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  • Giulio Fornaroli

CoViD-19: The Great Leveler or the Great Sieve?

BBC journalist Emily Maitlis has been praised for her upfront attack on the “great leveler” metaphor when applied to CoViD-19. The Great Leveler, somewhat ironically, is the title of a successful book where historian Walter Scheidel has reconstructed how plagues – together with wars, famines and other catastrophes – have been among the most common causes of declines in inequality. Is Maitlis right for dismissing the metaphor?

Maybe it is simply too early to tell. The plagues that eroded the capital of the agrarian and later industrial elites produced their effect in an interval of years if not decades, whereas barely two months have passed since CoViD has started spreading in Europe. But the discomfort with the “great leveler” metaphor runs deeper. There are more pertinent reasons why this analogy should not be taken out of its historical context. Many of these reasons relate to the significantly different ways we have ordered our society. It is not just that it would be ludicrous to expect a decline in inequality after a couple of months. Quite the opposite, we can see already how the impact of the emergency is disproportionately worse for the most vulnerable in our societies, from the constantly exposed “essential workers” to the millions who have lost their job. And we can expect this to worsen in the foreseeable future.

Admittedly, the elites count some “essential workers” among their ranks – policymakers primarily – and some of them, as we know, have been infected, which might have inspired some to use the metaphor in its most simplistic sense – the one where the Great Leveler is no other than the Grim Reaper. But we know the full story: the vast majority of “essential workers” are underpaid and in precarious employment conditions. Similarly, when economic predictions are so grim, we can well expect some of the better-off (the ones that do not have shares in the pasta or toilet paper industry, presumably) to suffer its consequences. But, again, almost all stakeholders can survive a year without dividends; almost no worker can survive a year without salary.

How our more equal society has made the poorest worse-off

Paradoxically, the fact that our society is less starkly inegalitarian than preceding ones makes things worse for the worse-off. In a society where those at the bottom own next to nothing, they have nothing to lose. Peasants and workers lost their lives in the millions in the great plagues, but not their property – they did not have any. And, for survivors, plagues meant an increase in bargaining power – now that their labor was more required than ever owing to the scarcity of available workforce, they could be bolder in their requests to the lord.

But our society is different. Contradicting the conclusion of Karl Marx’s Manifesto, the proletarians have a lot to lose today – their job, their savings, sometimes their house too. Scarcity of workforce has been noticed so far only in agriculture, mainly due to the difficulty in recruiting seasonal migrant workers, whereas scarcity of jobs is ubiquitous. When the economy will partly recover, how many will be forced into meaningless occupations for which they are probably overqualified? (Just think about this: the entertainment sector in all its varieties will be halted for months, higher education has frozen all hires, tourism is expected to be next to nil. Add the imperfect availability of public transport in the next months and you can see that the pool of potential Uber drivers is going to increase exponentially.)

When we are confronted with this, not only does the Great Leveler metaphor appear inaccurate, but another image comes to replace it: the virus as the Great Sieve that saves only the most privileged while leaving the rest to fend for themselves.

What the Sieve means for distribution of benefits and burdens in our society

Political theorists are, naturally, greatly concerned by the different distributions of benefits and burdens across members of society as a result of its economic, political, and social frameworks. Both the Sieve and the Leveler are unique and independent distributive patterns.

The Sieve deprives those at the bottom of the little they possess, leaving them at the complete mercy of those at the top. (It is not, strictly speaking, a redistribution, as the better-off might gain nothing out of the plight of the poor, except from the very tangible opportunity to exploit their increased vulnerability.) The Leveler, on the other hand, assimilates the respective condition of those at the top and those at the bottom.

Purely egalitarian redistributive policies (i.e. those that seek complete equality of distribution among citizens) often meet a familiar objection. This objection suggests that such a policy recommends a levelling-down scenario, whereby all have the same level of resources and opportunities, but as a collective society, everyone has less than before. But this objection loses its bite in front of economic shocks of the kind CoViD produced. For in an economic shock the entire society has less than before and questions of distribution now address how best we share these losses and burdens. The worse-off might then prefer having slightly less than before, so long as the better-off have significantly less. This might seem a purely envious preference but there are reasons to prefer levelling even when the immediate advantages to the worse-off are marginal or null. Exacerbated economic inequalities have a tendency to make people unequal across different spheres, not just the income one. For example, they place certain people in the position of the offer-maker and others in that of the offer-taker, with the offer very often being of the kind that cannot be refused. This is most evident in the Sieve, but any distributive situation sufficiently close to it will display similar effects.

Of course, the virus is neither a Leveler nor a Sieve in itself. Similarly to other natural catastrophes, it generates effects that depend on the type of society in which it occurs. Bring a natural catastrophe to a feudal society where few have property and unemployment is virtually inexistent and you’ll likely see a Leveler. Bring it to a capitalist society where property is available to everyone but unevenly distributed and unemployment is a constant threat and you’ll likely witness a Sieve. But the Sieve is to be avoided at all costs. So, to follow the title of this blog, “what to do about now?”

The principle of solidarity

One solution is a principle of solidarity, which recommends an immediate redistribution as soon as an economic shock has started hitting. The idea would be something like this: whenever there is a risk that society is drifting towards a Sieve-like scenario, commence Levelling. We have seen the principle of solidarity in use already inside firms where top managers have decided cutting their own pay (and that of those earning the most) before they are forced to take measures that will impact the least advantaged.

But these intra-firm displays of solidarity have limited efficacy at preventing the Sieve-effect in the society. As they are often accompanied by a freeze in new hires and expenditures, they tend to protect “insiders” (those who already have a job in a specific firm) to the detriment of those (the potential new workers, the “zero-hour” contractors) who are not protected by employment contracts. What seems required is a principle of solidarity that applies beyond the borders of a single firm.

What are the grounds of solidarity?[1] Solidarity is an ambiguous term. The solidarity I’m referring to here is not a matter of charity (helping those in need, regardless of who they are to us). It springs from the realization that, in a complex society like our own, the success of one depends on the cooperation and contribution of others. Purely individual self-realization is a chimaera. It is implausible that we could achieve success in the absence of some form of dependence on our society. This is particularly evident in the firm case: regardless of whether the disproportionate intra-firm pay levels we see today are overall acceptable, those in managerial position are aware (or they should be) that the success of the enterprise is the result of the collective effort of all. But the same applies to society as a whole. My success as a businessman or an athlete or a violinist depends on the types of opportunity – in education, in experience – that are open to me as a member of a particular society. And the opportunities exist only because some people are there to guarantee that they keep being provided. Hence, we see that the principle of solidarity has not much to do with charity and much more with our recognition of the contribution that others make to our own success.

I presented the principle of solidarity in an overly simplified way, as if it can only be triggered when the society approximates the Sieve. On the contrary, I believe it can be used, when correctly understood, to pre-empt the Sieve. The more opportunities there are for people in the lower income classes, the less likely it is for them to fall into the class of the ever-yielding offer-taker. The more resources the lower classes command, the more they can stay safe during an emergency without depending for that on the good will of the elites or the state. Finally, the more the lower classes are protected (maybe by guaranteeing to everyone a threshold income of some kind?), the less the state would be forced to intervene, ex post and in a necessarily inefficient way, when the effects of the emergency have already occurred.

[1] For a philosophical take on solidarity, see Andrea Sangiovanni, "Solidarity in the European Union," Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 33.2 (2013) and "Solidarity as Joint Action," Journal of Applied Philosophy, 32.4 (2015).

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