The world is run by an oligarchy of billionaires, as Bernie Sanders recently observed. To take power away from that oligarchy, it is necessary to take some of their wealth, through means like progressive taxation, a maximum income for all citizens, a guaranteed basic income for everyone, stronger unions, slashing the military budget and strengthening the welfare state, meaning free higher education, student debt forgiveness, Medicare for all and other measures. Would these approaches mitigate inequality? They could help, suggest Canadian professors and contributors to Socialist Register 2017 Leo Panitch and Bryan Palmer. Peter Edelman, a former adviser to Robert Kennedy and Bill Clinton, also indicates the potential of some social welfare policies to eradicate inequality in his book, So Rich, So Poor. However, Stanford professor Walter Scheidel, in his recent book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality, expresses much less optimism about the potential of social programs to end inequities. Scheidel argues that over thousands of years of human history, the only thing that has ever succeeded at truly equalizing wealth, or that has even led to the large-scale adoption of social welfare policies, is mass death. In particular, he points to the Black Death in the late Middle Ages, history’s various violently failed states, Stalin’s terror, purges and gulags, the violence of Mao’s revolution and two world wars. Scheidel argues that the “only” cure for inequality — mass death — is worse than the disease.
But the disease is pretty awful, and there are those who think that socialism, not mass death, might cure it. Scheidel notes that in the early 21st century, the 62 richest people on Earth own as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people. And a lot of that poorer half is outright destitute. Scheidel speculates that the creation of predatory, wealth-stealing elites might be hard-wired into our species. So, like Thomas Piketty does in his writings on inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Scheidel notes that the world wars countered inequality, but he takes the observation much further, into a pessimism that implicitly concludes that since only mass death can effectively create equality, we have to give up on equality. (Incidentally, Scheidel argues that many wars only serve to increase inequality. Not all death equalizes — only, he says, mass death in certain very specific circumstances.)
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However, as Trent University professor Bryan Palmer pointed out in a recent interview with Truthout, the idea that inequality has only ever effectively been lessened “by mass death is indeed pessimistic and highly worrying — not to mention contentious.”
Indeed, so far, the most likely next producer of mass death — climate change — will probably be a powerful driver of inequality, with the world’s poorer populations being hardest hit. The world is already facing the horrors of pestilence (think cholera in Yemen) and climate-induced calamity, and these conditions will only intensify. “A strong case can be made that inequality will be enhanced by catastrophes of various kinds,” Palmer said, “since the truly rich … can insulate themselves somewhat.”
According to Scheidel, after the Black Death wiped out much of the population of medieval Europe, a labor scarcity enabled workers to demand and receive higher wages. State collapse, the modern version of which we have seen in Somalia, has also had equalizing effects, according to Scheidel. In the 20th century, two new violent ways of equalizing elite wealth emerged — “total war,” namely World War I and II, and communist revolutions, particularly in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, though much of what occurred in both places could better be termed counterrevolution. “Key mechanisms of equalization, such as unionization,” Scheidel writes, “public intervention in private wage setting and highly progressive taxation of income and wealth, all first rose to prominence in the context of global war…” and in the context of a communist threat.
Countries that have peacefully attained socialist features would seem to undercut the defeatist conclusion that we have to accept inequality and abandon economic freedom.
However, trade unionism had been growing for decades before global war descended in 1914, and so had socialism. They may have gained ground with the unique conditions of two world wars and a major depression, but they preexisted them, too. “You have to look at the previous activity of socialists, trade unionists and mass suffrage,” said York University professor Leo Panitch in a recent interview with Truthout. “You had to mobilize wealth — in the context of class struggle, and you can’t leave that out…. After World War II, you see the accommodation of social democratic governments and the Democratic Party, making the welfare state fit with capital accumulation — and that couldn’t be maintained. If the social democrats had gone further to control capital’s escape of wealth taxation — socialists want to take capital away from capitalists to take away their power — they might have succeeded.”
As for capitalism today, Panitch paraphrases German philosopher Max Horkheimer, to the effect that anyone who speaks of capitalism and not fascism should remain silent. In other words, the one entails the other. For instance, domestic repression and refugee policies are two ferociously brutal features of contemporary capitalist regimes, from Duterte’s Philippines to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “concentration camps” for immigrants in Arizona, to name but two examples. Given capitalism’s tilt toward total control and readiness to resort to fascistic, police state methods, Panitch sees “a very bloody future, a Blade Runner future.”
Scheidel’s mass death thesis is bolstered by massive research into tax and other records spanning millennia. His conclusion, that we’re in for growing inequality over the long haul and there’s little to be done about it, is, however, undercut by some of his own observations. Even by the author’s estimation, inequality is not inevitable. Scheidel allows that three peaceful mechanisms of controlling inequality have been somewhat effective: land reform, debt forgiveness and powerful unions. He also notes the “anomaly” in Latin America in the early 2000s of inequality being significantly and peacefully reduced. This development looks less anomalous when correlated with the region’s left-tide-inspired social welfare gains.
Also contradicting this pessimism is the existence of Kerala State in India, home to 35 million people, who have been voting a communist government into power regularly since 1957. Literacy there, according to a recent Washington Post article, is over 95 percent. Communism has peacefully done away with the caste system and, in Kerala, a street sweeper can have major surgery practically for free. With free education and health care, Marxist Kerala has been producing excellent doctors, engineers and scientists for decades. Many immigrate to the Persian Gulf states for higher wages, but many of those migrants eventually return to Kerala. This is only one example, but it and countries that have peacefully attained socialist features, like Bolivia and Ecuador, would seem to undercut the defeatist conclusion that we have to accept inequality and abandon economic freedom because the only alternative is mass death.
Benefits of a modest welfare state are in tatters, and unions have been ravaged. Only truly radical measures can wrench around our backward drift.
Closer to home, we have 103 million poor and near poor people in the US — including 6 million with no income other than food stamps, as Peter Edelman reported in So Rich, So Poor a few years ago. Meanwhile, billionaires and corporations are now poised to reap tax break bonanzas from a dreadful tax bill put forth by a reactionary, Republican-controlled and donor-owned Congress. Inequality is rampant in the US. Benefits of a modest welfare state are in tatters, and unions have been ravaged. Only truly radical measures — like a cap on income and wealth and a basic guaranteed income, as has been adopted in Finland, Ontario, Canada, and many European cities — can wrench around our backward drift. As Edelman’s book observed, currently welfare has 4 million participants. Before President Clinton slashed it (whereupon Edelman quit the Clinton administration), it had 14 million.
Given the violent and determined nature of elite predation, how realistic is socialism as a peaceful force for equality? “We should be very modest about the likelihood of achieving socialism,” Panitch said. However, he qualified this: “Socialism may be unrealistic, but history is contingent. Wars and revolutions are not chosen, they brew out of decades … Bolshevik demands in 1917 were not socialism, but bread, land and peace. They weren’t proposing to bring down the then liberal government at first.”
For Palmer, “socialism is the only alternative.” He argues that Scheidel’s recognition that progressive reforms were often implemented in contexts of crisis, especially war, and to stave off the threat of communism, only establishes that creating socialism with its insistence on overcoming inequality might actually be easier and less traumatic than in circumstances of constraint. According to Palmer, globalization and advancing conditions in the developing world, as well as technological innovation mean that the possibilities for socialism are now greater than at any time previously. He argues that more and more of the global economy is open to rational, planned development. He observes that, of course, elites will resist. “Yet the [Russian Revolution] was relatively peaceful, and it was a popular, mass supported revolution,” which Palmer clearly distinguishes from “the terror of a new ruling caste” under Stalin.
In Latin America, Panitch noted, “reaction is undermining the left tide.” But additionally, none of Latin America’s current or recent left governments were truly socialist. “Even Chavez made no moves outside of the oil industry to take capital away from the Venezuelan ruling class,” Panitch said. “He did nothing to build a more balanced, internally oriented economy. The state was never reformed and remained corrupt. What happened in Bolivia and Ecuador was not a break with capitalism.”
Meanwhile inequality in China has soared. “The billionaire class is all the Communist Party members,” Panitch observed, adding that even if they want to return to socialism, they’re billionaires, and they can’t be the force for undoing their own wealth. But Panitch asks whether there are left-wing elements in China who would want real socialism. He observes that the Chinese working class engages in a phenomenal number of strikes, 100,000 ever year, and wonders if it could become a left-wing Solidarność movement. Panitch notes that what is missing from Piketty’s book is the issue of inequality of power on the job. Who gives orders and takes them? “Socialism was all about democratizing the workplace, increasing workers’ power,” he noted. “If we got more equality in World War II, it was because of those working-class, socialist and communist subcultures, not just the war.”
If socialism is a real alternative to mass death and to the inequality of mass dispossession, what would it look like? Could the three peaceful programs Scheidel sees as having mitigated inequality in the past function as three legs for socialism to stand on — land reform, debt forgiveness and powerful trade unionism?
“No, not enough,” Panitch said. “Socialism would have to stand on turning finance into a public utility…. A viable socialism would need the building of mass socialist organizations again.”
Palmer agrees that simply instating the three “peaceful programs” would not be sufficient, since it would not actually transform capitalism. He noted that, “The problem with [authors] like Piketty and Scheidel, is that they approach inequality as an island unto itself,” without recognizing that inequality “is situated within capitalism.” Palmer also says that land reform in the Global South will never suffice as a solvent of poverty and destitution. To secure debt forgiveness, he thinks we need a revolutionary challenge to the current global political economy. Regarding trade unions, he says that what is needed is a class struggle unionism, against dispossession across borders. Palmer observes that trade unionism is under assault everywhere in the world. But it is now strongest where wages are lowest, conditions at their worst, and the politics of opposition most acute — in the Global South. He sums up with the point that socialism requires new organizations. For Palmer, ending capitalism now “is imperative. We’re faced with socialism or barbarism … as Marx once said, commenting on India, human progress must ‘cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.'”
Panitch agrees: “Given how ugly and chaotic capitalism is in the world, there will be socialist movements and revolutions in the coming decades.”
It will be up to those movements and revolutions to prevent the other types of mass death, those we could be staring in the face any day — the ones associated with climate change, fascism and nuclear war.