Saturday, November 2, 2013

Cooperatives Counteract Contemporary Caste System.

The Western democratic-capitalist system that is now extending its reach to every corner of the globe is often presented, by its apologists, as a humanitarian advance over earlier social systems1. Unlike, for instance, the Hindu caste system or the European feudal system, democratic-capitalism allows for the social mobility of individuals. The (at least theoretic) ability of people to effect their own social status is claimed to be a major advance in equality over earlier systems of hereditary status determination.

However, our democratic-capitalist system has more in common with the systems that it has replaced than its proponents would like to admit. Let us take the Hindu caste system as an example and see if we can't tease out some of these deep similarities.

Traditionally, Hindu society was divided into four castes2, each with a particular role to fill in society. These castes are:
  • Brahmin—the priestly caste, responsible for performing religious rituals and perpetuating religious thought.
  • Kshatriya—the warrior and kingly caste, responsible for all military matters and for the administration/rule of society.
  • Vaishya—originally farmers and cattle-raisers, but now normally associated with trade and money-lending
  • Shudra—the working class; their traditional duty is described as serving the other three castes.

In our contemporary democratic-capitalist system, we also have brahmins and kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. The names have changed but much else has remained the same. Our contemporary brahmins are the academics and lawyers, those who are given the task of abstract thought and of aligning human action with abstract principle (concepts of “justice” and “equality” having taken the place of “divine will” and statutory law replacing ritual and doctrinal texts). Our kshatriyas are the political class: elected politicians and appointed administrators of the civil service. Vaishyas have been replaced by businessmen and women, bankers and financiers. And our equivalent of the shudra caste, of course, is the working class; which is to say, most of us.

Just as in the old Hindu caste system, our present social system prescribes and proscribes particular types of behavior for each class of people. While the rules regarding what types of activity are permitted to each social class are not made as explicit in our system as they were in the old caste system, they are, nonetheless, there3.

Specifically, only the top three groups are allowed to think. The bottom group, the workers, are not permitted to think but only to act. Of course, this proscription on thought is rarely spelled out so bluntly, but that is message that is given over and over again by the media and society in general: only the thinking of “experts” holds any weight.

Working class people are not expected to have their own thoughts about philosophic or academic topics; if anything, they are expected to parrot the pronouncements of respectable academics and professional intellectuals. In order for a person's intellectual pursuits and conclusions to be taken seriously, they must have a string of fancy letters behind their name. The plumber or baker who holds forth on intellectual topics is roundly ignored, if not laughed out of the room. Legitimacy is reserved for those of the intellectual, academic class.

Working class people are also not expected to have political ideas...unless, of course, they coincide with the reigning ideology of respectable politicians4. And working class people are definitely not encouraged to have ideas about how to run a business or a bank. Only the managers and owners of business enterprises are considered to be up to that task.

This is why the co-op movement, therefore, poses an existential threat to the current system on multiple levels. The co-op movement undermines academic economics by placing cooperation instead competition at the heart of it's economic model. It undermines the political class by expanding democracy and democratic practice to everyday life, instead of confining it to biannual elections, as the politicians would have us do (if people experience real democracy at work, they might start demanding it in other areas too!). And the co-op movement directly undermines businesspeople by implementing alternative management and ownership arrangements that eliminate the need for outside owners, investors and managers.

The co-operative movement is the working class daring to think for itself, and that thought has the potential to upset many powerful vested interests. We shouldn't be surprised, then, when the powers-that-be push back against this dangerous idea. Witness the hamstringing of health insurance co-operatives by Obamacare (as detailed in a recent Washington Post article here) as well as the current push in Congress to revoke credit unions' tax-exempt status. When those at the bottom of society's hierarchy begin to encroach on what have been the sole prerogatives of those further up the ladder, those at the top can be expected to do whatever they can to stop that encroachment.

Despite their best efforts, however, the encroachment shall continue.

There is one other caste that we must not forget to mention: the Dalits, or 'untouchables5.” In India, until recently, these people were utterly shunned, confined to live in slums and to perform only the most dirty and demeaning work.

Our Dalits, our 'untouchables', are the homeless. The homeless also are not allowed to think, to theorize, to organize. They are there to remind us shudras that there is always another rung further down the ladder that we could be pushed to. They are there to make us grateful for our place in the scheme of things, lowly though it may be. But just as the existence of an 'untouchable' caste is the shame of the Hindu caste system, and evidence of its corruption and moral vacuity, so the existence of homeless women and men, homeless children and homeless families is the proof that our system is similarly corrupted and morally vacuous.

The caste system in Hinduism has been officially abandoned, although it maintains its hold on many minds. Similarly, our current democratic capitalist system must also ultimately be abandoned. Abandoned for what? For a society that places democracy and cooperation at the center of its ideology and its daily life, instead of wealth accumulation and competition.

1. It might well be argued that our current social system is neither democratic nor, strictly speaking, capitalist. However, lacking better terminology I will refer in this essay to our present social system by the misnomer favored by its proponents.
2. There is much debate about how the caste system actually functioned at various times and places on the Indian subcontinent. Here I present an admittedly simplified version. A summary of the debate can be found here.
3. That the pre- and proscriptions for each class are not made explicit in our society only makes them more pernicious, as they are harder to identify and therefore to resist.
4. Practically an oxymoron these days, it seems like.
5. Historically, the Dalits are a late addition to the caste system and are not mentioned in the classical texts.