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Thursday, November 11, 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Social Classes

Dear friends,

Finally, we might get to discuss Social Class this Sunday.

As a subject social classes must have launched a thousand revolutions in
the history of human kind, but as I argue in my essay these were all
destined to fail from the word go.

But like all things in philosophy, changing our approach might enlighten
us a little bit on the topic.

In the meantime Peter is still looking for a flat mate;

--------------------Peter

Peter is sharing a flat is Mostoles close to public transport; very good
conditions. Central heating and central hot water. There two rooms to
rent out: a single and a double: tel 609257259 (LJCB Note: one of the
rooms might be taken, not sure which one)

--------------------

Take care and see you Sunday

Lawrence

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Social classes

Some people are offended by the claim that human beings are biological
entities. Others might object not because we might somehow be some other
form of living entity, but out of fear that we have no place for ideas
such as justice or fairness. Or basically, we are just a pack of brute
force.

Unfortunately, our sense of justice and fairness has not stopped us from
using brute force on a daily basis to deal with our fellow human beings.
Nor has our sense of justice stopped us from being, first and fore most,
biological entities.

In the animal kingdom we do find both a sense of justice (of an animal
sort of way) and brut force as a means to control members of a group.
And in many animals who also depend on social structures for group
survival we also find social classes. Indeed, as we all know, social
classes exist in primates, felines, and insects.

Social classes seem to be an integral part of a group who depend on
collective employment of labour to access natural resources. Many
animals are incapable of accessing natural resources without group
effort: bees, ants, wolves (maybe), humans etc.

It seems to me that social classes are not only a feature of human
beings, but more importantly of biological systems that requires
collective effort to survive.

That social classes exist is not in doubt or an issue for us. Nor is it
an issue for us whether social classes are desirable or not, and maybe
how to do away with social classes. What we are concerned with from a
philosophical point of view is how necessary are social classes for a
society to function? And equally important for us is the question: what
do mean by removing social classes from our society.

We recognise that the importance of removing social classes by virtue of
the fact that many politicians, revolutionaries and thinkers have tried
very hard to remove such classes from society. Indeed, a moral agent
would immediately recognise the incompatibility between social classes
and our sense of justice. And as I shall argue later on any rational
agent would recognise the futility of social classes.

Unfortunately, although we can agree that those who wanted to get rid of
social classes may have good intentions and mean well, their objectives
were flawed and that their endeavours could only but fail.

The fatal flaw is of course the assumption that social classes are a
human phenomenon. The assumption that we really want to do this and not
that social classes might be an inherent part of our nature. But as we
know today social classes are a biological phenomenon. What might have
happened is that in our evolution we still retained this biological
feature of social classes into our rational based society. I would
therefore argue that social classes are something we have retained from
our biological make up.

And the reason why revolutionaries and politicians have failed in the
quest to get rid of social classes is because they have failed to
address the all important question: how necessary are social classes to
a biological system and especially to our society? I would argue that
the thinking needed to get rid of something undesirable, is different
from changing something that is necessary.

So far I have sort of assumed that we all agree what social classes are.
And that this term applies seamlessly to all animals and humans alike;
at least in substance if not in form.

Indeed we are all familiar with such terms as upper class, middle class
and lower/working class. We can even be familiar with "the haves" and
"have nots", the ruling classes, the oppressed, the bourgeoisie and the
proletariat. And the most objectionable of all terms, castes.

As far as the terminology is concerned I think we more or less know what
the nature of our topic is. But what are we really talking about?

In essence we are talking about two things: who has access to power and
who has access to resources? In a way social classes are a
stratification of a biological system first of all to create a queuing
system to the resources we need to function, i.e. a pecking order, and
secondly to mange an energy mass to actually access those resources
(labour).

But this is where the human class system deviates from most class
systems in animals. In most animal systems those with the most power
(e.g. top male lions) have immediate access to resources even if they
did not play a part in the kill (more often it is the female lions who
hunt). In the human system, especially today, those with the power
(kings, prime ministers and presidents), like those who access resources
(middle and working classes) do not necessarily manage the resources
(usually this is done by corporations, CEO's and land owners).

In more advanced societies today, those who control the resources and
those who control power are two different groups. This sort of class
system creates its own stable dynamic, but I suspect that today managing
and accessing resources is such a complex task that one really has to be
skilled and dedicated for the task. But then again this is all part of
the game of who gets first to the queue. If you cannot have the power,
try and change the rules, and manage the resources.

So even at the top we sometimes see an other form of class system one
based on resources and the other based on power. Thus we might have a
class system that uses lineage and breeding to establish rank (e.g.
England and Indian caste system). Whilst others use wealth or resources
as the currency of qualification; for example the USA and China.

It is therefore not enough to have a class system, we also need to have
established the currency or criteria for qualification into a class.
Indeed a variation of the class system would use intellect as the
currency to qualify, for example being an engineer or a doctor or even
an author to qualify into the respected classes, for example what we
find in France and Germany. Other societies have adopted an extreme form
of class system based on how social, friendly and fun to be with as a
qualification to respect and class; maybe like Australia.

Whatever we happen to mean by social classes there is certainly one
specific feature in the meaning of all forms of social classes and this
is the concept of inclusion and exclusion.

Let's go back to the question of how necessary are social classes for a
society to function. And I want to start by examining the benefits of
social classes.

If we know where we stand in the pecking order or in the queue to the
food chain we stand a better chance of creating a stable dynamic to
distribute wealth and power. It is simply very impractical to have a
revolution or a civil war every month just to distribute a loaf of bread.

Thus, in most models of social class systems we have a sort of stable
dynamic where those in power stay in power, those with wealth stay with
wealth, and those with neither just scratch their heads and try to make
sense of it all.

In fact stability does seem to be the main advantage of social class
systems. We seem to favour stability, much like other creatures, that we
are prepared to have a class system at the expense of justice and
fairness. But there seems to be something immoral and repulsive at the
though of the wealthy staying wealthy and the poor remaining poor.

If social classes offer stability, we cannot have revolutions every
month, social classes also give us a mechanism to distribute resources,
which, after all is the name of the game, maybe after reproduction.

If, for the sake of the argument, we know that 80% of the population are
only going to access 10% of the resources then we can go ahead and build
our shopping malls out of town. And unless we have a sturdy 4x4 car you
are not going to have access to the best choice of food and other
resources to survive. Indeed, some societies are so sure about their
numbers that they don't even provide efficient public transport or
health care for the 80%.

But if knowing that 80% of our population is destined to be poor can be
repulsive, what can we say about making sure that they remain poor? Thus
managing to get 80% of the population to hate you is quite an
achievement, but also a recipe for action. It is this sentiment that has
been the motivating force of many revolutions and social upheavals. But
as I said earlier these efforts are really destined to failure because
of an inherent flaw in the reasoning.

A second and equally serious objection to social classes is that it is
very difficult to maintain a stable dynamic over time with so many
opposing and conflicting forces and players involved. Today we know that
such open systems as societies become too unstable over time or at the
very least very unpredictable.

Ironically, therefore, the most serious objection to social classes
seems to be not the fact they are unjust (they are), but that they are
dangerously unstable. The question we then have to ask ourselves is
whether any attempt to redistribute power and or resources, or both,
equally results into a system with equally inherent instability. In
other words, does redistribution create its own unstable dynamic? Don't
forget, other things being equal, whatever system we adopt we are
redistributing scarce resources.

However, I have a feeling that we can find our answer to our question
about how necessary are social classes for a society to function
precisely in this inherent instability that the social class dynamic has.

Some of the most successful life forms on earth are not based on a
social class structure but cooperative logic: viruses (?), bacteria,
microbes, plants, trees, and fungi. Now if being compared to animals in
distasteful, being told that there is an alternative model based on
microbes would be the limits for most people.

Distasteful it might be, but bacteria (I'll use bacteria as the
collective name for this alternative life model) do not have social
class systems although they do have societies, indeed they only operate
in societies. And if you think that this is all crazy philosophy, think
again, but don't take my word for it check this talk by Bonnie Bassler
on how bacteria "talk" at TED:
http://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html.
(the real bacteria)

Bacteria (meaning I'm using, apologies it is confusing but I from the
context it should be quite clear) do not seem to have social classes
which answers our real philosophical question: are social classes
necessary for a society to function? Now that we have established beyond
any doubt that social classes are not necessary for a biological society
to function we are faced with a real problem in political philosophy. On
the one hand revolutionaries and thinkers were right in wanting to get
rid of the class system, but the problem is that they all failed. How
can they be all right, but to a man (and one or two women) they all failed?

The answer is very simple if you checked out the talk by Bassler,
bacteria not only don't have social classes, but they also do not have
charismatic leaders! Indeed, the message seems to be that if you want to
get rid of social classes the first thing you have to do is to get rid
of charismatic leaders!

In my opinion the real reason for the success of bacteria, and they have
been around for a few billion years, is not they have adopted a real
democratic system but rather their strategy is completely different. At
least the impression from the presentation seems to be a strategy based
on efficient dissemination of information.

It seems that there are two strands to the philosophy of bacteria that
makes bacteria very successful. The first feature is invade a host with
resources that are infinitely adequate for the population and secondly,
don't do anything until everyone can all act together. The social class
system seems to operate on exactly the opposite strategy: occupy a piece
of land with hardly any resources and start working your guts out to get
something out of the land and secondly don't wait for others, if you can
get away with it, do it. The only disagreeable aspect I can think of
about the bacteria model is that they have done away with foreplay and
the fun part of reproduction!

So far we know that social classes are not a necessary condition of a
society to thrive, and that any form of redistribution of resources
might not be sufficient to remove the inherent instability created in a
society by having to distribute scarce resources.

But the bacteria model also seems to answer an equally important
question in economics and philosophy: the Malthusian problem of the
population outgrowing resources. The problem is the queuing system
social classes impose on us. Even today there are many who erroneously
think that technology and redistribution of resources will keep the
Malthusian dilemma in check.

I have argued that redistribution of resources does not in itself do
away with the inherent instability brought about with distributing
scarce resources. But even the technology argument does not take into
account the misery and exploitation of people involved in accessing the
raw materials to build the technology and the denigration of the
environment cause by building certain technology. Technology does not
solve the Malthusian problem, not if we had to make an honest and
comprehensive account of what it takes to create technology.

The bacteria model seems to have solved the Malthusian problem as well,
even if they had a few billion years head start at solving the problem.
Their strategy seems to be equally rational as their social structure:
do not increase the population until you find a host that provides an
abundant source of resources. And then wait for everyone else before you
tuck in.

Of course, which ever model we wish to consider they all have an
inherent drawback built into them. Resources are scarce for both models.
But they are scarce relative to the population size and not ownership or
distribution: if we can all have what we want or need then it does not
matter how much we each have.

We might be tempted to argue that the whole idea itself of looking at
models from nature to understand our society as being naive at best and
unethical in the worst case scenario. I am not going to argue this point
except to repeat myself that social classes are not a necessary
condition in nature for a society to function successfully.

However, there is one other important objection to the bacteria model.
Bacteria have had along time to evolve and develop their social
structure; not withstanding the fact that ancient bacteria have the same
model as the bacteria we find today.

Thus we don't know how things will pan out in the long term future.
Indeed an objection to the bacteria model as a model for our
philosophical arguments is that time seems to be a really relevant
factor. But I don't think that this objection affects my main thesis
that social classes are not necessary for a society to function.
However, it does mean that this time dynamic confirms my point that
societies become unpredictable in the long term.

But this does not mean that we cannot look at the future. For example,
we know that today many societies are better off than in the past and
the ones that are more better off also have small populations (Norway,
Australia etc). So despite the short comings of the present class system
we know that things can actually get better.

The most objectionable part of the class system is that it excludes a
high proportion of the population. The issue is not that these people
take a long time to reach the front of the queue, but that they never
reach the front of the queue in their life time.

But how can we possibly overcome the problem of first creating the
resources and then waiting to make sure that they are fairly
distributed? But let's take a step backwards first. There is nothing
special about bacteria that they wait for everyone before they start
doing their stuff. In nature population growth in animals usually
reflects the resources available for them.

To begin with we know that access to knowledge in the form of education
will immediately begin to improve the standards of people. Reducing
waste and paying equitable wages will also minimise the negative effects
of a class system. But in any endeavour to remove the sting from social
classes we must avoid, as I argued above, trying to redistribute
resources and find a solution to create enough resources. The other
problem would be to ensure that the transition does not itself create an
unstable dynamic in society. This strategy is very similar to the new
thinking on how to fight toxic bacteria (see the presentation): don't
kill them, just neutralise them.

To conclude, social classes are not a necessary, let alone, a desirable
system for a society to function even if they are inherent features of
human society. Secondly, don't increase the population more than what
the resources can support; in English we call this living within one's
means. And thirdly don't do anything until everyone can enjoy the
benefits of the resources. If this is the right programme for a society
to function, our real challenge seems to be how to keep the pleasure in
gastronomy and the fun in mating.

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Social Classes

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