorb the pressure of widening income inequality before taxes and transfers. Lower-hanging fruits beckon in developing countries, but fiscal constraints remain strong. There does not seem to be an easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality. From a global historical perspective, this should not come as a surprise. So far as we can tell, environments that were free from major violent shocks and their broader repercussions hardly ever witnessed major compressions of inequality. Will the future be different?
WHAT THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT
Disparities in the distribution of income and wealth are not the only type of inequality of social or historical relevance: so are inequalities that are rooted in gender and sexual orientation; in race and ethnicity; and in age, ability, and beliefs, and so are inequalities of education, health, political voice, and life chances. The title of this book is therefore not as precise as it could be. Then again, a subtitle such as “violent shocks and the global history of income and wealth inequality from the Stone Age to the present and beyond” would not only have stretched the publisher’s patience but would also have been needlessly exclusive. After all, power inequalities have always played a central role in determining access to material resources: a more detailed title would be at once more precise and too narrow.
I do not endeavor to cover all aspects even of economic inequality. I focus on the distribution of material resources within societies, leaving aside questions of economic inequality between countries, an important and much-discussed topic. I consider conditions within particular societies without explicit reference to the many other sources of inequality just mentioned, factors whose influence on the distribution of income and wealth would be hard, if not impossible, to track and compare in the very long run. I am primarily interested in answering the question of why inequality fell, in identifying the mechanisms of leveling. Very broadly speaking, after our species had embraced domesticated food production and its common corollaries, sedentism and state formation, and had acknowledged some form of hereditary property rights, upward pressure on material inequality effectively became a given, fundamental feature of human social existence. Consideration of the finer points of how these pressures evolved over the course of centuries and millennia, especially the complex synergies between what we might crudely label coercion and market forces, would require a separate study of even greater length.
Finally, I discuss violent shocks (alongside alternative mechanisms) and their effects on material inequality but do not generally explore the inverse relationship, the question of whether, and if so, how-inequality helped generate these violent shocks. There are several reasons for my reluctance. Because high levels of inequality were a common feature of historical societies, it is not easy to explain specific shocks with reference to that contextual condition. Internal stability varied widely among contemporaneous societies having comparable levels of material inequality. Some societies that underwent violent ruptures were not particularly unequal: prerevolutionary China is one example.
Certain shocks were largely or entirely exogenous, most notably pandemics that leveled inequality by altering the balance of capital and labor. Even human-caused events such as the world wars profoundly affected societies that were not directly involved in these conflicts. Studies of the role of income inequality in precipitating civil war highlight the complexity of this relationship. None of this should be taken to suggest that domestic resource inequality did not have the potential to contribute to the outbreak of wars and revolutions or to state failure. It simply means that there is currently no compelling reason to assume a systematic causal connection between overall income and wealth inequality and the occurrence of violent shocks. As recent work has shown, analysis of more specific features that have a distributional dimension, such as competition within elite groups, may hold greater promise in accounting for violent conflict and breakdown.
For the purposes of this study, I treat violent shocks as discrete phenomena that act on material inequality. This approach is designed to evaluate the significance of such shocks as forces of leveling in the very long term, regardless of whether there is enough evidence to establish or deny a meaningful connection between these events and prior inequality. If my exclusive focus on one causal arrow, from shocks to inequality, encourages further engagement with the reverse, so much the better. It may never be feasible to produce a plausible account that fully endogenizes observable change in the distribution of income and wealth over time. Even so, possible feedback loops between inequality and violent shocks are certainly worth exploring in greater depth. My study can be no more than a building block for this larger project.
HOW IS IT DONE?
There are many ways of measuring inequality. In the following chapters, I generally use only the two most basic metrics, the Gini coefficient and percentage shares of total income or wealth. The Gini coefficient measures the extent to which the distribution of income or material assets deviates from perfect equality. If each member of a given population receives or holds exactly the same amount of resources, the Gini coefficient is 0; if one member controls everything and everybody else has nothing, it approximates 1. Thus the more unequal the distribution, the higher the Gini value. It can be expressed as a fraction of 1 or as a percentage; I prefer the former so as to distinguish it more clearly from income or wealth shares, which are generally given as percentages. Shares tell us which proportion of the total income or wealth in a given population is received or owned by a particular group that is defined by its position within the overall distribution. For example, the much-cited “1 percent” represent those units, often households, of a given population that enjoy higher incomes or dispose of greater assets than 99 percent of its units. Gini coefficients and income shares are complementary measures that emphasize different properties of a given distribution: whereas the former compute the overall degree of inequality, the latter provide much-needed insight into the shape of the distribution.
Both indices can be used for measuring the distribution of different versions of the income distribution. Income prior to taxes and public transfers is known as “market” income, income after transfers is called “gross” income, and income net of all taxes and transfers is defined as “disposable” income. In the following, I refer only to market and disposable income. Whenever I use the term income inequality without further specification, I mean the former. For most of recorded history, market income inequality is the only type that can be known or estimated. Moreover, prior to the creation of extensive systems of fiscal redistribution in the modern West, differences in the distribution of market, gross, and disposable income were generally very small, much as in many developing countries today. In this book, income shares are invariably based on the distribution of market income. Both contemporary and historical data on income share, especiaily those at the very top of the distribution, are usually derived from tax records that refer to income prior to fiscal intervention. On a few occasions, I also refer to ratios between shares or particular percentiles of the income distribution, an alternative measure of the relative weight of different brackets. More sophisticated indices of inequality exist but cannot normally be applied to long-term studies that range across highly diverse data sets.
The measurement of material inequality raises two kinds of problems: conceptual and evidential. Two major conceptual issues merit attention here. First, most available indices measure and express relative inequality based on the share of total resources captured by particular segments of the population. Absolute inequality, by contrast, focuses on the difference in the amount of resources that accrue to these segments. These two approaches tend to produce very different results. Consider a population in which the average household in the top decile of income distribution earns ten times as much as an average household in the bottom decile, say, $100,000 versus $10,000. National income subsequently doubles while the distribution of income remains unchanged. The Gini coefficient and income shares remain the same as before. From this perspective, incomes have gone up without raising inequality in the process. Yet at the same time, the income gap between the top and bottom deciles has doubled, from $90,000 to $180,000, ensuring much greater gains for affluent than for low-income households. The same principle applies to the distribution of wealth. In fact, there is hardly any credible scenario in which economic growth will fail to cause absolute inequality to rise. Metrics of relative inequality can therefore be said to be more conservative in outlook as they serve to deflect attention from persistently growing income and wealth gaps in favor of smaller and multidirectional changes in the distribution of material resources. In this book, I follow convention in prioritizing standard measures of relative inequality such as the Gini coefficient and top income shares but draw attention to their limitations where appropriate.
A different problem stems from the Gini coefficient of income distribution’s sensitivity to subsistence requirements and to levels of economic development. At least in theory, it is perfectly possible for a single person to own all the wealth that exists in a given population. However, nobody completely deprived of income would be able to survive. This means that the highest feasible Gini values for income are bound to fall short of the nominal ceiling of 1. More specifically, they are limited by the amount of resources in excess of those needed to meet minimum subsistence requirements. This constraint is particularly powerful in the low-income economies that were typical of most of human history and that still exist in parts of the world today. For instance, in a society having a GDP equivalent to twice minimal subsistence, the Gini coefficient could not rise above 0.5 even if a single individual somehow managed to monopolize all income beyond what everybody else needed for bare survival. At higher levels of output, the maximum degree of inequality is further held in check by changing definitions of what constitutes minimum subsistence and by largely impoverished populations’ inability to sustain advanced economies. Nominal Gini coefficients need to be adjusted accordingly to calculate what has been called the extraction rate, the extent to which the maximum amount of inequality that is theoretically possible in a given environment has been actualized. This is a complex issue that is particularly salient to any comparisons of inequality in the very long run but that has only very recently begun to attract attention. I address it in more detail in the appendix at the end of this book.
This brings me to the second category: problems related to the quality of the evidence. The Gini coefficient and top income shares are broadly congruent measures of inequality: they generally (though not invariably) move in the same direction as they change over time. Both are sensitive to the shortcomings of the underlying data sources. Modern Gini coefficients are usually derived from household surveys from which putative national distributions are extrapolated. This format is not particularly suitable for capturing the very largest incomes. Even in Western countries, nominal Ginis need to be adjusted upward to take full account of the actual contribution of top incomes. In many developing countries, moreover, surveys are often of insufficient quality to support reliable national estimates. In such cases, wide confidence intervals not only impede comparison between countries but also can make it hard to track change over time.
Attempts to measure the overall distribution of wealth face even greater challenges, not only in developing countries, where a sizeable share of elite assets is thought to be concealed offshore, but even in data-rich environments such as the United States. Income shares are usually computed from tax records, whose quality and characteristics vary greatly across countries and over time and that are vulnerable to distortions motivated by tax evasion. Low participation rates in lower-income countries and politically driven definitions of what constitutes taxable income introduce additional complexities. Despite these difficulties, the compilation and online publication of a growing amount of information on top income shares in the “World Wealth and Income Database” has put our understanding of income inequality on a more solid footing and redirected attention from somewhat opaque single-value metrics such as the Gini coefficient to more articulated indices of resource concentration.
All these problems pale in comparison to those we encounter once we seek to extend the study of income and wealth inequality farther back in time. Regular income taxes rarely predate the twentieth century. In the absence of household surveys, we have to rely on proxy data to calculate Gini coefficients. Prior to about 1800, income inequality across entire societies can be estimated only with the help of social tables, rough approximations of the incomes obtained by different parts of the population that were drawn up by contemporary observers or inferred, however tenuously, by later scholars. More rewarding, a growing number of data sets that in parts of Europe reach back to the High Middle Ages have shed light on conditions in individual cities or regions. Surviving archival records of wealth taxes in French and Italian cities, taxes on housing rental values in the Netherlands, and income taxes in Portugal allow us to reconstruct the underlying distribution of assets and sometimes even incomes. So do early modern records of the dispersion of agricultural land in France and of the value of probate estates in England. In fact, Gini coefficients can fruitfully be applied to evidence that is much more remote in time. Patterns of landownership in late Roman Egypt; variation in the size of houses in ancient and early medieval Greece, Britain, Italy, and North Africa and in Aztec Mexico; the distribution of inheritance shares and dowries in Babylonian society; and even the dispersion of stone tools in Catal HéyUk, one of the earliest known proto-urban settlements in the world, established almost 10,000 years ago, have all been analyzed in this manner. Archaeology has enabled us to push back the boundaries of the study of material inequality into the Paleolithic at the time of the last Ice Age.
We also have access to a whole range of proxy data that do not directly document distributions but that are nevertheless known to be sensitive to changes in the level of income inequality. The ratio of land rents to wages is a good example. In predominantly agrarian societies, changes in the price of labor relative to the value of the most important type of capital tend to reflect changes in the relative gains that accrued to different classes: a rising index value suggests that landlords prospered at the expense of workers, causing inequality to grow. The same is true of a related measure, the ratio of mean per capita GDP to wages. The larger the nonlabor share in GDP, the higher the index, and the more unequal incomes were likely to be. To be sure, both methods have serious weaknesses. Rents and wages may be reliably reported for particular locales but need not be representative of larger populations or entire countries, and GDP guesstimates for any premodern society inevitably entail considerable margins of error. Nevertheless, such proxies are generally capable of giving us a sense of the contours of inequality trends over time. ReaI incomes represent a more widely available but somewhat less instructive proxy. In western Eurasia, real wages, expressed in grain equivalent, have now been traced back as far as 4,000 years. This very long-term perspective makes it possible to identify instances of unusually elevated real incomes for workers, a phenomenon plausibly associated with lowered inequality. Even so, information on real wages that cannot be contextualized with reference to capital values or GDP remains a very crude and not particularly reliable indicator of overall income inequality.
Recent years have witnessed considerable advances in the study of premodern tax records and the reconstruction of real wages, rent/wage ratios, and even GDP levels. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of this book could not have been written twenty or even ten years ago. The scale, scope, and pace of progress in the study of historical income and wealth inequality gives us much hope for the future of this field. There is no denying that long stretches of human history do not admit even the most rudimentary quantitative analysis of the distribution of material resources. Yet even in these cases we may be able to identify signals of change over time. Elite displays of wealth are the most promising, and, indeed, often the only, marker of inequality. When archaeological evidence of lavish elite consumption in housing, diet, or burials gives way to more modest remains or signs of stratification fade altogether, we may reasonably infer a degree of equalization.
In traditional societies, members of the wealth and power elites were often the only ones who controlled enough income or assets to suffer large losses, losses that are visible in the material record. Variation in human stature and other physiological features can likewise be associated with the distribution of resources, although other factors, such as pathogen loads, also played an important role. The more we move away from data that document inequality in a more immediate manner, the more conjectural our readings are bound to become. Yet global history is simply impossible unless we are prepared to stretch. This book is an attempt to do just that.
In so doing we face an enormous gradient in documentation, from detailed statistics concerning the factors behind the recent rise in American income inequality to vague hints at resource imbalances at the dawn of civilization, with a wide array of diverse data sets in between. To join all this together in a reasonably coherent analytical narrative presents us with a formidable challenge: in no small measure, this is the true challenge of inequality invoked in the title of this introduction. I have chosen to structure each part of this book in what seems to me the best way to address this problem. The opening part follows the evolution of inequality from our primate beginnings to the early twentieth century and is thus organized in conventional chronological fashion (chapters 1-3).
This changes once we turn to the Four Horsemen, the principal drivers of violent leveling. In the parts devoted to the first two members of this quartet, war and revolution, my survey starts in the twentieth century and subsequently moves back in time. There is a simple reason for this. Leveling by means of mass mobilization warfare and transformative revolution has primarily been a feature of modernity. The “Great Compression” of the 1910s to 1940s not only produced by far the best evidence of this process but also represents and indeed constitutes it in paradigmatic form (chapters 4-5).
In a second step, I look for antecedents of these violent ruptures, moving from the American Civil War all the way back to the experience of ancient China, Rome, and Greece, as well as from the French Revolution to the countless revolts of the premodern era (chapters 6 and 8). I follow the same trajectory in my discussion of civil war in the final part of chapter 6, from the consequences of such conflicts in contemporary developing countries to the end of the Roman Republic. This approach allows me to establish models of violent leveling that are solidly grounded in modern data before I explore whether they can also be applied to the more distant past.
In Part V, on plagues, I employ a modified version of the same strategy by moving from the best documented case-the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages (chapter 10), to progressively less well known examples, one of which (the Americas after 1492) happens to be somewhat more recent whereas the others are located in more ancient times (chapter 11). The rationale is the same: to establish the key mechanisms of violent leveling brought about by epidemic mass mortality with the help of the best available evidence before I search for analogous occurrences elsewhere.
Part IV, on state failure and systems collapse, takes this organizing principle to its logical conclusion. Chronology matters little in analyzing phenomena that were largely confined to premodern history, and there is nothing to be gained from following any particular time sequence. The dates of particular cases matter less than the nature of the evidence and the scope of modern scholarship, both of which vary considerably across space and time. I thus begin with a couple of well-attested examples before I move on to others that I discuss in less detail (chapter 9).
Part VI, on alternatives to violent leveling, is for the most part arranged by topic as I evaluate different factors (chapters 12-13) before I turn to counterfactual outcomes (chapter 14). The final part, which together with Part I frames my thematic survey, returns to a chronological format. Moving from the recent resurgence in inequality (chapter 15) to the prospects of leveling in the near and more distant future (chapter 16), it completes my evolutionary overview.
A study that brings together Hideki Tojo’s Japan and the Athens of Pericles or the Classic Lowland Maya and present-day Somalia may seem puzzling to some of my fellow historians, although less so, I hope, to readers from the social sciences. As I said, the challenge of exploring the global history of inequality is a serious one. If we want to identify forces of leveling across recorded history, we need to find ways to bridge the divide between different areas of specialization both within and beyond academic disciplines and to overcome huge disparities in the quality and quantity of the data. A long-term perspective calls for unorthodox solutions.
DOES IT MATTER?
All this raises a simple question. If it is so difficult to study the dynamics of inequality across very different cultures and in the very long run, why should we even try? Any answer to this question needs to address two separate but related issues, does economic inequality matter today, and why is its history worth exploring? Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, best known for his earlier disquisition On Bullshit, opens his booklet On Inequality by disagreeing with Obama’s assessment quoted at the beginning of this introduction: “our most fundamental challenge is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, the fact that too many of our peopIe are poor.” Poverty, to be sure, is a moving target: someone who counts as poor in the United States need not seem so in central Africa. Sometimes poverty is even defined as a function of inequality, in the United Kingdom, the official poverty line is set as a fraction of median income, although absolute standards are more common, such as the threshold of $1.25 in 2005 prices used by the World Bank or reference to the cost of a basket of consumer goods in America.
Nobody would disagree that poverty, however defined, is undesirable: the challenge lies in demonstrating that income and wealth inequality as such has negative effects on our lives, rather than the poverty or the great fortunes with which it may be associated.
The most hard-nosed approach concentrates on inequality’s effect on economic growth. Economists have repeatedly noted that it can be hard to evaluate this relationship and that the theoretical complexity of the problem has not always been matched by the empirical specification of existing research. Even so, a number of studies argue that higher levels of inequality are indeed associated with lower rates of growth. For instance, lower disposable income inequality has been found to lead not only to faster growth but also to longer growth phases. Inequality appears to be particularly harmful to growth in developed economies. There is even some support for the much-debated thesis that high levels of inequality among American households contributed to the credit bubble that helped trigger the Great Recession of 2008, as lower-income households drew on readily available credit (in part produced by wealth accumulation at the top) to borrow for the sake of keeping up the with consumption patterns of more affluent groups. Under more restrictive conditions of lending, by contrast, wealth inequality is thought to disadvantage low-income groups by blocking their access to credit.
Among developed countries, higher inequality is associated with less economic mobility across generations. Because parental income and wealth are strong indicators of educational attainment as well as earnings, inequality tends to perpetuate itself over time, and all the more so the higher it is. The disequalizing consequences of residential segregation by income are a related issue. In metropolitan areas in the United States since the 1970s, population growth in high and low income areas alongside shrinking middle-income areas has led to increasing polarization. Affluent neighborhoods in particular have become more isolated, a development likely to precipitate concentration of resources, including locally funded public services, which in turns affects the life chances of children and impedes intergenerational mobility.
In developing countries, at least certain kinds of income inequality increase the likelihood of internal conflict and civil war. High-income societies contend with less extreme consequences. In the United States, inequality has been said to act on the political process by making it easier for the wealthy to exert influence, although in this case we may wonder whether it is the presence of very large fortunes rather than inequality per se that accounts for this phenomenon. Some studies find that high levels of inequality are correlated with lower levels of self-reported happiness. Only health appears to be unaffected by the distribution of resources as such, as opposed to income levels: whereas health differences generate income inequality, the reverse remains unproven.
What all these studies have in common is that they focus on the practical consequences of material inequality, on instrumental reasons for why it might be deemed a problem. A different set of objections to a skewed distribution of resources is grounded in normative ethics and notions of social justice, a perspective well beyond the scope of my study but deserving of greater attention in a debate that is all too often dominated by economic concerns. Yet even on the more limited basis of purely instrumental reasoning there is no doubt that at least in certain contexts, high levels of inequality and growing disparities in income and wealth are detrimental to social and economic development.
But what constitutes a “high” level, and how do we know whether “growing” imbalances are a novel feature of contemporary society or merely bring us closer to historically common conditions? Is there, to use Francois Bourguignon’s term, a “normal” level of inequality to which countries that are experiencing widening inequality should aspire to return? And if, as in many developed economies, inequality is higher now than it was a few decades ago but is lower than a century ago, what does this mean for our understanding of the determinants of the distribution of income and wealth?
Inequality either grew or held fairly steady for much of recorded history, and significant reductions have been rare. Yet policy proposals designed to stem or reverse the rising tide of inequality tend to show little awareness or appreciation of this historical background. Is that as it should be? Perhaps our age has become so fundamentally different, so completely untethered from its agrarian and undemocratic foundations, that history has nothing left to teach us. And indeed, there is no question that much has changed: low-income groups in rich economies are generally better off than most people were in the past, and even the most disadvantaged residents of the least developed countries live longer than their ancestors lived. The experience of life at the receiving end of inequality is in many ways very different from what it used to be.
But it is not economic or more broadly human development that concerns us here, rather how the fruits of civilization are distributed, what causes them to be distributed the way they are, and what it would take to change these outcomes. I wrote this book to show that the forces that used to shape inequality have not in fact changed beyond recognition. If we seek to rebalance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past. We need to ask whether great inequality has ever been alleviated without great violence, how more benign influences compare to the power of this Great Leveler, and whether the future is likely to be very different, even if we may not like the answers.
A brief history of inequality
THE RISE OF INEQUALITY
Has inequality always been with us? Our closest nonhuman relatives in the world today, the African great apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, are intensely hierarchical creatures. Adult gorilla males divide into a dominant few endowed with harems of females and many others having no consorts at all. Silverbacks dominate not only the females in their groups but also any males who stay on after reaching maturity. Chimpanzees, especially but not only males, expend tremendous energy on status rivalry. Bullying and aggressive dominance displays are matched by a wide range of submission behaviors by those on 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 for ways to improve it. And there is no escape: because males who leave their group to avoid overbearing dominants run the risk of being killed by males in other groups, they tend to stay put and compete or submit. Echoing the phenomenon of social circumscription that has been invoked to explain the creation of hierarchy among humans, this powerful constraint serves to shore up inequality.
Their closest relatives, the bonobos, may present a gentler image to the world but likewise feature alpha males and females. Considerably less violent and intent on bullying than chimpanzees, they nevertheless maintain clear hierarchical rankings. Although concealed ovulation and the lack of systematic domination of females by males reduce violent conflict over mating opportunities, hierarchy manifests in feeding competition among males.
Across these species, inequality is expressed in unequal access to food sources, the closest approximation of 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.
It is unlikely that these shared characteristics evolved only after these three species had branched off from the ancestral line, a process that commenced about 11 million years ago with the emergence of gorillas and that continued 3 million years later with the split of the common ancestor of chimpanzees and bonobos from the earliest forerunners of what were to evolve into australopiths and, eventually, humans. Even so, marked social expressions of inequality may not always have been common among primates. Hierarchy is a function of group living, and our more distant primate relatives, who branched off earlier, are now less social and live either on their own or in very small or transient groups. This is true both of gibbons, whose ancestors split from those of the great apes some 22 million years ago, and of the orangutans, the first of the great apes to undergo speciation about 17 million years ago and now confined to Asia. Conversely, hierarchical sociality is typical of the African genera of this taxonomic family, including our own. This suggests that the most recent common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans already displayed some version of this trait, whereas more distant precursors need not have done.
Analogy to other primate species may be a poor guide to inequality among earlier hominids and humans. The best proxy evidence we have is skeletal data on sexual size dimorphism, the extent to which mature members of one sex, in this case, males, are taller, heavier, and stronger than those of the other. Among gorillas, as among sea lions, intense inequality among males with and without harems as well as between males and females is associated with a high degree of male-biased size dimorphism. Judging from the fossil record, prehuman hominids, australopiths and paranthropi, reaching back more than 4 million years, appear to have been more dimorphic than humans. If the orthodox position, which has recently come under growing pressure, can be upheld, some of the earliest species, Australopithecus afarensis and anamensis, which emerged 3 to 4 million years ago, were defined by a male body mass advantage of more than 50 percent, whereas later species occupied an intermediate position between them and humans. With the advent of larger-brained Homo erectus more than 2 million years ago, sexual size dimorphism had already declined to the relatively modest amount we still observe today. Insofar as the degree of dimorphism was correlated with the prevalence of agonistic male-on-male competition for females or shaped by female sexual selection, reduced sex differences may be a sign of lesser reproductive variance among males. On this reading, evolution attenuated inequality both among males and between the sexes. Even so, higher rates of reproductive inequality for men than for women have persisted alongside moderate levels of reproductive polygyny.
Other developments that may have begun as long as 2 million years ago are also thought to have fostered greater equality. Changes in the brain and in physiology that promoted cooperative breeding and feeding would have countered aggression by dominants and would have softened hierarchies in larger groups. Innovations in the application of violence may have contributed to this process. Anything that helped subalterns resist dominants would have curtailed the powers of the latter and thus diminished overall inequality. Coalition-building among lower-status men was one means to this end, use of projectile weapons another. Fights at close quarters, whether with hands and teeth or with sticks and rocks, favored stronger and more aggressive men. Weapons began to play an equalizing role after they could be deployed over a greater distance.
Some 2 million years ago, anatomical changes in the shoulder made it possible for the first time to throw stones and other objects in an effective manner, a skill unavailable to earlier species and to nonhuman primates today. This adaptation not only improved hunting abilities but also made it easier for gammas to challenge alphas. The manufacturing of spears was the next step, and enhancements such as fire-hardened tips and, later, stone tips followed. Controlled use of fire dates back perhaps 800,000 years, and heat treatment technology is at least 160,000 years old. The appearance of darts or arrow tips made of stone, first attested about 70,000 years ago in South Africa, was merely the latest phase in a drawn-out process of projectile weapons development. No matter how primitive they may seem to modern observers, such tools privileged skill over size, strength, and aggressiveness and encouraged first strikes and ambushes as well as cooperation among weaker individuals. The evolution of cognitive skills was a vital complement necessary for more accurate throwing, improved weapons design, and more reliable coalition building. Full language capabilities, which would have facilitated more elaborate alliances and reinforced notions of morality, may date back as few as 100,000 or as many as 300,000 years. Much of the chronology of these social changes remains unclear: they may have been strung out over the better part of the last 2 million years or may have been more concentrated among anatomically modern humans, our own species of Homo sapiens, which arose in Africa at least 200,000 years ago.
What matters most in the present context is the cumulative outcome, the improved ability of lower-status individuals to confront alpha males in ways that are not feasible among nonhuman primates. When dominants became embedded in groups whose members were armed with projectiles and capable of balancing their influence by forming coalitions, overt dominance through brute force and intimidation was no longer a viable option. If this conjecture, for this is all it can be, is correct, then violence and, more specifically, novel strategies of organizing and threatening violent action, played an important and perhaps even critical role in the first great leveling in human history. By that time, human biological and social evolution had given rise to an egalitarian equilibrium. Groups were not yet large enough, productive capabilities not yet differentiated enough, and intergroup conflict and territoriality not yet developed enough to make submission to the few seem the least bad option for the many. Whereas animalian forms of domination and hierarchy had been eroded, they had not yet been replaced by new forms of inequality based on domestication, property, and war. That world has been largely but not completely lost. Defined by low levels of resource inequality and a strong egalitarian ethos, the few remaining foraging populations in the world today give us a sense, however limited, of what the dynamics of equality in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic may have looked like.
Powerful logistical and infrastructural constraints help contain inequality among hunter-gatherers. A nomadic lifestyle that does not feature pack animals severely limits the accumulation of material possessions, and the small size and fluid and flexible composition of foraging groups are not conducive to stable asymmetric relationships beyond basic power disparities of age and gender. Moreover, forager egalitarianism is predicated on the deliberate rejection of attempts to dominate. This attitude serves as a crucial check to the natural human propensity to form hierarchies: active equalization is employed to maintain a level playing field. 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 chances 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.
Among the Hadza, a group of a few hundred huntergatherers in Tanzania, camp members forage individually and strongly prefer their own households in distributing the acquired food. At the same time, food sharing beyond one’s own household is expected and common, especially when resources can readily be spotted by others. Hadza may try to conceal honey because it is easier to hide, but if found out, they are compelled to share. Scrounging is tolerated and widespread. Thus even though individuals clearly prefer to keep more for themselves and their immediate kin, norms interfere: sharing is common because the absence of domination makes sharing hard to resist. Large perishable items such as big game may even be shared beyond the camp group. Saving is not valued, to the extent that available resources tend to be consumed without delay and not even shared with people who happen to be absent at that moment. As a result, the Hadza have only minimal private possessions: jewelry, clothes, a digging stick, and sometimes a cooking pot for women and a bow and arrows, clothes and jewelry, and perhaps a few tools for men. Many of these goods are not particularly durable, and owners do not form strong attachments to them. Property beyond these basic items does not exist, and territory is not defended. The lack or dispersion of authority makes it hard to arrive at group decisions, let alone enforce them. In all these respects, the Hadza are quite representative of extant foraging groups more generally.
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. This must not be taken to suggest that foragers practice some form of communism: consumption is not equalized, and individuals differ not just in terms of their somatic endowments but also with respect to their access to support networks and material resources. As I show in the next section, forager inequality is not nonexistent but merely very low compared to inequality in societies that rely on other modes of subsistence.
We also need to allow for the possibility that contemporary hunter-gatherers may differ in important ways from our pre-agrarian ancestors. Surviving forager groups are utterly marginalized and confined to areas that are beyond the reach of, or of little interest to, farmers and herders, environments that are well suited to a lifestyle that eschews the accumulation of material resources and firm claims to territory. Prior to the domestication of plants and animals for food production, foragers were much more widely spread out across the globe and had access to more abundant natural resources. In some cases, moreover, contemporary foraging groups may respond to a dominant world of more hierarchical farmers and pastoralists, defining themselves in contradistinction to outside norms. Remaining foragers are not timeless or “living fossils,” and their practices need to be understood within specific historical contexts.
For this reason, prehistoric populations need not always have been as egalitarian as the experience of contemporary hunter-gatherers might suggest. Observable material inequalities in burial contexts that date from before the onset of the Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago, are rare but do exist. The most famous example of unearned status and inequality comes from Sungir, a Pleistocene site 120 miles north of Moscow whose remains date from about 30,000 to 34,000 years ago, a time corresponding to a relatively mild phase of the last Ice Age. It contains the remains of a group of hunters and foragers who killed and consumed large mammals such as bison, horse, reindeer, antelope, and especially mammoth alongside wolf, fox, brown bear, and cave lion.
Three human burials stand out. One features an adult man who was buried with some 3,000 beads made of mammoth ivory that had probably been sewn onto his fur clothing as well as around twenty pendants and twenty-five mammoth ivory rings. A separate grave was the final resting place of a girl of about ten years and a roughly twelve-year-old boy. Both children’s clothing was adorned with an even larger number of ivory beads, about 10,000 overall, and their grave goods included a wide range of prestige items such as spears made of straightened mammoth tusk and various art objects.
Massive effort must have been expended on these deposits: modern scholars have 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 a belt and headgear in the children’s grave, and considering the difficulty of extracting them intact, the actual number may well have been higher. Although a substantial spell of relative sedentism would have given the members of this group enough spare time to accomplish all this, the question remains why they would have wished to do so in the first place. These three persons do not appear to have been buried with everyday clothing and objects. That the beads for the children were smaller than those for the man implies that these beads had been manufactured specifically for the children, whether in life or, more likely, just for their burial. For reasons unknown to us, these individuals were considered special. Yet the two children were too young to have earned their privileged treatment: perhaps they owed it to family ties to someone who mattered more than others. The presence of possibly fatal injuries in both the man and the boy and of femoral shortening that would have disabled the girl in life merely add to the mystery.
Although the splendor of the Sungir burials has so far remained without parallel in the Paleolithic record, other rich graves have been found farther west. In Dolni Véstovice in Moravia, at roughly the same time, three individuals were buried with intricate headgear and resting on ocher-stained ground. Later examples are somewhat more numerous. The cave of Arene Candide on the Ligurian coast housed a deep pit grave for a lavishly adorned adolescent male put to rest on a bed of red ocher about 28,000 or 29,000 years ago. Hundreds of perforated shells and deer canines found around his head would originally have been attached to some organic headgear. Pendants made of mammoth ivory, four batons made of elk antlers, and an exceptionally long blade made of exotic flint that had been placed in his right hand added to the assemblage.
A young woman buried in Saint-Germaine-la-Riviere some 16,000 years ago bore ornaments of shell and teeth: the latter, about seventy perforated red deer canines, must have been imported from 200 miles away. About 10,000 years ago, in the early Holocene but in a foraging context, a three-year-old child was laid to rest with 1,500 shell beads at the La Madeleine rock shelter in the Dordogne.
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.
THE GREAT DISEQUALIZATION
Inequality took off only after the last Ice Age had come to an end and climatic conditions entered a period of unusual stability. The Holocene, the first interglacial warm period for more than 100,000 years, created an environment that was more favorable to economic and social development. As these improvements allowed humans to extract more energy and grow in numbers, they also laid the ground for an increasingly unequal distribution of power and material resources. This led to what I call the “Great Disequalization,” a transition to new modes of subsistence and new forms of social organization that eroded forager egalitarianism and replaced it with durable hierarchies and disparities in income and wealth.
For these developments to occur, there had to be productive assets that could be defended against encroachment and from which owners could draw a surplus in a predictable manner. Food production by means of farming and herding fulfills both requirements and came to be the principal driver of economic, social, and political change.
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.
Detailed case studies have drawn attention to the close connection between resource scarcity and the emergence of inequality. 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 inequality 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 that 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 took 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.
On other occasions, it was technological progress that precipitated disequalizing social and economic change. For thousands of years, the Chumash on the Californian coast, in what is now Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, had lived as egalitarian foragers who used simple boats and gathered acorns. Around 500 to 700, the introduction of large oceangoing plank canoes that could carry a dozen men and venture more than sixty miles out to sea allowed the Chumash to catch larger fish and to establish themselves as middlemen in the shell trade along the coast. They sold flint obtained from the Channel Islands to inland groups in exchange for acorns, nuts, and edible grasses. This generated a hierarchical order in which polygamous chiefs controlled canoes and access to territory, led their men in war, and presided over ritual ceremonies. In return, they received payments of food and shells from their followers.
In such environments, foraging societies could attain relatively high levels of complexity. As reliance on concentrated local resources grew, mobility declined, and occupational specialization, strictly defined ownership of assets, perimeter defense, and intense competition between neighboring groups that commonly involved the enslavement of captives fostered hierarchy and inequality.
Among foragers, adaptations of this kind were possible only in specific ecological niches and did not normally spread beyond them. Only the domestication of food resources had the potential to transform economic activity and social relations on a global scale: in its absence, stark inequalities might have remained confined to small pockets along coasts and rivers, surrounded by a whole world of more egalitarian foragers. But this was not to be.
A variety of edible plants began to be domesticated on different continents, first in Southwest Asia about 11,500 years ago, then in China and South America 10,000 years ago, in Mexico 9,000 years ago, in New Guinea more than 7,000 years ago, and in South Asia, Africa, and North America some 5,000 years ago. The domestication of animals, when it did occur, sometimes preceded and sometimes followed these innovations. The shift from foraging to farming could be a drawn-out process that did not always follow a linear trajectory.
This was especially true of the Natufian culture and its prepottery Neolithic successors in the Levant, the first to witness this transition. From about 14,500 years ago, warmer and wetter weather allowed regional forager groups to grow in size and to operate from more permanent settlements, hunting abundant game and collecting wild cereal grains in sufficient quantities to require at least small storage facilities. The material evidence is very limited but shows signs of what leading experts have called an “incipient social hierarchy.” Archaeologists have discovered one larger building that might have served communal uses and a few special basalt mortars that would have taken great effort to manufacture. According to one count, about 8 percent of the recovered skeletons from the Early Natufian period, about 14,500 to 12,800 years ago, wore seashells, sometimes brought in from hundreds of miles away, and decorations made of bone or teeth. At one site, three males were buried with shell headdresses, one of them fringed with shells four rows deep. Only a few graves contained stone tools and figurines. The presence of large roasting pits and hearths may point to redistributive feasts of the type held much later in the American Northwest.
Yet whatever degree of social stratification and inequality had developed under these benign environmental conditions faded during a cold phase from about 12,800 to 11,700 years ago known as the Younger Dryas, when the remaining foragers returned to a more mobile lifestyle as local resources dwindled or became less predictable. The return to climatic stability around 11,700 years ago coincided with the earliest evidence for the cultivation of wild crops such as einkorn, emmer, wheat, and barley. During what is known as the early PrePottery Neolithic (about 11,500 to 10,500 years ago), settlements expanded and food eventually came to be stored in individual households, a practice that points to changing concepts of ownership. That some exotic materials such as obsidian appeared for the first time may reflect a desire to express and shore up elevated status.
The later Pre-Pottery Neolithic (about 10,500 to 8,300 years ago) has yielded more specific information. About 9,000 years ago, the village of Cayonil in southeastern Turkey comprised different zones whose buildings and finds differed in size and quality. Larger and better-built structures feature unusual and exotic artifacts and tend to be located in close proximity to a plaza and a temple. Whereas only a small share of graves include obsidian, beads, or tools, three of the four richest in-house burials in Cayonij took place in houses next to the plaza.
All of this may be regarded as markers of elite standing. There can be no doubt that most of the inequality we observe in the following millennia was made possible by farming. But other paths existed. I have already mentioned aquatic adaptations that allowed substantial political and economic disparities to arise in the absence of food domestication. In other cases, the introduction of the domesticated horse as a conveyance could have disequalizing effects even in the absence of food production. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Comanche in the borderlands of the American Southwest formed a warrior culture that relied on horses of European origin to conduct warfare and raids over long distances. Buffalo and other wild mammals were their principal food source, complemented by gathered wild plants and maize obtained via trade or plunder. These arrangements supported high levels of inequality: captive boys were employed to tend to the horses of the rich, and the number of horses owned divided Comanche households rather sharply into the “rich” (tsaanaakatu), the “poor” (tahkapu), and the “very poor” (tubitsi tahkapu).
More generally, foraging, horticultural, and agricultural societies were not always systematically associated with different levels of inequality: some foraging groups could be more unequal than some farming communities. A survey of 258 Native American societies in North America suggests that the size of the surplus, not domestication as such, was the key determinant of levels of material inequality: whereas two-thirds of societies that had no or hardly any surplus did not manifest resource inequaIity, four in five of those that generated moderate or large surpluses did. This correlation is much stronger than between different modes of subsistence on the one hand and inequality on the other.
A collaborative study of twenty-one small-scale societies at different levels of development, huntergatherers, horticulturalists, herders, and farmers, and in different parts of the world identifies two crucial determinants of inequality: ownership rights in land and livestock and the ability to transmit wealth from one generation to the next.
Researchers looked at three different types of wealth: embodied (mostly body strength and reproductive success), relational (exemplified by partners in labor), and material (household goods, land, and livestock). In their sample, embodied endowments were the most important wealth category among foragers and horticulturalists, and material wealth was the least important one, whereas the opposite was true of herders and farmers. The relative weight of different wealth classes is an important factor mediating the overall degree of inequality. 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. The combination of diverse inequality constraints that apply to different types of wealth and the relative significance of particular types of wealth accounts for observed differences by mode of subsistence. Average composite wealth Gini coefficients were as low as 0.25 to 0.27 for hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists but were much higher for herders (0.42) and agriculturalists (0.48). For material wealth alone, the main divide appears to lie between foragers (0.36) and all others (0.51 to 0.57).
Transmissibility of wealth is another crucial variable. The degree of intergenerational wealth transmission was about twice as high for farmers and herders as for the others, and the material possessions available to them were much more suitable for transmission than were the assets of foragers and horticulturalists. These systematic differences exercise a strong influence on the inequality of life chances, measured in terms of the likelihood that a child of parents in the top composite wealth decile ends up in the same decile compared to that of a child of parents in the poorest decile. Defined in this way, intergenerational mobility was generally moderate: even among foragers and horticulturalists, offspring of the top decile were at least three times as likely to reproduce this standing as those of the bottom decile were to ascend to it.
For farmers, however, the odds were much better (about eleven times), and they were better still for herders (about twenty times). These discrepancies can be attributed to two factors. About half of this effect is explained by technology, which determines the relative importance and characteristics of different wealth types. Institutions governing the mode of wealth transmission account for the other half, as agrarian and pastoralist norms favor vertical transmission to kin.
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 toregress 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. We can only conjecture the circumstances of their creation: Samuel Bowles has argued that farming favored rights in property that were impractical or unfeasible for foragers because farm resources such as crops, buildings, and animals could easily be delimited and defended, prerequisites not shared by the dispersed natural resources on which foragers tend to rely. Exceptions such as aquatic adaptations and horse cultures are fully consistent with this explanation.
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The Great Leveler. Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
by Walter Scheidel
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