This essay is unfinished.  It is intended as an addendum to the article on burka bans to reinforce the need for supporting women’s rights in the Muslim world.  I include it here because I would like to see its comments on the nature of race in America introduced into the growing national discussion of that subject.

The Persistence of Patriarchy as a Sex-based Caste System

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 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 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 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 group’s 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.[1]

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.  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.[2]

It is the same fear that motivates the intense violence of fascism, although fascism can be more nakedly economic.  Secession was a reactionary rebellion in defense of a racist caste system. 

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.  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 and 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 Apomattox, 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 into 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, and in patterns of incarceration.



[2] “Dancing Around History, New York Times, January 22, 2010.