Humanity does not handle social classes very well. The inherent affinity for one's group tends to lead toward the persecution of those at the bottom level of the social hierarchy, the lowest economic class. Those in the middle classes might be reluctant to overthrow at the top just because their ambition from the middle is to somehow achieve membership in that privileged, wealthy upper class.
Humanity began as small hunter/gatherer communities, so everyone was at an equal social and economic footing, where survival was more important than defining someone of privileged status. (The book Guns, Germs, and Steel is an excellent review of recent human history.) As farming enabled larger communities to be sustained, an inevitable social hierarchy develops even if only those managing the food stores are more privileged than those involved in the manual labor of managing the agricultural growth and harvest. The social levels in the community depended on the population size, so severe inequality was restrained due to the higher degree of accountability with a smaller size, where those at the bottom could still practically sanction (or revolt against) those at the top who were hoarding or otherwise being unfair.
Once the population within a large community grew to a large enough size, the respective social levels or classes could become entrenched. Those at the top were secure in their wealth while those at the bottom were unable to wield any political power to affect the political structure.
For example, Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire was the focus of the wealth and management of the huge economic and military domain. Within this environment, various classes were readily apparent and so the census recognized six different economic classes based on property value, from the Senators at the top to the Proletariat at the bottom. Outside of these classes, there were also many slaves who were considered just property. However the richest citizens were not necessarily those in charge. Rome had its ruling class, the Patricians, who maintained their control through ancestry.
As is seen throughout human history, those at the top of a social hierarchy will come to view those at the bottom as property, not as real human beings nor worthy of respect as people.
The subcontinent of India grew in population and so it also evolved into several distinct social classes. The origin is not precise but eventually the Hindu society recognized four different classes, sometimes called a caste system. Again like the slaves in Rome, there was another group of people outside this system, called the Untouchables.
The caste system is characterized by membership within the groups defined by birth, with this reinforced by the practice of endogamy (marriage is allowed only within one's caste). It might be impossible to confirm whether the culture supporting this caste system arose before the Hindu religion or whether the Hindu religion arose first, but it makes sense the religion would come after the stratified culture stabilized. By making the caste system based on birth, thereby making it impossible for those at the top of the system to be deposed by lower classes, and then making it the accepted religion so people were taught to believe it from birth, the religion confirmed and reinforced the political system.
The common practice throughout human history is when one country militarily conquered another, its citizens were either killed outright or many would be taken as slaves. As the Roman Empire conquered the area around the Mediterranean Sea, the supply of slaves was frequently replenished.
When Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean, one of his first acts was seizing several natives to become slaves, and a number of natives were returned to Europe on his ships, as the start of the slave trade from that part of the Americas.
The African societies were apparently already layered and when the growing economies in the West created a demand for slaves as property, many of these societies changed to become a supply for those slaves.
The Industrial Revolution led to larger cities as the manufacturing of goods created wealth and income for those involved. Again those at the top of the economic hierarchy treated those at the bottom as property so abuse was common, including unsafe working conditions, low wages, and long hours, even child labor. This abuse of the labor force became so widespread and recognized as unjust that eventually a revolt occurred, with the push for safe working conditions, shorter hours (the 8 hour day, 40 hour work week), and better wages. This was a bloody battle with the political powers typically helping the business leaders suppress those demonstrating publicly in a forum witnessed by many until it became unsafe politically (to remain elected) for those politicians to avoid the necessary changes in business standards.
The 19th Century was also the wellspring of economic thought, with many considering the economic classes of the time and how the economic system might become more equitable. Certainly that enlightened discussion helped justify those campaigning for better, fairer working conditions.
This social awareness was maintained into the 20th Century, with the passing of the Social Security federal program in 1935, with both income protection for those too old to hold a job and unemployment compensation for those who recently lost a job (the recognition that changes in business can cause the loss of a job regardless of one's performance).
The concept of social justice arose out of the conditions of the 19th Century, where the life and dignity of each person must be recognized by the political system and there must be concern shown for those at the bottom of the economic system.
Within this system seeking fairness while recognizing there will always be inequalities within any large society, there are several basic human needs that always must be considered: education and health care. These needs should not be based on one's birth but instead society should enable each individual to achieve their own useful place in society after learning whatever skill set is suited to one's abilities. The American public education system is an attempt to provide that basis for all children though as with any very large social organization it is not efficient in practice.
The American political system in the 21st Century is degenerating into an entrenched class system based on ancestry. The richest group is now safe from change because those in the political system are beholden to those paying for their reelection campaigns. The major regulatory agencies have a revolving door policy where those at the top can move/to well paid positions in the companies being regulated. Both political parties are about the same, where Obama quickly gained the epithet of Bush Lite, when the new administration made no significant changes from the previous administration (installed financial advisors who were the same people who caused the recent ecomonic collapse, kept Guatenamo open, bombed more countries, etc.).
The major recent changes reinforcing the current social class structure are 1) the large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans meaning they get to keep more of their wealth (and move it offshore out of the economy) and thereby have to share less with all those lower levels of employees, 2) off shoring of many American jobs meaning those who had enjoyed some level of economic security are now faced with living with less, and so their children also face lower expectations, 3) the assault on the public education system with changes to diminish funding available from the federal government by the efforts for spending cuts after extending the tax cuts, to push for lower wages of the teachers (sometimes just an implicit effort to destroy the teacher unions), and to push some level of the public tax funds into private schools to the detriment of the public system (having lost those funds to sustain whatever level of quality it had before), and 4) the political determination to maintain a public health care system dominated by the for profit health insurance companies (where denial of service can lead to higher profits) and the large pharmaceutical companies (who prevent lower prescription drug prices).
Together these changes mean those born to those at the top social class will remain in that class, due to better private education (where any expense is not a problem) and access to better health care (where any expense is not a problem). Those in the lower classes are faced with little opportunity to advance due to fewer well paid jobs, while the children can be born into families who might live in a poorly funded school system and who are unable to pay for or lack access to sufficient local health care.
I believe most people recognize the unfairness of people having privilege just on the basis of their birth. An efficient public education system and a fair public health system (like the proposed single payer system) helps to give the children an equitable beginning in life. The term equitable applies not equal because every local system is never the same as all others but at least they should all be fairly similar. Fair is the critical term.
Our society should not be based on a caste system where one's birth defines one's opportunities in life.
created - Nov. 2013
last change - 11/10/2013
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