Are We Living in a “Caste” Society?

The Globe and Mail has an interesting editorial/book review from Margaret Wente asking the question, “Have we become a caste society?“  Prompting this is a book being released this week, “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray. In it, he reportedly argues that class differences in America have stopped being economic, or even social, but have risen to the level of culture. In other words, the differences between the upper and lower classes are no longer a question of either money or surface interests, but of completely different core beliefs, literally foreign ways of viewing the world.

For clarity, Murray represents the upper and lower classes by fictional neighborhoods: Belmont and Fishtown. (Fishtown, really?) These neighborhoods themselves represent the top and bottom economic quintiles of society, however, to limit the number of variables, he assumes white populations in both neighborhoods.

If you’re in the top 20 percent these days, you may never, ever cross paths with anyone from the bottom 20 percent. If you happen to drive through Fishtown, you’re probably not getting out of your car. Even if you send your kids to public school (you can easily afford private), it’s going to be a very different environment than the schools in Fishtown.

The danger is that the US has reached the point where closing the income gap seems less and less possible. And the consequences of that? If you believe Karl Marx, the inevitable result of this disparity is a proletarian revolution. If you believe H.G. Wells, the next step is speciation into Morlocks and Eloi. But leaving such fanciful speculations aside, this trend can only hurt the middle class.

Countries with a strong middle class, like Finland, do better. The top 20 percent (and multiply by a factor of 100 for the top one percent) are the stock from which industry and political leaders are drawn. As they lose touch with their fellow citizens, especially those in Fishtown, they’ll become less and less effective as leaders, and less and less representative of their needs.

The bottom 20 percent, meanwhile, is becoming less and less politically engaged, and having more and more trouble staying afloat. The further they fall behind the rest of the country, the more their problems will multiply. More and more single-parent families, greater and greater unemployment as well as underemployment, more and more dependence on social assistance. A healthy society does not have 20% of its citizens struggling to this degree. And it can hardly be sustainable in the long run.

This being the Globe and Mail, Wente takes a Canadian perspective, wondering whether this argument might also apply to our country. Being Canadian myself, I wonder the same thing.

It’s true, our income disparity is not nearly so stark as it is in the United States. We have far fewer of the ultra-rich, per capita, among our citizenry. As Wente points out, the top one percent in Canada are not so very much ahead of middle class families. Most any family with two working professionals — doctor, lawyer, or high school principal, say — will qualify.

But we do indeed have a cultural lower class. The poorest in our nation are our Aboriginal people, about 70 percent of whom can be found off-reserve, often in the downtown core of our cities, with the remainder in isolated reserves in the North. And the rest of us are about as in touch with their problems in any kind of immediate or personal way as it is possible to be.

Here’s a recap: our brutal government legacy first includes carting Aboriginals off to reservations built on the least desirable land available, resulting in “communities” with no possible basis for an economy, thus being entirely reliant on meagre government funding. This was followed by the residential schools program, wherein children were taken from their families, lost their language, and were told that everything they were was bad by religious “educators” who saw them as savages.

Today a culture survives in Aboriginal communities, but it’s not a healthy one. Teen suicide rates are through the roof on most reserves. Child molestation, substance abuse and gang warfare run rampant. Unemployment sometimes approaches 100 percent. High school graduation rates are abysmal. Teen pregnancy is the norm. Fetal alcohol syndrome is epidemic.

It’s a culture our government and our own intolerance created. We put a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere with literally no educational or career opportunities. We let a generation or two go by, and this is the result. Now we say we want to make things better. But can we remake a culture from the ground up?

I want to believe it’s possible. But there are no quick fixes. And it won’t be accomplished with half-measures. The starting point is probably getting a politician into office, Aboriginal or non-, who thinks of summit meetings as more than a photo opp.

Related stories:

A Co-Op Solution: Fighting the ‘New Normal’ with Workplace Democracy

Harper and Chiefs to Hold Summit: Expectations Are Low

Expose the “Bad Guys” Among the One Percent

Photo credit: C. Lodge


Lourdes Z.
Lourdes Z6 years ago


You forgot to mention that nowadays the number of native children that had been put in foster care is about 10 times more than they ever had in the residential schools. That is what I read in the Edmonton Journal. native kids plucked from homes/6143404/story.html

Cheryl L.
Cheryl L6 years ago

The only thing that has prevented us from a total caste system is that the Republicans would continue fighting just like their "contestants" are, over who was going to be King. They could never accept so much power not being in their hands.

Judith Corrigan
Judith Corrigan6 years ago

'Becoming' suggests that it at one point had ceased.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle6 years ago

A depressing (and probably realistic) view of society. I have read of the aboriginal society problems before, and they are as horrendous as what we did to our native population. Exactly the same thing. This speaks to the end of the article. The beginning: Since the rich started getting MORE rich, the middle class wages have stagnated (actions against unions are a primary reason), and the middle class is thereby shrinking -- I think this has a LOT to do with classism. The ones at the bottom are truly in trouble -- poverty begets crime, because there is no sufficient employment. It becomes a vicious circle, generation after generation, the lack of hope. No space to write a book, but most Care2 readers are liberal and understand the REAL problems, not the "welfare mom" problem that repubs speak about.

Chad A.
Chad A6 years ago

Despite the myth of class mobility, the US is far more class stratified with less mobility than the supposedly stagnant social-democratically-influenced nations of Old Europe.

Patrick F.
Patrick f6 years ago


Theo C.
Theo C6 years ago

Countries in Europe with less income disparity (and, yes, higher taxes) than the US almost inevitably have better standards of living and better education and health standards. The Reagan era notion of "trickle-down economics," which still remains the touchstone of right-wing thinking in the US, has made the very wealthy fabulously wealthy and lowered the standards of living of the vast majority of US citizens. It is one of the most spectacularly failed economic experiments in USA history, approaching the one that led us to the Great Depression.

Beware a failing middle class. It is a sure recipe for national economic failure.

Rob and Jay B.
Jay S6 years ago

The US has the largest gap between rich & poor outside of the 3d World. It is, in effect, especially with its fraudulent 'democracy', a Banana Republic.

This great gap in income, with income being re-distributed Upward to the richest, explains why the US has so much violence, the highest crime rate, the highest infant & maternal mortality & worst grinding poverty & hopelessness outside of the 3d World.

If you want a safer more violence & crime free society, then make it more equitable & fair. Those incompent Bankers & CEO"s of corporations don't 'earn' any more than those who pick up our garbage, a job that is truly needed, yet those fat asses in their glass towers looking down on the rest of us are probably there because of their 'connections', not merit, but whose actions affect us all.

If you or I were as incompetent in our work as these lowlifes are in theirs, we would get fired & no unemployment to boot. These thieves wreck the economy & put millions out of their homes & jobs should get prison, yet they get 'Golden Parachutes'of millions for their incompetence & damage. Don't hold your breath since they control the politicians who make the dereluation laws that allowed this to happen.

William Y.
William Y6 years ago

@ Laurie D. Yes, but there used to be 3 castes, the upper, middle & lower classes, now it is the Aristocrats (the 1%) and the serfs (the 99%). Back to the dark ages.

Mike Barnes
Michael Barnes6 years ago

*Sigh* The government will always need more and more money. It has NOTHING to do with socialism, although Socialism is a good thing - shared sacrifice for the benefit of all. No, government needs more money because Congress allowed our monetary system to be privatized. The Federal Reserve - private banks- creates money through the issuance of debt. The government prints it, the little that banks do not create electronically with a keyboard ledger entry. Now, listen, until the government creates money by spending it into existence, instead of borrowing it into existence, it issues bonds. You know, those things that China buys, that every nation on earth buys, because the dollar is the world reserve currency. If the US paid of all of its debt tomorrow, what do you think happens? I'll tell you - the whole financial system of the planet collapses instantaneously, because the US can no longer issue bonds, and all those dollars have no where to go. That's as simple and as complex as it is, and it absolutely can not change as long as money is created through the issuance of debt.

So - of course we're living in a caste society. 1% profits from fractionl money. Everyone else is the base of the Ponzi pyramid that spits it out the top. Besides, over 50% of Americans are now under the official poverty line, and the leading Republican contender for President just said he doesn't care about them. Hear that? Half of Americans do not count.