The Purple Death

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September 12, 2017 by AK

From Eliot Weinberger’s Not Recommended Reading in the London Review of Books:

The Purple Death (1895) by William Livingston Alden

Professor Schmidt, a bacteriologist, believes that the way to bring about economic equality is not by assassinating the capitalists, who are easily replaced, but by eliminating millions of workers, thereby creating a labour shortage that would increase wages. To this end, he concocts a deadly plague, the Purple Death, but dies before it can be set loose in the world.

This reminded me of a book review I had read a couple of weeks earlier. The book in question is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Stanford historian Walter Scheidel. In his own words:

Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics…

The first pandemic of bubonic plague at the end of antiquity, the Black Death in the late Middle Ages, and the merciless onslaught of smallpox and measles that ravaged the New World after 1492 claimed so many lives that the price of labor soared and the value of land and other capital plummeted.

Gregory Clark, the author of The Son Also Rises, summarizes Scheidel’s book in his review:

The author believes that settled, stable societies have an inevitable tendency toward greater inequality. The only substantive countervailing forces are all bad news: mass-mobilization wars, social revolution, plague and state collapse.

Victor Davis Hanson (see the first link above) offers this summary:

Scheidel argues that history offers few peaceful antidotes to the accumulation of property, money, and leverage in the hands of the few… [He] notes that large estates and monopolies, and the wealthy classes that control them, collapsed only during relatively rare times of chaos. The “massive and violent disruptions of the established order” encompass the four horsemen of the redistributive apocalypse, which Scheidel collectively describes as the “the Great Leveler.”

In other words, The Purple Death should be, or have been, recommended reading.


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