Can a Pandemic Remake Society? A Historian Explains.Historians in the News
tags: Great Depression, Black Death, historian, coronavirus, 2008 financial crisis, Bubonic Plague
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 Century. In 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.
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.
You’re a historian who has studied how “shock events” can remake societies. Does the coronavirus strike you as this level of catastrophe?
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.
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