Thursday, January 2, 2014

The caste system and the middle classes

The caste system already existed in India before the Bhagawad Gita, the celestial song, was sung by Lord Krishna.
"The fourfold caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma; though I am the author thereof, know Me as the non-doer and immutable."

As we can see, it was not meant to lead to inequalities, but to a differentiation of work (karma) according to nature (Guna). This equality between castes and even with those who are outcastes or other living creatures comes out in another verse.

"Sages look with an equal eye on a Brahmin endowed with learning and humility, on a cow, on an elephant, and even on a dog and an outcaste."

The need of a (flat) caste system probably lies in the simplicity of reproduction or replication of a social model. When the pressure on land became too much, some people had to leave a village and move on. To recreate a harmonious social model, every occupation had to be represented in the new village. Thus, a farmer's son would be the farmer, the teacher's son would be a teacher, the potter's son a potter, and so on. In short, an entire ecosystem would be transplanted into the new village and this was to ensure its survival. Of course, there was nothing stopping a potter's son from being a carpenter, but someone would have to agree to be a potter.

This notion of balanced ecosystem is essential. What would happen if all except the farmers leave? Imagine if farmland productivity went up and the old farmer could provide the food to the new village and his son did not move. Obviously, in the new village, there would be one person less to buy the potter's pots, the carpenter's cots, the tailor's togs. There would therefore be a lack of effective demand to enable all the others to live comfortably.

Not that increased productivity is bad. Evidently, if the farmer's son went to the new village and imported their pots, beds, clothes for this requirement, then the ecosystem remained balanced. But would he travel to obtain, with his father's money, what he could get in his old village if someone worked a bit more. The price mechanism and greed in the old village would therefore lead to lack of effective demand in the new village and that ecosystem would not survive.

One way to overcome the increased productivity is redistribution, implicit in the above paragraph. This redistribution is from the productive farmer to his unemployed son. But as we have seen, unless this redistribution leads to increased demand for other people's products, and not making those in the existing village work even more, the new ecosystem collapses, creating a lot of unemployment. Long term unemployment leads to becoming outcastes of a society. And this outcaste status may then be reproduced by their offsprings since their parents can guide them less.

This is the inherent basics of a community approach to economics. The community does not need to be a village: it can be a town, a region, a country or even the whole world. But unless there is a willingness to share, arising from the recognition that the people in the next ecosystem are our own children and that demand for their products will arise only if we produce less, there will be people who will be unemployed.
This sharing of work, therefore, is what is essential for the creation of effective demand. Of course, if one greedy person wants to produce all, the entire extra revenue needs to be gifted away to those who do not have work. These people can then effectively consume the greedy person's products.

This relationship between producers and consumers, between producers and producers, and between consumers and consumers, is often lost in modern day economics and politics with their "we are the best" growth based mantra.

Again, this is not to say that productivity increase is bad: it is only to say that the increased productivity should be tempered by working less so that total production does not lead to lower production by someone else. Alternatively, the revenue from increased productivity needs to be gifted away to those who could consume it.

The community model allows for new innovations making new things and meeting the unmet needs of people: thus every community may have its own webmaster or computer maker. However, the balance between what is produced and earned and what can possibly be consumed needs to be maintained for the ecosystems to survive: all the ecosystems and not that of our community alone.

The "eye that is equal" means that everyone finds an equal place in such a society, whether he be a priest or a president. To each his duty is prescribed.  

Would our middle class theory require total equality between all people in every aspect of life? Evidently, this is not possible: we are diverse by our nature. But we should all be able to think beyond our immediate enrichment to see whether we can sustain not only ourselves, but also our children and our neighbours. Sometimes, this means doing less, and not necessarily creating charities. Perhaps this is best caught in the last line of great English poet John Milton's (1608-74) poem (on his blindness): "they also serve who only stand and wait". Let me reproduce it since it is so beautiful.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

In this light, the handicapped and those less productive also serve even if they don't produce because they are able and willing to consume. Therefore, the taxes we pay, the charities we create, or the investments we make are just, because they create a balance in the ecosystem created by an inability to refrain from unnecessary action.

Once again, it is not the price mechanism which is faulty. This invisible hand is very useful to provide information on what needs to be produced and what not. It is better than any visible central planning system. 

What is missing are courses on responsibility and spirituality, even in the limited sense of recognizing our true place in the world and allowing other humans and other forms of life to exist before they have to shout for help or before we destroy ourselves by destroying them.

Certainly, with the focus on the right education at an early age, this realization will come to our children faster than to some of our peers. Perhaps they will find a middle way to accepting being middle class and enabling others to become middle class. The party will be on.

Arvind Ashta

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