Book Review

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel


I have a great love for History. It was my favourite subject at school and I studied it at both O-Level and A-Level. I went on to read History as an undergraduate and again at postgraduate level; I have been a teacher of (mostly) History for 25 years. I have no hesitation in recommending The Great Leveler; Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel. It is not an easy book to read but it is worth persevering with to get to the conclusions at the end.

I remember the excitement I felt reading Big History by Cynthia Stokes Brown back in 2007. Brown’s book is ambitiously subtitled “From the Big Bang to the Present” and she attempts to make sense of the whole of human history. In the past three years Yuval Noah Harari has written two excellent bestsellers, Sapiens and Homo Deus, in which he tries to examine the whole of human history and even to extrapolate into the future. I would put Scheidel’s book in the same category as Brown and Harari’s work – instead of dicing up the past into increasingly bizarre microhistories, these authors are trying to see all humanity and all history as one interconnected whole.

In education, this ‘big’ approach has not caught on I am sorry to say. In England, History has been squeezed out of the curriculum so much that most secondary school pupils only get “Henry and Hitler”; here in Australia, the focus is on the two world wars and every year we have the same dreary overkill about a sideshow battle in Turkey. Whilst History is supposedly popular with television viewers, most channels concentrate on sub-Agatha Christie garbage like Downton Abbey or “sexy” stuff like The Tudors or Versailles. The History Channel in Australia in filled with dross about conspiracy theories and ancient aliens. If that’s your type of History, Scheidel’s book is not for you.

The Great Leveler looks at how wealth and income has tended to be unequally distributed since Neolithic times. Such is the prevalence of inequality throughout human history, Scheidel suggests that this may be a natural consequence of how society, above a bare subsistence level, is organised.  Rather depressingly, he shows that only great disasters have reduced inequality; Scheidel refers to the Four Horsemen that have led a more equal distribution of income of wealth – war on a massive scale, violent revolution, state collapse and pandemic disease. No peaceful methods of redistributing wealth have ever had the impact of these types of violent disorder.

Such is the growing inequality of both wealth and income in our own times that I think Scheidel’s book is extremely timely. One key point he makes goes against the current neoliberal mantra that the superrich earn their vast incomes because of the wealth they help to create; this was also the gospel of the “trickle down” Thatcherite economics of my youth. Scheidel shows that it is the control of state mechanisms that has allowed the rich to extract more than their fair share of income throughout history. One particular quote shows that the apostles of neoliberal economics are going against their own doctrines…

“Between 1972 and 2012, American CEO compensation rose 876 percent in 2012 constant dollars, dramatically outstripping increases of 344 percent and 389 percent for the Standard & Poor and Dow Jones stock markets indices.”

This is classic rent-seeking behaviour – ie: taking a larger share of income than that which your contribution to an enterprise entitles you.

Scheidel says that none of his Four Horsemen are likely to return in the near future and that is probably a very good thing. However, I would suggest he is too pessimistic in his assessment that even very radical actions are unlikely to have a major effect on income and wealth inequalities. I would suggest that French presidential candidate Jean Luc Melenchon’s policy of a 100% tax on incomes over €400,000 is a good starting point. I would further suggest that the wealth hidden away in various tax havens should simply be confiscated in the same way that the ill-gotten gains of drugs traffickers are seized.





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