The original one percent

Unequal access to income and wealth preceded the formation of the state and contributed to its development. Yet once established, governmental institutions in turn exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones. Premodern states generated unprecedented opportunities for the accumulation and concentration of material resources in the hands of the few, both by providing a measure of protection for commercial activity and by opening up new sources of personal gain for those most closely associated with the exercise of political power.

Walter Scheidel | Department of Classics

In the long run, political and material inequality evolved in tandem in what has been called “an upward spiral of interactive effects, where each increment on one variable makes a corresponding increment on the other more likely. Modern scholars have come up with a wide variety of definitions that seek to capture the quintessential features of statehood. Borrowing elements of several of them, the state can be said to represent a political organization that claims authority over a territory and its population and resources and that is endowed with a set of institutions and personnel that perform governmental functions by issuing binding orders and rules and backing them up with the threat or exercise of legitimized coercive measures, including physical violence. There is no shortage of theories to explain the emergence of the earliest states. The putative driving forces are all in some way predicated on economic development and its social and demographic consequences: gains that the well-positioned reaped from the control of trade flows, the need to empower leaders to manage the problems arising from growing population densities and more complex relations of production and exchange, class conflict over access to the means of production, and the pressures created by military conflict over scarce resources that favored scaling up, hierarchy, and centralized command structures.

From the perspective of the study of inequality, it may not, strictly speaking, be particularly important which of these factors mattered most: to the extent that state formation introduced steep and stable hierarchies into societies with significant surpluses, inequalities of power, status, and material wealth were bound to grow. Even so, a growing consensus now holds that organized violence was central to this process. Robert Carneiro’s influential theory of circumscription holds that the interaction between population growth and warfare under conditions of territorial boundedness explains why previously more autonomous and egalitarian households, reliant on scarce domesticated food resources and unable to exit stressful environments, were prepared to submit to authoritarian leadership and endure inequality to become more effective in competing with other groups. The most recent theories and simulation models of state formation likewise emphasize the crucial importance of intergroup conflict. The critical role of violence also goes a long way toward accounting for the specific characteristics of most premodern states, most notably despotic leadership and an often overwhelmingly strong focus on warmaking.

Not all early states were alike, and centralized polities coexisted with more “heterarchical” or corporate forms of political organization. Even so, centralized authoritarian states commonly outcompeted differently structured rivals. They appeared independently around the world wherever ecological preconditions allowed, in the Old World as well as in the Americas and across a wide range of environments from the alluvial floodplains of Egypt and Mesopotamia to the highlands of the Andes. Defying this considerable diversity of context, the best- known among them developed into strikingly similar entities. All of them witnessed the expansion of hierarchies in different domains, from the political sphere to the family and religious belief systems—an autocatalytic process whereby “the hierarchical structure itself feeds back on all societal factors to make them more closely into an overall system that supports the authority structure.” Pressures in favor of increasing stratification had an enormous effect on moral values, for the residue of ancestral egalitarianism was replaced by belief in the merits of inequality and acceptance of hierarchy as an integral element of the natural and cosmic order.

Although these numbers cannot be more than controlled conjecture, we can guess that 3,500 years ago, when state-level polities covered perhaps not more than 1 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface (excluding Antarctica), they already laid claim to up to half of our species. We are on more solid ground in estimating that by the beginning of the Common Era, states—mostly large empires such as Rome and Han China—comprised about a tenth of the earth’s land mass but between two-thirds and three-quarters of all people alive at the time. Shaky as they may be, these figures convey a sense of the competitive advantage of a particular type of state: far-flung imperial structures held together by powerful extractive elites.

Once again, this was not the only outcome: independent city-states might flourish at the interstices between these empires but only rarely succeeded in holding off their outsized neighbors as the ancient Greeks managed to do in the fifth century BCE. More often than not, they were absorbed into larger entities; on occasion, they built up their own empires, such as Rome, Venice, and the Mexica Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Moreover, empires failed from time to time, giving way to more fragmented political ecologies. Medieval Europe is a particularly extreme example of this shift.

More commonly, however, empire begat empire as new conquest regimes reconsolidated earlier power networks. In the very long run, this created a pattern of periodic unraveling and restoration, from the increasingly regular “dynastic cycles” of China to longer swings in Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and the Levant, central Mexico, and the Andean region. The Eurasian steppe also spawned numerous imperial regimes that embarked on predatory raids and conquests, spurred on by the riches generated by sedentary societies to the south. States grew over time. Prior to the sixth century BCE, the largest empires on earth covered a few hundred thousand square miles. During the following 1,700 years, their mightiest successors routinely exceeded this limit by an entire order of magnitude, and in the thirteenth century, the Mongols’ reach extended from Central Europe to the Pacific. And territory is only one metric: if we account for secular growth in population density, we see that the effective expansion of imperial rule was even more dramatic.

General form of social structure of agrarian societies

To an even greater extent than today, our species used to be concentrated in the temperate zone of Eurasia as well as in parts of Central America and the South American Northwest. This is where empire thrived: for thousands of years, most of humanity lived in the shadow of these behemoths, with a few coming to tower far above ordinary mortals. This was the environment that created what I call the “original 1 percent,” made up of competing but often closely intertwined elite groups that did their utmost to capture the political rents and commercial gains mobilized by state-building and imperial integration.

The original one percent by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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