Can a pandemic remake society? A historian explains.
Health care workers in New York and California are demanding safer working conditions amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s happened before. Here’s what it would take to happen again.

A big question about the coronavirus pandemic is how much change it will leave in its wake. Are we in the midst of a massive, potentially revolutionary transformation of society? Or are we experiencing an intense shock that will change our society in the short term but leave it fundamentally intact?

Economic historian Walter Scheidel explored the former category — revolutionary transformations — in his influential 2017 book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First CenturyIn that book, Scheidel identifies four classes of events — lethal pandemics, major wars, state failures, and revolutions — that reshape societies by flattening economic inequalities. Each of these events, in their own way, levels the playing field and paves the way for a new order.


The US doesn’t just need to flatten the curve. It needs to “raise the line.”

I spoke to Scheidel by phone about how the coronavirus might transform American society and if it has the potential to become a “leveling” event of the sort we haven’t seen at least since World War II.

He argued that it’s possible — but how far-reaching the transformation is depends on what happens in the coming months.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You’re a historian who has studied how “shock events” can remake societies. Does the coronavirus strike you as this level of catastrophe?

Walter Scheidel

We don’t know yet, but it could turn out to be such an event. It has certainly got the potential to be a crisis of that magnitude. It may sound banal, but it really depends on how quickly we’re able to return to the status quo.

Let’s assume there’s an effective treatment and we’ll get a vaccine soon and there is no depression as a result of those achievements. In that case, this looks a lot more like the 2008 financial crash, which is to say things are disrupted, there’s a lot of suffering, but we gradually return to normal. And in the end, the levels of inequality in our society and the general policy preferences of the majority of people may get tweaked a little, but they’re not altered in any significant way.

If, on the other hand, this turns into something more serious, where we have a hard time getting a handle on it in terms of dealing with the virus or in terms of the economic repercussions on a global scale, and it turns into something more like the Great Depression, then really all bets are off. And the potential for radical sweeping change is much, much higher.

One thing I’ve learned from studying the history of these moments is that it really doesn’t take all that much to shift the preferences of a large enough share of the electorate in a certain direction to get this kind of change going. We saw this in the ’30s and we could see it again.

Sean Illing

It’s interesting that you think it doesn’t take all that much to shift the preferences of the majority of the electorate. But first let’s just say, for the sake of this conversation, that we don’t get our hands around this thing, and this becomes much more like the Great Depression than the Great Recession.

What might that look like on the ground?

Walter Scheidel

Well, in that case, if you have persistent high unemployment and an unsustainable debt load and lots of businesses that fail, and ultimately some kind of destabilization of the financial sector as well because you can’t just create new trillions out of nowhere forever, then we’re looking at massive levels of state intervention and regulation in the private sector, much more protections for workers who are unemployed or for people who are part of the precariat and need help regaining their footing. The health care sector would likely be transformed as it falls under tremendous financial and political pressure.

So we may not get something as massive as the New Deal, but something closer to socialized health care, stronger labor protections, more public works projects, etc. No matter how you look at it, if there’s a big shift after this, it’ll be in the direction of a more invasive and active role of the state and a more progressive taxation scheme on private and corporate incomes is almost certain under these circumstances because you can’t just create this out of nothing — there has to be some balancing of these growing deficits.

And again, this is roughly what happened in the ’30s, so we have a blueprint, we’ve been here before. The worse this crisis gets, the longer it lasts, the closer we get to this scenario. I wouldn’t say it’s likely right now, but certainly plausible.

Sean Illing

You mentioned earlier that this may be the kind of event that causes people to rethink their view of the world and government and society more generally. Are there a lot of examples in history of this kind of shift taking place in such a short window of time?

Walter Scheidel

There aren’t a lot of examples but it does happen. The Black Death in the late Middle Ages is an obvious example. Before that pandemic, people accepted this idea that the nobility was in charge, that the Catholic Church was in charge, and that everyone should toe the line. But then there’s massive disruption where a third of the population dies, and all of a sudden all bets are off and people resist the nobility and they reject all these traditional obligations. Ultimately, people said the hell with all that, these structures can’t protect me anyway, and that paved the way for the Reformation eventually.

You see these sorts of shifts in the ’30s as well. There was something called the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age, and in the Progressive Age, there was supposed to have been a lot of change — but there wasn’t really. There were some measures against cartels and monopolies but inequality didn’t really go down. It didn’t go down as a result of World War I because World War I was not a big deal in the US, unlike in Europe.

But inequality shot up in the ’20s and there was real labor conflict and a fear of communism and all the rest. And then you get the Great Depression and that was a big-enough shock to shift the preferences of the population in another direction.

Sean Illing

We don’t seem to be approaching that kind of shift, at least not yet.

Walter Scheidel

Not yet, but remember this current crisis isn’t unfolding in a vacuum. We had a financial crisis 12 years ago that set the scene for this. People didn’t talk all that much about inequality before 2008, but it very much entered the public consciousness after that, and you’ve had a real sea change in the discourse around capitalism and socialism.

So it’s important to keep all of this context in mind when thinking about this moment and what it means and where it might lead. There is already a sense that things are going the wrong way, so it’s not unthinkable that we’re one major crisis away from a real change in our society.

Sean Illing

Your book is all about these great cataclysmic events that “level” societies, but what makes a leveling event? How is it different from a crisis that may upend a society but doesn’t fundamentally remake it?

Walter Scheidel

I would say a leveling is a pretty sudden and significant reduction in the standard metrics of economic inequality, because inequality fluctuates all the time. If you have proper statistics, it goes up and it goes down within a certain range. But anything that suddenly takes it out of that range and causes it to plummet is what I’d call a leveling event.

And as it turns out, these events are not common in history. It’s extremely rare that a society enters into a crisis with a clear power structure and emerges on the other end with a totally blank slate.

Sean Illing

Among the events that do fit that description, how many were pandemics?

Walter Scheidel

Well, there were pandemics that occurred before recorded history that we just don’t know much about, but we have solid evidence for two. The earliest we can say much about was the first appearance of bubonic plague in Europe and the rest of Eurasia in the sixth century AD, which is probably similar to the Black Death in the late Middle Ages.

In the wake of the first bubonic plague, we have data showing that real incomes go up by 200 percent for regular farmworkers. The people who survived had way more power and leverage than they did before the disease struck. Societies were completely transformed by the event.

And then 800 years later we have the Black Death, the second great pandemic of bubonic plague, and it spread all over the Old World and in northern parts of Europe. And it had a very similar effect: The rich were far less rich after the plague, and the poor were less poor. The plague returned in the 17th century, though on a somewhat smaller scale. And this time the elites were better prepared. They learned from the previous pandemics. So in that case, you don’t see as much leveling in the aftermath.

The thing about these cases is that they show that you really need a catastrophic pandemic that decimates the population to see this sort of leveling effect. I don’t think we’re going to see that today, and for what it’s worth, we didn’t see this 100 years ago after the Spanish flu, either.

Sean Illing

Is that because the coronavirus isn’t as lethal as those earlier plagues or is it because the structure of the economy is just wildly different?

Walter Scheidel

It’s both. The mortality rate of coronavirus is probably going to be at least an order of magnitude less than the Black Plague. And its lethal impact is concentrated among people who are primarily out of the workforce, so that’s a huge factor.

The economy is also very different today. It’s a service economy, it’s not an agrarian economy, so the dynamics are once again going to be quite different. So I think the main leveling potential in this crisis lies in the policy and in the political response in terms of how much it alters people’s preferences and what they’re willing to vote for. That could be a major shift in our society, but not the sort of leveling effect I described above.

Sean Illing

Since your book is about how unequal societies are leveled by these major events, I’m curious if you think there’s something about highly unequal societies that makes them uniquely susceptible to collapse under intense pressure?

Walter Scheidel

That’s a great question, and I have to tell you that it just hasn’t been formally studied. But it’s an important question and I think it’s worth exploring.

Sean Illing

Well, I’ll just ask about the US in that case. How do levels of inequality in the US right now compare with the levels of inequality in the leveled societies you discuss in your book?

Walter Scheidel

America is still a democracy, so it’s more robust in that sense, and that’s something it doesn’t have in common with earlier societies or even contemporary developing countries that would buckle under comparable pressure. So it’s quite different in that way.

But I think the best comparison is probably between the US and other high-income countries, where you see the US is more polarized and more unequal economically and racially and in other ways. The question is going to be, is the US going to suffer more because of this crisis than other countries that are more centralized or less unequal?

The truth is that we won’t have any answers to these questions until the dust finally settles.

Sean Illing

I want to be very careful about the way I frame what I’m about to ask you because it goes without saying that a pandemic is horrific and no one wants to see it. At the same time, your book is all about how unequal societies are rendered more equal as a result of these rupturing events. Was that, ultimately, a positive thing for these societies? Did they end up more stable in the long run because they were reordered?

Walter Scheidel

It’s a complicated question because the types of unravelings are so different. I think we have to distinguish between pre-modern and modern history. So anything that happens before the 20th century is fundamentally different. If you look at pre-modern history, what you see is that everyone is worse off than before if the state collapses. So yes, society is leveled but it doesn’t help anybody and it certainly doesn’t lead to more stability — in fact, it leads to the opposite.

As for plagues, you get an improvement in living conditions for the survivors, for the working masses of the population, for a certain amount of time, which can be quite long. It can last for a whole generation, so that’s pretty good. It doesn’t necessarily make societies more or less stable. It just reconfigures the distribution of wealth.

In the 20th century, you could say that World War II and the Great Depression did ultimately stabilize states and make them less brittle, less polarized, and more cohesive. So you might say that that was a beneficial outcome. But we can only really talk about the benefits after we’ve bracketed out all the immense pain and suffering experienced during the war. So it’s always an ugly trade-off.

Sean Illing

What do you think American society looks like on the other side of this?

Walter Scheidel

Well, I can see one of two scenarios playing out. One is that we more or less return to the status quo within a reasonable amount of time. In that case, I think the most likely outcome is business as usual with some tweaking of the existing arrangements.

If, for whatever reason, this turns out to be a more prolonged and severe crisis, then I think the more likely outcome is radical change in terms of a greater role of the state, more intervention in the private sector, higher taxes, nationalizations of health care and other sectors. And in order to make that happen, the state needs to be more present in the economy, in the private sector to organize workers, and someone has to pay for it. And that equates to a more progressive setup by definition. There’s just no other way in a market economy of doing that.

But we just can’t say what’s going to happen a year from now. You could say that the establishment learned a lot 12 years ago during the financial crisis. It learned how to deal with this kind of sudden disruption. If that crisis hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have these massive packages almost overnight. This had to be learned and then applied again. In that way, the status quo is more defended because the establishment knows what to do to maintain it.

But at some point every game comes to an end. If the emergency measures we’re seeing now don’t work or don’t go far enough, then it wouldn’t take that much to shift the majority of the electorate in a completely different direction.

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