Other than the trivial fact that caste is baked into religion, I can't come up with the difference of it to class divide/inequality due to capitalism.

In the book "Caste: The origin of our discontents", by Isabel Wilkerson, the author shows how caste problems similar to that of India occur in the US with blacks, and mentions also Nazi Germany with Jews.

After going through the first chapters, it seems to me that whenever we have a capitalistic society which allows for allocation of wealth in hands of few, very similar analogues to the caste system would appear.

A counter argument could be that social inequality would further lead to discrimination between social groups on top of the pre-existing economic discrimination.

But, wouldn't the majority discrimination experienced by lower castes (or lower class for that matter) on a social basis be rooted in an economic basis?

For instance, I'd imagine once a person of this marginalized community rises up in the econonomic hierachy, then probably 90% of the social racism they experience would vanish. So, it would be mostly poorer sections of caste communities having problems.


  1. Wealth accumulation in Higher Castes

  2. Internal Wealth distribution of lower caste

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    Close votes are confusing on this
    – Babu
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 15:00
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    If 2 villagers have roughly equivalent material circumstances, but the caste of one allows him to bully the other - for example denying access to latrines due "impure" status -, wouldn't you have injustice even in the absence of wealth inequalities? Commented May 24, 2023 at 16:40
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    Caste is baked into which religion?
    – Boba Fit
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 17:24
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    "... capitalistic society which allows for allocation of wealth in hands of few..:" Not so that the data would reveal it. gapminder.org/tools/…
    – Boba Fit
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 17:30
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    FWIW, with regard to the premise, class divides long pre-date capitalism and aren't exclusive to it. They are found in feudal societies, in communist/socialist societies, were found in the earliest formal democracies like Athens and Venice and Iceland, are found in pre-modern herder societies, and are present in anarchist warlord based circumstances that arise when civilization collapses. Only the tiniest societies of a dozen or two people or less don't consistently have class divides (and even that isn't universally true).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 19:18

8 Answers 8


The difference is in the class mobility offered by the systems. Being in a particular social class gives you access to that class's resources because people discriminate based on classes.

In the economic class system, one can move between the so-called upper class and lower class by generating/losing wealth. It is difficult, ofcourse, but it can be done. A rich person can become poor, and a poor person can become rich.

However, in the social class system, class mobility is non-existent. One can't move between the so-called upper class and lower class, because the status is determined by birth, upbringing. If you're a dalit, you're a dalit all your life. If you're hispanic, you're hispanic all your life. You cannot become a member of the so-called upper class.

Economic inequality is highly correlated with social inequality, but they are not the same.

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    Good point, but you are mixing class and race. While 'passing for White' might have been possible, it was difficult. Learning upper-class habits is easier, compared to that. Caste is possibly closer to race than to class.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 15:49
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    To quote the Reynolds children on TV's Always Sunny regarding social class: "You're born into class. It's about pedigree. It's about upbringing. It has nothing to do with your present circumstance... See, Dennis and I were born upper class. Therefore, we currently are and will forever remain upper class." Commented May 24, 2023 at 15:57
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    Naive question: if you're a Dalit and you move to another part of the country (overseas too - Seattle just passed a law againt caste discrimination), what keeps you from just dissimulating your caste origin/claiming higher status? Commented May 24, 2023 at 16:36
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    @Italian You'd be moving outside of the system so it would generally no longer apply, although you may meet people or groups that still follow it, it would no longer govern your circumstance.
    – David
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 17:12
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    Indeed, in many situations, so called "upper class" persons are often impoverished by their class conditions. Example: many of the large noble family estates in England have resulted in costs to the families that resulted in selling off the land and treasures of the family. And those that have not sold have often turned into tourist attractions to prevent bankruptcy.
    – Boba Fit
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 19:50

Your question in the headline differs markedly from the question in the main text, which looks like an invitation to debate. Since that would be a reason to close your question, I will focus on

How does social inequality differ from wealth inequality?

All or almost all societies have inequalities, and that is considered a good thing.* The prominent attempt to eradicate wealth and social inequality by the introduction of communism led to new inequalities and widespread suffering. Human beings are motivated in part by self-interest, and motivated members help a society to get forward. (A joke during Communist times was "as long as they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.")

Humans also wish to benefit their offspring. In part that ties into the motivation by self-interest angle, which is a good thing. But it also leads groups of humans to organize society to preserve privilege and hinder social/economic climbers from reaching the status their performance deserves. The difference between wealth inequality and social inequality is that there are often fewer informal barriers on the acquisition of wealth. If you earn $1, a million times, you have earned $1 million. It is much harder to earn entry into a social class that way, unless society changes.

* In response to the comments: Many kinds of inequality are bad. Others are good. The right kinds of inequalities are necessary to avoid a frozen society. People must be able to earn a promotion or save earnings, which means inequality.

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    "All or almost all societies have inequalities, and that is considered a good thing." hmmm
    – Babu
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 6:08
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    The answer states "All societies having inequalities is good" not "All inequalities are good". Small (but motivating) inequalities with strong mobility are considered by some the ideal. That means moving towards equality, but the goal wouldn't be to suddenly abandon capitalism entirely. Commented May 24, 2023 at 14:21
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    @HopefulWhitepiller, imagine a society with total equality. No chance to earn a promotion through hard work, because that implies different ranks do exist. Saving money for a holiday trip is impossible, because savings would be wealth inequality and get confiscated. The national Olympic team discriminates against me because I can't run fast enough. And so on. No, allowing some inequality is necessary. The problem, then is to tell good inequality from bad inequality.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 14:58
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    @DanM., too much equality makes me think of the worst excesses of Communism. They didn't 'have' equality, either, but in the name of equality they dragged all but a few elites down to a lowest common denominator.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 15:19
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    @o.m. This seems like a similar distinction to equality vs. equity: equality is (in the context of this dichotomy) "everyone has the exact same thing/situation", as compared to equity, which is more along the lines of "everyone has what they need", or "the playing field is level". Inequality is sometimes good, inequity is pretty much always bad. Commented May 25, 2023 at 17:39

Marxist definition of proletariat and bourgeoisie is based on the economic realities that exist only within the capitalist system: the bourgeoisie are those who own the means of production, whereas the proletariat are the people who work with the means of production in exchange for salary (but do not own them.) If wealth inequality is used as a reference to this Marxist definition (and when talking about capitalism it is usually the case), then inequality not grounded in the relationship to the means of production is not wealth inequality - not in the sense that it separates the classes in capitalist system.

Of course, taken for its semantic meaning, wealth inequality also existed in feudalism or slavery - but here the relations between classes are based on other factors than trading labor for wage - as the proletariat does (e.g., religion, birthright, race, etc.), so this is probably what is meant by social inequality - it is associated with wealth, but not caused by wealth (aka *correlation doe snot imply causality.)

There are also critiques of the Marxism reducing human relations to economical ones. Thus, in capitalist societies certain groups may be disadvantaged for reasons unrelated to wealth: immigrants, women, etc. (Although one could argue that capitalism eventually erases these distinctions.) There are also privileged groups, such as wealthy proletariat ("labor aristocracy", with much higher earnings than average), intelligentsia (teachers, university professors, lawyers, and others who do not own means of production, but are not involved in production either), managerial class (very high income group, associated with bourgeoisie, but who do not own the means of production.) One could even argue that most of the population in western world belong to these privileged groups, while the real production (and the proletariat) is taking place elsewhere.


The two are often connected but not necessarily identical. For example a social inequality can raise the price of necessities both material and immaterial to the point of creating an economic inequality. While an economic inequality and the necessity to appeal to those in an economically advantages position can result in a social inequality. Like how rich people might get treated better and get things for free despite having the money (in a hope to strike a good deal later), while poor people are forced to pay upfront and often receive less quality for the buck, because the providers don't expect to see any future benefit, so everything needs to be paid directly. Which again solidifies the economic inequality by a social inequality. Also both can be inherited.

The difference is likely a level of active malice and institutionalization. Like being lower class in capitalism isn't technically your destiny, if you're particularly lucky and beat the odds that are stacked against you there's not active component that argues that you're not allowed to. There might in addition be some "old money" vs "new money" social tension, but they have no legal or social claim beyond not socializing with you. Assuming it's not already corrupted and a more subtle caste system.

While a caste system would not only passively ensure that you have your place, know your place and never leave your place, but it would actively enforce that. Like it's possible that a Jew in the Nazi regime or a black person in segregated America be rich and still not enjoy full rich people privilege. Like they could still be excluded, be charged more for the same, be stolen from and cheated on without seeing justice for that and so on.

A caste system is usually a lot more rigid than a class system, yet sure inequalities are often comorbid with each other and thus look a lot like each other.


I'd like to answer this question by side-stepping some of the questions about caste and race.

The core part of this question is whether someone who would usually be considered "socially disadvantaged" might be able to escape this "disadvantaged" status if they have acquired wealth.

To answer this question, I'll draw on the framework of "social capital" and "cultural capital" from Pierre Bourdieu. These other two types of "capital" exist alongside "financial capital" - which of course, is money and wealth.

In general, in a "capitalist-esque" society, they would escape some of this disadvantage, but not all of it. In this framework, financial capital can be converted into social or cultural capital by purchasing things like housing, clothing, education, training in etiquette, and so on. These would increase a persons social standing and prestige via an increase in "cultural capital". Things like education and training can be purchased - e.g. if I am rich enough, I can become well educated and learn to speak in a well mannered way, and thereby be respected by other well educated people.

However some things cannot be purchased (for most normal people). For example, someone who uses a wheelchair can still only access areas of the country which have accessible pathing. Even if they were very wealthy, this limitation would still exist, and this would constitute a social inequality. In the above framework - being a wheelchair user costs a certain amount of social capital - because "society" itself may not highly value your ability to move around and access things safely and easily. But this is a norm which is slowly changing around the world.

Another aspect of social inequality would come from a marginalised group's relationship with the law. If you are part of a group who is forbidden by law to do certain things (for example, imagine a nation which forbids women to work) - then even if one is wealthy, they are still affected by that social inequality. However access to wealth would allow them to move away to another part of the world.

These arguments however, can always be countered with "but what if I had even more money? I would simply spend money to change social norms or improve the social and physical infrastructure so that I would no longer be marginalised." That is correct as well.


Say you're transgender, you're liable to lose your job because of it (I've had at least 2 friends who experienced that).

Or you're passed over for promotion because of your gender, sex, or skin colour. Happens all the time.

Or you're discriminated against based on your nationality (DIFFERENT from race). Many countries have severe restrictions on the rights of foreign nationals within their borders, even those with residence and work permits. There are good reasons for that (like the US restrictions on non-citizens when it comes to firearms), but more than a few places go way beyond that.

None of those things depend on wealth as their primary driver, though all of them may lead to a loss of wealth or inability to accumulate wealth, obviously.


Your question defines wealth inequality and social inequality in ways that are not always correct. You base the definition on two examples that are quite extreme. Therefore i am going to answer a subset of your question.

The traditional caste system targets the individual and it is open and clearly visible by anyone. The caste system that results from wealth inequality actually can only stem from monopolies or oligopolies with a firm control over the economy. In such system power is exercised almost as an invisible force and it targets the organisations more than the individuals.

Some details. The ancient caste systems sometime found a justification in religion, but mainly they stem from an old problem, education was expensive and not organised. Children were educated by their own families, it became natural for the occupation of the father to pass to the son. But such systems were not so rigid as people think. In Europe nobility titles passed to the first child, the other had to find something else to do, they had still some privileges like the open way to become officials in the army or in the bureaucracy, but their success was not guaranteed. Children of artisans learned the trade from their fathers, but if they did not have the attitude for that trade they could still try and follow another path. Sometimes their own fathers helped by finding for them an apprenticeship with a friend working in a different trade. Furthermore becoming an artisan or a merchant did not determine how successful would a person be in that trade. There was still a big margin for some mobility.

I don't know if it is true, but some time ago I read that also the caste system in India in the past was not so rigid. The problem is that the British empire saw it as a useful tool for their rule and they turned it into what it is today.

The caste system you can find in a capitalist society is something different. First of all that society is no longer capitalist in reality, there is no free market. Market forces are overwhelmed by monopolies or oligopolies. Otherwise there would be some kind of mobility associated with the rise and fall of companies and corporations. If today you see many executives leaving a trail of bankruptcies behind and still finding well paid high level position it is because most of the bankruptcies are fraudulent and the network that organised them also arranged some safety nets (except for the workers they wanted to get rid of). That is a system where the rise and fall of a company is not decided by market forces.
In such system all high level positions are reserved for the people connected to the dominating network, but it is never told explicitly. The dominating network will also ensure they can control the public administration, but since it happens through corruption it happens in an even more discrete manner. Here social mobility rather than restricted is curtailed. A good manager may still find a way towards executive position, but without the right friends chances are slim. But also who tries to set up their own business will find a network of companies ready to subsidise a competitor to push them out of business. Furthermore who tries to set up their own business without approval by the dominating network will have to face higher costs because banks and suppliers will ask them to pay more. Nothing is openly declared, everything is decided behind closed doors.

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    This answer has certain elements which are biased on a matter which is ambigous. See here
    – Babu
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 19:13
  • @HopefulWhitepiller Three lines of an extra comment that do not change much in the answer.
    – FluidCode
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 20:40

The difference is that unlike social inequity, wealth inequity is possible to overcome. If you manage to earn a million dollars you'll become a millionaire. By contrast, you can't become a duke by visiting 100 castles, or by building a castle of your own.

The similarity is that overcoming wealth inequity is only possible to a limit. If you're poor by age 25, you can perhaps reach middle-class wealth by age 50 if you're smart and you work hard. There is no certain way for a poor to become a multi-millionaire: of course you can accidentally invent a new "Facebook", become a pop-star or win in a national lottery, but you shouldn't plan your life based on the expectation that these things will happen.

once a person of this marginalized community rises up in the econonomic hierachy, then probably 90% of the social racism they experience would vanish

I would argue that the initial discrimination in this case was based 90% on the wealth and 10% on the race. This is quite typical for developed countries which actually condemn racism. There's an impression that there's still a lot of racism around, but upon close inspection it becomes clear that the discrimination is primarily due to uneven wealth distribution across racial groups. This also explains the otherwise surprising phenomenon of racism against the person's own race: if a member of a marginalized group becomes wealthy, they become socially much closer to their wealthy neighbours of a different race than to the rest of their (still marginalized) racial group.


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