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

Shortlisted for the 2017 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award

Hardcover | 2017 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691165028
528 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 45 line illus.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400884605 |
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Reviews | Table of Contents
Introduction[PDF] pdf-icon

A Q&A with Walter Scheidel
Author Walter Scheider, Featured Speaker, Colloquium on the History of Inequality, UC Berkeley Population Science

The Great Leveler Book Trailer

How only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history

Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The "Four Horsemen" of leveling—mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues—have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent—and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.

Walter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He lives in Palo Alto, California.


"Mr. Scheidel's depressing view is bound to upset [those] who quite naturally might prefer to live in a world in which events might move political and social systems to figure out a more equitable way to distribute the fruits of growth without the plague, the guillotine or state collapse."--Eduardo Porter, New York Times

"Sweeping and provocative."--New Yorker

"An astonishing tour de force."--Gregory Clark, Wall Street Journal

"In [Scheidel’s] magisterial sociopolitical history The Great Leveler, inequality is shown as preferable to the alternative: society levelled by vast upheavals."--Aaron Reeves, Nature

"Complex societies naturally generate inequality. It has been so, argues Stanford University professor Scheidel, ever since the discovery of agriculture. Might policy ameliorate, or even reverse, the tendency towards inequality? No. In Scheidel’s account the lessons of history are clear: only war, revolution, state collapse or catastrophic plague--or a combination of such disasters--destroy the wealth of the rich. I wish the argument were wrong, but suspect it is not. . . . Very powerful."--Martin Wolf, Financial Times

"As a supplier of momentary relief, the Great Depression seems an unlikely candidate. . . . Yes, it brought widespread suffering and dreadful misery. But it did not bring death to millions, and in that it stands out. If that counts as relief, you can begin to imagine the scale of the woe that comes before and after. [Scheidel] puts the discussion of increased inequality found in the recent work of Thomas Piketty, Anthony Atkinson, Branko Milanovic and others into a broad historical context and examines the circumstances under which it can be reduced."--The Economist

"Reducing inequality by peaceful means looks harder than ever, giving Mr. Scheidel’s arguments even greater resonance."--Buttonwood, Economist

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Table of Contents:

List of Figures and Tables xi
Acknowledgments xv
Introduction: The Challenge of Inequality 1
I A Brief History Of Inequality 23
1 The Rise of Inequality 25
2 Empires of Inequality 62
3 Up and Down 86
II War 113
4 Total War 115
5 The Great Compression 130
6 Preindustrial Warfare and Civil War 174
III Revolution 211
7 Communism 213
8 Before Lenin 232
IV Collapse 255
9 State Failure and Systems Collapse 257
V Plague 289
10 The Black Death 291
11 Pandemics, Famine, and War 314
VI Alternatives 343
12 Reform, Recession, and Representation 345
13 Economic Development and Education 367
14 What If ? From History to Counterfactuals 389
VII Inequality Redux And The Future Of Leveling 403
15 In Our Time 405
16 What Does the Future Hold? 424
Appendix: The Limits of Inequality 445
Bibliography 457
Index 495


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