FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Making the World More Equal

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 one can derive from Walter Scheidel’s new book, The Great Leveler.

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.

Surprisingly, wars are no great levelers 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 Labor government introduced as a “pay back” to the rank and file soldiers who had born the brunt of the fighting.

Going back over the centuries, peasant revolts and civil wars contributed little to leveling. Neither did the French Revolution.

The Communist-led land reform in China was an exception. But Mao Zedong’s revolution was overturned by Deng Xiaoping and a great leveling process ended. It had only come into being because of the 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 leveling without violence is the path most of Latin America took in the early 2000s. But this has been fairly modest in scope. Will it be sustained?

In Brazil the legacy of President Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party is now threatened by the right wing new president, Jair Bolsonaro. In Mexico, however, the new socialist president is likely to push reform forward.

Today 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. Inequality is worsening. The Cold War 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.

One hopeful myth should be queried: By and large the introduction of democracy on its own hasn’t produced more equal societies, although 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 elaborate systems of high taxation and extensive redistribution or for the richest democracies of Asia to preserve their unusually equitable allocation of pretax 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 have only brought forth sorrow. We should be careful what we wish for.

Copyright Jonathan Power.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
September 18, 2019
Kenneth Surin
An Excellent Study Of The Manufactured Labour “Antisemitism Crisis”
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Crown Prince Plans to Make Us Forget About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi Before the US Election
W. T. Whitney
Political Struggle and Fixing Cuba’s Economy
Ron Jacobs
Support the Climate Strike, Not a Military Strike
John Kendall Hawkins
Slouching Toward “Bethlehem”
Ted Rall
Once Again in Afghanistan, the U.S. Proves It Can’t Be Trusted
William Astore
The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Dave Lindorff
Why on Earth Would the US Go to War with Iran over an Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries?
Binoy Kampmark
Doctored Admissions: the University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem
Jeremy Corbyn
Creating a Society of Hope and Inclusion: Speech to the TUC
Zhivko Illeieff
Why You Should Care About #ShutDownDC and the Global Climate Strike  
Catherine Tumber
Land Without Bread: the Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside
Liam Kennedy
Boris Johnson: Elitist Defender of Britain’s Big Banks
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu
Nyla Ali Khan
Spectacles of the Demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh and the Revocation of the Autonomous Status of Kashmir
Stansfield Smith
Celebrating 50 Years of Venceremos Brigade solidarity with the Cuban Revolution
Tim Butterworth
Socialism Made America Great
Nick Licata
Profiles in Courage: the Tories Have It, the Republicans Don’t
Abel Prieto
Cubanness and Cuban Identity: the Importance of Fernando Ortiz
Robert Koehler
Altruists of the World Unite!
Mel Gurtov
Farewell, John Bolton
Weekend Edition
September 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
The Age of Constitutional Coups
Rob Urie
Bernie Sanders and the Realignment of the American Left
Anthony DiMaggio
Teaching the “War on Terror”: Lessons for Contemporary Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: They Are the Walrus
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail