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Published by EH.Net (June 2023).

Jon D. Wisman. The Origins and Dynamics of Inequality. Sex, Politics, and Ideology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. x + 528 pp. £25.99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0197575949.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tirthankar Roy, London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

Historians studying the world economy have recently shifted their attention from ‘divergence’ or international inequality to societal inequality. The shift is welcome because it makes little sense to compare average income across countries, the benchmark to measure international inequality, in the presence of inequality within countries. But it makes historians’ task harder for several reasons. The first reason is that quantitative measures of inequality are a very recent thing. This is a minor problem. We know that inequality existed in the distant past because the practices that excluded people from access to wealth and power existed in the distant past. Second, most theories of the history of inequality presume a specific form of wealth, land, or machinery, which makes a long-run account integrating preindustrial and even pre-agricultural inequality with the recent past difficult. And third, the theories that economists and economic historians work with presume that inequality stems from ownership of capital. In contrast, ownership of capital may well be a symptom rather than the cause of inequality.

The Origins and Dynamics of Inequality tackles the two problems head-on, with a rich analytical narrative that needs 500-odd pages to build a connected history. Two ideas hold this project together. First, inequality stems from an impulse to corner the good things in life. The deepest and oldest impulse is biological, to win the competition for sexual partners and be successful in the evolutionary game. This, the biological root, is largely forgotten because we get carried away by the forms that power takes. We need to see instead why power matters. The biological root of inequality, and the elite conversion of economic power into political power by cultural-ideological means, run through the book as two connecting threads.

For much of human history, when humans hunted or practiced rudimentary agriculture, inequality was muted. Political power did not have a fixed character, and the stone tools to kill animals and people were widely accessible. Leaders of clans and groups would fight when there was a specific threat, and society would fall into a state of relative equality when the danger disappeared. The origins of inequality in the modern sense are owed to the emergence of ‘formal modes of social coordination’ or states about 5500 years ago (p. 3). One of the factors behind the emergence of permanent states was the wider use of metallic battle tools, which were expensive to make and restricted in access.

Surviving the evolutionary game rests on success in ‘sexual competition’. Human life was no exception to that rule, but humanity was exceptional in two respects. As formal coordination rules took shape, the chances of success depended less on physical prowess or hunting skills. The chances were better for those who could exercise political and military power over others. And competition generated pushback from an awareness of fairness. ‘Manipulating the strong sense of fairness is the essence of ideology.’ (p. 7) Thus, power acquired a dual aspect, the ability to exercise violence and the moral right to exercise violence to protect the weaker individuals inside the collective, or so ideology claimed.

The introduction and Chapter 1 set out the building blocks: sexual competition, the emergence of states, and the ideological campaign claiming that states existed to look after the weak. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 deal with the early history of inequality and religion’s role in supplying ideological support to elite power. Elite power until the more recent centuries after ‘the critical break’ of the rise of the bourgeoisie would mean military power maintained not only to defend against outside threats but also to protect private property and diffuse internal threats from landholders (Chapters 5 and 6). Chapters 7 and 8 return to ideology in Europe and take the reader through the remaking of Christianity and the tensions between the landholders and the new wealth that contributed to that remaking. Chapter 9 is about the nineteenth-century revolution that delivered political agency to the workers and broke the elite’s monopoly access to politics. Elite control over ideology had always been relatively weak in North America (Chapter 10), and the move to create it received a shock during the Great Depression. Chapter 11 takes the narrative to the late twentieth century, showing how a new ideology of state failure invalidated Simon Kuznets’ prediction that inequality would eventually decline in mature capitalist economies. Chapter 12 is less narrative history than an argument that inequality works against effective responses to overconsumption and environmental damage.

Parts of the book will seem familiar to readers. The book draws on a range of big ideas from predecessors. The most important one is the biological character of competition and inequality, the idea that sexual competition is the foundation of all competition. ‘It took Darwin to make clear that [the lust for money, lust for power] are driven by [sexual lust]’ (9). Karl Marx paid attention to ideology, not, as positivists thought, as beliefs outside empirically grounded ‘science’, but as a fundamental tool of politics. But Marx also believed that ideology would weaken if the structure of class power changed, which twentieth-century politics does not affirm. The book says why. Economists, who have recently written big books on inequality, underestimate the long-term dynamics of elite capture of ideology and the resulting contestations.

Despite the antecedents, the arguments are excitingly new and largely persuasive. The book is also a terrific read. It builds the inequality narrative on a deep human impulse, foregrounds culture, and unlike stories that place excessive weight on industrial capitalism, builds a story that acknowledges many transitions and suggests a way to relate these.

The book may leave readers wondering how to fit the last thirty years into this narrative. Like 1929, the 2008 recession led to big changes. It damaged the financial capacity of the Western states to deal with new challenges. These states depend ever more on private capital to generate investment and growth, provide for rising welfare bills, absorb migration from the tropics as climate changes, fund innovation in health for an ageing society, and more. In this scenario, helping the rich do their business has less to do with discourse and more with structural weaknesses. For that matter, economists who shaped the old discourse carry less credibility than they did before 2008.

And who are the elite anyway? Critics may find this concept a bit slippery. Defining the elite as wealth owners who exercise influence over politics and discourse makes less sense as the world produces and consumes more services than manufactured goods. A fashion designer who owns three houses is not wealthy because she owns three houses, has little in common with the millowner, and her capital does not have a name yet.

As for the deep impulse that leads humans to exclude other humans from access to resources, the book’s emphasis on sexual competition may work better for some societies than others. In a 1966 book on caste, the anthropologist Louis Dumont claimed that India was one civilization based on ‘a single true principle, namely the opposition of the pure and the impure.’ Perspectives on the secret roots of the impulse to exclude will differ.

 

Tirthankar Roy is a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the co-author, with Leigh Gardner, of The Economic History of Colonialism (Bristol University Press, 2021).

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