‘The Great Leveler’: A Review

four horsemen

‘You could listen to the endless promises of scientists, engineers, and politicians and believe we lived in a golden age that would last forever and a day, where all men were free from want. But those men and women were arrogant, and we swallowed their hubris and made it our own. {…} They didn’t talk about the working conditions in the mines and factories, or the Red Indian reservations, the people who suffered and died so that a few of us could live our lives of plenty. Most of all, though, they didn’t talk about how nothing lasts forever-not coal, not wood, not oil or peat-and how one nation turns against another when it starts to run out of the resources it needs to power the engines of progress.’

~Kailtyn R. Kiernan, ‘Goggles (c 1910).’

It is not Kiernan’s excellent short story that parodies the euphoria of much of modern steampunk fiction that brings me to you this night, though the quote above is eminently apt, but rather something of the nonfiction variety which overlaps with the sentiment of that passage. I wish to give full justice to a book I just finished, Walter Scheidel’s ‘The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality.’ If you don’t want something elaborate I can give you the short version: This is what Piketty would have been like had he the courage of the historian who can set aside their era specific values to look at long term trends in a truly dispassionate and realistic way.

The more elaborate take of this book follows.

Scheidel is a historian of the classical world, with prior studies in the Roman Empire as well as its opposite-Eurasia counterpart the Han Dynasty in China. It was apt that with these two examples of early continent straddling superpowers that he opens a quite large and dense study of civilization’s cycles of boom and bust. Not economically speaking, but rather of class. The boom and bust cycles of the elite and the commons, as one makes relative gains at the expense of the other, only to concede to an eventual reversal. Usually, this comes in the form of technology enabling the rise of an aristocracy which is at first a patron (herding, agriculture, industry, possibly electronic information), which then rapidly outpaces its once modest accumulations and becomes parasitic on its own order, leading to either revolt or overreach which causes ‘leveling’, or some re-assertion of some economic fairness in reset, and eventually starts the process over again. The events that can cause these seismic shifts which partially undo the gradualism of the growth of the ruling class in any stable order are varied. They can be large scale warfare, state collapse, internal revolution, or pandemic. Obviously, there are many instances in history where more than one of these factors meet, sometimes one touching off another.

The conclusions he draws are stark. So far, leveling is an inevitable reaction to either the complacency, hoarding, or misrule of the rulers. It is also often a devastating process leaving mixed results. To live in such times is undesirable for most, but often necessary for a future where problems do not simply accelerate ad inifintum. He comes down on neither ‘side’, admonishing either who might be too partisan on these questions to be careful what they wish for. I would somewhat quibble with this final note of caution, however, as I feel that the present environmental calamity we find ourselves in strongly tops this balance towards one side more than the other. Despite this, I find this book to be a remarkably robust addition to non-doctrinaire materialist history, and thus utterly necessary for our time. It makes a case with historically reconstructed data from the classical era to the present day, tying in events that fit with the ‘four horsemen’ of leveling and showing success stories, failures, and everything in between in a list which includes numerous governments of the most varied geographic, cultural, and ideological persuasions-which further strengthens the case of circumstantial materialism above that of both intent and innate inheritance. Issues of class as well as epidemiology and both domestic and foreign power politics weave together to create a story of the costs and benefits of civilization itself.

Naturally, I realize this makes me sound like a broken record here, but I would have liked to have seen a shout out to my boy Ibn Khaldun. After all, he came up with the cyclic civilizational analysis working in material factors all the way back in the Fourteenth Century, including the necessity for new governments to have large amounts of group solidarity before the inevitable rot set in if they were successful bringing stability and prosperity to the land, leading to the gradual weakening of their society and the resurgence of new outsiders who resembled what the current ruling class once was. Despite not seeing one of my favorite historians mentioned in this very topic relevant piece, I must give Scheidel a massive amount of credit for not indulging in typical ideological pique when looking at modern history. He speaks of the positives and negatives of all kinds of governing orders, from early modern transition economies to capitalist and communist orders alike. In an era where economic idealism is treated as sectarian dogma, this is a great thing to see. When one’s central thesis is crisis leading to opportunity-at great risk-it makes sense to consider all the variables. Naturally, in a study of this scope, many interesting case studies are left out. The early Turkish Republic compared to the late Ottoman Empire, for instance, would have been welcome. As could the turbulent post-WW2 history of rapid economic policy change shown at multiple stages in Chilean history. But obviously, and I know this personally myself, to work in big picture requires parsing ones examples down to the bare necessities to make the point lest one drag into repetition.

An extremely important and heavily recommended book.

 

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