Richard Drayton, European Empires and the Origins of Modern Inequality. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Gordon R. Barnes Jr.

The Longue Durée and the Origins of Social Inequality.

In his recent talk, entitled “European Empires and the Origins of Modern Inequality,” Richard Drayton situates the existence of contemporary socio-economic inequality as part and parcel to a world-historic process originating in Western Eurasia during the Neolithic era. He argues that in examining the advent of sedentary agricultural societies in what today is the Middle East as well as portions of Africa, Asia, and most importantly for Drayton’s research, Europe, we can trace the social origins of contemporary inequality. The rise of notions of private property, increased regimentation of slave labor, and the concretization of the pater familias as part of social-economic relations are all a part of this lengthy process. The wide ranging talk covered various world events and socio-economic processes from the Neolithic period up until the U.S. led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In moving away from, and indeed critiquing, the standardized approach to historical inquiry – that of area study or national narrative – Drayton’s research posits that understanding the global is necessary to understand the local, and vice versa.

In breaking up the history of inequality into three overarching periods, beginning with the rise of the latifundium currently situated in an era of collaborative management (neoliberalism being just a moment in the late stage of this third period), Drayton wants us to consider the substantial social continuities that have persisted over time and space. With this global and transnational framework as the point of departure for studying, analyzing, and understanding inequality (historical in addition to contemporary manifestations) Drayton focuses upon the rise of European imperial systems within the long post-nomadic period of social differentiation and economic segmentation. He rigorously critiques the variety of endogamous explanations for the rise of the West, whilst simultaneously delineating a collaborative network of European imperial structures. The most salient examples offered during the talk referenced Boudreaux merchants and slavers who had insurance claims with a British firm and Iberian silver merchants backed, again, by British capital. All this interconnectivity at the more personal level of business relations persisted even through the strife of inter-imperial conflagration.

This seemingly ubiquitous set of inter-imperial relations are what concerns Drayton, as it represents what he terms as the “reconstitution of inequality transnationally.” In addition to an historical understanding of inequality, Drayton offers us something to think about relative to recent interrogations of the current state of inequality in the world. Offering two frameworks from which to understand contemporary inequality, the first a set of liberal welfare arguments (national) and the second as derived from colonial experiences (international), Drayton clearly sides, analytically at least, with the latter. Taking issue with Simon Kuznets’ and, more recently, Thomas Piketty’s work (their research utilizes the first framework) Drayton was able to effectively demonstrate the paucity of reliable data gleaned from uniquely national studies of inequality. Noting that Piketty’s work posits capital as a “thing” rather than as a social relation, Drayton further reinforces the problem of provincialized studies which do not reckon with global process. Thus, for Drayton not only as a materialist world historian, but as someone who is critically engaged with the phenomena of inequality, reckoning with the effects of the longue durée is necessary if we are to be able to effectively understand the multilayered and varied ways in which social and economic inequality has persisted over time, well into the modern epoch.