WORLDVIEW:  The fading struggle for equality

The 62 people with 50% of world's net wealth could fit in this bus

736Views 6Comments Posted 14/05/2019


By Jonathan Power

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, the number that could fit inside a London double-decker bus. own as much net wealth as the poorer half of humanity.

 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 “payback” 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.

Land reform
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.

Cold War
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. Aging 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.

Comments 6


== .. I just need to be comfortable and be afforded the same opportunities. == Do you think the children of the working class have the same opportunities as rich kids?

3 months ago
Phil Edmonston

Well said, Brian. Whether one agrees or not, we are our brothers and sisters keeper. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. Nor is it Christian, only. There is something inside all of us that is innate, that wants to progress, that wants us to be better off than our parents. Read Lapore's These Truths. We have achieved equality in so many realms, yet, we are not all equal. Illogical? Yes. Impossible? No. We have found many ways to square the circle, as we stumble toward equality with justice as our guidepost. Ironic, that within one century we have gone from Afro-Americans having no vote (Dred Scott decision) to the 1964 Civil Right Act) led by US President and southern school principal Lyndon Johnson, where one can argue minorities won more than equal voting rights. I am proud of what we are as a nation. Conflicted, confused, and cantankerous. Yet, we sing America the Beautiful and We Shall Overcome with equal pride. That's who we are. Our enduring legacy. America. Phil Edmonston Medic US Army, Panama 1961-63

3 months ago

Inequality in the US declined in the 3 decades after WWII, when the middleclass mushroomed and there was lots of social mobility. In recent hears, inequality has been growing, the middleclass shrinking, and social mobility has become more sluggish. Conservatives prefer the ststus quo.

4 months ago

concur with both comments. Powers continues his liberal BS.

4 months ago
Virgil E Eaves Jr

The world, on average, has the highest standard of living sine mankind crawled from the slime. Why? Capitalism. The lazy will always be lazy, the poor always poor. Get over it.

4 months ago
Brian O'Grady

There will ALWAYS be inequality. And so what if there is? I don't need to be equal to Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos... I just need to be comfortable and be afforded the same opportunities. The "we must have equality" crowd assumes that economic participation is a zero sum game; it's not. Most of the worlds poor are the result of corruption. For those incapable of functioning in a competitive economy, we will always need to have a safety net while working to give them the skill set that enables them to provide for themselves and the pride of being productive that goes along with it.

4 months ago
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