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  • The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twentieth Century by Walter Scheidel
  • Peter N. Stearns
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twentieth Century. By Walter Scheidel (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017) 504 pp. $35.00

This book offers a double treat. First, it convincingly organizes wide-ranging materials in world history to demonstrate that only unusual and largely undesirable circumstances serve to reduce income inequalities in complex societies—a generalization as true in the past century as it was for the Romans or Mayans or dynastic Chinese. Second, it organizes data and argument in ways designed to attract a wide audience, interested in social science and policy, toward serious (if admittedly unusually ambitious) historical analysis, juxtaposing various regions and time periods in the exploration of key topics rather than laying out a conventional chronology. Both the findings and the presentation warrant serious attention in an interdisciplinary context. Depressing as his findings are, Scheidel invites careful consideration of their implications both for contemporary political action and for historical evaluations.

The first quarter of the book charts the rise of inequality as societies moved past the hunting and gathering phase—an admirable summary in itself. The role of the state in abetting inequality will surprise no Marxist, but it is well handled. Primary focus, in this section and throughout, rests on the gap between the supremely rich and the rest of the population, not on gradations beneath the top group—potentially an important topic for further treatment.

The account turns next to the four kinds of upheaval that alone can significantly reduce inequality. It starts with the mobilizations associated with the big wars of the twentieth century, before addressing the more modest (or nonexistent) effects of earlier wars—the U.S. Civil War, the Warring States period in China, and so on. Next come particularly violent revolutions, primarily again in the twentieth century. Then Scheidel turns to the results of collapsed states, at one point enticingly juxtaposing ancient Egypt with contemporary Somalia but also examining Rome, the Mayans, and other cases. Finally, plagues take the stage, most obviously the Black Death, the Columbian Exchange, and the “Justinian” plague of the sixth century; interestingly, mere famine did not have the same results.

A challenging section probes other possibilities—land reform, democracy, economic development, and abolitions of slavery—that Scheidel finds to have little impact on inequality unless associated with all-out war or steep revolutionary violence. He does not systematically entertain the potentially significant, though elusive, possibility that some of these developments might have retarded further inequality.

Scheidel notes a few exceptional cases, for instance, fifth-century Athens, which combined direct democracy with war mobilization in ways that had some brief positive effect. He dismisses as “feeble” the more recent decline of inequality in Latin America (perhaps too hastily). Mamluk and Ottoman policies of confiscation garner his attention to some extent, though ultimately rising inequality prevailed in these instances as well. [End Page 141] Seizure of wealth from one group by another occurs more frequently, as in the dynastic transitions in China or the Norman invasion of Britain, but these shifts involved personnel, not the basic social dynamic.

Scheidel backs his generalizations with data drawn from many studies and many types of sources, recognizing full well that European examples are particularly robust and that modern patterns are easier to assess than those in earlier periods. Scholars might dispute some of his claims; because the focus rests mainly on disruptions of inequality, havens that complicate the generalizations might have existed. Just for the record, India’s presence is surprisingly rare in the treatment, and Scheidel makes no real effort to explain why some societies become more unequal than others, even if virtually all of them illustrate the overall patterns of persistence.

Scheidel carefully notes that he is not dealing with other types of inequality for which historical findings might be more encouraging—inequalities under the law, gender, and regional economic differences. Nor does he offer any thorough assessment of whether inequality has predictable results on ordinary life, say, for the poor, except to note that...


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pp. 141-142
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