Cooking the Books: More Unequal Than Croesus

A study into social inequality throughout human history and prehistory published in the journal Nature concluded – or, rather, confirmed, since this is generally accepted – that it was the adoption of agriculture that permitted social inequality to come about and to take off. In previous, hunter-gatherer societies, as the researchers noted, there were ‘not a lot of opportunities for people to have more than others’ (Times, 16 November).

With agriculture and the settled life it involved, on the other hand, not only could more wealth be produced but the extra wealth could be accumulated in the hands of those who owned land and working animals. That this is what did happen was, as Engels put it, the origin of the family, private property, and the state. The researchers added something new by pointing to the importance of large domesticated animals being put to work. This only happened in the old world and was why, they concluded, inequality was greater there than in the new world (until it was conquered by people from the old world).

This was not just theoretical speculation on their part. They came up with an objective standard to measure social inequality. Taking the size of dwellings, as for the past uncovered and recorded by archaeologists, they used the ratio of the smallest to the largest to estimate inequality:

‘The paper converted the house size ratios into the gini coefficient, a measure used today in which “0” means no inequality and “1” means the highest possible inequality. Hunter-gatherer societies had a gini coefficient of about 0.17, an egalitarianism not now matched by any country. When people shifted to growing crops, it grew, to 0.35. When Rome was at its height it was 0.48. In Britain today, it stands at about 0.7.’

In other words, capitalism is a much more unequal society than ancient slave societies or feudalism. Capitalists are more unequal than Croesus. This must come as an inconvenient surprise to defenders of capitalism. Their riposte will be that modern wage and salary workers are better off than chattel slaves or serfs. This is incontestably true, but that’s not the point about inequality. Inequality is relative.

Marx used the same example of the size of dwellings to make this point:

‘A house may be large or small; as long as the neighbouring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain, or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighbouring palace rises in equal or even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls (…) Our wants and pleasures have their origin in society; we therefore measure them in relation to society; we do not measure them in relation to the objects which serve for their gratification. Since they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature’ (Wage-Labour and Capital).

Workers are better off than chattel slaves or serfs, but capitalists are even more better off than ancient slave-owners and feudal barons. So, the gap between producers and parasites has grown since those times. Capitalism is the most unequal society of all time.

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