I recently finished reading one of H.G. Wells’ great (though extraordinarily flawed) novels about the human condition — “When the Sleeper Wakes,” published in 1899. Like many novels of its type, it describes a future civilization in which a caste system has been taken to its utmost extreme.
In the highest levels, nearest the sky, live the few, lucky, idle rich. A few of these, the ones with intelligence and imagination, rule the world. The others simply indulge in any vices that attract them. Meanwhile, in the depths, hidden away, the unlucky masses spend their days toiling and living in unending squalor. In between are the civil servants who understand little about their world, and spend most of their time planning for trips to “pleasure cities” which they will visit only once or twice in their lives.
Not surprisingly, “When the Sleeper Wakes” ends in a workers’ revolution–and the promise of a grand new day of equality, liberty, and brotherhood. If these promises sound familiar, they should. They are the same promises made by members of the French proletariat to one another during the Revolution as they lopped off the heads of the aristocracy–just prior to the even bloodier Napoleonic Wars.
Caste-driven societies have been part of the human landscape since the dawn of civilization. The ancient empires, just like the current empires, included the ultra-rich and those whose daily grind kept the ultra rich on their thrones. Sometimes the ultra rich ruled (or rule) relatively benevolently; sometimes not.
From time to time, over the centuries, oppressed people have risen up and taken control of their destinies. For a little while, in some cases, there has been a brief glimpse of equality. But, at least in the case of large societies (as opposed to small communes or tribal societies), the experiment has failed.
Here in the United States, even the initial concept of democracy was flawed: it included only those who were already in power (white male land owners), and was built on the backs of enslaved thousands. Occasional forays into attempted equality (the imposition of income tax, the creation of Social Security) have had only limited impact.
Today the United States, like every other empire throughout history, is a land of haves and have nots. The Trumps of our nation literally own golden toilets. Meanwhile millions of minimum wage (and/or homeless) Americans struggle to survive. The distinction between these groups is probably neither greater nor less than the distinctions between the Pharoahs and the workers who built their pyramids.
Is inequality simply part of human nature–a reality against which it is pointless to struggle? Or do we have it within ourselves to create a society of equals that is neither built on others’ destruction nor liable to be undermined from the inside? Share your perspective in the forum!