Waiting for the Great Leveller

The virus has thrown social disparities into sharp relief. But is this global pandemic really the game-changer we have been led to believe?

Walter Scheidel

Just as “ye have the poor with you always,” the same is true of the rich. Stark inequalities of income and wealth have been a fact of life for thousands of years, ever since farming and herding, private property and inheritance first emerged after the end of the last Ice Age. History teaches us that the nexus between civilisation and inequality is so firmly entrenched that it takes massive disruptions of the established order to level the playing field.

The collapse of states, from Old Kingdom Egypt to the Roman Empire and beyond, used to act as the most effective equaliser. Whenever governmental structures that propped up the rich and powerful unravelled, everyone suffered but those on top simply had so many more possessions to lose. The fall of imperial Rome cut off its nobles from far-flung estates and put an end to lavish profits from patronage and corruption.

In the 20th century, two new levellers entered the scene: the two world wars and the communist revolutions they spawned. Unlike earlier conflicts, mass mobilisation and industrialised warfare flattened inequality by a variety of means. Returns on capital plummeted. Aggressive state intervention in the private sector cut into private and corporate profits. Workers enjoyed greater bargaining power and unions flourished. Taxes on high incomes and fortunes soared to unprecedented heights. And after 1945, regulations and progressive taxes remained in place, underwriting ambitious expansions of the welfare state.

Meanwhile, revolutionary regimes from Lenin to Mao and Pol Pot favoured a more radical approach. Inequality reached new lows as the rich lost their assets (and often their heads), land was redistributed and then collectivised, and central planners set prices and wages.

From state collapse to world war and revolution, all of these blood-soaked levelling events were caused by human violence. But in some other cases, microbial onslaughts led to similar outcomes. In the late Middle Ages, the Black Death killed such a large proportion of Europe’s population that labour became scarce and surviving workers earned higher wages, allowing them to eat and dress better than before. Alongside falling rents from land, this rise in labour costs crimped the style of the propertied class. For several generations, the rich were less rich and the poor less poor. Unable to stem the spread of plague, the Catholic Church lost clout. Change was in the air: the Renaissance gathered steam, followed by the Reformation.

Has the current pandemic opened the door to similarly dramatic transformations? True to style, American pundits have rushed to outdo one another in breathless hype: we are told that “The coronavirus is transforming politics and economics” (New Yorker), “Coronavirus will change the world permanently” (Politico), and “The revolution is underway already” (Atlantic). Unless, of course, the opposite is true, and “The coronavirus killed the revolution” (Atlantic, again). So what is it going to be? Will the coronavirus crisis finally reduce social and economic inequalities that have so far resisted calls for progressive change, or will it make them even worse?

Right now, existing disparities are thrown into particularly sharp relief. The better-off find it easier to keep their distance from others and worry less about overly cramped home offices. Few can follow the example of One-Percenter Manhattanites decamping to the Hamptons, but in times of lockdown even a spare bedroom or a private patio divide the haves from the have-nots. Some students are able to participate comfortably in online classes while those who lack the necessary resources remain shut out.

The economic hierarchies behind these differences are likely to persist in the longer term. Even though most of the world’s billionaires happen to be a little less rich right now than they were just a few months ago, stock markets have already begun to recover. Jeff Bezos is having a stellar year. Barring a major meltdown, not only the genuinely rich but also middle-class investors have reason to hope that their portfolios will recover, just as they did after the Financial Crisis of 2008. Back then, the concentration of income and wealth loosened only a little before it returned to pre-crisis levels.

Meanwhile, those struggling with unemployment, shortened work hours, precarity and growing debt face a bleaker future. In the US, we can already see that the burden will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable: disadvantaged ethnic minorities, the unskilled, and more generally the young. Any “V-shaped” recovery would have to be very steep indeed to provide adequate relief within a tolerable amount of time. The “jobless recovery” of the early 2010s is still fresh in our memory.

If we cannot expect economic forces to restructure society and distribute resources more evenly, how else might levelling be engineered? Politics would have to come to the rescue. And indeed, progressives are warming to the idea that it would be a mistake to let a serious crisis go to waste. Calls for wealth taxes have resurfaced, now dressed up as a means of funding emergency budgets. Having failed to lift Jeremy Corbyn or Elizabeth Warren’s fortunes, has their time finally come? Not as long as quantitative easing and Modern Monetary Theory continue to deliver. Thanks to their wondrous promise of near-painless relief, they are bound to be milked for all they are worth. It is so much easier to commit to do “whatever it takes” if you simply get to print the money that is needed to keep us all afloat.

As central banks try to muddle through by buying up government bonds, investors recover and many workers are left behind, is there any prospect at all for a more equitable future? From a historian’s perspective, the answer depends on the overall severity of the present crisis. All the disasters that levelled in the past had one thing in common: their extraordinary intensity. How does our coronavirus crisis measure up?

We already know that, barring some freakish viral mutation, mortality will be vastly less severe than during any earlier pandemic that undermined elites and benefited workers. The Black Death carried off as many as one out of every three Europeans, and perhaps an ever larger share of the English. Whatever the present infection fatality rate turns out to be, it is bound to be entire orders of magnitude lower.

Even the early doomsday scenario of Imperial College’s model prediction that half a million Britons might perish if infection were allowed to spread unchecked failed to replicate the human cost of the worst recorded plagues. By now, more realistic projections for the UK run in the tens of thousands, comparable to the annual death toll from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Nor does the novel coronavirus shrink the active or future workforce in any serious way. There is simply no way that loss of life will cause low-end wages to rise. If anything, lingering unemployment will have the opposite effect.

But perhaps the pandemic will convince us to tackle inequalities by bringing us all together? After all, the levelling unleashed by the world wars was in no small measure rooted in the shared experience of suffering and sacrifice. These days we face no shortage of war rhetoric: while the “spirit of the Blitz” has been dusted off in Britain, Emmanuel Macron has declared France to be “at war” and Donald Trump styles himself a “wartime president.”

Yet this pandemic is nothing like a war. Instead of sending off young men to be maimed and killed, we expect everyone who can to stay home. Our industries produce less, not more. And perhaps most importantly, we are not thrown together in barracks and factories, united by a shared purpose: anxious distancing is the order of the day. From foxholes to air raid shelters, real war prompted closer physical contact, the very thing this fake war is designed to prevent. Nor can we count on ration books to bring us in line. The affluent keep on buying, only mildly inconvenienced by Amazon Prime’s unfamiliar sluggishness, while lines at food banks grow.

Health care workers in crowded hospitals have come closest to serving a stint on the frontlines but can expect little in return beyond cheers and oratory. No families are forced to bid farewell to sons and daughters dispatched to distant battlefields. Beyond the trifling nuisance of mask-wearing, our daily experiences have been segmented by class and occupation rather than widely shared.

A pandemic that doesn’t kill nearly enough of us to boost the value of labour and doesn’t put nations on an actual wartime footing isn’t going to turn into a great leveller. But what if multiple lesser shocks gradually build up pressure for change? The coronavirus crisis may well amplify the fallout from the Great Recession. At the time, the unpalatable mix of generous bailouts of the banking system, higher unemployment and austerity measures reminded the public that income and wealth inequality had been rising for decades. This trend has been a hot topic ever since, animating the campaigns of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, even if often with limited success.

By generating renewed misery, the Great Lockdown has the potential of moving the needle further toward progressive reform. Yet for now, the odds are poor: witness the recent ascent of more centrist leaders on the American and British Left. If interventions by governments and central banks once again succeed in warding off a global depression, just as they did in 2008, and if science and the pharmaceutical industry manage to deliver effective treatments and vaccines before large sectors of the economy are slowly suffocated by prolonged uncertainty and renewed viral flare-ups, the status quo ought to survive largely intact. If anything, society might end up even more polarised than before—perhaps setting it up for a big fall down the line, but not quite yet.

Judging from past experience, genuine levelling requires a much bleaker script. Imagine a world in which unexpected delays in medical countermeasures or an extended economic meltdown cause standard policies from quantitative easing to short-term patches for businesses and workers to run out of steam. Propelled by growing misery and discontent, interventions that now seem radical might seem desirable, perhaps even necessary.

It is worth remembering that during the Great Depression, even the resolutely anti-socialist US embraced expansions of the safety net, public work programmes, stronger labour unions and higher taxes. Comparable dislocations in the coming months and years might open up space for measures that rein in plutocrats and give succour to those previously left behind. As a result, the long rise of inequality might finally go into reverse.

All this would be a far cry from the dramatic levelling events of the past, from the fall of the Roman Empire and the Black Death to the violent ruptures of the first half of the 20th century. Yet even this comparatively tame scenario seems like a long shot. It is not merely that elites don’t readily cede power and their current interventions are primarily designed to ensure a return to business as usual. Science will play an even greater role in obstructing social justice. Much as we like to think of science and technology as tireless drivers of continuous change, in this case they are much more likely to buttress the status quo.

The faster the combined efforts of laboratories, research hospitals and vaccine manufacturers deliver us from this pandemic, the sooner strains on the neoliberal world order will abate. Chinese researchers published the genome of SARS-Cov-2 only five weeks after the first suspected case was reported. By now, more than a thousand trials for treatments and vaccines are said to be underway, and vaccine manufacturers are already preparing to scale up future production. With every passing day, the prospect of levelling by catastrophe recedes a little further.

Throughout history, inequality has thrived on stability. Right now, our system’s stabilisers, from central bankers to virologists, are all hands on deck. They may well save the day. And if they do, deliverance from inequality, let alone from the bogeyman of “late capitalism,” will have to be put on hold until a much worse plague rears its ugly head or runaway climate change finally derails our consumerist way of life. Then again, if such disasters were to befall us, narrowing the gap between rich and poor would probably be the least of our concerns.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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