As the top 1% grabs most of the new wealth created in the United States, a conversation about inequality has risen to the top of national discourse. This will likely lead to a new focus on class that is always the central issue in capitalist societies.
What is remarkable is not that the capitalist class controls so much of U.S. life but that there has been so little discussion of how classism is creating serious hardships for most Americans. There has been little discussion also about its role in producing war, climate change and a shift toward a socioeconomic system that preceded capitalism.
From Caste to Class …
Marx thought that capitalism represented progress over feudalism because people were liberated from medieval castes to quasi-permeable classes. Castes were jail sentences for life, since there was no legal or social prospect for mobility. A class society seemed like emancipation, since the masses now had legal and rhetorical opportunity to get ahead.
But this now seems more a symbolic than real form of progress. Class boundaries have hardened in capitalism as class inequalities have widened. As Thomas Piketty showed in his diagnosis of 21st century capitalism, people increasingly inherit the economic station of their parents and have diminishing opportunity to rise, virtually ending meritocratic ideology and the American Dream.
We now need to speak of “caste classes.” These are legally classes, but socially function like castes. Our 21st century patrimonial capitalism is divided into a tiny caste class of inherited wealth – the children of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the Koch Brothers and other billionaires – and everyone else.
While this is depressing, it opens certain new progressive political opportunities. Castes in the United States have traditionally been the subject of identity politics, that is, politics involving race, gender and sexual orientation. Progressive caste movements have created important changes but have been largely divorced from class politics.
This helps explain why cultural improvements in the status of blacks and women have not translated into class gains. We have a black president while the wealth gap between whites and blacks has mushroomed. Upper-class women are shattering the glass ceiling while working-class women are unable to support their families as wages decline and social services are axed.
“Class boundaries have hardened in capitalism as class inequalities have widened.”
The Search for Real Progress
The new subjugated caste classes – composed of both black and white, male and female workers – will help lead to the rise of caste-class movements, that meld identity and economic issues. Minimum wage and other labor campaigns are increasingly calling themselves the new civil rights movements, uniting identity and class politics. Black and feminist movements are beginning to organize to make sure that their lower- and working-class voices set new priorities.
The rise of caste classes will transform the left, bridging the separation between identity and class politics. When that bridge is securely built, we can hope that patrimonial capitalism will be challenged by a new form of class politics leveling class, race and gender hierarchies.
There is no guarantee here. The male white working class is increasingly voting Republican. Conservatives highlight old caste antagonisms that divide the working class. Progressives have to marry a strong class agenda with cultural politics that highlight the new social liberalism of the young working classes who increasingly support abortion, gun control and gay marriage.
Caste classes of the world unite!