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Our “Scheidel Moment”?

from Peter Radford

We are all familiar with what a “Minsky Moment” is.  Or we should be given the disaster of the Great Recession.  Whilst it’s true that economics has bumbled along pretty much unaltered since this dark years of just over a decade ago, and, yes, I am aware of the rumblings around the discipline’s edges, others have taken a bash at looking at facts.

One of those people is Walter Scheidel who has given us a much needed historical context for our discussion about inequality.  In a nutshell his extensive study of the history of inequality suggests that elites will always, and everywhere, succeed in rigging society for their own gain.  Whether they bother to hide their efforts behind socially acceptable or ideologically logical drapes is of no consequence: elites will find a way to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else.

The forces that counter the elites are not, generally, benign democratic pressures.  They are basic things like plagues, wars, and other devastations that upend the carefully constructed “norms” that form the basis of elite suppression of the masses.  Such events sweep away the existing elite and create a space for a new struggle for power.  During that struggle, whilst there is no elite to create new punitive rents or to exploit the broader population, brief bursts of relative equality break out.

Perhaps the most obvious example would be the shift that followed the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s.  The scarcity of labor, especially skilled labor, after the plague had abated led to a remarkable period of relative wage equality in those nations that suffered through it.

Another good example would be the first half of the twentieth century during which the cataclysm of the world wars destroyed so much capital that elites needed a great deal of time to re-establish their hold over society and thus get back to their rent seeking ways. It wasn’t until the neoliberal ascendancy after the Reagan/Thatcher led installation of anti-social policy that our contemporary elites could exploit society in the manner of elites of old.

Which brings us to our Scheidel Moment.

Does the current global crisis caused by the novel virus spreading rapidly amongst us constitute a potent enough challenge to elite power and entrenched ideology that it opens a space for re-balancing societies away from the egregious inequality produced by neoliberalism?

It’s too early to tell.

But there are rumblings and murmurs enough to suggest that, at the very least, a conversation might be beginning.  Here’s a quote from the New York Times this morning.  The writer is Michelle Goldberg, a reliably socially oriented thinker …

“Since the election of Ronald Reagan, America has tended to value individual market choice over collective welfare. Even Democratic administrations have had to operate within what’s often called the neoliberal consensus. That consensus was crumbling before coronavirus, but the pandemic should annihilate it for good. This calamity has revealed that the fundamental insecurity of American life is a threat to us all.

“There’s no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said. “There are individual men and women and there are families.” Tell that to the families effectively under house arrest until society gets this right.”

Naturally America is replete with suitable right-wing counterpoints.  There are states whose governors still haven’t seen fit to react powerfully to the spread of the virus.

Yet the debate over what form an economic support plan should take, and the quite clear difference in impact the crisis will have on various income levels throughout the country, suggest a significant amount of unrest is building.  And, perhaps, more importantly in terms of getting action, even the elite is realizing that its heady wealth and income are insufficient to insulate it from the shoddiness of the healthcare system they refuse to innovate or invest in.  After all if a plutocrat cannot simply buy their own respirator because there aren’t any to be had, and if they suddenly have to make do like the rest of us, what’s being a plutocrat worth?

So, is this a Scheidel Moment?

Who knows.  But it might be if we shout loud enough.

  1. Helge Nome
    March 25, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    Yes, I think Capitalism, as we have known it, is showing its puffed up belly and vulnerability. I think we can expect the State to re-emerge as a powerful player exercising direct control.

  2. Andres
    March 25, 2020 at 6:08 pm

    Sadly, COVID-19 is probably not the (immediate) prelude to a Scheidel moment. The virus is simply Mother Nature giving us a warning shot across the bow, and if we ignore it then Mother Nature will get all medieval on us sometime in coming decades. As in something similar to the 14th century with millions dying from a combination of pandemics and global-warming induced inland droughts, coastal hurricanes, and the seafood supply ebbing as the oceans start to die from too much CO2.

    For historical perspective the real Scheidel moments came in:

    Europe 1648-1649. Elites realize that wars based on religion and attempts by any single dynasty to dominate Europe may lead not just to deaths of millions and depopulation, but also jeopardize the dynasties themselves. The Fronde, the wars of Portuguese and Catalan independence, and the execution of Charles I were only a few years away.

    Europe 1946. This was the only time in history that the fascists (and some of their neoliberal, pre-ordoliberal, and conservative enablers) were hung from the nearest lampposts. And the awareness of what brought the fascists to power seeped into even conservative publications like the London Times, as Scheidel pointed out, and led to the establishment of social democracy in Europe.

    In other words, Scheidel moments usually only come about after a continent-shaking catastrophe.

    What we’re going through now is not yet a Scheidel moment but the decades-long aftermath what might be called a Talleyrand moment. As in “They [the restored Bourbon rulers of France] have forgotten nothing and learned nothing”. Historical Talleyrand moments:

    Europe 1814-15. The original Talleyrand moment. The Congress of Vienna imposes an era of political repression in Europe lasting over three decades.

    US/UK. 1978-1980. Elites take advantage of inflation distress to restore neoliberal policies; Clinton and Obama fail to make a radical break with this regime. We are still navigating through the consequences.

    Russia. 1992. Neoliberal advisors help install a kleptocratic regime in Russia, which morphs into the Putin dictatorship in less than a decade.

    The only way to prevent Talleyrand regimes from collapsing into either post-catastrophe Scheidel moments or into bloody revolution is through non-violent revolution. It’s time we stopped focusing on elections and putting hope in the mirage of center-left political parties and start focusing on Ghandi/King strategies to bring the Talleyrand regimes to a screeching halt before natural disasters such as coronavirus do this for us.

  3. March 25, 2020 at 6:19 pm

    What sort of government will evolve to fill the gap left by capitalist government systems? I like the idea of a seven facet government with one facet in charge of maintaining full social cost and good pricing. A permanent constituent assembly is another modern idea.

    Agriculture remains the foundational culture. Capitalist agriculture is at war with Earth. Will it be young farmers uncontaminated by college who design the foundation culture that designs a seven facet government? How they will do it is a good story if humanity survives to tell it.

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    April 7, 2020 at 3:41 pm

    Neoliberalism’s economic formulas have always been a source of amusement among just about every economist, politician, and media follower. After all, George H.W. Bush called neoliberal economics “Voodoo” economics. Most in his political party agreed. So, it was never the logic or workability of neoliberal economics that sold it broadly to conservatives, or Democrats for that matter. The genius of the propagandists of neoliberal economics like Friedman and Greenspan was tying that economics to the notion of liberty. The story goes this way. Only neoliberal economic markets can assure the liberty of each individual American. The biggest splash of this linkage is found on websites, promotions, and media campaigns paid for or carried out by the members of the Koch network. I know folks like Koch, etc. don’t believe the “scam.” Their history shows a selective version of liberty supporting the notion that only some members of society (e.g., the rich, powerful, etc.) deserve liberty. This is not neoliberal economics. Koch, etc. want to control economic activity in full. Any sort of open, competitive market, as neoliberal economics supports is anathema to their view of society and the economy. So, it doesn’t matter if neoliberal economics is a failure. They never believed it work in the first place. They are simply put fascists, not neoliberals. But many economists still sell the con. As do many in the media and small confidence persons looking to grab a “piece of the pie.” In essence, this economic “theory” turns society into corrupt instrument for fascists to ensure their absolute control of society. Seen in this way, Thatcher’s famous remark takes on a much more sinister tint. As do the actions of “conservatives” in both the US and UK. All done, scarily in the name of liberty.

    • April 8, 2020 at 5:10 pm

      Yes. Usefully, though, there is another side of freedom. We are free to do only what we are capable of doing by having learned to control ourselves. We are not free to make mistakes: we just do. The wicked thing, I am sure we agree, is persuading others to make them.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 11, 2020 at 11:31 am

        So, long as it’s clear this is a spectrum, not an either/or situation. It boils down to how we can assess the effects of which parts of our actions. This also is the case with control. We can attempt to focus our actions on a particular goal or goals but this effort is never entirely successful. We often miss the goal or goals, or end up achieving goals we did not originally intend. We achieve what we achieve. “Mistakes” are after-the-events judgments on these achievements, by oneself or others.

    • April 8, 2020 at 9:30 pm

      “The genius of the propagandists of neoliberal economics like Friedman and Greenspan was tying that economics to the notion of liberty”.

      This seems to be relevant to the American obsession with freedom.

      “6 April 1320 – 700 years ago on Monday …

      To anyone who hasn’t yet cheered themselves up by watching the great film with Lesley Riddoch and others about the Declaration of Arbroath, I have put it up on the website –


      Well worth watching and passing on to others. Beautifully made with very appropriate music. Lasts just under half an hour but it passes in no time. The relevance to where we find ourselves today is quite startling”.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 11, 2020 at 12:18 pm

        Yes, my comment is about the American obsession with a particular view of freedom. Often defined by the term liberty, rather than freedom. As a nation with no national culture for many decades after its founding, the US focus has from the outset been on what all the immigrants to the US wanted, liberty. Often translated to “being left alone,” or as John Wayne said it, “allowing no hands being laid on oneself and laying no hands on the self of others.” That term “self” refers both the physical body (as Wayne mostly used it) and the soul or psyche of the person. This is, in my view the unique feature of the United States. And what it gave to the rest of the world. While the Scottish in the “Declaration of Arbroath” requested freedom for Scotland, the US Declaration of Independence” declares each person (except for slaves, women, and the poor, of course) a free individual with rights and duties (mostly rights) that cannot be abridged. This way of life has helped the US in invention, technology, and production but has created massive conflicts over which persons ought to receive these rights and duties and under what circumstances, while interfering almost to the point of absurdity in the nation’s abilities to address threats to the nation (e.g., wars, economic downturns, and, of course pandemics).

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