Thursday, December 13, 2012

Asimov's 'Strikebreaker' and the Caste System Fractal

Thanks, Sri Aravindan Neelakandan.
This post attempts to use Asimov's 'Strikebreaker' that appeared in 'Anthropology and Science Fiction', 1971 to better understand the caste systems of the world. A Purva Paksha of religious cults based on Asimov's classic 1941 'Nightfall' can be read here.

Elsevere is a totally self-contained planet out in space. Its surface area is very small, but real-estate in that planet is measured in terms of habitable volume. Resources are at a premium, and imports are kept to a minimum, so the planet requires a very high degree of efficiency in recycling waste. Rather than adopting an autocratic or theocratic way of managing such a fragile ecosystem, the society of Elsevere is segmented along hereditary, occupation-based endogamous castes (caste comes from the Portuguese word 'Casta') to efficiently divide up the planet's tasks. The increasing level of specialization achieved by successive generations refining the skill sets associated with the performance of their assigned tasks helps keep Elsevere prosperous. The family of Ragusnik are in charge of waste disposal (including human waste) and are considered 'untouchable' and are ranked at the bottom of their social heirarchy. The rest of the planet do not interact with them or speak face-to-face. To keep the Ragusnik family tree going, the society supplies them orphaned girl babies.

The Strike
Ragusnik does not directly come into contact with the waste disposal and recycling, which is completed mechanized. He just has to push a button and monitor some meters. Ragusnik is housed in the best and most spacious house in the planet with maximum access to resources, but he is a social outcast. He resents this treatment one day, asserts his individualism within the caste system and goes on a strike. Waste continues to pile up, and it is a only a matter of time before the system breaks down, killing all inhabitants of Elsevere. All it takes is a few minutes of training to do the job, but no one in Elsever would even dream of doing Ragusnik's job. It is incredibly repulsive to the rest of the planet. Talks break down, and the planet faces annihilation.

The Observer
Dr. Lamorak is a social scientist from earth, and an outsider, who visits Elsevere on a data gathering mission, notices the dispute and what is at stake, and wants to mediate. He sees the illogical exclusion of Ragusnik from the society, but cannot convince the Elsevarians of their bizarre attitude.
Asimov notes:
"Elsevere is a world caught in a bind. It is limited by its lack of resources, lack of space, and its need to generate its own gravity and power. It is delicately balanced, tightly knit, and everything must fit properly into place. People must fit properly too, for any rocking of this boat is a constant danger. Any changes to the system will most likely be for the worst. This is the reason behind the rigid castes and the justification for the isolation of Ragusnik".

Enter: The Strikebreaker
As it often happens on earth, Lamorak drops his neutrality and takes sides. He has a difficult choice to make. The welfare of 30,000 Elsevarians versus the injustice to one man and his family. As time starts running out, he decides in favor of the greatest good and volunteers to read the manuals and operate the disposal unit himself to save the planet. He operates the waste disposal system and saves the planet.

Lamorak explains to Ragusnik that the rest of the universe does not worry about pushing buttons and outsiders can be hired to this job going forward. Over time, the galaxy will come to know about the injustice done to him, and his future generations can live like normal human beings. Ragusnik is aghast at this intervention since he feels his brinkmanship would have definitely resulted in his winning back his dignity and justice now. He decides to end his strike, much to Lamorak's relief, and gets back to work. He is upset with Lamorak and refuses to shake his hand. In the end, Lamorak is considered an outcast in Elsevere for pushing those buttons. He is thanked for his intervention, but is forced to leave the planet immediately and is not welcome to return.

Whose Responsibility?
Asimov notes:
"Lamorak's choice makes a cogent point in this story, a point about responsibility. The people of Elsevere have been brought up to view Ragusnikhood as repulsive and unspeakable, an attitude learned from earliest childhood. At what point do they become so responsible for his misery that they should have to pay such a terrible price for having supported it? Every individual is born into a cultural system that presents him with attitudes and beliefs read-made - many of them are of current usefulness and others are simply historical baggage, but all of them are part of that system. Who, then, is to blame for the misery of Ragusnik and his lonely attempt to win the status of a full and equal human being?"

Purva Paksha
Much has been said about India's caste system and much of it is misinformed. Few realize that India did not really have a caste system for a long, long time. They had a Jati-and-Varna system (Jati = the group you were born into, Varna = your occupational group, and Varna initially allowed social mobility before it ossified). The colonials merged this two-dimensional social structure into a single-dimensional 'caste', distorting the meaning significantly. Untouchability is illegal in India, and former untouchables have made amazing progress. They have produced powerful political leaders who have an impact on national politics, as well as business leaders, although more needs to be done. However, like every other place in the world, people who choose to discriminate will do so, and India is no exception. Some of the best discussions on caste systems are summarized below.

Anatomy of a Caste System
We will start off with Asimov notes some interesting instances of untouchability in ancient times on earth:
"Lamorak thought of Untoucbhables in ancient India, the ones who handled corpses. He thought of the position of swineherds in ancient Judea".

This tells us that caste systems are or were not present in India alone and so not unique to India.  The findings of Sri. Neelakandan's Purva Paksha of caste systems in the West, and Rajiv Malhotra's P.P of the one in the United States, are simply stunning. We start with Rajiv's work first. In this brilliant essay, he clearly identifies the American caste system (yes). Along the way, he also explains why doing Purva Pakshas are important:

"Understanding this American caste system has important implications for Asian Americans. Indians have traditionally been too introverted and due to that, have not studied the rest of the world. But the dynamics of the West are important to understand, even to deepen one's understanding of oneself. The field of academic scholarship and teaching of Hinduism is dominated by Jews and Christians. Indians have been content to be portrayed by others, and yet complain later when the portrayal begins to play out in society -- be it in the form of peer pressure facing their own kids growing up in the West, or as public opinion shaped by Marxists of Indian origin, or in the form of aggressive proselytizing back in India."

Thus, we have seen an example of a more recent caste system in place. Nor is the caste system in India solely due to a single religion. The Muslims there have a very well codified caste system in place as well. Christianity in India also has a well-defined caste system. To dig deeper, we will refer to a March 2011 discussion in the Rajiv Malhotra forum that is summarized in the other blog I maintain. There, Rajiv's co-author of 'Breaking India', Sri. Aravindan Neelakandan credits Asimov's 'Strikebreaker' as providing one of the best insights into how and why a caste system comes into being and how it operates. You can join the Rajiv Malhotra Forum to read the discussion in its entirety. Here is what Sri. Neelakandan has to say on this topic:

"Now the birth-based multi-layered institutions of pre-modern Europe were supported by Christian theologians and law-makers. This does not make Christianity, in the eyes of modern scholars, a supporter of this system. However with Hinduism different yard sticks are used. An essentialist argument is put forth to say that Hinduism is intertwined with Jaathi. This is simply not the complete picture and is a distorted picture of history. In this connection, with regard to the evolution of untouchability, one of the best insights on the
subject is in an unexpected realm. I suggest the science fiction short story "Strikebreaker," by Isaac Asimov, in "Anthropology Through Science Fiction",
(Ed. Carol Mason, Martin Harry Green- berg, and Patricia Warrick, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974) Unfortunately I lost my copy of this wonderful collection.:( In the related discussion, Asimov states that caste system evolves
in a society with limited resources and limited mobility.

Veracity of this speculation by the good doctor of science fiction, can be further validated by the fact that pre-Modern Europe also had defiled trades and ritual notions of purity and untouchability.
It is not just an accident that not many works or literature can be found on this subject in the Western curriculum. The one rare book I came across in this regard is "Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts: Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany"  (my comment: I found a free pdf link) by Kathy Stuart (Cambridge University Press 2006). It was not a phenomenon limited to Germany though. Please see the passage below and change some words and one can pass it for the account of an European traveler about pre-Modern India.

"Throughout the Holy Roman empire dishonorable tradesmen suffered various forms of social, economic, leagal and political discrimination on a graduated scale of dishonor at the hands of "honorable" guild artisans and in "honorable" society
at large....Executioners and skinners might be pelted with stones by onlookers, they might be refused access to taverns, excluded from public baths or denied an honorable burial. Dishonor was transmitted through heredity often over several generayions. The polluting quality of dishonor is one of its defining characteristics." (pp.2-3)

So we need not justify or label Jaathi as an uniquely Indic phenomenon. But what one finds unique as an Indian is this:
There is not a single instance of mass movement in Christendom that spoke for these voiceless people of dishonorable trades.  Luther took pride in saying that he was instrumental in the massacre of peasants. As against that all Bhakthi movements were peasant based. One cannot
imagine a medieval Pope or Cardinal or noble-born Christian saint performing the last rites of a defiled person as one's own father. But in India we have the greatest Vaishanava Acharya not only receiving wisdom from but performing the last rites of a man of Pulaya Jaathi.

So caste system can evolve anywhere given the appropriate social conditions
. In India it became rigid with colonial  resource drain. In Europe it withered away with enormous inflow of capital and resources -particularly India- as well as acquisition of vast lands by Europeans in Australia, Africa and Americas. So in a way, it was through the suffering of colonized countries like India that the birth based discriminations in European society was mostly erased.

I also think those who want to somehow preserve the Jaathi and project it in a positive light often fail to see the dark alchemy that this system is undergoing in India.

Western Strikebreakers

Dr. Lamorak intervenes and ends up messing with the planet's social system and ensures that Ragusnik is forced to continue his sub-humanly existence. India is a tragic example of misinformed and often diabolical interference from the west as recorded in 'Breaking India' (although the west does not brook outside interference into its own society). Toward this, let's return to the discussion and see what Sri. Neelakandan has to say:

"... Here let me again quote 'Breaking India' which deals more objectively the situation and the pros and cons of Jaathi. This is from Chapter 5 of the book and is under the sub-heading "Building on Max Muller's work":
Prior to colonialism, the jati-varna system in India had little, if anything, to do with race, ethnicity, or genetics. It was better understood as a set of distinctions based on traditional or inherited social status derived from work roles. Jati is a highly localized and intricately organized social structure. One of the important aspects of jati, which was conspicuously overlooked by western Indologists, was its dynamic nature – allowing social mobility as well as occupational diversification. These rural social structures were more horizontally organized than vertically stratified. It was this inherent feature of the jati-varna system that led Gandhi to postulate the model of `oceanic circle' for the ideal Indian village society rather than the Western pyramidal model. Nevertheless, the colonial imposition of the hierarchical view, coupled with distortions of jati in order to fit it into a racial framework, grossly distorted the characteristics of jati and greatly amplified its negative features. Max Müller, who was largely responsible for entrenching the racial framework for studying jati, had his own evangelical motive. In his view, caste: which has hitherto proved an impediment to conversion of the Hindus, may in future became one of the most powerful engines for the conversion not merely of the individuals, but of whole classes of Indian society. (Breaking India p.52)

Today Jaathi has become an important and effective tool for community evangelism. So those who bat for it should take this worrying aspect into consideration.

The Caste System Fractal
(pic source: /
In fact, a quick look at the how the world is organized itself will tell me that there is little difference between Elsevere and today's earth in some respects - we most likely have a world caste system in place. A Caste system is a fractal, and like fractals, tends to show up everywhere. Within earth we have a country-based caste system (more about that below). Each country or social cluster has its own caste system. Within each such caste, you see sub-castes, etc.. so on until you see formal or informally segregated neighborhoods (like in the US), and so forth.
An alien visitor to earth would surely notice that there is a clear hierarchy of countries, the UN security council, the G5, G20, etc. - those who call the shots, control the world's oil, stockpile nuclear weapons, control human rights groups, act as the global policemen, establish travel and trade barriers, sell Western universalism, and enjoy high standards of living based on a lavish consumptive lifestyle, .. and then there are those who don't do these things, and store the nuclear waste, manufacture low-level goods, and many of whose citizens endure sub-human conditions... I leave it a social scientist who passes by this site to connect the dots to validate/invalidate this hypothesis if someone hasn't already done so.

To summarize, a Purva Paksha clearly establishes that there are caste systems all around us, and at every time in recorded history. Give the right set of conditions, some kind of a caste system is inevitable, and this is not unique to a country, region, religion, or time. However, when a caste system starts to create more problems that it solves, it's continued use must be re-examined. Asimov notes:
"A caste system woks only so long as everyone recognizes the rightness of its structure and realizes a fair share of the benefits thereof. When members of the lower castes begin to complain about their treatment and members of the higher castes begin to wonder about their justness, the system is in trouble".

These are some of the lessons we can learn from 'Strikebreaker', a 13-page sci-fi story written long ago.

1 comment:

  1. While the story seems on the surface to be specifically aimed at India's caste system, I've always felt its target was more general: the baleful hold of unreasoning tradition on societies and individuals, as Asimov himself points out in the section above titled "Whose Responsibility?".

    You can't help but think of this story when you read today's (2015-12-09) New York Times article,

    I'm afraid I don't think much of the human race as a whole, but it's all we've got.