The Caste War for the Dregs

(photo from U. Berkeley, with this caption: “New study reveals the brain mechanism that makes rats feel empathy for other rats, yet refrain from helping rats they deem outsiders. Photo by Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal”)

When scientists put rats in a cage under sustained stress (ie too crowded, not enough food to go around), something strange happens. The rats, which are normally surprisingly unselfish, even empathetic, start to turn on each other. The alphas start to hoard food and attack others, while the lower-caste rats cower, retreat into solitude, and eat their own young if the situation gets bad enough.

The neural trigger for this behavior shift is very similar to the trigger found in humans. Our empathy ‘window’, it seems, is narrow. And it can be hijacked.

The book Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, opened my eyes to how much of the conflict going on in our world right now is really a series of long-standing and evolving class wars, which would more accurately be called caste wars. Underneath the smokescreens of propaganda and the masquerades of identity politics, these caste wars are not terribly different from the behaviors witnessed in the stressed rats’ cages: There is simply not enough to go around, and we all, at least intuitively, know it. So the rich are absconding with everything they can hoard, while the rest of us are set at each other’s throats, fighting over the dregs.

Two articles on capitalism that arrived in my inbox today moments apart made this stunningly clear. If you do nothing else today, please read them both. They are not short or easy reading, but they just might change your entire take on our current political and economic situation.

The first, which John Whiting sent me, is an article by economist Yanis Varoufakis. Its focus is on the situation in the UK, but the Brits are mere months ahead of what the US is about to have to face. I won’t try to restate its arguments, which are brilliantly articulated. But its thesis, I think, is that the false pumping up of the economy by suppressing interest rates, obfuscating the decline in living standards and services available to the 99%, and mischaracterizing financial (rentier class/caste) wealth as if it were real wealth, has led to staggering and unsustainable economic fragility, such that economic collapse is now nigh.

Liz Truss walked into this disaster in the UK, found the entire de-industrialized, incompetently-privatized British economic system in ruins and the cupboard bare, and has thrown the scraps left to her 1% friends in the form of a huge last-ditch tax cut. The message is: Take these last few millions, my fellow caste-members, and finish prepping your estate homes in New Zealand. This ship is going down. The UK economy is in tatters, its stocks and its currency are in free-fall. It was such a bald admission of disaster that it even made the IMF blanch.

Yanis’ article goes much deeper, and if you want to understand how the UK unraveling will soon be echoed in the rest of the Western Empire, please read it in full.

The second article, which draws on his upcoming new book on the same subject, is this article by Rhyd Wildermuth. Its thesis is even more complex (and more dire), arguing that identity politics is the vehicle that the very rich have so effectively deployed to divide and conquer the lower castes, pitting different oppressed factions against each other instead of against them, the actual oppressors.

This is a subtle and fraught subject, which is probably why it has required Rhyd to write an entire book about it. It has already alienated him from a lot of progressives, and his own battle scars as a lifelong progressive, working to help the poor in the streets of Seattle, attest to this not just being another ‘split the left’ ruse. Again, please read his entire article.

The capitalists’ masquerade as friends of the conservative working classes, united in opposition to out-of-touch elite Ivy League Lib’ruls, is thus mirrored in their masquerade as friends of the woke progressive classes, united in opposition to grubby, dumb, racist Deplorables. They are in fact not friends or members of either of these classes/castes. But it costs them nothing to say they are, to render the actual caste war between them and all the lower castes invisible, the caste war that goes on producing ever more obscene inequality and economic and ecological disaster every day, as the lower castes war among ourselves about whose cause is ‘just’ and who is oppressed by whom and what.

Just to be clear: There is no brilliant, evil cabal of rich capitalists who have schemed to do all this. This is just opportunism combined with a stark realization that the economy is teetering on the edge of collapse, so if you’re one of the alphas, it’s time to grab what you have, and any remnants you can get, and get outta Dodge. This is the ‘have’ rats staring down the ‘have not’ rats, and the ‘have not’ rats turning on each other in desperation and despair. No room for empathy left.

The eating of the young will not be far off, now.

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