This essay was originally intended as an addendum to the article on burka bans to reinforce the need for supporting women’s rights in the Muslim world. It turned into something larger.
To understand the necessity of supporting women’s emancipation in the Muslim world, we need an understanding of patriarchy and why patriarchy is endemic to traditional societies. In that world, where large families provide social security and farm labor, the control of women’s bodies has an economic rationale. That has been the case in every place and at every time in which families are the social unit responsible for the economic well-being of the individual. However, the economic rationale is necessary but not sufficient for explaining the forms and persistence of patriarchy. For that, we must understand patriarchy as a sexual caste system in which women are at the bottom.
The usual definition of caste requires that the groups within a caste system be endogamous. So any consideration of caste that includes gender defined groups is offering an expanded definition. Our focus is less on caste as a social layering of groups with particular characteristics and more on caste as a system of groupings that tends toward a particular political outcome, the preservation of a dominant group’s economic hegemony. As patriarchy produces this result, its groupings could be considered a caste system.
Caste systems also have an economic rationale related to the one reinforcing patriarchy. They are reflections of economic class divisions though the divisions within the caste system are never purely economic ones. They are, quite literally, shadows of class divisions. At the same time, they reinforce the economic hegemony of the dominant class while deliberately obscuring the economic nature of that hegemony. They enlist one group of oppressed to further oppress a more abject group, allowing the middle groups to identify with the oppressive prerogative of the dominant class. That more abject group is always defined in non-economic terms so that the middle groups’ identification with the dominant group never turns into economic envy.
The most common image of caste is the highly complicated Indian caste system. Oliver Cox, in his book, Caste, Class, and Race, attributes the following theory of the origin of the Indian caste system to John Nesfield:
The importance of the sacrifice to the well-being of society gave the priesthood a position of great honor; the tendency was for the priesthood to become hereditary, like royalty. “When the Brahmin had thus set the example of forming himself into an exclusive and highly privileged caste, the other classes in the community were compelled to take what precaution they could for securing privileges as were within their reach; and they did this, not merely in self-defense, but in imitation of a class of men whom they had been accustomed for centuries to regard with deepest veneration.”
In this account, Nesfield identifies the Brahmin priesthood as the dominant group securing for itself economic privileges. Lower groups scrambled for whatever leftover privileges they could secure for themselves, and they did so in emulation of and in identification with the most privileged group, all the way down to the untouchables, the most reviled group with no privileges at all. It is important to understand that privilege is a relative term, the middle groups having less of it that the dominant group. It is this feature if privilege as relative that allows the middle groups to identify with the hegemonic winners even though they are actually being oppressed themselves. Nesfield identifies occupation as the non-economic rationale for the groupings of the Hindu caste system.
The level of disgust for the untouchables, shown by any of the middle orders of this caste system, reflects both the level of identification with the oligarchic winners and the level of anxiety about falling to the bottom. So it becomes terribly important for the middle groups to maintain both the top group and the bottom group in their relative positions as a way of preserving whatever dignity and self-worth they can muster under oppressive conditions.
A caste system need not be so elaborate to protect a reactionary status quo. It needs only three groups distinguished by anything except economic class to be effective. The American South at the time of the Civil War is a case in point and would enable us to understand the workings of caste systems in an example closer to home than traditional Muslim society where women are the reviled bottom. We need to answer the question why did Confederate soldiers fight and die to preserve slavery when most of them were too poor to own slaves themselves? Only about six percent of white southerners at that time owned slaves. They did so to preserve a racially-based caste system in which they were not the reviled bottom.
That defense of slavery became further alienated as a defense of States’ Rights. Confederate apologists to this day maintain that States’ Rights was the true cause of the Civil War, not slavery. But what is States’ Rights if not the right of the local élite to exploit the local underclass unhindered by a central authority’s protection of that underclass? The intensity of the Civil War reflects the intensity of the fear of becoming the bottom social class, the fear of losing the caste distinction that differentiates the middle group from the bottom. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle make this point quite explicitly in their discussion of the propaganda campaign surrounding secession in 1860 South Carolina:
Some pamphlets targeted non-slaveholders—a narrow majority of the white population—arguing that slavery served as a bulwark against the possibility of white servility. One tract insisted that non-slaveholders had even more at stake in maintaining the peculiar institution than slaveholders, for “no white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, [and] wait on his table…. His blood revolts against this.” A Republican victory put this racial hierarchy, so important to poor and middling whites, at risk.
It is the same fear that motivates the intense violence of fascism, although the hatreds of fascism can be more nakedly economic. Secession was a reactionary rebellion in defense of a racist caste system. It is significant that the benefits of white privilege are negatively defined. This obscures the fact that the positive benefits are minimal to non-existent, illusory; they were still poor and miserable. Instead of resenting the hegemonic winners, the poor whites are encouraged to feel rage at anyone who would make those servile demands of them, the demands that are made of slaves.
The Civil War became inevitable when the rise of a new hegemonic class, the industrialists, threatened the economic base of the agrarian, slave-owning hegemonic class in the South. The economic rationale for slavery had been the labor intensive methods necessary for exploiting the resources of the new world, large estates producing crops for trade, not subsistence. Independent yeoman farmers were not about to supply Europe with sugar, tobacco, and cotton. (That’s the reason Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1863, to assure that all newly opened lands would be peopled by yeoman farmers who had no use for slavery.) Under these conditions, owning labor made economic sense as long as growth came from opening new lands for exploitation and not from any characteristics intrinsic to capital itself.
Industrialists had no use for slave labor, only free labor, in which labor is a commodity, not capital. The political victory of the party of the industrialists meant that slavery could no longer expand into new territory in the West, which doomed the hegemony of the slave-owning class. The racist caste system struck out violently against the threat to its dominant group and in defense of the prerogatives of the middle group, the non-slave-owning whites.
Even though abolition and Appomattox destroyed the economic rationale for that racist caste system, so strong were the resentments that it engendered that it lives to the present day. Since the Civil War destroyed the legal basis for the caste system, its enforcement went underground, in the form of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and in freebooters, like Jesse James, who supported his racist thuggery by robbing banks. As the political climate changed, it reemerged into legality with Jim Crow laws but still required the support of quasi-legal violence from groups like the Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils.
The Reconstruction-era laws that enabled African-American political participation were aimed more at decimating the vestiges of the defeated Southern ruling class than at elevating African Americans, who were abandoned once that result was achieved. The new hegemonic masters required free labor but not racial equality and so, in the manner of imperialists everywhere, grafted themselves onto the existing caste system to protect their own class hegemony.
Despite the success of the Civil Rights movement in extirpating much of the legacy of that caste system, it lives on in the persistence of race as a masking of class antagonisms in the United States. One can detect it clearly in both the overt race-baiting and coded language of the current Tea Parties, in the Republican attack on voting rights, in patterns of incarceration, and certainly in the Trump victory.
The truth that emerged from the Ferguson protests is that patterns of law enforcement were being used to recreate Jim Crow restrictions on African- Americans. Traffic stops aimed at black drivers resulted in unpayable high fines which in turn led to arrest warrants. If you had an arrest warrant out against you, even if it did not lead to incarceration, it would render you unable to get a job, to get a loan, or even to vote, effectively reestablishing Jim Crow conditions in St. Louis County. The extrajudicial killing of black motorists by police is a form of lynching that supports the remnants of the racist caste system.
A caste system will tend to reassert itself in this way so long as it effectively plays the role of layering the oppressed to the advantage of the hegemonic winners. And race continues to play this role in the United States. To fully wipe out the racist caste system and keep it from reemerging, we must shine a light on the economic shadow play that maintains it, expose it as a defender and generator of economic inequality. However, this will be difficult to do in the US where the liberal left has sacralized affirmative action, the neo-liberal, pro-corporate policy initiative that effectively put a stop to the forward motion of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King put together a multi-racial coalition that supported black issues out of a sense of justice. Affirmative action turned justice into a zero-sum game, which effectively broke up any possible unity of the working class into competing constituencies and prevented the Civil Rights movement from shifting to a focus on economic inequality, where it was headed at the time of Martin Luther King’ death. More left-wing solutions, like a full-employment policy, were admittedly more difficult to implement but less open to the charge of right-opportunism. The cost of that right-opportunism is the current weakness of the left. Pragmatism is a euphemism for right-opportunism.
Similarly, even current black political awareness, most recently reconstituted as Black Lives Matter, poses itself in opposition to the political movement attempting to focus on economic inequality. In the recent primary campaign, we saw Black Lives Matter activists disrupt Bernie Sanders’ speeches, claiming that Sanders was ignoring African-American issues because they felt economic inequality to be a white issue, whereas the truth is that economic inequality is the quintessential black issue because that is what racism has been used to propagate.
In the current political climate, I fully expect a hyperbolic reaction to this criticism of Black Lives Matter, charging that any criticism is racist. So let me take this opportunity to say that I fully concur with their appropriate and necessary focus on police injustice towards the African-American community and only regret their divorcing this issue from income inequality. A real triumph against the vestiges of Jim Crow will require unmasking it as a strategy to layer the oppressed in defense of income inequality. If Black Lives Matter cannot make that connection, their victory will be limited.
If we understand the layering of the oppressed as the principal tactic of the ruling class acting in its own defense, then we have also to understand that both left and right in this country currently engage in that layering. The right, as is expected of them, play the traditional role of favoring the middle over the bottom. There is nothing surprising about this. But the left has also been colluding in the layering of the oppressed by supporting the bottom against the middle when a more appropriate left response would unite both groups against the ruling class.
It should be noted that middle and bottom are relative terms; both groups, in this era of heightened inequality, are equally abject. The only thing distinguishing these groups is race. But what keeps them apart is the delusion of white privilege which both left and right, unfortunately, invest with reality. And by doing so, they, reinforce the caste system which only serves the ruling class.
The illusion of white privilege is what poor white Confederate soldiers fought and died for, so it is ironic that white privilege should become a standard feature in the rhetoric of diversity. A student from my school reported the following exercise from a workshop on diversity he attended called “the walk of privilege.” Students were asked to line up side by side. They were then told that if you were white, you should take a step forward, and if you were black, to take a step back. Privilege attaches itself to wealth. This privilege construct identifies all white people as middle class and falsifies the reality of most whites in this country. Poor whites are invisible in this idea; they become associated with a power structure that does not benefit them.
Similarly, the privilege construct cannot admit to any class distinctions among African-Americans, which are becoming increasingly more prominent and more important. I find teaching schoolchildren that privilege is attached to whiteness deeply troubling. The privilege construct sees white privilege as absolute and denies the relative nature of privilege and the relative nature of oppression, the very thing that makes the cast system work to benefit the hegemonic winners.
Consider how this idea plays itself out on the political arena. How would a poor white single mother who works a sub-minimum wage day job and who cleans offices at night to afford daycare react to being told she is privileged because she is white, “I’ve worked hard all my life and have nothing to show for it, and you tell me I’m privileged! I’m going over to the Republicans. They understand my struggles more than you do.” Could she be blamed for feeling the left has abandoned her?
On the other hand, Trump also played on the delusion of privilege, telling whites they are right to feel aggrieved that the privileges of being white have not materialized. “Make America great again” was a direct appeal to that sense of grievance. It is in the direct interest of the ruling class that Trump represents to stoke that sense of grievance. But no one on the left has told them that the reason they are not enjoying the benefits of privilege is that their sense of privilege is a delusion that traps them in misery and that their true interests lie with a unified working class. How can the left deliver this message when they themselves are reinforcing the delusion of white privilege at the base of the American caste system?
I suggested earlier that affirmative action, a neo-liberal, pro-corporate program, has been successful in raising up a black petit-bourgeoisie who see their class interest as supporting the ruling class while leaving the vast majority of the African-American community still mired in poverty and hopelessness. Hillary Clinton’s primary victory was secured by the coalition of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and the right-opportunistic, pro-corporate black leadership as represented by Jesse Jackson, as opposed to a more forward-looking black leadership, as represented by Nina Turner, which supported Bernie Sanders. It should be noted that Clinton’s loss in the general election was the spectacular failure of that corporate wing of the Democratic Party, pointing out the necessity of an anti-corporate strategy that could unify the working class and split Trump’s constituency. True to form, the Democrats have not figured this out yet.
Recently, black students at Harvard and at other colleges, to the consternation of many, demanded a separate black convocation. Here is the black petit-bourgeoisie reinforcing the conditions that gave rise to their class distinction over other African-Americans. The fact that Harvard granted that request shows a ruling class more than willing to let the emerging black petit-bourgeoisie do the job of layering the oppressed for them.
Much has been said in the punditocracy about the so-called “white working class” and about whether the Democrats can ever appeal to them. To whatever extent that group is a reality, they are not the constituency of the left and never will be. That they exist at all is a consequence of the left’s abandonment of the concept of a unified working class and their collusion in the layering of the oppressed. When the left engages in identity politics, the only winner is the ruling class.
It is a truism of political philosophy that whenever the right makes political gains, it is because the left has somehow abandoned its constituency. Throughout these essays, I have called this phenomenon by various names—neo-Anarchism, the rhetoric of moral superiority, the politics of personal purity, identity politics, the sentimentalizing of victimhood. This latter is one of the more pernicious forms of layering the oppressed. It has little to do with actual compassion for victims, but instead is the tendency to see the world as a false binary of victimized groups and victimizer groups and assigning moral superiority to the victimized and denying a legitimate political voice to anyone in a victimizer category. When Laura Kipnis calls for an “adult feminism,” for instance, she is calling for a feminism devoid of this sentimentalizing of victimhood.
The following incident, reported in a New Yorker article about student activism at Oberlin College, lays bare the divisive nature of the sentimentalizing of victimhood and the rhetoric of diversity. In a campus discussion, a student objected to vague language in a sexual harassment statute because he felt that such vague language could lead to targeting ethnic groups. He was accosted afterwards by another student: “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.” The student who made the comment, unfortunately for him, inhabits the intersection of three victimizer categories. As such, it was unthinkable and even maddening to the screamer that he might presume to have a legitimate political voice. How can a left imbued with this divisiveness hope to unify the working class?
All these terms mentioned previously are different phases of the left’s collusion in the layering of the oppressed. The left will not be a viable political force or gain a mass base until it can stop colluding in this layering of the oppressed.
The truth of structural racism is that we live in a world that has been designed by economic power to benefit economic power. The layering of the oppressed is the principal vehicle by which those with economic power derive those benefits. Structural racism has made that layering, as it were, a fact on the ground. Much depends, however, on how we define the problem. If we define the problem as white privilege and create a political movement to attack white privilege, which the American left has effectively done, then we will be driving a large segment of the working class into the arms of the ruling class, and we have colluded in the layering of the oppressed and reinforced the American caste system. That such a movement can only fail has contributed to the hopelessness that is evinced in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent work that sees America devolving into the cultural despair of autocracy and fascism as the reactionary movement to defend white privilege gains strength. Of that movement, Trump is the emblem and the harbinger.
If, on the other hand, we define the problem as economic power, and design a movement that attacks the hegemony of the ruling class, such a movement could unite white and black and be the harbinger of a new humanism that would counteract the tribalism enforced by identity politics, for which the Oberlin screamer and all her divisiveness is the logical end-point. This humanism would not deny the relative privilege for whites created by structural racism, but would point out that black and white have a common goal for different reasons and would honor those differences. That common goal is the need to fight against economic hegemony that benefits from the layering of the oppressed. It would be a new humanism of common needs and goals and is an urgent necessity. The left, as currently constituted, will not take us there.
 “Dancing Around History, New York Times, January 22, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/dancing-around-history/?hp