I’ve always applied a big picture kind of view to anything I analyze, and lately I’ve been considering how the concept of churning permeates every facet of human development. I’ve already written about a lot of the issues I’m concerned about, but I also feel that I haven’t done justice to wealth disparity. I looked at the history of the human race and applied the cyclical perspective to the rise and fall in inequality throughout time. This is an extremely rough and broad view of Western history, mainly based off my prior knowledge, but my objective is to show just how prevalent the churn is, given the most rudimentary understanding of global history.
Until the close of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, humans were 100% hunter gatherer foraging groups. They travelled the earth, had few possessions, and left little to be inherited by their descendants, instead sharing food and clothing in the immediate. This didn’t last, clearly. The temperature globally eventually rose, and humans were able to farm the land and raise livestock; mutually beneficial sharing fell before private property, and new developments in law and culture turned this property into a lasting inheritance down the line. As time went on, the fruits of labor accumulated with the use of intelligence, strength, and more than a healthy amount of luck. For the first time in our history as a species, humans had classes; there were the wealthy and the poor.
The procedure for distributing power was aggrandized by the institution of governing bodies, as political sway and military might further increased and maintained the fortunes and control. With the rise of massive and sprawling empires, and as the trickle of communal knowledge increased economic growth, the accumulation of money and authority reached until then unreachable levels. Inequality went up as the land became populated, and small communities became societies of trade. The growth of economy was lapped by the concentration of wealth. The richest citizens were able to own thousands of enslaved people. Mansions and villas turned into expansive palaces, and estates engulfed whole towns.
Barbarian invasions slowed the disparity of wealth by destroying the western half of the Roman empire. The Justinian plague laid waste to the world’s population, especially hitting the remaining Romans, and with this land was freed up and trade was strangled. Trade networks dwindled, and the land’s devaluing and subsequent surplus in demand for laborers who worked it left them better off and their landlords less wealthy. Average people could now own fur and put meat in their stew. In the span of decades, a millennium of Roman superiority and inequality was undone through disease and widespread death. Enter the Dark Ages. Powers of empires dwindling, rogue bands and isolated warrior nations who didn’t suffer the plague as harshly were able to thrive and destroy much of the established empires still standing.
Insecurity spread and cities shrank while imperial peace disappeared. The void in power encouraged provincial thugs and families to hold influence over small tracks of land, taking tribute from the people they allowed to live on them. Feudal systems granted kings the ability to accumulate wealth in the interest of protection and god given rights and the laborers earned a pittance for their help in farming the land and guarding the borders.The years during which the plague ravaged the continents caused inequality to flounder. When it subsided, however, the wealthy simply picked up where they left off, accumulating resources and power. The churn continued.
Populations recovered and stabilized, and wages went down in kind. Cities and trade grew, offering higher opportunity for increasing personal wealth to a select few. Lords maintained power while the once free laborers went into debt and became serfs, enslaved people who worked for simple subsistence. Economic development once again increased income and wealth disparities.
The Black Death arrived in the 14th century and killed one in three people. This culling of the population once again saw the workers calling for higher wages and renters seeking lower rates. The diet of bread and watery soup was once again fortified with protein and alcohol. Silk and felt became more commonplace as demand for land fell drastically.
Once the Black Death abated, and the population again began to grow, wealth concentration resumed. Wages dropped and inequality rose. Western Europe especially forged itself into a hub of exchange and colonization, granting bountiful benefits to merchant elites. Slavery was implemented in grand force to facilitate the gathering of the raw resources to be traded. Land became extremely valuable and and its ownership was further concentrated.
Industrialization saw the abolition of slavery and improved much of society at large. The poor were no longer so direly impoverished, but the gap between rich and poor widened further. It grew and grew until the first world war.
Wartime mobilization, governmental intercession, and dislocation of people lowered returns on capital. In an effort to drive the war effort, many countries imposed taxes on the highest incomes and largest estates, and lower skill workers rose in demand. Wartime rationing and government implemented price control caused access to material and products to level out. Many countries suffered destruction to their manufacturing and housing, in turn causing inflation.
After all this shock, you may expect that the inequality returned with the close of the second world war. This was not the case though. In fact, it continued to decline for several decades after the war. A possible explanation could be that the resources accumulated before the close of the war took time to use up. Labor unions became widespread. With a surplus of armaments, and all the people who suffered in the second world war having their fill of violence, focus turned to domestic development. Noam Chomsky, in his work “Requiem for the American Dream,” called this social solidarity. Wartime mobilization’s fervor was transferred to social welfare and reform. Income and wealth became more evenly distributed than in decades before the war.
Someone may draw the conclusion from this bird’s eye view of history that in order to overcome income inequality, we need a societal shock like a war or pandemic. I disagree. For the first time in a long time, it looks like the churn’s been broken, or at the least disrupted. Democracy causes economic growth that favors mass education and sustains itself. Higher production rates allow for the provision of the resources needed to implement generous welfare programs in both healthcare and social security. Instead of war and disease causing inequality to drop, it’s the steady improvement of humanity as a whole. If anything, war and disease have just been catalysts for the already occurring changes in global society, although I will grant that the force with which governments taxed the wealthy probably couldn’t have been so effective had they not been in dire need due to the conflicts they were embroiled in.
Our current world political picture may indicate we’re due for another churn, with the disparity of wealth higher than it has ever been in human history, and the expansion of the technological sector polarizing labor markets to the extremely well and extremely poorly paid workers. The future holds a mixed message; robotics, genetic engineering, and human biomechanics will all make an impact on the type of work humans do and how they do it.
The message here is not that the churn is a perfectly predictable repetition, but rather that if I look at a spinning vortex from far enough away I can see on the whole it is a uniform pattern and will make, on the largest scale, a predictable movement. How it accomplishes this, however, is much harder to discern. That takes zooming in on the churn and analyzing the smallest parts I can, and multitudes of times to account for error. The inherent chaos in the churn at once grants hope and confidence that the darker origins that have raised us from inequality before are not necessary, but simple coincidences to parallel the steady growth and improvement of humanity as a whole. A cycle does not need to be the same in every iteration. That is a human addition, to make sense of the insensible.