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To reduce the world history of Gini coefficients

Another example of history writing.

This article is machine translated by Google from Norwegian

The text is written by David Graeber together with David Wengrow / Eurozine

Let's take a closer look at Ian Morris' book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values ​​Evolve. Here Morris attempts to put archaeological, historical and anthropological findings into dialogue with the work of economists, such as Thomas Piketty's theories of the causes of inequality in the modern world or Sir Tony Atkinson's more practical Inequeality: What can be Done?.

The "deep time" of human history, Morris announces, has something important to tell us about these issues – but only if we establish a uniform method of inequality that can be applied across the historical span. He does this by translating the "values" of the Ice Age hunter-gatherer societies and the Neolithic farmers into concepts used by today's economists, and then applying these to confirm Gini coefficients or formal inequality rankings.  Morris has an entirely materialistic perspective. He separates human history into the three big F's from the book's title, depending on how humans produce heat. All societies, he argues, have an "optimal" level of social inequality linked to society's dominant method of energy recovery.

Morris gives us actual figures, quantified prehistoric income in US dollars pegged to 1990 currency levels, in an article for The New York Times in 2015. He also assumes that the hunters and gatherers who lived in the last ice age mostly gathered in small groups. Their consumption was very low, equivalent to about 1 dollar and 10 cents a day, and thus they enjoyed a Gini coefficient of about 0,25 – that is, about as low as the level can be – since there was little profit or capital a potential elite could hijack. Agricultural society – and for Morris this includes everything from the 9000-year-old Neolithic village of Çatalhöyük to Kublai Khan's China to France under Louis XIV - were more populous and wealthy, had an average consumption of between $ 1,50 and $ 2,20 per person per day and were able to collect a surplus of resources. But most also worked harder, and under worse conditions, and thus agricultural societies often had a much greater degree of social inequality.

Fossil-based societies should have really changed this by freeing us from the wear and tear of physical labor, thus giving us more reasonable Gini coefficients that are closer to the level of similarity to our prehistoric hunter-gatherer relatives. And for a while it seemed like this was about to happen, but for some reason (which Morris doesn't quite understand) our modern society has reversed the fact that the world's wealth lies in the hands of a tiny global elite.

Now let's focus on one number: the paleolithic income of $ 1,10 per day. Exactly where does that figure come from? Probably, the calculations have something to do with the caloric level in the daily food intake. But if we now compare this to a modern day income, we would also not have to take into account all the palaeolithic hunter and sanctuary peoples who got paid for free, which we must pay today: free security, free conflict resolution, free basic education, free elderly care, free medicine, not to mention the cost of entertainment, music, storytelling and religious services? 

Even when it comes to food, we have to think about the quality: After all, we're talking about 100 percent organic, free-range products washed down with the purest spring water you can imagine. Much of today's income goes to mortgage and rental expenses, but see for yourself the price of a prime campsite in the paleolithic areas along the Dordogne or Vézère rivers. Not to mention the great evening courses in naturalistic cave painting and ivory carving – and think of all the exclusive fur cabinets. This must then cost considerably more than $ 1,10 a day, even at the dollar exchange rate of 1990. It is not without reason that Marshall Sahlins called the hunter and sank people "the first prosperous society". Such a life today would not have been cheap.

Now we are a bit silly, but that is our point. Reducing the world history of Gini coefficients will inevitably result in a bullet. And bleak prospects. Morris believes, at least, that something is wrong with today's galloping increases in global inequality. In contrast, historian Walter Scheidel has used Piketty-inspired readings of human history to reach his most depressing conclusion in the book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century from 2017 when he says we can't do anything about the inequality in the world. Civilizations always surrender the power of a small elite to an ever-increasing share of the cake. 

The only thing that has succeeded in trapping them is catastrophic events such as war, plague, suffering and death. Half-hearted measures do not work. So, if you do not want to go back to living in a cave or die in a nuclear war (which may also result in survivors having to live in caves), you just have to find yourself in the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates exists. 

David Graeber
Graeber was Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. (died Sept 2020)

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