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At school history seemed to be about dry dates and battles and kings and not about groups of people with whom one could identify and sympathise. But history writing in the last 20 years seems to have woken up to theory, cause and effect, and thus have meaning. Maybe it is just me growing up.
This book is similar to 'Why Nations Fail' by Robinson and Acemoglu, in that it has a thesis and then grids up history by time and geography to find numerous sample units to test or illustrate the thesis. Basic thesis is that in times of relative stability (often, but not always, accompanied by economic development) the powerful members of the society find ways to extract much of the surplus economic output and hold on to it. i.e. in times of relative stability inequality slowly ratchets upwards. This drift towards inequality is then (occasionally) punctured by mass mobilisation war, state collapse, revolution or plague. Everyone loses (including sometimes their life), but the rich tend to lose more. There is much detail about the differences and degree, but in the end the conclusion is that it generally takes significant force (violence or misfortune) to separate the powerful and the bourgeoisie from their comforts. So the relevance for today is: is there a peaceful mechanism that we can use to stop our modern societies from becoming more unequal than they already are? After an unprecedented 'compression' brought about by the two WWs and the revolutions of the last (violent) century, almost all states have drifted towards greater inequality since about 1975. This is not a political book, but it certainly provides an interesting historical perspective on a question that is a political hot potato, and that is going to be around for a while.