Michelle Alexander‘s research on racial bribes gave me an idea for a story.
In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves. Instead of importing English-speaking slaves from the West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European language and culture, many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with poor whites.
Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.
It struck me me that a strategy like this one, could be used in any number of political situations, including the one we are in today.
This inspired me to outline a speculative fiction novel set in contemporary times, where this strategy of social control is deployed by a fictional technocratic overclass.
The protagonist belongs to a this overclass. It had control over much of the world’s wealth and over nearly all public and private institutions. Though few outside of the overclass fully understand it, the interests of the overclass are at odds — (very sharply at odds, as we will see) — with the interests of a much larger underclass.
The underclass is highly stratified and factionalized, and preoccupied with its own internal conflicts, animosity, suspicions, resentments, prejudices, etc. They clash incessantly with one other, and are locked in mutual hatred.
The overclass, on the other hand, is both rare and carefully sequestered from the rest of society. The overclass, therefore, exists mostly as an abstraction, while the factions of the underclass are very much real to one another, to the exclusion most other concerns. And the overclass does what it can to keep the conflicts going, in order to keep the underclass occupied and divided
Being a relatively small class with divergent collective interests from the majority is always perilous. The overclass is highly educated, and is therefore acutely aware that, even in the most favorable circumstance, if overclass hegemony were effectively questioned and challenged, it could be overthrown.
But in a democratic society, conditions are unfavorable. If the underclasses were to achieve any self-consciousness and solidarity, it would vote the overclass out of dominance, especially if it became aware of the overclass’s long-term projections and class preferences.
If the underclass were to resist, the overclass would have no legitimate way to exercise the kind of coercive measures traditionally used to contain such rebellions. The overclass is still — (at least in the near future) — dependent on the voluntary or at least docile involuntary cooperation of the underclasses.
But — (as we will learn) — this dependence is nearing its end. Things are about to change drastically, and this is the precise point of the class conflict : Technological advances will, within a couple of decades, turn the tables on the underclass. Robotics will render the manual labor of the lower-underclass obsolete. And shortly after, artificial intelligence will render the cranial labor of the upper-underclass obsolete as well.
This is fortunate, at least to the overclass, because human life on Earth is growing unsustainable at current population levels. There are too few resources, being consumed too rapidly by people having too great an impact on the environment. If fewer people are needed to sustain the quality of life for the overclass, the population can be safely decreased to a sustainable or even optimal level.
So, dependence on large masses of underclass people who can outvote or overthrow the overclass is a temporary condition. But, this is only the case if trends continue, uninterrupted, and that is far from guaranteed. Most troublingly, as the inflection point nears, the writing on the wall — the hidden-in-plain-sight endgame of the overclass — becomes increasingly legible to those who will certainly revolt if they read it.
This creates is an urgent need to drive even wider divisions, invent more dramatic and entertaining distractions and find new justifications and means for controlling underclass behaviors — all without disturbing progress toward those conditions where the underclass can be largely obsoleted and irreversibly dominated.
So, I’m imagining the overclass might use racial bribes, or identity bribes as one of several tactics for dividing the underclasses at multiple subclass fault-lines. It might also set the upper and lower underclasses against each other over cultural issues, giving special prestige and privileges to the upper-underclass and allow them to humiliate and enflame the lower-underclass. Politics will become a never-ending circus and obsession, while technology continues to progress toward the power inflection.
I’m not sure how to end it. I have a couple of possible endings.
The most tragic, perhaps sadistic, Orwellian ending is one where an attempt to stop the overclass fails. The upper-underclass, the “professional class” itself stops it. Then they discover that they are now the underclass, utterly and hopelessly dominated by a thick layer of AI and robotic management.
Or we could go the Huxley route, and have the overclass succeed, leaving a drugged, docile but content underclass skeleton crew to do whatever AI and robotics cannot, which tends to be precisely the interesting part of the work. Generations of couples opting into permanent birth control (and enjoying generous UBI bonuses) have decreased the population to an environmentally sustainable level, and these have been selected for STEM abilities. They are given intensive training to prepare them for careers in various kinds of technology innovation still beyond the ability of AI, for instance, engineering AI that can innovate beyond all human ability.
Or maybe I’ll have the plan backfire, and have the controlled fire set in the underclasses explode into an uncontrollable inferno that takes down all of civilization, maybe starting gruesomely with the overclass.
Or maybe I’ll have a foreign power, under the control of several members of the overclass — perhaps rulers of an already undemocratic nation — exploit the manufactured chaos and distraction of a still-democratic nation in the midst of an upheaval to stage an old-school military invasion. One overclass faction ends up dominated or destroyed by another. That might be interesting.
Or maybe I’ll end it with an underclass awakening, resulting in a perfectly peaceful neutralization of the overclass by democratic means.