“CASTE: The Origins of Our Discontent“

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Book Review

“CASTE: The Origins of Our Discontent“,

by Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, NY, 2020

by Hazel Henderson

©2020 Hazel Henderson

The ultimate testimony to a writer’s art is in creating a book breaking new ground, deeply-researched and voluminously-documented, which also finds deep resonance in the reader’s heart.  Author, sociologist Isabel Wilkerson, celebrated for her multiply-awarded first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns“ (2010), captured my heart while feeding my mind with her accounts of the exodus of African-Americans fleeing the horrid Jim Crow revival of the Confederacy in the US south to northern cities, Chicago, Detroit and New York.

What grabbed me as I read “CASTE“, including some of the author’s personally experienced indignities, I recalled my lived experience of caste, growing up in the patriarchal class structure of 20th century Britain.  Its caste hierarchies were very precise.  My family was in the middle class, but designated in its “lower-upper-middle “ranks! We lived in one of the outer counties apart from the London-centric culture of royalty, land-ownership, estates, and their inherited ranks and ceremonial titles of its power hierarchies.  My father was a businessman, a typical white male acculturated in Britain’s patriarchy, where women were relegated on lower rungs than even here in the USA, even though Margaret Thatcher had broken through.  With her dogged tenacity and intellect, she mimicked dominant behavior, becoming ”the best man around“, bullet-proof while exploiting her femininity wielding her handbag!

My father was a leader in the port city of Bristol, a center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  The caste-system in Britain was expressed as classism.  My father, due to his business, was relegated to our “lower-upper-middle” class status, below the London-centric royalty and land-owning barons.  Their first-born sons inherited their estates and sat in the House of Lords — above the “commoners”, elected in captive boroughs by the servant classes.  US viewers of the BBC watch Downton Abbey and see how this “upstairs-downstairs” caste-system worked.  Today, all this is challenged by the black and brown immigrants from Britain’s former colonies worldwide.  Recently, I watched with joy, seeing these latest British citizens pull down the statue of Edward Colston, which I had passed daily on my way to school, and watched them on TV dumping it into Bristol’s murky dock waters.

In “CASTE“ author Wilkerson does not examine Britain’s class-based hierarchies. She focuses on comparing the relative caste-systems of India (the oldest, based on the Hindu religion, being revived by BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi); that in the USA (using the tool of “race”, based on skin-color) for ranking and enforcing privileges and opportunities for wealth-accumulation for the lightest-skinned; and lastly, the 12 -year regime of Germany’s Third Reich (the shortest, most catastrophic form of caste-system) now memorialized in Washington’s Holocaust Museum and the many monuments in Berlin, its horrors taught in schools and textbooks.

What Wilkerson manages in this heroic volume, “CASTE” is to open her readers’ eyes and hearts to all the fear, pain, anxiety, anguish, ill-health and sheer terror that all caste-systems employ by dominant cohorts of their populations to maintain control, power and accumulation of their respective societies’ human and natural resources.  Most powerful for me is Wilkerson’s perceptive analyses, both of our recent 2016 US election and what portends for 2020. She reviews how all these shifting social forces, changing demography and technologies of social media are playing out in the ranking by skin-color, gender, education and access to money, power, jobs and status, in these dominance-submission games humans still play. My personal experience taught me to focus on the use of the fictitious symbols of money and its use in exercising power and control, in families, of which mine was typical, as well as in the British economy and political system.

I learned quickly that money was not true wealth, but the tool my father used to control my mother and our family, his business relationships, employees and advance his status in the class hierarchy in Bristol.  He ruled our family by keeping my mother penniless, forcing her to cajole our local grocer into billing her for our food.  Our Friday night dinner table ritual in which my mother presented the week’s grocery bill always triggered my father’s rage, shouting and stamping around, often striking my mother for her ”extravagance“ as we kids cowered in corners.  We lived in terror of my father’s tantrums and asked my mother whether we could run away.  She always answered, “We can’t because I have no money, my dears“.  We asked if we could call the police and she said “No, no one must know about any of this“!  Needless to say, I escaped at age 16, found an entry-level job in Bristol and joined my sister in a cheap youth hostel she had found earlier.

Thus I deeply related to Wilkerson’s many examples and research on the role of money as a tool of caste-system domination in all countries, and now worldwide, due to globalization based on money-measured GDP and its macroeconomic metrics, on “growth” and the“ debt-GDP-ratios” keeping developing countries in penury.  My deep dive into the weeds of economic textbooks saw their hierarchical ranking in the assumptions about “human nature“ including that volunteering, sharing and caring for others in communities was “irrational“!

Women’s role in raising children and maintaining households and volunteering as my mother did, was classified as “un-economic“ and its value omitted from GDP. The textbook goal was enshrined in the concept of “market completion“: i.e. to enclose all such unpaid informal sectors I term “Love Economies” in this visual, into money-based transactions.   Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu devised the mathematical model for this triumph of markets in 1953 and later Arrow received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which sought to legitimize economics as a science, instead of a profession. Economics is still a male-dominated profession, although the global movement in 2020 of “Black Lives Matter“ has revealed all the scholarship documented by Wilkerson, as well as the rise of many African-American economists challenging its subtle caste -system approach to economics and finance, exposed as racist, for example in “The Fight Against Racism Has Always Been Global”, Keisha L. Blain, (Foreign Affairs, Sept-Oct, 2020, p. 176).

There is still much effort in the economics profession to confuse this award as a real Nobel Prize, as I and Alfred Nobel’s descendent, Swedish lawyer Peter Nobel have exposed in our joint articles (archived at www.hazelhenderson.com ).  Finally, in 2000, the United Nations Human Development Program (www.unhdp.org) produced the first Human Development Index(HDI), and I and my colleagues at the Calvert group released our Calvert -Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, which un-bundled and measured 12 key aspects of quality-of-life. (www.ethicalmarkets.com).  By 2005, the HDI examined this unpaid production and discovered an estimated $16 trillion of goods and services simply missing from that year’s official GDP of $ 24 trillion: $11 trillion the unpaid goods and services of women and $5 trillion of that of men. Including this in GDP 2005 would have increased it to $40 trillion.

For this reason, Ethical Markets and global polling experts at GlobeScan have conducted our joint “Beyond GDP“ global opinion surveys in 12 countries since our first, which I presented at the European Parliament in 2007 at its first Beyond GDP debate (www.beyond-gdp.eu).  Our results in 2020 still show that an average 72% still favor expanding money-based GDP to include scientific statistics on health, education and environment (www.ethicalmarkets.com).  Worse, GDP still reigns in financial models, business, government, and media, and still does not contain an asset account to balance all governments’ needed investments in public goods, service and infrastructure undergirding developed economies. Thus GDP, as a cash-flow accounting still overstates all “debt-to-GDP-ratios“ which, if corrected as in any proper balance sheet, can cut these ratios by up to 50% …. with a few keystrokes.  Similarly, central banks could shift their quantitative easing (QE) from buying past dud mortgage bonds and bailing out bankers to investing in the burgeoning cleaner greener, knowledge-richer companies and technologies of the future which we cover in our Green Transition Scoreboard® reports since 2009.

All these ancient games reflecting our earliest tribal experiences as small, roving bands of nomads, competing with each other for food, fearing wild animal predators, must now be examined and overcome.  Our primitive cognition must now expand and expel such early limitations in more realistic planetary awareness of our condition relying on the daily free photons from our mother star: the Sun. We are now grappling with all our self-inflicted global crises due to this limited cognition: fires, floods, droughts, super hurricanes, rising sea levels, methane burping from melting tundra and now, ever more virulent pandemics.  The planet is now teaching us directly and we are coming up to graduation time. Pandemics will be with us as we cut down forests and invade ecosystems and habitats of our fellow species, while our dysfunctional financial casinos impose inequality and poverty. This forces hungry people into killing and eating virus-carrying “bushmeat” while diseases of factory-farmed animals transmit viruses to slaughterhouse and meat-processing plants and human customers.

We humans trekked out of Africa, crossed the Bering Straits and have now colonized every part of planet Earth, consuming 40% of all primary photosynthetic production by plants and phytoplankton which provide all our food.  These human activities and the sixth great extinction of other species is now named as the Anthropocene Age.

Isabel Wilkerson has provided us all with new clues to help us in our planetary graduation as a viable species.  She teaches us how to restore life-giving balance to our societies and to the Earth’s ecosystems.  Her depth of research traces all previous scholarship and reports on the problems of racism, classism, sexism, ageism, misogyny, and sheer stupidity – all as part of the deeper structure of caste-systems and their power relationships.  Since she also includes the famous book “An American Dilemma”, (1944), by Gunnar Myrdal, it would be fitting for the Swedish Nobel Committee to give author Isabel Wilkerson the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was privileged to know Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, an intellectual power couple who brought honor to their Swedish heritage.  I dare say that both would be delighted at such an award.

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Hazel Henderson, global futurist, science policy advisory and author of “Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age” (London, 2014) and other books, is CEO of Ethical Markets Media Certified B. Corporation www.ethicalmarkets.com, producers of the global TV series “Transforming Finance“ and the EthicMark® Awards for Communications Uplifting Human Spirit & Society, www.ethicmark.org.