Sunday, May 6, 2007 40 Comments

Castes of the United States

It's always fun to rethink the world by redefining our terminology. But the brain can only stand so much of this. The cerebrum boils, releasing green gas. The cortex starts to blacken and fray. A shocking, foreign pain arises between the ears. It will not go away.

So it's a relief when there's a backup word, which already has exactly the right meaning, but is disused and carries no (or at least few) political and emotional associations. This word is "caste." The word it replaces is so encrusted in historical nonsense that I won't even say it.

Of course the word "caste" is generally associated with India. The US is not India. So if we meant "caste" in the precise Hindu sense of the word (varna), there are no castes in the US, except perhaps among some Indian immigrants.

Some redefinition, therefore, is necessary. Let's define a "caste" as a social group with its own internal status system. All hominids crave status and will exchange almost anything for it, but different castes assign status in very different ways - as we'll see.

Here's my taxonomy of American castes. I've picked names from various historical cultures, hopefully without strong emotional associations for modern readers, for these castes. The implicit analogies these names create should be roughly accurate, but certainly not precise. I have ordered them alphabetically to avoid any implicit ranking.

In the Brahmin caste, status among both men and women is defined by scholarly achievement, success in an intellectual profession, or position of civic responsibility. The highest-status Brahmins are artists and scientists, but Brahmins can also be doctors or lawyers, although it is much better to be a doctor than a lawyer, and much better to be a lawyer than a dentist (a trade which was perhaps once Brahmin, but is now definitely Vaisya). Ideally, as a Brahmin, if you are a doctor you should be primarily concerned with caring for the poor; if you are a lawyer, your practice should focus on civil liberties and social justice - cardiology and corporate law are slightly de trop. An increasing number of young Brahmins consider themselves "activists" and work for "nonprofits" or "NGOs," lending some credence to the theory that the Brahmins are our ruling or governing caste. Entry into the Brahmin caste is conferred almost entirely by first-tier university admissions, although getting into Harvard doesn't mean you don't still need to make something of yourself.

In the Dalit caste, status among men is defined by power, wealth and sexual success, among women by attractiveness and popularity. The favored occupation of Dalit men is crime, preferably of the organized variety. However, Dalit criminals are not generally psychopathic; they perceive crime as guerrilla warfare against an unjust society. Dalit women may support themselves by crime, welfare (which they consider a right), or payments from men. Both male and female Dalits may occasionally support themselves by conventional employment, but this is usually in jobs that other castes (except Helots) would consider demeaning, and Dalits share this association. The Dalit caste is not monolithic; it is divided into a number of ethnic subcastes, such as African-American, Mexican, etc. A few white Dalits exist, notably in the Appalachians. There is little or no solidarity between the various Dalit ethnicities.

The Helot caste is an imported peasant caste, originating primarily in rural Central America. Status among Helot men is conferred primarily by hard work, money and power. Status among Helot women is conferred by attractiveness, motherhood, and association with successful men. The Helot value system does not seem to be sustainable in the US, and the children of Helots tend to grow up as Dalits. New Helots, however, can always be imported to replace them.

The Optimate caste has to be mentioned, because it was until quite recently the US's ruling caste. It is not clear, however, that the Optimate value system still exists in any meaningful sense, and if it does it is decaying rapidly, with most young Optimates becoming Brahmins. However, status among any men and women who do still follow the Optimate way is conferred by birth, breeding and personal character, with wealth serving as a prerequisite but not a mark of actual distinction. The Bible of the Optimate caste is, of course, the Social Register.

The Vaisya caste is the most difficult to define. It's tempting to say that a Vaisya is anyone who is not a Brahmin, Dalit, Helot or Optimate. Status among Vaisya men is conferred by productive employment, generally defined in monetary terms; by a successful family life; and by participation in church or other formal social groups. Status among Vaisya women is conferred by attractiveness, motherhood, and social participation, with an increasing number of Vaisya women entering the labor force, typically in unintellectual white-collar jobs.

(Update: please see the comment by "smb," whose perspective of the present-day Optimate caste is much sharper and clearer than my definition - which on reflection is too antiquated.)

40 Comments:

Anonymous bdr said...

Why are dentists demoted?

May 7, 2007 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Arbitrary and vague. Consider the following list of occupations which do not submit to any of the status systems as you define them:

* investment banker
* political lobbyist
* priest
* immigrant shopkeeper
* professional athlete

May 7, 2007 at 2:04 PM  
Anonymous SFG said...

Yah. I don't think these Brahmins exist as you describe them. In medicine cardiology definitely outranks family practice. Really, conservatives vastly overestimate the status of the liberal overclass; even high-status liberals like Warren Buffett and George Soros get that way through moneymaking. America is about money.

I'd go with:

Upper upper(old money)
Lower upper(new money)
Upper middle(doctors and lawyers)
Lower middle(bookkeepers and secretaries)
Upper lower (food service and manufacturing)
Lower lower (ghetto youth)

Paul Fussell slices it even thinner.

Optimates? You quoting Gene Wolfe or am I missing something here?

May 7, 2007 at 3:38 PM  
Anonymous SFG said...

Also, the remainder of the old unionized working class definitely considers themselves above the new, pink-collar working class (nurse's aides, McDonald's workers). So you've got seven classes.

May 7, 2007 at 3:40 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

SFG,

I know these Brahmins exist because I was raised as one. I'm the only male member of my immediate family without a PhD. My father's is from Brown, my stepfather's from Harvard, my brother's from Yale. My father worked as a philosophy professor and then joined the Foreign Service, my stepfather worked as a Senate staffer and then taught at the US War College. I'm afraid you'll just have to trust me that these people (a) exist, and (b) run the United States - or at least Washington!

"Old money" - the Optimacy - may have its own status system, but no feature of it confers status among Brahmins. For about three months my roommate at Brown was the grandson of J. Paul Getty, and let me tell you, he was not all about letting us commoners know who he was. Actually the subject really embarrassed him. Or watch the documentary Born Rich - these kids are anything but proud of their backgrounds.

Basically, Brahmins have the contempt for "money-grubbing" that is always a feature of every really powerful elite caste. As a Brahmin, the less you earn (for a given level of achievement), the better. The ideal Brahmin would live in a cabin, chop his own wood, own nothing else in the world, be the world's top-ranking poet, and condescend to teach a seminar at Harvard every five years or so.


(Optimate is a term from the late Roman Republic. Of course, Wolfe borrowed it too - nice catch!)

Now, as I said in the post, I'm sure there are still a few colonies of unreconstructed Optimates, maybe especially in the South. The Social Register still exists, after all. Surely these folks consider themselves superior to Brahmins. But the Brahmins see it the other way - the simple linear "class" model just doesn't do it. And, most importantly, there are next to no Optimate finishing schools left. The Brahmins took them all over.

As for cardiology versus family practice, "family practice" is a slightly different thing from being, say, in internal medicine with a focus on public-health research. All my information on this subject comes from a chick I used to date who had been chief resident at UCSF, was (needless to say) an insane uber-Brahmin, and was completely dedicated to public health (and Communist revolution in general - let's just say it was an odd match). All of her friends were also this way.

I suppose in real life this is not too different from "family practice," but I think the latter is more pursued by people who go to low-ranking schools and would much rather be cardiologists - in other words, they are really more Vaisya. My ex and her Brahmin buddies had nothing but contempt for people who wanted to be cardiologists so they could make a lot of money.

May 7, 2007 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Avi said...

What about politicians? Not all politicians come from an Ivy League university.

May 7, 2007 at 6:44 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

bdr - I have no idea! I don't think any of this stuff makes any sense.

sfg - of course none of these are precise boundaries, but I think what you're seeing is just the fact that Vaisyas, quite sensibly, respect hard work and prefer to be wealthier rather than poorer. The real problem is that the jobs, and union salaries, that sustained many generations of Vaisyas ("mechanics," as Jefferson would have called them) are going away, and being replaced by something much suckier. This is only part of the general problem of Vaisyas getting majorly shafted.

steve - the professions do not segregate perfectly. Caste is about background, not employment. Mating is probably a better indicator.

An investment banker could be Brahmin or Vaisya - the cool ones are always Brahmins. If you've seen the movie "Boiler Room" there is a nice showdown between Vaisya and Brahmin stockbrokers.

A political lobbyist is a Brahmin for sure if a Democrat, either a Vaisya or a renegade Brahmin if a Republican.

A priest is a Vaisya unless his name is "Coffin" or similar, ie, he is a "mainline" Protestant.

An immigrant shopkeeper is almost certainly a Vaisya, though he will probably try to make sure his children turn into Brahmins, ie, go to a good college.

Professional athletes can come from any caste - their profession is not generally inherited, in either direction. Apparently the social world of the pros, and of the cheerleader types who date them, is quite bizarre, perhaps because they fit so poorly into this whole system. But in many ways they are closest to extremely successful Dalits, I think.

May 7, 2007 at 6:53 PM  
Anonymous SMB said...

I am, admittedly, a bit wet behind the ears—as I'm still a senior in college—but what I've seen amongst my social set doesn't align very well with your castes. To give some context, I'm at an Ivy; about a third of my friends went to boarding school, a third private/parochial, and a third went public, as did I; about a third was born 'upper class’. two-thirds were born 'middle class' (widely defined), as was I. Altogether we could be defined as a mix of your Brahmin and Optimate classes.

I agree with SFG regarding doctors: cardiology and neurology definitely rank above family practice. Re working with the poor: most doctors I know do pro bono work anyway, rather than dedicating their careers to the 'poor.' However, this profession is overall considerably less prestigious than I imagine it once was. Literally all of my friends who have a parent who is a physician were told, in no uncertain terms, that they should avoid the profession completely. Half of the students I know who began as pre-meds have decided against pursuing a medical career, many opting for consulting or investment-banking.

As far as those who work at various NGOs and nonprofits: they're mostly considered ne'er-do-wells. They largely belong to the 'trustifarian' set—pseudo-bohemians who will never have to work, never appreciate not having to work, and certainly never suffer the consequences of not working. Granted, there are a good number of folks who work at non-profits and think tanks, who are seen as important parts of some political movement or another (but they will probably end up in politics, or going to business or law school).

For men, banking and consulting are generally considered the jobs to aim for, if one is able to get them. Ambitious women have slightly expanded options: advertising/marketing, PR, auction houses, even teaching (though most of these jobs are considered a spot for women to cool their heels whilst waiting to find a husband; not that anyone dare come out and say so).

If a fellow is ambitious, but unable to get into either finance or consulting or somesuch field, he will often go the NGO/non-profit route at first. (Another option is government service: CIA, State Dept., military, White House intern.) Down the road he'll apply to business school or law school and begin his career in earnest.

It should be noted that the quality-of-life for corporate lawyers is considered so dismal that most of those who earn law degrees don't actually ever want to practice law. Those too greedy/ambitious for government service will become paralegals, go to top-notch law schools, and slave away as corporate lawyers for most of their salad days. The 'better' set of lawyers takes the degree and heads to Washington, often bouncing between lobbying, staffing, non-profit, bureaucratic sectors &c. These are the ones who will serve as all points in the iron triangle at some time during their lives.

Re Steve: Professional athletes (and Hollywood types) are considered hopelessly vulgar.

Now, regarding entrance into this hybrid Brahmin/Optimate class I've been speaking of:
*Top-tier universities help, but aren't required. Haverford, Trinity, Bucknell will do.
*Personal character is important. Breeding is not.
*Wealth is not a prerequisite to this broader class.
*Good manners are a prerequisite.

I see vestiges of the Optimate system you propose. I certainly know guys who went to Buckley, Exeter, and then a top Ivy. But America's relentless push to meritocracy has made any presumption of themselves as a ruling class appear incurably rude—amongst themselves, too, not just to us middle class visigoths. After their hundreds of thousands worth of schooling are complete, they tend to strive on the same playing field as those who came from modest suburbs and went to public school.

Granted, these viewpoints will not quickly be admitted by most of those my age. Most will pretend to deeply admire their friends who enter the peace corps or work at some anti-land mine NGO. Their actual employment decisions are far more telling: very few pick altruistic jobs or 'public service' as a first choice, but rather as last resorts.

Also, I would say this view is accepted by roughly 80% of those my age, having studied at similar institutions. Half of those could vaguely be considered 'traditionalists.' They want to find good jobs, earn capital (monetary or political), and start families. The other half could be called 'neoliberals.' These are the ones who are simply ambitious and mostly want material success; they feel fewer personal obligations towards family and community; they love both consumerist capitalism and the welfare state.

The remaining 20% could be called the hangover from the counter-culture. They sneer at most economically productive jobs, and invariably go for the NGO/Peace Corps jobs, or perhaps academe. They would disagree with everything I've written above, but probably admit that most of their fellow students see things more or less as I do.

May 7, 2007 at 7:55 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Okay, I understand what you say about the Brahmin/Vaisya split among investment bankers. To accomodate investment banking, may I suggest that you add "cleverness" to the virtues of the Brahmin caste? Investment banking is not intellectual/scholarly, but it does require technocratic cleverness.

You don't think that priests are (low-status, aspiring) Brahmins?

I strongly disagree with your characterization of immigrant shopkeepers as Vaisya, for several reasons:
(1) Like the Helot caste, they do the hard work that the other castes consider to be undignified.
(2) They are clannish. They run their own private schools, buy their foodstuffs from co-ethnic grocers, and minimize civic involvement with the host society lest they be contaminated. They are willing to pack up and leave if business isn't good ("rootless cosmopolitans").
(3) They read and study much more than the Vaisya caste. They send their children to cram schools and yeshivot, and they enforce higher standards for academic performance than even most of the Brahmin class.

Plastic surgeons: high-status Vaisya, no?

May 7, 2007 at 9:06 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

steve,

Exactly, I should have mentioned that - Brahmins prize intelligence. It is just that they prefer to think of it in terms of scholastic achievement. But the cognitive-elite motif is never very far under the surface.

I don't think of immigrant shopkeepers as Helots because I don't think of their careers as demeaning, and I don't think most Americans do. But you are certainly right that there is some affinity there. It would be very interesting to see the voting pattern - it probably varies by ethnicity. (See my follow-up.)

"Priest" is really too large a category to define precisely. I would say that most religious figures share the caste of their congregation.

Plastic surgeons: definitely. Of course, if you specialize in fixing the harelips of impoverished Bangladeshi children for no charge, there may be some hope. I think plastic surgeons would like us to think that they spend at least half their time on such noble causes. But I don't think other members of the medical profession are fooled!

May 7, 2007 at 9:13 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

smb,

Very interesting comment! Your perspective is quite informative. I last saw ivied walls in 1992, and I had a very bizarre and atypical college experience, so I am quite grateful for the update.

Basically, the way I interpret your perspective is that you're looking at the vestiges of the Optimate class, who are - as you say - paying lip service to Brahmin ideals.

I have some very faint Optimate ancestry - my mother was born to this caste, although unfortunately not to any of its actual money. But she rejected it utterly, as so many did in the '60s, and I was brought up with 100% Brahmin family values.

Your Optimate identity strikes me as much more solid than mine - and I agree that, among this "post-Optimate" caste, cardiology, Wall Street, or basically anything that produces maximum cash with minimum stress, is ideal. (Hardly an unreasonable perspective!)

Again, it is very interesting to hear how today's seniors of your "set" regard the NGO and nonprofit Brahmin types. Mutual contempt, which I think is the most accurate description of the relationship here, is among the rarest (and most dangerous) caste relationships that exist, because it indicates a deviation from the normal pattern of top-down "class" stratification - in which contempt is not matched by contempt, but by resentment, which is a totally different emotion.

May 7, 2007 at 9:26 PM  
Anonymous smb said...

Mencius,

In hindsight, I should have qualified my evaluation with the fact I come from a university that definitely stresses a striving, can-do, spirit, mixed in with no small amount of anti-intellectuality. As far as I can tell, there are three Ivies that match that description, along with Duke, and, to a lesser extent, Georgetown. I'm quite certain that my aforementioned 40/40/20 split of collegiate perspectives would not apply to the school on the Charles.

Perhaps the most interesting discrepancy I see between the Optimate caste of your day and that of mine is the attitude towards inherited wealth. Those fortunate enough to receive trust funds are neither proud nor ashamed. Likewise, those of us without such an advantage hardly feel, well, disadvantaged.

The mention of your mother I find particularly interesting. I can think of very few today who have shunned their Optimate upbringing to join the supposed Brahmin caste. Several, certainly. But unlike your mother, these are almost always those who will also inherit wealth, as you mentioned in your original post.

I think your mention of the post-Optimate caste is particularly useful. A good deal of them prepped here or there, but just as many didn't know 'prepped' was a verb until they arrived in Providence. Again, they can be classified as traditionalist or neoliberal: the former value hard work, the latter ambition. Or at least so they say. In practice it's not so easy to tell the difference.

Significantly, many of those you would classify as Brahmins travel most easily in post-Optimate circles. As you mentioned, quite a few Optimates have opted to enter what you would dub the Brahmin caste, but I think very few of these hold the post-Optimates in contempt.

The main distinction I see, again, is between the traditionalists and the neoliberals. (I hesitate to say 'left and right,' however they are somewhat, but not entirely, congruent.) The traditionalist post-Optimates and traditionalist Brahmins are quite comfortable in each other's company: bankers and traders and consultants and think-tankers and Congressional staffers and bureaucrats, &c., gather together regularly in NYC and DC, socially, with none holding the others in contempt.

I'm less well acquainted with neoliberal circles but I know enough fellows (and have been to enough parties) to know it works something like this:
- Capitalists and Amnesty Int'l types plan a party together.
- Capitalists pay lip service to the Amnesty Int'l types, lauding them for all the good they do.
- Amnesty Int'l types know and love the fact they are considered morally and socially superior to the capitalists.
- The capitalists sneer at the stupid idealists once they're drunk and the idealists are out of earshot.

Amusingly (and unfortunately), we're long past the days when Brahmins took their State Department jobs and were content to serve their country by hammering out the details of the international hamster trade with the European Community. Instead, they practice, as I mentioned, relentless hopping between lobbying, private sector, political, and bureaucratic positions. Now, most Brahmins can make their post-Optimate dough without ever having to leave Washington. Albeit, they make less than the post-Optimates, but still, their kids probably won't be getting any financial aid when they send them off to Penn.

Another funny aspect of the Brahmin/post-Optimate divide comes when one looks at professors. I’ve encountered plenty of social scientists that quite resent that their peers of 40 years ago opted for Wall St. and are running hedge funds and sitting pretty. The social scientists insist that ‘business’ is some magical land where one just has to show up with smarts and he’ll be handed oodles of money. They didn’t decide against it because they didn’t have the right stuff, but because of their altruism. I’ve never encountered such sour grapes.

Anyhow, I’m glad of your caste classification. I suspect, though, that reality is perhaps a bit more nuanced than you view it. Of course, simplification can’t be avoided. Still, the Brahmins and post-Optimates, and original Optimates I saw last weekend at a Kentucky Derby party on the UWS didn’t seem to harbor either contempt or resentment for each other. Yes, it was almost exclusively traditionalist types, but the division between castes was pretty fluid. If anything, ‘education’ is what we probably felt separated us from anyone else. Again, no one would admit it, but that was the common denominator of all the attendees.

[An aside: You think cardiology or Wall St are maximum cash with minimum stress? I consistently think I'm a sap for taking the private sector route. As John Derbyshire has pointed out continuously, it's almost madness for a smart fellow to do anything but government work. Stress is next to minimum seeing as the 'clients' can't very well fire one, and cash, though certainly not the best available, looks pretty good when considering the pension (impossible to find in the private sector, these days). Compare that to Wall St. Yes, the cash is better, but I suspect few government workers pull 120 hour work weeks.]

May 8, 2007 at 12:06 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

My considered response here.

May 8, 2007 at 2:26 AM  
Blogger chris miller said...

Wow - I love Moldbug !
I've lived in this society for three generations - I wonder where a self-educating peasant like myself would fit in ?
(and I am in the third - or maybe fourth - generation of such peasants --- the consequence
of that northern-German program of creating a literate citizen army that drove my ancestors here and then would be so devastating to 20th C. Europe)

And as I peasant -- I'm suspicious of everything: status,wealth,knowledge, and power.
(and come to think of it -- my best friend has an identical family background - so at least I'm not one-of-a-kind)
We take whatever jobs we seem to enjoy doing (I've got a record store -- he's a physcial therapist) -- we try to do those jobs well -- but they're kind of tangential to whatever specialties actually interest us.

And come to think of it -- I think I have several friends like this.

Maybe we're the : brahmin underclass ?

May 8, 2007 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

smb,

I spent three years in Providence and I didn't know "prepped" was a verb! Shows you what I know. (I really don't think Ira Magaziner's goal in tossing the core curriculum was to give me a way to get a Brown degree while taking only CS and EE classes.)

The Optimate caste I described wasn't really based on my own experience - what I personally have seen of the "post-Optimates" is a lot more consistent with what you've seen. Your description of the interaction between Amnestiers and bankers is spot on.

I think there is a lot more elite-on-elite hate on the West Coast in general. I'm not surprised to learn that things are a good bit more cordial in NYC and especially DC. Nonetheless, it doesn't sound like your social circle includes the really extreme eco-artsy types, who are by far the most fanatical Brahmins.

I think today's post-Optimate young folks are a kind of sandwich, with a thin layer of college-instilled Brahmin spirituality over a core of high-Vaisya philistine materialism. As they age the former wears off and the latter shows through.

But the reason I laid out the stereotypical Optimate more as he was 50 years ago than as he is now, is that a lot of your more hard-line Brahmins (not your circle, I suspect) behave as if he still existed. I sort of wanted to overconcede this point to placate any unreconstructed Brahmins who I haven't driven away yet.

Take my Optimate maternal grandfather, who played on the 1930s Princeton tennis team. The Princeton he knew might as well be on Mars next to the Princeton of today. The old Optimates are simply a vanished culture, like the Sioux or the Apache, with at least as many elaborate social rituals. But in many ways we live in the world they built, and little traces of them can be found everywhere - most prominently, of course, in the memories of their hereditary foes.

(I'm fairly sure, for example, that my mother's parents hated FDR like the devil, and I know they voted for Nixon in 1960, though my grandmother now denies it.)

Here's some advice from the class of '92, though: don't succumb to the temptation of government work. The hours may be short, but the stress level is anything but low. Bureaucracy will drive you crazy. They don't wear striped pants in the Foreign Service anymore, either.

May 8, 2007 at 7:00 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Chris,

Brahmin underclass is exactly it. I think there was actually a magic point in 1971 or something when there were enough appropriate jobs for people with your education. But then it ended.

Note, however, that no one will look down on you for having a day job, as long as you don't take it seriously and have some other creative talent or specialty. This is what makes you a Brahmin - a status that imposes obligations.

May 8, 2007 at 7:06 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

The obvious occupation for my brahman-peasant underclass is education -- hopefully at the high end -- where we get to be wise-ass experts and criticize everything from an appropriate distance.

But somehow -- over the course of the last century -- this occupation has become less and less suitable -- at least for my family.

My grandfather easily transitioned from being a smart farmer's kid to being a professor of agricultural engineering. (c. 1920) -- but even back then he began to get into trouble -- as his department became attached to agri-business -- and he could see no reason why farmers should go into debt for tractors or hybrid seed corn (when smart peasants have always raised their own horses and seed corn). At one point, he was almost fired by the university -- but incredibly enough, a student petition came to his rescue. Unfortunately, however, no petitions rescued his son, my father, when he was fired from
an art academy in the 1950's for not keeping step with the enormous (nihilistic) changes in the post-war art world -- and he would never work again.

So for myself -- growing up the 60's -- the university was no more an option than the priesthood would have been for a Quaker -- indeed there were no preferred options --
either before or after those early years of the 1970's that seem important to you -- it was just a matter of jumping into whatever income stream seemed the most convenient/comfortable -- and what could be better than being surrounded by the entire world of music every day ?

It's funny how both of us have become perhaps more attached to selected elements of Chinese civilization than our own -- assuming that your interest in Confucius extends beyond
your internet name --- just like my interest in the Taoists -- and I can relate to that entire class of ancient Chinese who studied hard for the examinations but never
got a government job - so they spent their marginalized lives making calligraphy and poetry -- or (most importantly for me) writing those epic Chinese novels that I've
enjoyed so much.

Regarding the "obligations imposed by my status" -- I'd say it's mostly an independence of thought (rather than of occupation) - for which it appears that you are admirably qualified.

May 9, 2007 at 6:36 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Chris,

A very interesting background. It sounds like you are, if anything, more post-Brahmin than me, third-generation where I am second.

(And "Mencius" is really just a handle - you clearly know a lot more about Chinese culture than I.)

Ever read any Dave Hickey? I think you'd like his Air Guitar. The realization that the university system is not, in fact, conducive to the independent mind, has come, well, independently, to quite a variety of people. Perhaps at some point we'll find a way to actually do something about it.

May 9, 2007 at 8:26 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"The realization that the university system is not, in fact, conducive to the independent mind, has come, well, independently, to quite a variety of people."

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thought so. It's been getting truer ever since. For me it's a (hopefully) tolerable evil.

May 9, 2007 at 8:36 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Where in this caste structure do you place what has become an increasingly distinct species in our society, the professional soldier?

Since the abandonment of the draft our armed forces are less and less representative of the society at large, and their opinions (as polling data show) diverge widely from those of the civilian population. The Indian caste structure had a warrior caste, the ksatriya; from these, the civil authorities were also drawn. We have not come to that pass (yet), common though it has been in other American republics.

It used to be that our officer corps was drawn from the group you have identified as "optimates," following the example of the British armed services which drew its officers from the sons of the nobility and gentry. There are practically no representatives of the optimate class in the American officer corps today. The decline has been going on for a long time, as Brig. Gen. John Hawkins Napier III pointed out :

"Upper class leadership in the U.S. Army had already slowly declined from 26% in 1910 to three percent in 1950 when the Korean War began. Postwar affluence, opposition to the Vietnam War, a growing anti-military culture in academe and the selfish hedonism of the 'Me Generation' comnimed to make this kind of public service either incomprehensible or a joke to many.

"Of 3,500 members of the Society of the Cincinnati, only 27 hold general or flag rank, and three of those are French members. Even in the South, with its traditions of military service, patrician membership in the armed forces has all but disappeared.

"... A class presumptuous enough to consider itself the country's leadership must learn again to help defend it..." ("Noblesse Oblige Revisited," Social Register Observer, Summer 2002, p. 58).

The disappearance of what Gen. Napier identifies as "patrician" membership in the armed forces is of course a function of the decline of the optimates, which you note. Certainly one sees no rush on the part of members of the new, "brahmin," elite to take up this rôle.

Where, then, is our military leadership coming from? I suppose, insofar as officer recruitment is largely done through ROTC, largely at state colleges and second- or lower-tier private institutions, you'd identify it as "vaisya." However, it seems to be developing a distinct identity of its own.

May 14, 2007 at 11:10 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

I think this is a very useful way of looking at current North American culture. I don't think a caste structure needs to be perfect in order to be useful. My main problem with it is that I'm not sure how much you have to be like your parent in order to be part of a caste. Caste does imply a pretty cast-in-stone pattern of inheritance, no?

Taking myself alone, I am pretty much Brahmin except for the ideology: I have an expensive education, I never watch TV, I post to blogs called "Unqualified Reservations", etc. But my parents are classic Vaisya who wish they were Optimates. If "caste" is a good word choice that would imply that people like myself are very rare, is that correct?

July 14, 2007 at 2:58 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

I've been thinking more about this schema, and I still like it, although I don't know if anyone is still watching this page. If someone were to ask me about this I'd be quick to make an apologia:
The castes proposed by UR aren't quite equivalent to one another, and don't include all that many people. If you perceive the North American social landscape as a continent, you may desire to describe it in more detail - look at the countries. The first four castes (BDHO) only describe the capitals - they are very specific but narrow. For example, Hollywood movie actors with the familiar progressive politics but little education would be in rustic hinterlands of whatever country the Brahmins are capital of.

Dalits include Mormon Fundamentalists, with their rapid population growth, love of welfare, and disregard of certain laws (i.e. those banning polygamy) but as MM noted they don't rub elbows with urban gangstas (or mainstream LDS, who I guess are mostly Vaisya?)

The fourth, Vaisyas, is pretty broad but lacks focus. If the Vaisyas are a country, they are probably a federal republic. State capitals could include small business, microserfs, customer service/clerks, bookkeepers, machine tradesmen, etc. The kind of people we like because they won't rob you in an ally, but don't really chat with on blogs very much.

Maybe another term for the first four would "social archetypes", if my geographic metaphor is too off-beat.

July 24, 2007 at 4:34 PM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

I realize that I'm arriving at the party long after the last guest has departed, but what the hell?

After initially not given much thought one way or the other to the UR caste taxonomy, it has suddenly dawned on me that this system does help me to clarify some of my previously ill-defined impressions of our Maximal Leader. It seems to me useful to examine the psyche of GWB in light of the Optimate decline and the rise of the Brahminate.

By American standards GWB is as close as we're ever going to get to a pure product of the ruling class. His pedigree is absolutely blue chip, on both sides:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_family

And yet, the class into which he was born, has, over the past half century, suffered a slow retreat. Which is not to say that it has died, or disintegrated, or surrendered completely to the Brahminate. After all, look at where GWB, a most unpromising prospect, now resides.

Some will read this, and argue that GWB, with his nasally-inflected Texas twang, his indecipherable syntax, and his Methodist convictions, is disqualified from memebership in the Optimate class. In other words, his blood may be blue, but his mind is pure Red State Redneck.

No, the Optimate class, like the Mafia, is not something from which one simply resigns. GWB is rather an instance of what happens to one type of Optimate whose class identity is now riddled with the fissures of the modern age. The aimlessness, the free-floating anger, the boozing (does "drunk as a lord" ring any bells?) the impulsive arrogance coupled with "what the hell?" intellectual sloth, all become instantly more understandable, more elements of a recognizable pattern.

Bush is a man at odds with his family, his class, and ultimately, himself, because he senses and resents the dissolution of his birthright. For reasons of political survival, he is forced into failed attempts to placate the Brahminate, whom he despises, even as he clumsily assumes various aspects of Vaisya culture, which are to him a refuge from a host of psychological wounds. These Vaisya affectations are also the key to such politcal success as he's known thus far.

His father was in certain ways a man recognizably adrift from the world he'd been born into, but GHWB was born early enough to come into adulthood, and thus, to form a coherent personality, before the psychic fissures in the Optimate class grew too pronounced to dismiss. His son, perhaps more thoughtful than he lets on, was not so lucky.

I could go on, but this is getting a bit long for a comment. Perhpas I'll write about this at greater length, and I hope, greater clarity, in the near future. The terminology you provide has, as I've said, been helpful to me in making some sense of these impressions. Still, at his point, it's all rather shadowed and Faulknerian.

August 6, 2007 at 8:06 PM  
Blogger nybrahmin said...

As a Brahmin from the East, I enjoyed reading this. Parents, grandfather and great were scholars. I myself studied for about fifteen years and headed towards academia. I would say that genuine Brahmins had a certain contempt for money and valued theoretical and intellectual pursuits. But in this day and age, you cannot truly have a bit of contempt for money unless you have known what it is like to have a lot or at least see the limitations of money.
And even in the East, very few Brahmin families have kept the genuine old Brahmin values which is sad. But I do know several old Brahmin families who have kept the traditions and there is something very special about them and they are rare-especially if they combine genetic refinement with knowledge cultural and spiritual refinement. The Gita (written by wandering Brahmin bards) says lose your caste and you lose everything-there is a certain element of truth to this.

August 7, 2007 at 11:32 PM  
Anonymous Another Michael said...

I can't say anything about the Brahmin caste- I've never been within a thousand miles of an Ivy-league school. But as a Vaisya living in a town with many Helots and Dalits, I can more-or-less see where the boundary lines are there.

A Vaisya is someone with enough ability and capacity for hard work to make a living at something that is considered rewarding in once sense or another. A Dalit is someone who- talented or not- scorns hard work as something to be done only when there's no other choice. A Helot is someone- usually an immigrant, but sometimes a blue-collar native- who's caught in the middle; they value hard work, but don't have the skills or connections to work jobs that are considered rewarding by others.

This makes them inherently unstable as a class. They rise to own their own business or get their kids into college, and thus become Vaisya. Or they don't, their kids decide toiling for chicken feed is for the birds, and the family sinks into the Dalit class. The person willing to continue the tradition of toiling for little reward beyond subsistence is rare.

November 10, 2007 at 4:41 PM  
Anonymous SFG said...

Wow. Finally came back and read your response. I'll take your word for it, honestly: I'm the first to admit I don't know all that much about the true ruling class in this country.

Guess I'm a very bad Vaisya. I'm way too nerdy. But apart from college I don't have the pedigree to be a Brahmin, except perhaps super-junior-grade.

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This entire analysis is flawed.

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March 2, 2009 at 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 7:35 PM  
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March 22, 2009 at 2:57 AM  

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