Thursday, January 30, 2014

Class And Caste In Twenty-First Century America

I chose this, out of the innumerable things currently peppering the national discourse, for two reasons above all others:

  • It's inherently non-political;
  • It's inherently political.

Besides which, some of the spadework has already been done for me. So buckle up!


Let's start with this excellent Ace of Spades column. It's loaded with impact from beginning to end, but for me the standout observation is this one:

[A] Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity.

And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a "mind" worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer....

Yet, despite there being no genuine distinction between them to demonstrate that one class was "higher" than the other, the distinction nevertheless took root, and middle class girls would marry middle class boys and working class girls working class boys. Which is the real test of a true, defined class -- do they mix enough to intermarry? If not, they're pretty well defined classes. Which is sort of one of the criteria used to determine whether one animal is merely a different variety than another or a whole different species. Can they mate?

This fascinating use of the biological / taxonomical concept of species to analogize with class is only moderately off-track. The criterion for determining an organism's membership in a species is whether that organism can interbreed with a suitable partner conceded to be a member of that species. What matters, in other words, is whether there will be viable progeny -- and more important still, progeny of the same species that can go on to reproduce that species.

There are some species that can interbreed with one another. The case that comes to mind at once is that of the donkey and the horse, who, when interbred, produce the mule. However, the mule is sterile, which excludes the mule from species classification and constitutes a disproof that donkeys and horses constitute a single species.

A concept more closely analogous to species would be that of caste. The term has its strongest association with traditional Indian society, with its recognized castes. From highest to lowest, those are:

  • Brahmin (priests, scholars and teachers)
  • Kshatriyas (warriors, administrators and law enforcers)
  • Vaishyas (agriculturists, cattle raisers and traders)
  • Shudras (service providers and artisans)
  • Dalits (untouchables)

Caste classifications limit social and economic mobility. One's caste binds one's marital possibilities absolutely; one is forbidden, sometimes de jure but more commonly de facto, to take a spouse from a different caste. (The technical term for this is endogamy.) A cross-caste couple will be excluded from the caste of the "higher" spouse, but oftentimes from the castes of both spouses. Worse yet, their progeny will be excluded from all castes, including the very lowest.

Class distinctions, such as they are in Twenty-First Century America, bear some comparison to racial distinctions after the Civil War, but also to caste restrictions in caste-ridden societies.


Irving Kristol wrote in the early Seventies of the formation of a "New Class" characterized by political affiliations. In Two Cheers For Capitalism he described their orientation with a unique pungency:

Today there is a new class hostile to business in general, and especially to large corporations. As a group, you find them mainly in the very large and growing public sector and in the media. They share a disinterest in personal wealth, a dislike for the free-market economy, and a conviction that society may best be improved through greater governmental participation in the country's economic life. They are the media. They are the educational system. Their dislike for the free-market economy originates in their inability to exercise much influence over it so as to produce change. In its place they would prefer a system in which there is a very large political component. This is because the new class has a great deal of influence in politics. Thus, through politics, they can exercise a direct and immediate influence on the shape of our society and the direction of national affairs.

Admittedly, some of the above is obiter dicta -- few such persons disdain wealth, as long as it's their wealth -- but in the main it remains accurate. More to the point, the New Class has developed rather firm barriers against incursions by persons it deems "unsuitable:"

  • It concentrates geographically in a handful of large cities dominated by elites from politics, journalism, or entertainment.
  • It emphasizes the possession of specific educational credentials.
  • It practices endogamy, albeit with a counter-intuitive twist: one need not share the party alignment of one's spouse, as we can see from the matings of James Carville with Mary Matalin, and of Arnold Schwarzenegger with Maria Shriver.
  • Above all, what matters is membership in that quasi-intellectual stratum concentrated around politics and public policy.

Sarah Palin is not welcome in the New Class. Her parents were outsiders to that caste. She is geographically situated in an unsuitable locale. Her educational credentials don't match those demanded for admission. Her spouse is a professional fisherman. Despite her personal and political accomplishments, she will forever be denied admission to those circles. Her children, no matter how impressive they might prove to be, have no chance of admission, specifically because of their parentage.

Without acceptance by the New Class, one has little hope of rising to national political prominence. Regional elevation, such as that achieved by Sarah Palin, Ron and Rand Paul, and some others, is possible, but above that level the barriers become very firm indeed.


Assortative mating is nothing new. Neither is the formation of distinctions founded on education or occupation. The traditional classes of English society also recognized a distinction between "old money" founded on land and lineage, and "new money" derived from trade. All of these were in some sense natural groupings, and all served to limit the prospects of the persons bound within them. To some extent, such barriers, whether potentially surmountable or utterly impenetrable, are inevitable.

What's neither inevitable nor acceptable is the enclosure of the sphere of politics and public policy by such an elite. It's a violation of American principles. It's the sort of thing the Titles of Nobility clauses of the Constitution (Article I, Sections 9 and 10) were written to forbid.

Ace's column concerns itself with "social" inequality arising from such caste-like divisions. However, the resulting political inequalities, with their foreseeable consequences for an ever more particularist approach to public policy, loom larger in my view.

I might return to this.

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