Thursday, 28 December 2017

'Catastrophic Gradualism', Inequality & Democracy

 If you want more social equality don't support 'Stop the War'
by Brian Bamford
ACCORDING to Walter Scheidel, a historian specialising in the ancient world and author of 'The Great Leveler' (2017), rising inequality ought to be expected in current circumstances.  This represents a version of what George Orwell called 'Catasrophic Gradualism' writ large, because what Mr. Scheidel is suggesting is that mass violence and wars are the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality.  

It seems that historically inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike, and conversely increases when peace and stability return.   Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that no doubt is a good thing. But it consequently casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

To get an idea of the current relative level of inequality, Paul Mason in a review of Mr. Scheidel's book in The Guardian wrote:
'the escalating wealth share of the top 1% in the US has only just reached where it was in 1929.  And the ratio of Bill Gates’s wealth pile to that of the average US citizen is roughly the same as that of the richest Roman aristocrats in AD400.' 

The prospects for greater equality are not good because the market economies in industrial societies that do not experience revolution, catastrophe or total war are prone to generate the high levels of inequality we are currently approaching.  Thus Scheidel concludes that these catastrophic levellers are 'gone for now, and unlikely to return any time soon.  This casts doubt on the feasibility of future levelling.'

Against this pessimistic scenario Paul Mason has hopefully argued:  '....[that historically in the last half century amid these dreadful] realities [up] grew social democracy – which is actually something very new in history, if placed between the extremes documented in Scheidel’s book. Social democracy wishes to suppress inequality in a controlled, consensual way, using the very state the elite has fashioned to entrench it; heading off pestilence, state failure and violent revolution. The vast wealth being generated in the highly technologically efficient society of the 21st century must, contrary to Scheidel, offer the possibility of an even greater redistributional space in which social democracy can operate.'

Martin Wolf, the economist writing in the Financial Times on the 20th, December, is equally anxious arguing that if governments don't get a grip of inequality then  'One possible development is the sort of  "plutocratic popularism" that has become such a signal feature of the US-the country that did, should we recall, ensure the survival of liberal democracy during the turmoil of the previous century.  The future could then consist of a stable plutocracy, which manages to keep the mass of the people divided and docile.'

George Orwell may have been considering something of this kind of pessimistic vision when he wrote his essay called 'Catestrophic Gradualism' for the Common Wealth Review, in November 1945.  'The Great Leveler' is really the latest version of what Orwell called 'catestrophic gradualism'.

In 1945, Orwell wrote:  'According to this theory, nothing is ever achieved without bloodshed, lies, tyranny and injustice, but on the other hand no considerable change for the better is to be expected as the result of even the greatest upheaval.  History necessarily proceeds by calamities, but each succeeding age will be as bad, or nearly as bad, as the last.  One must not protest against purges, deportations, secret police forces and so forth, because these are the price that has to be paid for progress: but on the other hand “human nature” will always see to it that progress is slow or even imperceptible.  If you object to dictatorship you are a reactionary, but if you expect dictatorship to produce good results you are a sentimentalist.'

Orwell knew then that it was possible to use the kind of thinking Mr. Scheidel is now using, to apply a kind of post-factor justification for Stalin or even Henry VIII.  George Orwell presents the case thus: 
'Naturally this argument is pushed backward into history, the design being to show that every advance was achieved at the cost of atrocious crimes, and could not have been achieved otherwise. The instance generally used is the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie, which is supposed to foreshadow the overthrow of capitalism by Socialism in our own age.  Capitalism, it is argued, was once a progressive force, and therefore its crimes were justified, or at least were unimportant.'

Thus if we take Henry VIII and telescope history up to the present, and using this post-facto approach, as Orwell joking proposes we might say:
'Henry VIII made possible the rise of capitalism, which led to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution and thence to a cycle of enormous wars, the next of which may well destroy civilisation altogether. So, telescoping the process, we can put it like this: “Everything is to be forgiven Henry VIII, because it was ultimately he who enabled us to blow ourselves to pieces with atomic bombs”.'

Hence, perhaps we should merely yawn when we hear on the news of the mountains of corpses in the Middle East and suicide bombers from Isis exploding like rockets in the Afgan capital.  Afterall, perhaps it is just the mechanicanisms of history working its magic, and if it means violence well, according to Walter Scheidel, if you want equality the more universal the social violence the better.  Perhaps we should cancel our subscriptions to 'Stop the War'.

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