After the Virus
How works from the Bible to ‘Epidemics and Society’ to ‘The Shock Doctrine’ can help predict our post-pandemic future
According to the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, there have been only four phenomena in the course of modern human history that have ever rendered our societies more equal in any sustainable fashion. Three of the four involve violent, human-instigated conflicts against other humans — war, bloody revolution, and state failure. The fourth is pandemic.
“For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization,” Scheidel writes in 2017’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. “This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. Violent shocks were of the paramount importance in disrupting the established order, in compressing the distribution of income and wealth, in narrowing the gap between rich and poor.”
And one particular kind of shock, historically, has the edge. “In the past, plague, smallpox, and measles ravaged whole continents more forcefully than even the largest armies or most fervent revolutionaries could hope to do,” Scheidel writes. For one thing, in plagues like the Black Death, the poor could requisition the goods and property of the newly deceased rich. More significantly, willing and able laborers were suddenly very valuable, so they could secure better terms — though not always without conflict. “Elites commonly attempted to preserve existing arrangements through fiat and force,” Scheidel writes, “but often failed to hold equalizing market forces in check.” Labor usually triumphed, and the playing field was leveled.
The historian raises the question: Wasn’t there something, anything else — worker movements? political reform? — in the annals of history that lessened inequality without mass death? “If we think of leveling on a large scale, the answer must be no,” Scheidel writes. “Democracy,” he adds, “does not of itself mitigate inequality.” But it might when paired with a pandemic.
Unlike the Black Death, which killed tens of millions and often decimated a quarter or even half of the populations of the cities it visited, the…