Even though Plato was living in the fourth century B.C.E.; Plato could have been describing the human components of a modern city, from farmers and tradesmen, to financiers. It appears that not a lot has changed. He describes a society in which the classes of law-givers, law-enforcers and all others are governed primarily by heredity, with some exception being made for the outstanding merit (or de-merits) of specific individuals. There are many ways in which this remains true today. There is much more freedom of movement in the modern United States of America than there was in ancient Athens, but true mobility; the freedom to move between the classes remains almost as impenetrable today as it did in 400 B.C.E. There is significantly greater freedom in the choice of occupations, the son of a farmer is not bound to be a farmer, neither is the daughter of a weaver bound to remain a weaver, but nevertheless the daughters and sons of working class people in the United States are statistically unlikely to change their economic status in a significant way.
A Pew Research Survey, titled Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics[i] written by, By Paul Taylor, Richard Fry, and Rakesh Kochhar; shows that household wealth has dropped among poor and middle income whites, blacks and Hispanics. At the same time that the average household wealth has been going down for all three of these (working-class) demographic groups; the difference between the white demographic (the most privileged group in our society), and the two largest minority groups has grown even faster. At the same time that the wealth of working class citizens is shrinking. The wealth concentrated in the top one percent of earners is growing at an ever increasing rate.
I am not suggesting that we apply the Platonic categories of gold, silver and bronze to the demographic groups of white, black and Hispanic. Those kinds of evaluations are unjust, and unseemly and belong to that ancient world. Nevertheless, this study looks at status of working-class people, who Plato would classify as bronze or iron. In that Platonic context we can say that; though we have a professional military, we have no silver class in the United States, because the military and the police force, our modern day guardians, are made up of the sons and daughters of working-class people, and rank among the poorest groups. The ruling-class (such as we have it), our golden-class is comprised of that top one percent of income earners.
A Wall Street Journal blog post, titled Income Growth of Top 1% Over 30 Years Outpaced Rest of U.S.,[ii] written by Corey Boles, shows how the income of the top one percent of American households has grown by two-hundred and seventy-five percent over the past thirty years; while the average income of every other group has shrunk during the same period of time. This illustrates my point regarding the relative lack of freedom the average person has today to move between classes. Statistically speaking you are most likely to remain in the class you were born to. A person is free to change occupations; several times in their life if they should desire, but they will find it exceedingly difficult to move between classes. That is how the division of labor works in the United States today. That is how the division of labor has worked for the past two-thousand five-hundred years since Plato, and from the dim reaches of history before him. Most people accept this as natural, or do not question it at all. The unquestioning stance we take toward it is at the root of social injustice
To be fair to Plato, he envisioned a ruling-class that would never touch money. He did not believe in a Plutocracy (governance by the wealthy). In his ideal state, philosopher-kings would not hold private property, but would be supported by the people. It would be unlawful for them to even touch gold or silver, “they mustn’t be under the same roof as it (gold), wear it as jewelry, or drink from gold or silver goblets.” However, his idealism was just that; idealism. The ruling-class of his day, and from that day forward, adopted what they wanted from his politics and policies, and they left behind what they did not want. They used his authority to justify their hold on wealth and power rather than to modify it in the interest of justice.
In his discussion on how to build a city, Plato was correct to state that the first need that had to be fulfilled was food. Without food there is no society whatsoever. With an abundance of food comes the means to support a large and diverse population, to support a population of sufficient diversity to organize a luxuriant city-state as Plato described.
Plato believed that a society had to grow to a sufficient degree of complexity, and diversity; it had to possess a sufficient degree of wealth, in order for it to be able to support institutions of wisdom and justice. What is axiomatic to this growth paradigm is the availability of food. The wealth that makes all other wealth possible is food wealth.
In the United States today, the largest privately held corporation, a corporation owned by one family, is Minnesota based Cargil, an international agriculture conglomerate; with over one-hundred billion dollars in revenue per year. Four of the top ten wealthiest and most profitable privately held corporations are either food growers, food processors, or food sellers; comprised of Cargil, Mars, Publix Supermarkets, and C & S Wholesale Grocers.[iii] Agricultural wealth, wealth in food – is bigger than oil, bigger than bombs, bigger than anything and everything else. Remembering Plato, it is interesting to note that it is not the farmers (the growers) themselves who control this wealth. Plato’s model is still in place. The growers of food do not profit nearly as much as the brokers, merchants, and retailers.
Here are some facts; most farmers live in a perpetual cycle of debt, either that or they till the soil as wage earners for corporations like Cargil. The market forces that keep this pattern in place are not immutable, but they are regularly reinforced through the laws that govern private property, through contract law, intellectual property law, and other judicial powers; juridical powers that are far easier for those who are already posses wealth to manipulate, than they are for those who are living on the margins.