Once our rulers were transparently violent. Lords and warlords. They paraded armored elephants through the streets, with whips and fire all around. Now the people that rule us are silently violent. They use laws and by-laws. They parade their wealth through Wall Street, with bells and tickers all around.
As Leo Tolstoy said, “One form of slavery is not abolished until another has already replaced it.” He wrote this in 1900, as the transition from feudalism to capitalism was becoming obvious. As The Who said, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Wherever you are in history, it’s the same shit, different day.
At the beginning of the colonial era, rapacious merchants got licenses and warrants from kings and queens. Then the kings and queens fell, and the merchants remained, the Earth theirs to spoil. That merchant class now runs everything and they’re openly admired the way that nobility was. In our fairy tales today, nobody’s marrying a prince. They’re marrying a billionaire.
It’s easy to forget that merchants were once looked down on. They were itinerants, irritants, a necessary evil but certainly not noble. Now they’re worshiped as better than all of us, endless articles are written on how many books they read, and what they eat for breakfast. This is a new thing. Caste has moved, from hereditary nobility to a more flexible idea of rule by the wealthy. This is also increasingly hereditary, but it has that 2% spandex that lets it stretch credulity. People really think that they could be billionaires someday, though it’s as much of a fairy tale as Cinderella.
In Sri Lanka you can still see it, the old landed gentry, the former ‘ruling’ class, really just petty traitors given British booze licenses to launder into good reputations. The old elites still have crumbling properties and dusty delusions of grandeur, but most of them are cash poor. Meanwhile, the new mudalalis buy apartments with literal bags of it, and politicians as well.
What has happened here, and globally, is a movement of caste.
The upper caste used to be simply the most violent one, which they fancied up through stories of knights and defending religion and assorted bullshit. Really the swords and armor were to keep the peasants down, and to fight with each other over the right to oppression.
Today the upper caste is simply the richest one, which is gussied up in tales of working harder and innovation and free market bullshit. Really they’re just taking people’s labor and the Earth’s resources. All our fancy laws and institutions and democracies are there to protect their property, and to mediate fights among themselves.
As old Leo said:
“People of that day thought that the position of men obliged to till the land for their lords, and to obey them, was a natural, inevitable, economic condition of life, and they did not call it slavery. It is the same among us: people of our day consider the position of the labourer to be a natural, inevitable economic condition, and they do not call it slavery.”
Lèse-majesté is not very different from lèse-markets. It all just lets one group of people take from everybody else, and call themselves noble for doing it. The details of the lie have changed, but the big lie remains the same. At least the old nobility was honest about their violence, prominently showing you their weapons and armor and castles all the time. The new ignobility acts like they’re just extra-hard workers. They hide behind laws and ‘economics’, despite being backed by violence just the same.
As Tolstoy said, “What happens is something like what a jailer might do who shifted a prisoner’s chains from the neck to the arms, and from the arms to the legs, or took them off and substituted bolts and bars. All the improvements that have hitherto taken place in the position of the workers have been of this kind.”
Dude said this 120 years ago, and we’re still just shuffling chains around. How do we get them off? Can we get them off? Is it just the fate of this species, that some should eat from the top of the tree, and others should scurry to scratch their backs and raise their children for scraps? I say that once our oppression was transparent, but it’s only transparent in hindsight. Caste is an eternal sleight of hand. You can see it when it’s frozen in history, but in the movement of the moment, we are blind.