Pandemic politics and the past: history and the future of global inequality

Pandemic politics and the past: history and the future of global inequality

Julia McClure

Will the global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic lead to protests that will cause the end of capitalism, leading to the reduction of inequality and the emergence of a fairer society? Or will the global crisis be an opportunity for ‘disaster capitalism’, as Naomi Klein argues, and accelerate the increase in inequality?

Humanity is standing at a crossroads in history. The future feels uncertain, and many commentators are looking to history to make predictions. History is in the headlines, as journalists try to use history to understand how the world may change as a result of the coronavirus.

The journalist Paul Mason, who elsewhere has written about the end of capitalism, argued that the coronavirus could lead to protests that bring it about, just as the peasants revolts after the pandemic in the fourteen-century brought about an end to the inequalities of feudalism. But what can history tell us about the future of capitalism and inequality?

Do crises historically increase or decrease inequality?
We know that we live a vastly unequal world. According to the Institute of Policy Studies, the world’s richest 1 percent, those with more than $1 million, own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. But whether history teaches us that the trends of inequality will increase or decrease in the future has been the subject of academic debate.

In the nineteenth century Karl Marx developed the historical theory of capitalism, arguing that under the economic system of capitalism, wealth would accumulate in fewer and fewer hands until eventually the system eventually collapsed under the weight of its own inequality resulting in the transition to the fairer worlds of first socialism and then communism. In the twentieth century new beliefs about the historical progression of capitalism and inequality emerged.

In 1953 the American economist Simon Kuznets formulated the model that suggested that while inequality initially increased as the result of economic growth, it would gradually decrease. This model, known as Kuznets’ curves, was a contradiction of Marx’s ‘principle of infinite accumulation’.

Thomas Piketty described this change of belief about the course of capitalism as from ‘apocalypse to fairy tale’. Piketty’s ground-breaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century used new data to transform our understanding of the historical course of capitalism, arguing that the economic growth of the capitalist system engenders the consistent parallel growth in inequality, and warning that ‘long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying’.

Piketty argued that ‘the history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms’. While few would deny the historical trends towards economic inequality, there is less consensus on what drives (and periodically breaks) this trend, or on the relationship between economic inequality and other forms (political, social, cultural). Katharina Pistor has offered some answers, demonstrating that capitalism is legally coded; the political and legislative decisions of governments and the way that private corporations use law enable the processes of capitalism to create inequality.

The notion that crises, such as pandemics, can decrease inequality is well established. It was the subject of Walter Scheidel’s recent book The Great Leveller. Scheidel reports that during the Black Death of the fourteenth century ‘real wages doubled or tripled and labourers dined on meat and beer while landlords struggled to keep up appearances’. The example of the Black Death was also important for Mason’s prediction of the end of capitalism.

Mason drew upon Samuel Cohn’s, Lust for Liberty to argue that just as the fourteenth century post-pandemic protests brought about the end of the inequalities of feudalism, so can the pandemic bring about the end of capitalism and a world not characterised by the poverty and climate degradation that have become endemic to global capitalism. Yet the transition from feudalism to capitalism cannot be summarised as the transition from a less equal to a more equal world.

Cohn has elsewhere argued that the transformations brought about by the epidemic of the fourteenth century were paradoxical, and while material wellbeing increased for workers, their political rights declined as struggling elites sought to protect their status. The early modern period had winners and losers, and the hard-won gains of one generation could be lost by the next as the tides of history ebbed and flowed. History may hold some hope that change can happen, but it also teaches us historical change is complex, multidimensional, and hard fought.

The example of the global crisis of the seventeenth century also shows that the crisis produced winners and losers. Geoffrey Parker’s monumental Global Crisis, War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century shows while the millions that died around the world due to plague, poverty, famine, or war, were clear losers, those that survived benefited from the transition ‘from warfare states to welfare states’, although of course any gains made within and between nations would not have been enjoyed equally.

Understanding the winners and losers of the global crisis of the seventeenth century may hold important warnings for our times. European universities, for example, were plunged into deep and prolonged crisis. At the end of the seventeenth century, living standards in Europe began to rise for many as a result of the consumer revolution, but this came about with the degradation of people in other parts of the world who were subject to European colonialism and enslavement. In the nineteenth century this global inequality was entrenched by Europe’s shift to industrial capitalism, which was fuelled by the colonial appropriation in other parts of the world, in a phenomenon described by Kenneth Pomeranz as The Great Divergence.

While history may not help us to predict what the future trends in inequality may be, global history can help us to understand how the historical development of global capitalism set the conditions for emergence of this pandemic. Capitalism is driven by the continued need for the expansion of consumption and production. This has driven deforestation, which increases the risk from zoonotic diseases.

The globalization of supply chains facilitated its rapid spread around the world. The wealth inequalities between and within countries, along with variations in commodification of healthcare and medicine in some places, pre-determine the unequal impact of the coronavirus. Mike Davis has shown how global capitalism facilitated the spread of the coronavirus, but he concluded that capitalism itself is the disease.

What role can history play?
Many commentators have looked to history to try to explain the corona-crisis and predict the future, but history is a fickle friend that can tell more than one story. The historical discipline is a form of critical analysis, an evaluation of the quality of the empirical foundations of truth-claims, and a methodology for recovering the pluralities of possible meanings.

Writing on the Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche commented:

History, conceived as pure science, once it became sovereign, would be a kind of conclusion to living and a final reckoning for humanity. The historical culture, by contrast, is something healthy which bodes well for the future only when it comes with a powerful new stream of life, a developing culture, for example, and thus only at those times when it is ruled and led on by a higher power and does not itself govern and lead.

In short, history does not hold the answers in and of itself, but programmes for societal change should be historically informed.

To struggle for historical understanding, and to understand how our actions will create tomorrow’s history is part of the responsibility of the present. Walter Benjamin, who wrote his On the Concept of History in the context of the crisis of fascism and genocide in Europe warned that: ‘to articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger’.

Whatever history can teach us about how crises impact upon the landscapes of inequality, historical causality is not a given fact. As Benjamin wrote, ‘historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus of various moments of history. But no state of affairs is, as a cause, already a historical one. It becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia.’ The pandemic in and of itself is a weak causal factor, it is how societies respond to the pandemic that will shape the future of inequality.


Julia McClure is a Lecturer in Late Medieval/Early Modern Global History at the University of Glasgow.

Image Credit: The Battle of the Money Bags and Strong Boxes, British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)