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When I was a little kid, I was shocked by inequality. Some children never had sweaters that were bought new, and they went home to dingy little apartments and TV dinners. They wouldn't know what to do in a proper restaurant, and their language was awkward; they'd stumble over irregular words. When we all got to school on the first day, the teacher who had given us a list of supplies in advance put all the supplies in a communal basket, and we never again saw what our parents had bought for us. This was to make the poor kids feel less poor.
Of course, this was horrible to anyone whose parent had taken them painstakingly to a store and selected even just reasonable options, such as the pencils that don't fragment into shards of sharp wood, or the lined paper whose printing isn't blurry. Even things such as watercolor, true to the "freedom" of capitalism, ranged from paints that made dingy water in a certain tone to paints a kid could actually use. While this was happening, the drunken and impoverished parents hauled off down to the discount store and, "saving money," bought every single lowest-quality piece of crap they could and sent the kids off to school with it.
And it all went into the box, and you got whatever came out by random draw - that's "fairness." This idea comes from the grand tradition of making people feel better by making the inequalities of their situation center stage. Trot the retarded kids out to perform with the jazz band, so every single person in the audience can uncomfortably pretend they aren't making discoordinated noise. Why not appoint the ugly fat girl prom queen? We'll make the impoverished feel better by forcing everyone in the class to submit to equality, so that resentment widens.
It was always unsettling, like some judgment had passed over us making some of us normal and some poor and a few, rich. Through college and the halcyon years immediately after, I believed that the only way to end the disparity between rich and poor was to dump all the supplies in the basket, so that the poor kids and rich kids alike were using the same stuff. Eventually I met a guy who had grown up in a trailer park, and he gave me a brief insight: "Most of the people who were in that trailer park, belonged in that trailer park."
He told me about the different paths into poverty. Being clueless about money and unable to plan for the future. Being dumb. Being on drugs, or drink. Or being criminal, and prone to destructive including self-destructive acts. He said there were those too who were born into poverty and stayed into it because they simply couldn't muster the energy for long-term improvements, like patching the trailer or going to high school or buying something other than on layaway. To them, every disaster was a surprise, and all misfortunes so expected they had little psychological impact.
I didn't know how to resolve what I'd learned, both from him and from personal experience with the impoverished. They weren't ready for anything but the kind of life they had; give them extra money, and it went to lottery tickets and booze. If you told them you wanted to help, they would either laugh at you or see what they could finagle out of the deal. It was hopeless. I didn't see any way these individuals could exist in a society which demanded of them the same things expected from a stockbroker or doctor. And this was my mistake: I thought all people should fit the same form factor, and be treated equally.
For me, the next years involved swallowing this ludicrous proposition in various forms. At one job, the taboo was that Debbie was, gently put, a fucking idiot. Unfortunately, we could not fire her, so we gave her non-essential jobs and hired someone else to fact-check them. The end result was that when the company was in distress, and they hired a "management consultant" to help, he promoted the people with spotless work records. Since Debbie had never had any important projects, all of her work reports indicated full success, so the consultant looking over the numbers concluded she should be our department head. Her first act, of course, was to fire anyone smarter than her. I drive past that empty building every now and then and laugh.
One quiet night here in the bunker, I was reading the Bhagavad-Gita, perusing delightedly its many contortions and metaphors. Like its cousins, the Iliad and the Aneid and Nibelungenlied, this Indo-European epic talks in riddles, describing external events and the reaction of heroes to them as a means of charting the psychology of the human and suggesting an ascendant, warlike direction. It's not "literature" for college students, drug addicts, soccer moms and greasy hippies; it's literate for those in the thick of the world.
One aspect of the Gita is its sage advice on statecraft, something like Machiavelli or Dante, in which one theme is that of caste. Call me conditioned, but as soon as I read that, the old creeping feeling - dare we be honest and call it guilt? - crept in, and I found myself thinking of the poor kids with their bargain bin school supplies. Images of faded paints, dingy erasers, garbage lined paper and leaking pens came back to me with the same scent of those classrooms: mixed perfumes, food smells, sweat, flatulence and that strange sawdust they used to soak up vomit.
It's important to understand that a caste system is fundamentally different than a class system. In a class system, we are all ranked by how much money we have earned, and hence invested, passing the money on to our descendants. If you work in the kitchen of a large hotel, work your way up to supervisor and eventually own the thing, you can buy a chain of hotels and live among the very wealthy. You have gone from lower to upper class via the singular determination of wealth. In natural selectionist language, this means the person who is more devoted to earning money forms the basis of the upper class.
A caste system is based on specialization. Much as each race is formed by a series of specific traits that reflect certain choices taken as a group, such as to use technology to specialize in agrarian or technological living, each caste reflects the inclinations and aptitudes demonstrated by past actions. Some people are more specialized to, and thus healthier as, farmers or plumbers and some as lawyers; whether we officialize this in a caste system or not, it is naturally true.
What is unfortunate about class systems is that they promote derision between these, usually on some presumed Darwinian basis, under the illusion that a lawyer is "more successful" biologically than a plumber. This repugnant oversimplification rests on the assumption of a single career path for all people, with a top (highest-paid) and a bottom (unskilled labor). It allows those who make money to salve their low self-esteem with, "We all had the same goal and the same opportunities, thus there is something wrong with you, and not I."
This means that in the same way that in a democracy, a homeless drunk has the same vote as a hero, in a class system, your "upper crust" of society are people who made money in any fashion. Intelligent, hard-working people who raised decent business to successes are on par with pornographers, drug dealers, international arms sellers, and people with "genius ideas" like fast food, disposable lighters, and sitcoms. You can imagine the daughter bringing home her fiance to the parents and saying, "I know he is squat, ugly, stupid and mean, but he's made a billion dollars in anal porn!"
A caste system, in contrast, divides us by duties and endows none with a preferential, singular god-status. If one's caste is among the leaders, there is no greater value in doing that than being a plumber - after all, it not only wasn't your choice but it's the product of your ancestors that you are a leader (and: a test of your own fitness, since no sane society accepts people at face value). Your job is no more important than that of a plumber, but it is more specialized.
You can look at this in the context of a rock band. If any instrumentalism of note is going on, your drummer and guitarist will most likely not be able to switch places, but both are essential. Even though your guitarist could probably sub in for your bassist, he won't, if possible, because he's used to thinking in a different role and thus is prone to miss the subtleties of a bassist. Similarly, everyone can sing - but one specializes as a singer. And all are vital; without them, the band doesn't exist.
In medieval and previous ages, the caste system benefitted those individuals now grouped into the generic category of "the worker" (meaning all those who labor without owning). This was mainly because, freed of monetary competition, they had job security and thus were able to focus on the detail of each task, nuances such as would not be supported by a system which competes according to the "bottom line." Leaders did not have to pander to get elected, and plumbers didn't have to cut corners to make their prices "competitive." Everyone had a place, and while competition existed, it was in the form of the task itself and not the separate but related task of making money from that ability.
Government would localize, as in every local population you have some leaders and some of every other type. Each caste would have its own place and be guaranteed work, with the more competent rising to the top of each role, which would be viewed as being on par with "professions" such as lawyer, doctor, leader. The enmity between people over amount of money earned would be greatly lessened, as all people would no longer be competing for the most of a single thing, but would be working to become the best at what they optimally do.
Most importantly, however, this would enable love to return among peoples who at this time are mostly bitter and vengeful toward one another. Your leaders wouldn't be any more important than your plumber, but they would be specialized differently. Their role, as those who are ultimately responsible for guiding a people, would not be a "job" but more like that of a familial attachment, and they would thus be able to work directly for their local area and their people. This type of system lets us take different roles and each be important in them, without grading us by how much money we manage to con, inveigle, hype or outright steal.
Speak about this kind of idea in a modern liberal democracy, of course, and people start nattering on about the loss of "freedom." If you ask them what it means, the best definition is some head-in-the-clouds fond illusion about how any of us can grow up to be president, a sports star, or a magical superhero or martyr. Don't take our "freedom" away! they chant in unison. Obviously, anything adhered to with such bovine desperation cannot be the balm it promises to be, or these people would have realized the great advantages of "freedom." Instead they have excuses: I was born under a bad sign, my daddy was a drunk, I was sodomized by wolves as a youngster, and the like. Justifications for not being "free."
A class system gives you this "freedom" by forcing you and everyone else into the "equal" category of worker, at which point you compete against others for money. If you aren't fascinated by money, or don't have rich relatives, or don't come up with some "brilliant" idea like interracial midget amputee porn, you're going to be working for peanuts and while no one will come out and say it, everyone earning more than you is going to subtly feel a boost of external confidence for being wealthier. This explains why when this drug of false self-confidence is taken away, so many previously "successful" people self-destruct.
Categorizing us by how much we earn, and assuming that in some Darwin cum Jesus way this is a selection of the "best" among us, is brainless. It makes us hate each other. It doesn't select for who does the best job, but for who can fool the most people into buying their product for long enough to take the money out of the system and retire. And who can blame them? They have no place granted to them by custom, and thus are at the mercy of every other jerk who wants to rip off the rest of us so he can take his pile home.
In this way, I went from fearing a caste system to liking it. We will never all be equal in wealth, and some kids will get the seven-dollar watercolors while the rest use the fetid three-dollar ones. Trying to equalize that inequality by averaging it means that we all suffer under a system designed for a person who doesn't exist, the mythical abstract "normal" person, and that as a result, we're at each others' throats for tiny pieces of paper and metal tokens and numbers in our bank account. That's so dumb even Debbie would like it.
November 28, 2004