How 1910s levels of inequality can lead to 1940s levels of war
The first half of last century was some shit, and it looks like we’re sailing into it again. Places like America are almost exactly back to 1910s levels of inequality, similar levels to Europe when it got unstable AF. Now we’re in the middle of another pandemic, fucking fascists are back, and history is rhyming hard. We would be wise to listen.
Right now we’re living in another gilded age, just like last century before it all went to shit. Billionaires like Jack Dorsey are selling tweet for $2.5 million dollars while Americans go without running water. Drug execs have become pandemic billionaires while billions go without vaccines. I am not saying that inequality causes war, but it is the dry tinder that makes history burn.
You can see the idea that something is terribly wrong pervading the public consciousness. Everyone from Trumpists to Bernie supporters agree that something is wrong, they just disagree on solutions. Nationalists and internationalists, capitalists and communists, everyone agrees that something needs to be done, they just disagree on what. We live in a time of growing conflict. Last century this grew into war.
Today, we view the world wars as this terrible time that slowed progress, but according to Piketty it was this destruction (of capital) that led to reduction in inequality that we saw for years. The simplest way is to reduce inequality is to just reduce everything to rubble. Like slash-and-burn farming, you light everything on fire so new things can grow. This happened all over the world.
The sharp reduction in income inequality that we observe in almost all the rich countries between 1914 and 1945 was due above all to the world wars and the violent economic and political shocks they entailed (especially for people with large fortunes)....
In fact, Kuznets himself was well aware that the compression of high US incomes between 1913 and 1948 was largely accidental. It stemmed in large part from multiple shocks triggered by the Great Depression and World War II and had little to do with any natural or automatic process. (Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century)
Europe was completely leveled, resulting in the collapse of colonialism and decades of smaller global wars. Germany and Japan came back from literal ash and bone. China destroyed the “Four Olds” until the 1970s, when it began to grow back new. America only passed the New Deal because the old deal was so bad. What we call turmoil, the interruption of progress, was in fact the disruption that equality needed to grow.
And now we’ve fucked it all up again. They say that those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. They should just say that people are dummies, and we’re doomed.
Power Concedes Nothing
We do not think about history, or even the possibility that it is repeating, even as we get matching pandemics in 1918 and 2019. We look at the big problems of the day — chief among them inequality — and think that this is going to be gradually eroded away. That the rich are going to give up their riches, the powerful their power, and everything will be fine. But it didn’t happen this way. It never happens this way. Change, big change, is extremely violent. Last century over 100 million people died.
It’s not that inequality causes these shocks, but it’s certainly highly correlated. Inequality creates a bunch of pissed off people, and a broad demand for change. The problem is that this demand has many suppliers.
Today Republicans and Democrats, they all agree that something is wrong. Black Lives Matters and Blue Lives Matters both agree that there’s a problem. Many people hate the New York Times for completely different reasons. The answer is not a compromise between these positions. They’re pulling in opposite directions. This is a conflict. Right now it’s mostly limited to words and political processes, but this shit did not stay contained last century, and we’re fools to think we’re immune.
How Did We Get Here?
Let me return to inequality to show just how flammable our situation is. In America, they have been systematically dismantling all the social programs and even the basic idea of governance that they built to protect themselves after the Great Depression and all that shit.
As Piketty says, capital has reconstituted itself. Americans are doing the same thing and expecting different results. It’s one definition of insanity. It’s like you blow up the Death Star once and then it fucking comes back. Obviously I guess. There’s too much money in the sequels.
Now America is back in a very similar situation to the early 1900s. A pandemic. A zombie stock market. A new, galling, guilded age. People are fucking pissed, in all directions. It’s a tinder keg. Meanwhile there is no shortage of Franz Ferdinands in the word, or conflicts, or protests. Hell, there’s already plenty of wars.
I am not predicting World War III. I’m just saying that we’re fools to ignore history. After the relative boredom of the 1990s (the ‘end of history’) we suddenly live in very interesting times. Which is a curse. You can feel change in the air, which is frankly invigorating, but we also have to remember how change happens, which is fucking horrible.
If history is repeating, and if we’re not learning from history, we’re only headed to one place. War.