Working People Have been Destroyed by Pandemics Throughout History

By Peter Scheckner April 9, 2020

Review of The Greater Leveler: Violence and the History from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century Inequality by Walter Scheidel (Princeton and Oxford, 2017) and “Pandemics and the Shape of Human History: Outbreaks have sparked riots and propelled public-health innovations, prefigured revolutions and redrawn maps.” by Elizabeth Kolbert, from The New Yorker, April 6, 2020 edition, written March 30, 2020

In March of this year, commenting on the novel coronavirus pandemic, Vijay Prashad wrote the following in an editorial that appeared in the April 8, 2020 edition of Consortium News, an independent on-line political review:

“We won’t go back to normal, because normal was the problem. Certainly, the coronavirus is a serious matter and certainly its spread is a consequence of its own danger to the human body; but there are social issues here that bear serious thought. Key to any discussion has to be the sheer collapse of state institutions in most of the capitalist world, where these institutions have been privatized, and where private institutions have operated to minimize costs and maximize profit.

Neoliberalism is the political philosophy that has urged governments over the course of the past 50 years to cut social spending, cut taxes and allow the magical markets to allocate resources effectively. The virus has done damage; but the real damage has been done by this political philosophy. Now, in the midst of the novel coronavirus, it seems impossible to imagine a return to the old world, the world that left us so helpless before the arrival of these deadly microscopic particles. Waves of anxiety prevail; death continues to stalk us. If there is a future, we say to each other, it cannot mimic the past.”  

Vijay Prashad is a Marxist journalist from India, the author of twenty-five books, and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.  The following review of the Scheidel and Kolbert works should be framed by Prashad’s remarks: pandemics have been around for thousands of years, and although human beings cannot always control when they begin, we can limit their potential lethality. Unless humanity acts decisively to create a world not based on profit, where at present the public comes last and social inequality is a given, if recurrent plagues don’t kill us, capitalism will.

Death by the American System

Epidemics aside, there are many ways that the American health care system fails to protect citizens. As documented by the many articles on racist health care in this blog and elsewhere, there are disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, asthma and cancer among black, Native American, immigrant and poor Americans. But even wealthier citizens do poorly versus the rest of the developed world on incidence and survival of many illnesses because of our profit-driven health care system. Another example of social decay and pharmaceutical profiteering is that in one year, 2016, 116 Americans died every day from opioid-related drug overdoses, and from 1999 to 2017, more than 702,000 people in this country died from a drug overdose, perhaps many more than will die from COVID-19. Drugs-related deaths is one reason the life expectancy of Americans has declined for three consecutive years. Disastrous health habits and a drastically underfunded and racist health care system in the US may be the equivalent of a predictable and annual coronavirus-like epidemic. As it is, the present pandemic is, to date, more lethal in the United States than in any other country. When it shortly invades the poorer nations that have been decimated by US and European imperialism, the toll will be unimaginable.

“Pandemics and the Shape of Human History” and The Great Leveler explore how throughout millennia pandemics, such as the one we are now living under, have shaped and reshaped societies. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, in 430, with the first recorded pandemic– in Athens—diseases spread from region to region.  Global plagues have ended empires, stimulated the introduction of African slavery into the Americas, facilitated the early spread of Christianity and the start of Islam in the seventh century, and contributed to climate change by destroying oxygen-producing, carbon dioxide-absorbing vegetation.

Pandemics Aside, the Ruling Class Rises Again

Neither Scheidel nor Kolbert are Marxist or advocates of revolution in any sense, though both acknowledge some basic dialectical principles concerning social and political evolution: historical change is constant; social transformations are often profoundly violent and nearly impossible to predict; a repressed citizenry will not be forever passive; and over the millennia state power rests precariously upon the heads of the elites. Kolbert, for example, suggests that the Russian Revolution in 1905 may have been spurred in part by the state cracking down on rioters during the cholera epidemic in the Ukraine and St. Petersburg in the 1890s.

Pandemics, Kolbert documents, greatly accelerate historical forces already at work. European diseases made Spain’s conquest of the Americas so much easier, and they also ruined other imperialist ambitions:

“Smallpox helped the Spanish conquer the Aztec and Incan Empires, but other diseases [like measles and bubonic plague] helped defeat colonial powers. During the Haitian Revolution, for example, Napoleon tried to retake the French colony, in 1802, with some fifty thousand men. So many of his soldiers died from yellow fever that, after a year, he gave up on the attempt, and also decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the Americans.”

The diseases the European colonizers both unwittingly and deliberately introduced into the Americas probably killed 90% of the 60 million indigenous people living in the Caribbean, and Central and South America. In effect, weaponizing diseases made the work of the Spanish conquistadores much easier. Furthermore, so many of the native peoples were murdered or died from imported diseases, that the Spanish (and Portuguese) began the African slave trade. The Spanish began importing African slaves into the Caribbean as early as 1502 to work on their sugar plantations.                                                                          

For hundreds of years beginning with the recurrent bubonic plagues in the fourteenth century in Europe and the diseases of smallpox, malaria, typhus, the plague, and measles in the New World in the sixteenth century, a rule of thumb emerged: while workers and peasants were the main victims of epidemics, significantly fewer workers or peasants resulted in higher wages. In the very short run, in other words, these pandemics were a great leveler of social inequality. But, Scheidel makes clear, all these workers’ gains were short lived.  Throughout both Europe and the New World, “this phase [where workers benefitted from a profound labor shortage] was followed by a return to the unhappy status quo ante as population grew and the bargaining power of workers declined.”

Furthermore, as Scheidel documents, “after the initial shock of the Black Death and its immediate recurrences, which hit landowners who were ill-prepared to deal with the economic consequences, the propertied classes eventually developed strategies for protecting their estates in times of demographic shocks.” In other words, the various ruling classes from Mexico to Great Britain learned how to blunt the economic blows of diminishing populations and figured out how to gain back all their old social privileges. In fact, Scheidel writes, “not only did the concentration of landholdings intensify after the mid-fifteenth century and generally rise from then on, but also more remarkably, the plague recurrence of 1630, which was the worst regional mortality crisis since the Black Death itself and which is thought to have killed as much as a third of the population of northern Italy, failed to have any comparable effect on inequality.”

Scheidel’s book overall is both a record of and a warning that over time social inequality has only been concretely addressed by what he calls the “Four Horsemen of Leveling,” the “four different kinds of violent raptures [that] have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state failures, and lethal pandemics.” Material evidence of prehistoric social inequality is hard to concretely define and authenticate. Scheidel tells us that “the most famous example of unearned status and inequality comes from Sungir, a Pleistocene site [north of Moscow] whose remains date from about 30,000 to 34,000 years ago,” around the time of the last Ice Age. Gross social inequities only grew across history into the present, and the first two sentences of Scheidel’s book make this clear: “How many billionaires does it take to match the net worth of half of the world’s population? In 2015 the richest sixty-two persons on the planet owned as much private net wealth as the poor half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people . . . [and] the wealthiest twenty Americans currently own as much as the bottom half of their country’s households taken together.” Since the Stone Age, the author asserts, peaceful means rarely achieved any degree of economic equality.

Pandemics (like people) literally fashion history. In 541 in the Common Era, the Justinian plague spread through Palestine and the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire). By the time it ended around 750, perhaps 50 million people died, 26% of the world’s population. This first recorded pandemic led to the demise of the Justinian Empire and probably accelerated the growth of Islam in the Seventh Century by eliminating its Roman competitors. Kolbert sums up the consequences of the Justinian Plague this way:

“A powerful new religion, Islam, had arisen, and its followers ruled territory that included a great deal of what had been Justinian’s empire, along with the Arabian Peninsula. Much of Western Europe, meanwhile, had come under the control of the Franks. Rome had been reduced to about thirty thousand people, roughly the population of present-day Mamaroneck. Was the pestilence partly responsible? If so, history is written not only by men but also by microbes.”

In 1347 the Black Death, the bubonic plague, moved from its origin in China to the Mediterranean to North Africa and then to the Britain and Scandinavia, ultimately killing by 1351 about 25 million people, roughly one third of the world’s population. During this time it contributed to the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France; it ended the feudal system in England; and it halted the Vikings’ imperial ambitions in Western Europe and in North America.

We Must Believe Revolutionary Change is Possible

Although Scheidel credits communist revolutions in the twentieth century with leveling class differences, he argues such egalitarianism came at too high a price to want to repeat. Like most bourgeois historians, he believes every capitalist assertion about the evils of communism and repeats the wildly exaggerated claims that communist revolutionary violence was responsible for up to 100 million deaths, and concludes that “in its tragic brutality, transformative communist revolution is mass mobilization warfare’s equal.”  In addition, his unwillingness to credit the early accomplishments of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions with the rapid improvements in public health, standard of living, defeat of racism and inequality that were made leaves Scheidel with few alternatives. A better path is to study the accomplishments of revolution and try and analyze the mistakes that led back to capitalism. Scheidel is not interested in approximating the cumulative death count caused by a market economy in terms of racism, imperialist wars, colonization, slavery, ordinary poverty or, most obviously, in its fight-to-the-death approach of containing communism wherever and whenever it has appeared since, at least, the Paris Commune of the 1870s.


Paradoxically, given the author’s antipathy for revolutionary violence, the overall thesis of Scheidel’s book is this: Given the thousands of years of social inequality across the globe, there are no peaceful mechanisms that lower inequality for any significant period of time. “Democracy does not of itself mitigate inequality . . . and there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.”

In 2009 Mark Risher, a British political theorist, popularized the notion of “capitalist realism,” the belief that capitalism is the world’s only viable political and economic system, and that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. Fredric Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, upended this bit of political cynicism: “Someone once said that it is easer to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can no revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”

Scheidels’s book ends impaled on an irreconcilable dilemma: history has shown that social inequalities are never balanced over the long run by peacefully relying on the good nature of the state, and just as equally, the author argues, political violence has only ever ended “in sorrow.”

Based on these two works and the historical retrospective as to the role of pandemics (in both pieces being reviewed) and wars, revolutions and state collapse in Scheidel’s, one can formulate some conclusions, reinforced by the current pandemic, COVOD-19.

First, these biological and political occurrences all have profound social consequences and characteristics. Like most events in society, even disease is political. It is profoundly ingenuous to argue that pandemics are color or social class blind. Scheidel’s book makes it clear that the pandemics beginning in the fourteenth century nearly decimated the working and peasant classes of both the Old and New Worlds. Our current pandemic is clearly victimizing black and poor people disproportionately. A headline in The New York Times on April 8 was this: “Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infections in Some States.” Data on race and coronavirus may be limited, but ” disparate rates of sickness–and death–have emerged in some places–and the worrying trend is playing out across the country.” Since the US is based on the capitalist principle of all for the few and little for the many, it has never had a public health care system even remotely prepared to deal with the day to day well-being of millions of Americans with either no health insurance or insufficient coverage. Why be surprised that health care in American dealing with a pandemic is like the Dutch boy putting his finger in dikes about to be flooded?

Another lesson to be drawn is that since pandemics, like war, like catastrophic climate change, and like the current and probably worsening economic depression, greatly inflame all the contradictions of the economic/political American system, this is the moment to consciously figure out how to turn this crisis to the advantage of most of America’s vulnerable population – namely nearly everyone.

Finally, and probably the most important takeaway lesson from the Scheidel book is this: those people who run the state -those who hold on political power-get to decide who lives and who dies -and for how long. The ruling class rather quickly learned how to maintain their social privileges despite the deaths of millions –because the deaths of million–who might have otherwise threatened their rule. The gains of workers and peasants earned on Monday because their labor was in short supply were lost by the weekend, if not by Wednesday, because, for a multiplicity of reason, they were dominated by a rapacious economic/political class. Without state power, at the of the day, people everywhere live at the mercy at what is in 2020 a tiny fraction of one percent of the world’s population. Perhaps the novel coronavirus pandemic will be a cruel by effective teacher of these truths.


Walter Scheidel is a professor in the Humanities, Classics, and History, and Human Biology at Stanford University. Elizabeth Kolbert is an American journalist and author and visiting fellow at Williams College and best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She writes on environmental subjects for The New Yorker magazine.

Peter Schekner is a retired professor of literature at Ramapo College, NJ








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