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 to be 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, if the situation gets bad enough, eat their own young.

The neural trigger for this behaviour shift has been found to be 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 behaviours 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 that were 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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6 Responses to The Caste War for the Dregs

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    Yes, the beginning of the end of modern civilization is going to induce a lot of stress. But just think what the stress level will be when some part or another of the industrial agriculture supply chain fails and people first go hungry, then descend into starvation. No matter what Varoufakis or Wildermuth think the solution might be, whether reindustrializing Britain or preventing a capitalist cooptation of woke identity politics, nothing can stop the deterioration of available net energy and the economic destruction it will cause. We have spent 200 or more years building an entire global civilization and market economy on a foundation of sand. The foundation is now failing and the building will soon come crashing down. Nothing in the way of political change can stop it.

    If a truly sustainable economy can only support a world population of half a billion people or so (a very reasonable number), what is going to happen to the other 7.5 billion? The obvious answer is that they will die prematurely. Stress induced conflict and warfare can only speed up the dying. Nothing can prevent it. People will do everything they can to shift the worst of the dying to someplace else, but I think the ‘developed’ countries will see the worst of it. They’re just too far out on an energy limb. It will be a kind of poetic justice that very poor subsistence farmers in the Global South will have the best prospects at surviving collapse.

    And I can’t see how elites are going to succeed at grabbing what they have, and any remnants they can get, “and get outta Dodge”. The only place to go is a place where everyone lives close to the land and makes their living by subsistence horticulture, pastoralism or gathering, which is not the kind of place that is attractive to the wealthy. But if great wealth allows some people to create and populate those kinds of cultures somewhere and then slide right in as a feudal lord or lady, more power to them. A few billion spent the right way could do a hell of a lot of prepping and shift where a lot of lives might be preserved. Please send one my way; I know a lot of places in my community that would be good for food forests.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    I think you’re right, Joe. I’m trying to articulate what the thinking of the elite caste is at this point, not what is actually going to happen. NZ should be an interesting collapse case study — some very strong pluses and very strong minuses in their economy and resource base. Unfortunately at this point in my life they would never let me in there. The problem with the ultra rich is that, to a man (there don’t seem to be many women in this caste), they are not very bright, and poor learners. I think they’ll make lousy feudal lords.

  3. Peter says:

    Thanks for the book suggestions, Dave. I’ve had “Caste” on my list for a while, this will help me dive in. The 2 articles also look excellent. Somewhere in the last month or so I’ve also read about this book: “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”. (I don’t recall where I saw it suggested-maybe here?) Along with Joe Bageant’s classic “Deer Hunting With Jesus”, it provides a deep look into a world most “liberals” are mystified by. And “Moral Politics” by George Lakoff.

  4. Joe Clarkson says:

    Caste is indeed excellent, but I could only get through about two-thirds of it. The litany of racial oppression was just too tough to take. I was aware of most of the examples explored in the book, but to see them all described one after the other was excruciating. That was the point of the book, I guess, so it succeeded extremely well.

  5. James Charles says:

    For ‘consideration’?
    “The crisis now unfolding, however, is entirely different to the 1970s in one crucial respect… The 1970s crisis was largely artificial. When all is said and done, the oil shock was nothing more than the emerging OPEC cartel asserting its newfound leverage following the peak of continental US oil production. There was no shortage of oil any more than the three-day-week had been caused by coal shortages. What they did, perhaps, give us a glimpse of was what might happen in the event that our economies depleted our fossil fuel reserves before we had found a more versatile and energy-dense alternative. . . . That system has been on the life-support of quantitative easing and near zero interest rates ever since. Indeed, so perilous a state has the system been in since 2008, it was essential that the people who claim to be our leaders avoid doing anything so foolish as to lockdown the economy or launch an undeclared economic war on one of the world’s biggest commodity exporters . . .
    And this is why the crisis we are beginning to experience will make the 1970s look like a golden age of peace and tranquility. . . . The sad reality though, is that our leaders – at least within the western empire – have bought into a vision of the future which cannot work without some new and yet-to-be-discovered high-density energy source (which rules out all of the so-called green technologies whose main purpose is to concentrate relatively weak and diffuse energy sources). . . . Even as we struggle to reimagine the 1970s in an attempt to understand the current situation, the only people on Earth today who can even begin to imagine the economic and social horrors that await western populations are the survivors of the 1980s famine in Ethiopia, the hyperinflation in 1990s Zimbabwe, or, ironically, the Russians who survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

  6. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Multiple e-book versions of “Caste” & a couple of other Isabel Wilkerson titles.

    A few Audio book versions of “Caste”.

    I was also going to share a link to Tim Watkins excellent blog, ‘consciousness of sheep’, great insight & writing, but James Charles [above] beat me to it. If not for Watkins I probably would not have realized how far along the decline—>collapse of the UK is. For years Chris Hedges et al have talked about the hollowing out of America. Same for the UK. I’m waiting for our [Canada] turn. There’s people in Alberta flying the Confederate flag and some even held a Trump rally last year. That’s proof positive the education system pushes through complete idiots. Will they riot when they are told they can’t vote for Trump because he is from a different country than they are? Who among us would attempt to explain to these masses that our problems are actually predicaments, mostly blameless predicaments, that are systemic and years and decades in the making?
    I cringe at the thought of having to be the one trying to explain things to the mob when they hit scapegoat phase. No nations have pigged out at the cheap energy trough more than Canadians and Americans, yet their citizens are angry and looking to blame others because our consumption orgy is nearing it’s end. The poor and lowliest of migrants, the weakest, are their go to scapegoats. Recall just a year back, security video of raging white men pounding on tiny Asian ladies and old men for the crime of inventing & spreading Covid. A couple of them took place at a bus stop in broad daylight and nobody stepped in to help. What will they be like when they finally realize the consumer party is truly over and Covid is forever?

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