The Great Leveler | Walter Scheidel

Summary of: The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
By: Walter Scheidel


Dive into the captivating historical exploration of inequality with our summary of ‘The Great Leveler.’ Understand the deep-rooted origins of societal disparities stemming from the end of the Ice Age, to the rise of land ownership and class systems such as those in Sumeria. Grasp the impact of conflicts like World War II and the Russian revolution on economic imbalances. This summary will unveil the intricate evolution of hierarchical systems and the obstacles faced in the struggle for equality throughout human history.

The Emergence of Inequality

As the last ice age ended, humans experienced a period of climate stability known as the Holocene. With improved climate came the cultivation of land and production of food, resulting in the start of disequalization as some began to accumulate more resources than others. The structure of society began to shift and formed hierarchically, with stark differences between rich and poor. Technological improvements also contributed to the rise of inequality, as seen in the dominance of male chiefs in the Chumash tribe. This shows that inequality has been present since the dawn of civilization and continues to be driven by various factors.

The Rise of Private Property

In ancient times, land was shared equally among families in various civilizations like the Sumerians and ancient Chinese. However, over time, the religious class and aristocrats started accumulating property, leading to the privatization of land. Families would take loans with high interest rates and eventually had to sell their land or sell themselves as slaves. Consequently, landholders acquired property, while others lost their land and had to work for the landholders, creating an imbalance within society.

The Rise and Fall of Inequality

Throughout history, inequality has been prevented by the collapse of political order and the outbreak of epidemics. From the Roman Empire to medieval Europe, collapse and crisis reduced inequality by equalizing wealth among all sections of society. However, when strong political institutions reappeared, inequality surged once again. The Black Death pandemic in Europe resulted in the closing of the gap between the wealthy and poor, but it would take another wave of crisis in Japan to level out their own society.

The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Imperial Power

Japan was once a formidable empire with a population of almost 500 million, covering vast land from the Philippines to Burma and Papua New Guinea to the Aleutian Islands. Despite losing the war and suffering immense devastation, the war led to a decline in social inequality. The wealthiest one percent lost over two-thirds of their riches, cutting their portion of wealth from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent. The war also led to a drastic expansion of military, with one out of every seven men being sent to the army. Interestingly, this shrinking of inequality was seen in many other combatant countries, including Germany, France and Great Britain.

Russian Revolution: War’s Unexpected Outcome

The Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in the redistribution of land and the abolition of private property ownership. War played a significant role in escalating civil conflicts that led to the Bolsheviks’ coup and the ultimate change of society’s structure. The war’s impact was devastating to the upper class, who lost everything, including their lives. However, the revolution led to a curbing of rising inequality within Russian society.

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