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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

The Evolution of Inequality: War, State Survival, and Democracy in Comparative Perspective, by Manus I. Midlarsky (1999), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, xiv, 349 pp.


Reviewed by Patricia Kachuk, Lecturer, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia.

Midlarsky undertakes the daunting task of explaining, mathematically and empirically, the process of the evolution of inequality and its role in state formation and state dissolution. It is argued that inequality, far from being a product of a particular economic structure, as Marxists claim, was instead preceded by a scarcity of valued resources and evolved primarily from a "random process of allocation, subdivision or expansion," and secondarily from the genetic capability of some who were better equipped to endure under these conditions of scarcity. Midlarsky's theory of the origin of the state proclaims that inequality - the motor of state formation - preceded warfare, rather than the reverse, which is the common belief. Thus he argues that while warfare is sufficient to bring about state formation, it is not a necessary condition - meaning that democracy and other such peaceful mechanisms are more reliable predictors of state formation and its continuation. Midlarsky argues that unlike warfare, expansion is both necessary and sufficient for the origins of the state. Neither, Midlarsky maintains, is warfare a necessary condition of state dissolution. Rather, he posits that if democracy is in place prior to a major conflict the state will prevail, if not, the state will dissolve.

In Part I, Midlarsky develops his theoretical-probabilistic argument, wherein he links scarcity to inequality. Using both exponential and geometric distributions, Midlarsky tries to demonstrate mathematically that under conditions of scarcity, there will be an exponentially declining probability of attaining valued resources. The greater the scarcity of these resources the more rapid the exponential decline, resulting in a far larger portion of a population being unable to obtain these valued resources. Thus, Midlarsky argues that if there is scarcity of desired resources then inequality exists, and given his assumption of equality of opportunity, who gets these valued resources and who does not is a random process. Midlarsky uses the example of agricultural land to illustrate his theory of exponential subdivision under conditions of scarcity. Agricultural land is a finite resource and beyond a certain point no more can be generated. Therefore, in situations where societies have high population densities, over time all arable land will be developed, and given that there is no land for expansion (as in island and other geographically constrained societies), and that primogeniture is absent (meaning land will be equally distributed among male heirs), conditions of scarcity leading to extreme inequality will be fully operative. It is this resultant extreme inequality that Midlarsky argues will lead to state formation under one set of conditions and lead to state dissolution under a different set of conditions.

Besides using the theory of exponential subdivision under scarcity to support his claim that inequality is a product of a random process that is neither linked to structural economic conditions nor to human greed, Midlarsky employs the theory of fractal formation upon expansion to argue that those individuals who do acquire more valued resources in a society do so as a result of a random process based on genetic capability. Using four different fractal distributions, Midlarsky attempts to illustrate ways in which inequalities based on differential capacities among persons, groups, and/or nation-states may emerge. For example, in the case of sequential expansion over a relatively empty space, inequality emerges because those groups or nation-states who arrived first on the scene are better able to claim the best land and other valued resources than those who arrived at a later date. Similarly, when expansion occurred over occupied land, those conquerors who arrived first with better technological operating advantage would secure the prime lands and resources for their own use. A third fractal pattern of inequality emerges when conquerors resettle depopulated land that has been cleared of its original inhabitants either by killing them directly or indirectly through the introduction of diseases or through the removal of the indigenous population to the periphery. The final fractal distribution illustrates the inequality that occurs as a result of a top-heavy administrative hierarchy in which decision-making power flows, in diminishing proportions, from the administrative center in the conquering nation, through the colonial administration in the regional center, to local indigenous political administration, to the indigenous population. In all of these cases, Midlarsky argues that those persons who gain the most are the ones with the genetic capacity to correctly identify the unfolding of events and utilize the situation to their advantage. These fractal patterns, then, are used by Midlarsky in his empirical analysis to explain what he maintains are random patterns of inequality between actors that emerge as a result of expansion and conquest.

Midlarsky asserts that stratification is a prerequisite to warfare, and scarcity precedes stratification. In Chapter Three, Midlarsky re-formulates the experiences of state formation in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, China, Mesoamerica and the Andes through the lens of unequal relations to argue that states emerge from a process that begins with a scarcity of valued commodities, such as agricultural land. The exponential distribution of these scarce resources leads to the emergence of initial status differentiation, which as scarcity increases will bring about a condition of extreme inequality. The state emerges as a mechanism to deal with this extreme inequality through expansion and redistribution. Warfare, then, is a consequence of the state's lack of a method of redistribution, not, Midlarsky argues, stratification.

Just as extreme inequality will necessitate state formation, Midlarsky argues in Chapter Four that it also marks the beginning of the dissolution of the state. Midlarsky draws on historical accounts of state dissolution in Rome, Byzantium, ancient Israel, Judah, Egypt and China, and among Maya and Aztec civilizations to illustrate how under conditions of extreme inequality, the gap between the ruler and ruled can widen to the extent that mutual identification between those who rule and those who are ruled no longer exists. If unchecked, this process will lead to eventual state dissolution though resultant warfare. However, this need not always be the case. In the remainder of the book, Midlarsky argues that if a democratic form of government, which is able to legitimize these extreme inequalities and to deal with mounting pressures for reform, takes hold prior to the outbreak of major warfare, then the state will survive. Here Midlarsky's focus is on how democracies are necessary to keep internal peace by justifying the extreme inequalities within the state in such a way that those who suffer most will continue to believe that supporting those who rule will be in their own best interests, thus protecting the state from any external threat of political violence.

Midlarsky concludes by using the insights of his analysis of state formation and state dissolution in ancient societies as predictors of the sustainability of the Western democracies, in particular the United States, in the wake of: a supposed threat of warfare from the Islamic world; widespread Western government corruption; continued extreme inequalities; worsening environmental conditions; and the contemporary decline of the middle class in the West.

While Midlarsky does argue that under conditions of minimal scarcity, all groups in a society would experience greater equality, including, he adds, gender equality, it is his implicit and at times not so implicit endorsement of the Bell Curve ideology of genetic superiority that is most disturbing about his analysis in the book. Regardless of the great pains Midlarsky takes in trying to assure his readers that the unequal power structure in society is a completely random result of scarcity of valued resources, he fails to address why the ultimate winners in this random process, by his own analysis, are always white males of Western European descent. Herein lies the greatest weakness of this analysis, one that neither exponential theory nor fractal distribution explains. Midlarsky's partiality to Bell Curve arguments is disturbingly illustrated in his analysis throughout the book. One of many examples is Midlarsky's assessment of what he claims is the threat posed to the survival of Western democracies by immigrant populations. He first argues that the dissolution of the Roman state was a result of the population within Rome's borders who lacked any mutual ties to Rome's elite, identifying instead with barbarian invaders. Midlarsky then uses this argument to warn that immigrants in contemporary Western states may pose a similar threat saying: "A recently arrived immigrant population may appear to be well assimilated, yet share certain cultural commonalities and values with hostile external forces. Whether they will openly collaborate with these forces is, of course, another question" (p. 272). Thus, Midlarsky's attempt to explain and to justify inequality as a random process based on genetic capabilities in both the ancient and more particularly in the culturally diverse but increasingly racially intolerant contemporary world is not just simplistic, it is dangerous.