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Session 2: World History - The Deep Roots of Inequality

Workshop Goals

  • To see universal features of the origins of debt, money, and inequality in early agrarian societies, including the roles of serfdom and slavery.  
  • To see the key role of social cohesion in the creation of new regimes or empires while later escalating inequality undermines those same regimes, ultimately recreating equality through conflict and destruction.   
  • To understand how all regimes, empires, and civilizations ultimately reach environmental and resource limits-to-growth and this can drive inequality and collapse. 
  • To see how differences of social class, which originate from economic disparities, can be barriers to effective activism and how to overcome these.

(90 min total)

5 min: Welcome and Chalice Lighting

15 min: Origins of Debt, Money, and Inequality

25 min: Inequality in the Rise and Fall of Empires

5 min: Break

20 min: The Economics of Growth and Inequality

20  min: Class Barriers and Inequality

5 min: Debrief and Closing

Prior Readings

Have each participant pick out a selection of these readings so that key areas get covered.

  •  Cycles of Inequality in World History: “Life on the Edge”, pp. 40-44, “Born to be Wolves”, pp. 162-169, “The Matthew Principle”, pp. 261-270, “Wheels within Wheel”, pp. 301-306, from War and Peace and War – A Radical New Theory of History with Implications for Nations Today by Peter Turchin. Or the Nature article On Cliodynamics.
  • Origins of Debt, Money, and Inequality, Using Anthropology:   Barter, pp. 29,37, Money & Taxes, pp. 46-50, Primitive Currencies, p. 60, Money & War & Slaves & Inequality, pp. 85-87, Debt & Middle Class Morality, pp. 120-124, Markets, States, War, & Religion, pp. 248-250, from Debt – The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.. Or the 14 minute video Origins of Money.
  • How Economic Growth and Good Jobs Are Being Stunted by Environmental and Resource Limits: Limits-to-Growth, pp. 2-7, Economic Reality vs Theory, pp. 40-53, Oil, pp. 105-122, Relocalization vs Globalization, pp. 184-185, Post Growth Economics, pp. 246-254, from The End of Growth – Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg.. Or the 7 minute animation Heinberg on Economic Growth.
  • How to Recognize and Overcome Conflicts due to Social Class: What is Class? (29-33, 38-39, 61-63), Working Class (40-46, 92-102, 219, 224), Middle Class (46-58, 103-104), Class vs Race (34, 164-168, 182-183), Speaking (150-151), Ideal Cross-Class Group (229-232), from Missing Class – Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures by Betsy Leondar-Wright. Or the 10 minute video Class Divisions.
  • The Deep Connections Between Inequality, Wealth, Income, and Growth: What Causes Inequality? (1-33), Public Debt (131-134), Capital in Europe (145-149), Capital in America (150-154), Capital/Income Ratio (164-166), Inequality of Capital (244-245), Propertied Middle Class (260-262), Inequality of Income (264-265), Income Inequality In France (272-274), In the US (292-298), Minimum Wages (310-313), Emerging Economy Inequality (326-327), Supermanager Incomes (323-327), Wealth Inequality in the US (347-350), Growth vs Return on Capital (352-356), 21st Century Inequality (376), Inherited Wealth (419-421), Unequal Returns on Capital (430-431), Inflation & Capital (453-455), Sovereign Wealth Funds (459), Global Oligarchy (463-464), The Social State & Taxes (471-479), Progressive Income Taxes (493-497), Executive Compensation (509-510,513), Progressive Wealth Taxes (515-520,525), A Global Oil Tax (537), Reducing Public Debt (541-544), Public Investment & Natural Capital (567-569), Conclusion (571-577), from  Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty. Or Piketty Explained including his 21 minute TED talk. Or the Piketty book summary in this curriculum.
  • The 12 minute video Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein.


Welcome and Chalice Lighting (5 min): “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” –Plutarch, (46 – 120 CE). Optional in depth participant story.

Origins of Debt, Money, and Inequality (15 min): Have participants who’ve done readings from David Graeber’s book outline what they have learned. Some questions to consider: What has been the actual role of “barter” in human societies?  How does economic exchange occur in societies or social situations when money is not used? Could any of these mechanism actually work in a modern mass society? How did debt develop in early agricultural societies and how did it lead to inequality of income and wealth? What were the actual origins of money? How widespread has slavery been in historically unequal societies? How difference is there between serfdom, debt slavery, and ownership slavery?

Inequality in the Rise and Fall of Empires (25 min): Have participants who’ve done readings from Peter Turchin’s book outline what they have learned. Some questions to consider: What creates the social cohesion necessary to the expansion or victories at the beginning of a new empire or regime? Must this involve war or oppression, or might there be other ways, ancient or modern?  Why does inequality increase at the peak of an empire? In what ways does “collapse” actually occur and how might this be different for a regime or period cycle within an empire? What are the not-so-nice ways in which more equal societies are typically created out of the ashes of old regimes or empires?  What happened during the mightiest of them all – the rise and fall of the Roman Empire? How about the current, US led, globalized empire – in what sense is it an empire anyway, and what is its stage of development in the light of past empires?

Break (5 min). Another optional in depth participant story.

The Economics of Growth and Inequality (20 min): Have participants who've done readings from the Richard Heinberg and Thomas Piketty books outline what they have learned. Some questions to consider: What are limits-to-growth and what have they been for past empires or civilizations?  What are they for our current civilization? What happens typically in terms of ecology and resources after “overshoot”? What level of population and economic development could be supported?  Some people dream of a simpler, more equal society, but what do Piketty’s historical studies say about what normally happens when there is little economic growth or even “de-growth”? What does he recommend to counter this concentration of “capital” and power? Is it practical? Might there be other ways?

Class Barriers and Inequality (20 min): Have participants who've done readings from the Leondar-Wright book outline what they have learned. Some questions to consider: How do middle class and working class people often differ in the way they interact in meetings? What might this have to do with educational backgrounds or other factors?  What class issues have you experienced and how do you think things could have been handled better? What might be better ways to study and take action are deeper issues of justice and inequality with people from different class backgrounds? What does “solidarity” mean to different people, or what should it mean? How are leadership roles affected by class background? How could class-diverse groups become more effective by building off the strengths of the different classes? How to distinguish social class from economic class, and does this have anything to do with “class warfare”? What’s the difference in charitable giving between classes?

Debrief and Closing (5 min): We’ve covered a lot. Who wants to dig deeper, and which topics or books?

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay”.  –Oliver Goldsmith, Anglo-Irish writer (1730-1774)

Topical Outline

Origins of Debt, Money, and Inequality

  • Mutual obligation versus barter in pre-history
  • Money, war, and slavery
  • Money debt and rising inequality, usury

Inequality in the Rise and Fall of Empires

  • Equality at the birth of kingdoms
  • Rising inequality and overshoot at the peak
  • Collapse and renewal

The Economics of Growth and Inequality

  • Return to capital versus economic growth. Ownership and taxes
  • Limits-to-growth and economic choices

Class Barriers and Inequality

  • Origins of social class. Its relation to economic status.
  • Class barriers in current and historical societies
  • Transcending class barriers


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