Although these days I concern myself with the role of technology in (mostly educational) organisations, I began my career as a History teacher. There are certain periods of the past that fascinate me, and one of these — in a rather macabre fashion &madsh; is the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. In England it led to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and that, in turn, led to the end of the feudal system that William of Normandy introduced post-1066.
In other words, humans do a good job of forgetting man-made hierarchical power relationships at times of intense strife. I was reminded of this when reading an article from The Atlantic entitled The Only Thing, Historically, That’s Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe, which outlines a bit of a paradox:
If history is any indication, then, the resurgence of inequality since the 1980s should not have come as a surprise. The effects of violent leveling invariably abate over time: Populations recover when plagues subside, failed states are replaced by newcomers. By now the aftershocks of the 20th century’s great wars have faded. Top tax rates and union membership are down, communism is defunct, and globalization, however reviled, is (still) in full swing. The four levelling forces will not return any time soon: Technology has made mass warfare obsolete; violent, redistributive revolution has lost its appeal; most states are more resilient than they used to be; and advances in genetics will help humanity ward off novel germs.
So, if you’re among the poorest in society and want your whole class to rise with you, the best you can hope for is an immense catastrophe that shocks the system into change. During times of peace the rich just get richer. Sad, but historically true. Hopefully we can find ways round that in future — perhaps through a global system of UBI.
Image CC BY-NC Shawn Harquail