Mencius Moldbug has proposed that the United States can be understood as being divided into five ‘castes’, or social groups with shared notions of prestige; and that the red/blue, left/right, Democrat/Republican divide – and much of the domestic history of the Twentieth Century – can be understood in terms of a conflict between what he terms “Optimates” and “Brahmins” and their respective allies, the “Vaisya” and the “Dalits”. He further proposes that the Brahmins have essentially won this conflict, and that the remaining state organs still under Optimate/Vaisya control (essentially the armed forces and the industries that support them) are no longer capable of much influencing foreign policy, although still able to funnel large parts of the state budget to their controllers.
Of Moldbug’s four castes, two can be considered ruling elites. The Brahmins are descended from the Protestant settlers of New England; indeed they are named for the “Boston Brahmins”, although even their elite extends far beyond this epicenter. They have generally thought of themselves as “Progressive”, or “Radical” out on their fringes. Prestige among the Brahmins is gained by education and erudition (for its own sake, not for money) and by public service, ie government work. A professor of English at a small New England college is an archetypical example; but Brahmins are also found through the civil service, the State Department, and as interns in lobbying firms and non-profits all over Washington. A hipster is very likely a Brahmin; so is a student majoring in journalism or political science.
The Optimates, on the other hand, are the old Anglo-Saxon elite of Virginia and the South. Moldbug gives them their name because status among the Optimates is gained by birth to established families in addition to personal character, with “wealth a prerequisite”. The archetypical Optimate is to some extent a figure out of history: George Washington was an Optimate, as were all the Virginia elites who dominated US politics before the Civil War. However, while they do not retain their old power to decide the course of US politics – Optimates are now definitely the opposition, not the government – they are not gone. A professor at a Christian college in the South, an Army officer from Virginia descended from a long line of officers, or that faction fo the Republican party who are called “country club Republicans” are all likely Optimates.
The Dalits, in Moldbug’s estimation, are basically inner-city lower classes, and don’t really come into politics except when – a cynical man is Moldbug – the Brahmins find it convenient to have a riot; I won’t consider them here. The Vaisya, however, are a bit of a midway case, neither elite nor underclass; in effect they are the Midwestern middle-class types, suburban and rural, who form most of the white majority in the US. The non-country-club part of the Republicans is Vaisya; the armed forces have also become a Vaisya career, both as enlisted and officers. (Optimates are officers but rarely enlisted; Dalits may be enlisted but rarely officers; Vaisya serve as both.) Manufacturing and farming are also now, by and large, Vaisya occupations. Andrew Jackson was perhaps the first Vaisya to make himself noted on the national level; Sarah Palin is another example. (McCain, however, is an Optimate.)
Many political phenomena can be classified in this way. For example, both presidents Bush were Optimates; Obama is definitely a Brahmin. Reagan was a Vaisya. Major Rahm of Detroit is a Dalit, as is much of the political class of that city; I cannot offhand think of any Dalit politicians at the national level, however. The Civil War was, on the moral plane, a conflict between Brahmins (North) and Optimates (South); slaveholding is very definitely an Optimate occupation. The Spanish-American war was a Brahmin sort of conflict; Korea and Vietnam were Optimate. We can identify these castes as far back as the English Civil War, in which the Royalists were definitely Optimates and Parliament was, more inchoately, Brahmin. Notice that this fault line in Anglo-American culture tends to produce immense violence!
Now let us turn for a moment from Mencius Moldbug to another political thinker, William Russell Mead, who has identified four main strains in American foreign politics, named for the presidents that exemplified them: Jefferson, Hamilton, Jackson, and Wilson. Briefly, Jeffersonian policy is isolationist, defensive, and goes to war only as a last resort, distrusting America’s ability to impose solutions on other countries by force. Perhaps only the Revolution, among America’s wars, can be classified as Jeffersonian. Hamiltonian sees free trade and open seas as America’s main foreign-policy interests, and will enter small colonial wars and set up puppet states to achieve them, but avoids conflicts with Great Powers; the small interventions in South and Central America that have been a frequent feature of American policy since 1898 can all be considered Hamiltonian, as can the support for the United Fruit Company that gave rise to the expression “banana republic”. Jacksonian policy is like Jeffersonian in being isolationist where possible, but will fight to uphold an ideal of honour as well as for existential threats; further, in Jacksonian theory, war is always total, or as near total as can be achieved. WWII is the archetypical Jacksonian war, but the War of 1812 also qualifies in being fought over insults to American honour. Finally, Wilsonian foreign policy is willing to use the US military to achieve moral goals; the League of Nations was classic Wilsonian policy, as was the intervention in the Serbian conflict and recently in Libya.
Now, it seems to me that three of these foreign-policy classifications map fairly neatly onto Moldbug’s castes: Brahmins are Wilsonian, Optimates are Hamiltonian, and Vaisya are Jacksonian. Who, then, is Jeffersonian? It’s not the Dalits, who have essentially no influence on foreign policy. The Rationalist Conspiracy suggests, however, that a new elite caste is emerging, in opposition to the rule of the Brahmins: Namely, the Silicon Valley elite are starting to engage in politics, and are forming their own prestige ladders and policy views. (The writer at RC mentions “not one upper class, but two”, thus ignoring Mencius’s Optimates; this presumably reflects how faded they are from their old power, but needn’t affect the argument here.) The new elite gains status from forming successful tech companies, attracting venture funding, and cashing out stock options in a successful IPO; Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the archetypal example, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were early members of the caste – though in their day, it had not yet formed into a recognisable social group. Early Redditors, Wikipedia editors, and coders at California companies are all likely to be of this caste. RC does not give it a name, but I propose to call them “Populares”, in opposition to “Optimates” and also because they are in some sense “new money” and “not of the Senatorial class”.
The Populares fill in the last of Mead’s four policies: By and large, they are Jeffersonian, opposing foreign wars whether for business interests, honour, or high moral causes. However, at this time they are making their mark more within domestic politics, where again they match the Jeffersonian – libertarian, watchman-state – ideal.
This “sixth caste” allows us to neatly slot the struggle over SOPA into Moldbug’s caste model: In this view, SOPA was the attempt of the Brahmin propaganda arm – Hollywood and Big Music – to solidify their perceived economic interest, and the Populares opposed it as being completely contrary to their libertarian ethos. This is perhaps the first time the Populares have really intervened in a national political matter, and surely the first time they’ve made their view stick; consider the counterexample of the Communications Decency Act, likewise opposed by the – at the time, not fully coalesced – Silicon Valley elite, and pushed by some combination of Vaisya moralism and Optimate worries about military applications of cryptography. With SOPA, however, only a small part of the Brahmin machinery had its interests directly involved, and those interests were economic, not moral; on the opposing side, the Populares were able to mobilise their full strength because they were making a moral point, and one smack in the middle of their worldview at that.
We can go on classifying American movements and conflicts like this: Occupy Wall Street was a Brahmin attempt at mobilising the rank and file (and, Moldbug would say, failed for lack of the violence that only the Dalits can supply; the Brahmins by themselves are rather lacking in shock troops.) The Tea Party is a Vaisya organisation, as is the NRA. The ACLU and Sierra Club are Brahmin. The genocidal Indian wars were Jacksonian and Vaisya; so was WWII. Vietnam was insufficiently Jacksonian to please the Vaisya who largely fought it, and insufficiently Wilsonian to get the support of the Brahmins. Populares organisations are mainly online: Hacker News, Stack Overflow, Y Combinator. Perhaps the Libertarian Party, such as it is, also qualifies. BitCoin is a Populares invention, and the growing governmental concern with it may reflect a Brahmin concern over being in some sense outflanked; bank regulation is a core Brahmin strategy. Snowden, Scwartz, Manning, and Assange were all acting under a Populares ethos.
The test of a model is in the cases it can’t explain, and the recent NSA revelations are a difficulty. Opposition to the NSA surveillance techniques is clearly Populares, although more grassroot Populares than elite: The CEOs and boards of the large tech companies have apparently had their arms sufficiently twisted, or other pressure applied, that they are not stepping up to lead the opposition as they did with SOPA. Which is, actually, odd in itself, since Internet surveillance ought to be a core Populares concern. However, it is not clear which faction, if any, is in favour of NSA surveillance. It seems as though it might fit into a Brahmin drive to have the government involved in daily life; a Jacksonian (hence Vaisya) intention of fighting wars (in this case, on terror) with all available means, consequences be damned; or an Optimate desire to extend the reach of their remaining power base in the security services. But none of these seem like a really perfect, singing-on match as Populares opposition is, or ought to be. Still, perhaps three slightly off-center motivations for three castes can overcome one vital-interest opposition? The Populares, too, do not yet have the immense numbers of the Vaisya, nor the very wide-ranging network of influence that the Brahmins have in Washington and the Optimates in the Pentagon. Perhaps they will lose this round.
Some closing questions:
How will the rise of a Populares caste, generally opposed to the War on Terror, affect American foreign policy? It seems that a Vaisya/Optimate alliance has pushed this through against Brahmin opposition; perhaps a new power center will change that balance.
What will be the effect of Populares power on California politics? Lower taxes (or less regulation) may be just what the state needs, but then there are all those failing pension funds – a problem largely created by Vaisya politicians. Cleaning up the mistakes of previous generations, with few good options and lots of bulls gored, is just the sort of thing that fractures and delays political movements.
Will Populares serve in the military? Perhaps they are already represented among the techs, drone operators, and other non-grunting occupations. In general it is an ill thing for the elite of a republic to be disconnected from its security forces; the more incoherent rantings of the Brahmin fringe are an excellent example, as are the ill effects of the Libyan intervention. Having a fresh and vigorous elite willing to serve might be quite a good thing both for the US Army and the US generally.