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Key Theme Four: Haves and Have-Nots

In the paleolithic era, which accounts for most of human history, few differences of wealth, power, or social status separated individuals from one another. Hunter-gatherer communities lived mobile lives, moving from camp to camp and carrying all their possessions with them. Individuals or families might possess lightweight objects, such as ornaments or weapons, but they did not accumulate large amounts of material goods because they simply could not lug them around.

Much more important to these communities were their intangible possessions: networks of family and friends, knowledge of the environment, rights to use land, and rituals. All these elements of culture were easy to carry around. Besides, hunter-gatherers knew that they did not have to store up goods because the food and other materials they needed were all around them. The idea of personal wealth had little meaning.

When settled agricultural communities emerged about 10,000 years ago, however, the rules began to change. Unlike foragers, who collected their food when they needed it, farmers harvested their crops once or twice a year and then had to store them in granaries. Because they stayed in one place most of the year, farmers had no problems storing things. But as individuals began to accumulate stored wealth and to live in larger, denser settlements, they had to confront the question of who had the right to consume supplies of wealth. An individual might wonder, "Can I just break into my neighbor's grain store if I feel hungry?" The idea of personal "ownership" became more important and more complex.

In principle, people might have thought that everyone should have an equal share of whatever was available. In small farming communities, rough equality in access to resources was probably workable. In modern times, this ideal of whole societies sharing resources has been at the core of the ideology of socialism. In no community, however, were resources distributed exactly equally. In practice, as members of societies accumulated more and more wealth, distribution of resources became more and more lopsided.

Today, the allocation of the world's wealth is more uneven than ever before. Some individuals and groups have become extremely wealthy, while others have become poorer. Today, these disparities are global.

In 1998, individuals living in the world's richer countries spent on average about $16,000 on consumption. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa they spent about $350. As a recent United Nations publication puts it: "It takes roughly 5 hectares [12.35 acres] of productive ecosystem to support the average U.S. citizen's consumption of goods and services versus less than 0.5 hectares [1.23 acres] to support consumption levels of the average citizen in the developing world." [World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life (Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute, 2000), 23.]

Beaver Cleaver and His Family
"Leave It to Beaver," a popular TV show that ran from 1957 to 1963, comically depicted the life of an affluent middle class American family of the 1950s.

Why has wealth been distributed so unevenly since the appearance of agrarian societies? Why have some people lived in astonishing luxury and others in grinding poverty? This is one of the most important questions we can ask about the history of the past 10,000 years.

In the last 10,000 years, the distribution of wealth and the exercise of power have been closely linked (See Key Theme 3). As people started living together in large communities, they had to accept leaders to coordinate the activities of the group as a whole. Those leaders had to be given power over people, but they also needed control over the community's wealth in order to manage large projects, notably construction and warfare.

In studies of many different types of human communities, anthropologists have shown that, as groups get larger and more complex, their wealth tends to get distributed more and more unequally. In rural villages of no more than a few hundred people, inequalities cannot be that great. Even in them, however, some families tend to have access to more wealth than others, perhaps because they work harder, have bigger families, or control better land.

In larger societies, households may willingly give up some of their wealth to priests or chiefs, who then reserve part of it for group tasks such as pacifying the gods, building monuments, or fighting neighbors. In this way, leaders end up controlling more wealth than most other people do. Leaders may even treat some people as their property, that is, as slaves. (For most of history, human labor has been the main source of energy. Therefore, controlling slaves was like controlling oil or coal today.)

Eventually, leaders started using the wealth they controlled to pay for personal bodyguards, attendants, gangs of "enforcers", and even armies. Once they had this "muscle," they could often impose their will on other members of the community, putting down anyone who resisted their rule. Therefore, it is no wonder that until recent centuries the wealthy have almost always been the most powerful. And the powerful-monarchs, aristocrats, high officers, religious authorities-have almost always lived much more comfortably than those over whom they rule.

In agrarian times, ruling elites amassed and consumed a great deal of wealth from agriculture, mining, and city industries-and from taxes on all those productive activities-to pay for their armies, administrators, communication systems, lavish royal courts, and luxurious life styles. The rich often simply hoarded wealth "under the mattress," as it were. In other words, ruling classes tended to pump their populations for wealth, spend it or squirrel it away, then go back to their populations for more.

As urban societies took up manufacturing and trade on a larger scale, however, the role of wealth began subtly to change . Resourceful individuals found that they could use excess wealth to create more wealth by investing in productive enterprises. This was the fundamental principle of market economies. Many features of market economies appeared quite early. In the agrarian age, merchants, artisans, and manufacturers of humble origins found that wealth could sometimes buy them social privileges or political influence. But this was not always true. The royal and aristocratic families that held the reins of military and police power acquired most of their wealth from control of productive land, often great farming estates populated by laboring peasants and slaves. Those families were usually able to pass their wealth and power to their own heirs. Ruling aristocrats, for whom noble ancestry, traditional privileges, and favorable laws were the measures of their status, rarely wanted to open their ranks to men and women who just happened to be rich.

That attitude gradually changed in modern times. As international commerce expanded, mechanized industry became more and more productive. And entrepreneurs became more and more successful at transforming wealth into power-and power into more wealth. In industrializing countries such as Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States, the living standards even of working people began to rise. Even so, the wealthiest members of society became wealthier still, so that the relative distance in income between the richest and the poorest continued to widen. One of the great ironies of the twentieth century was that colossal increases in economic productivity in the world produced, not the betterment of all, but an ever-widening canyon between an affluent minority and an impoverished majority. How and why this happened is an important question for students of history.

We see, then, that power and wealth tend to be two sides of the same coin. Social inequality in both power and wealth reflect the general principle that as human populations in many parts of the world have become larger and denser, the gap has grown between those at the top and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Homeless children sleeping on the street in a modern city

All societies have sought ways to explain and justify these disparities. Until quite recent times, religions, including all the major ones, accepted social inequality as part of the natural order of things, one of the mysteries of God's creation. Aristocrats, they believed, were richer and more powerful than ordinary people, just as God was more powerful than most humans. And they believed these differences were right and just. Religious leaders often allied themselves with rulers and aristocrats.

On the other hand, the world religions all taught that compassion, unselfishness, and moral responsibility were essential virtues. Consequently, those at the top of the social pyramid lived under persistent pressure from pious priests and holy saints to improve the conditions of the poor and to govern with moderation and benevolence. We can only conclude that religious attitudes toward social class differences have never been completely clear or consistent. Religions have both supported inequality and opposed it.
"Poverty in the Developing World Is Shifting toward South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa," World Development Report 2000-01, www.worldbank.org/poverty/wdrpoverty/report/index.htm

Is inequality, then, an inevitable feature of modern society? Or will a time come when there is enough wealth to ensure that even those at the bottom of the hierarchy live decent lives? Material wealth is so abundant in modern society that we may wonder why the rise of modern industry did not eliminate poverty. Certainly, inequalities based on birth have become much less important in the last two centuries. It is also perhaps easier today than ever before for an individual from a poor background to become wealthy and powerful. In the richer countries, a huge "middle class" has emerged, that is, people who enjoy more material wealth than did most aristocrats in the past.

At the same time, however, more people live close to starvation than ever before. Why? Some ideologies, such as Social Darwinism, argue that nothing can be done about this. There will always be poor folk because these people are lazy, incompetent, or stupid. However, most modern explanations of inequality are less harsh, recognizing numerous economic, social, and political factors that contribute to poverty. Is it likely that rich nations maintain their wealth mainly by exploiting poorer nations? Many socialists support this point. Or is it simply that the benefits of industrialization have not yet spread to many parts of the world? Will the so-called "third world" eventually industrialize so that most of its inhabitants also begin to enjoy the affluence that middle classes do in richer countries?

Why Study this Key Theme?

  • No matter what country we live in, social and economic inequalities among individuals and groups are part of our daily experience. At the same time, many people deplore extreme or unjust inequalities and work to lessen or eliminate them. Study of human history over the long run shows a clear connection between social inequality and the increasing size, density, and complexity of human societies. History also shows that in the past few hundred years humans have made progress in reducing some forms of inequality, notably slavery, political power based on birth, and denial of political rights to women. Even so, other forms of inequality have grown in modern times. Are severe inequalities still inevitable in today's complicated world? Or are governments, interest groups, charities, and international agencies capable of seriously diminishing them? Is it right that so many people continue to live in poverty when the modern world produces so much wealth? Future citizens should have knowledge and understanding of the origins and development of inequality in the world in order to address these vital questions.

  • From ancient times, extreme inequalities have triggered social protest, revolts, and revolutions. Students in the United States should consider the connections, both now and in the past, between inequality, social or political instability, and the rise of movements to fight poverty or repression. In the past, revolution and inequality have often gone together. Students may ask whether growing gaps between have and have-nots are a threat to democratic societies.

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