Sunday, January 16, 2011

Socio-Economic Class in Human Society

We need to let the Spartans rest for a while and move on to other things, namely a discussion of socio-economic class in the history of human society. A pioneer in studying the subject was Gunnar Landtman, the first modern sociological anthropologist. Landtman was Finnish (1878-1940) and he is best known for his study of the cultural behavior of the Papuan tribes of the Pacific. This, and other research he performed, became the basis for one of his best known works, The Origin of the Inequality of the Social Classes.

So, we will dedicate a couple of posts to discussing Landtman’s work. Why? Because the ancient societies developed via the dynamics Landtman describes. Understanding these dynamics not only gives us a view into the early political systems, but also describes what we see in society today. The forward motion of any culture and its political system is constrained by the inherent nature of human beings. If you take geography, climate, and natural resources as catalysts, mix in a large group of people, you get a culture that reflects the character of the environment experienced through those people. One need only reflect on the deserts surrounding Egypt, the mountains of Greece, or the inland position of Rome to understand this.

Landtman starts with the notion of equality as a measure of human society. What is equality? We know that people are not physically or mentally equal, so how can they be equal in society? We can create laws that apply to everyone, but still some will be find an advantage or disadvantage in those laws. In America, we like to think we have equal opportunity, which is a practical form of equality, but even here we must admit that opportunities are only equal for those with equal capabilities and an equal starting point.

As Landtman tells us:

“It is true that, in a certain measure, individual and social differences go together. In every society a man’s social status is more or less influenced by his personal qualifications. People hold an individual of superior ability in higher esteem than others, and value his opinion, whereas the worthless are looked down upon. From the sociological point of view such an individual inequality appears in every respect natural, and consequently unavoidable. We may safely venture the assertion that no human society has ever existed or will ever exist where the social standing and influence of the different individuals does not vary according to their personal merits or demerits.”

Aristotle said, “For that some should rule and other be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

This reality will work against reformers who attempt to abolish the social classes and make us all equal. As Landtman points out, the irony of class leveling is that the most primitive societies have class equality inherent in their structure, but the more developed a society becomes, the more difficult it is to break down class distinctions.

What is it that begins class development progress? Let’s go back to a primitive society, most likely nomadic, where there are no class distinctions. In the beginning, we see the rising of those who are able to use their exceptional qualities to gain influence over other men. The most obvious examples are physical strength and leadership, which are critical in time of war. Every tribe has to protect itself and fight other tribes for dominance. It may lose if weak or win if strong. The leaders on the winning side earn admiration and move into a “class by themselves”. When they have become separated of from others based on perceived status, we have the beginning of a class system. The leader’s trophies of war serve as physical reminders for others who is superior.

Like leadership and courage in war elevate an individual in society and separate him from peers, weakness and cowardice have the opposite effect. Those who may have some superior talents find themselves lowered in status or outcast by their negative traits.

Heredity also plays a part in validating superior status. Those individuals born into “old” families have prestige over those born into “new” families because older families have generations of proof to demonstrate their pedigree. This allows them to avoid the scrutiny placed on the offspring of new families. Although heredity may give some sanction to a family and its leaders, its tradition is still tied to the accomplishments of each generation. One or more failures and the chain is broken.

Acquiring wealth is the most permanent way to insure superior status in a society. In ancient times wealth came from property and property separated a man’s status from his physical attributes. Even though the first landholders were leaders, their wealth was passed on to later generations who may not have possessed the same physical skills. Of course, the ownership of land could not become a factor in creating social class until man had given up his nomadic ways and settled in a particular location. Like today, land and the wealth derived from it accumulates quickly so the wealthy become separated from the masses in a few generations. Those lacking wealth were an undifferentiated population – separate from the elite but equal among themselves.

After a time, we ended up with what Aristotle describes below.
“Those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends and the like, are neither able or willing to submit to authority… On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme are degraded. So that one class cannot obey and can only rule despotically; the other knows not to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying.”

We see that the first socio-economic class developed in human society consisted of a wealthy class built through the accumulation of land which was passed on through generations. The masses would not be able to differentiate themselves until population density created demand for a differentiated worker class and the wealthy desired goods an undifferentiated lower class could not provide. Without power over the wealthy, the lower classes could not demand the rights that come with a democratic government. It would take centuries for that power to become a force for change.
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1 comment:

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Mike

Great couple of posts.
I feel obliged to stress the importance of environment/geography as you do in the first article.
Often people mistake models for the dynamics that drive them, and apply models inappropriately to archaeology, rather than identifying a dynamic.
The basic model is brutally simple, and you wisely stress warfare/slavery as the hall marks of these early city states.

My only thing that makes me uncomfortable is the application of these ideas to contemporary society, since this can involve some degree of value judgement.
As an archaeologist, I can discuss slavery, religion, human sacrifice, and genocide as matters of fact and without any need for a value judgement; they are just events. While it is probably impossible to use only 'neutral' language, and pointless to constantly create & redefine terms to achieve this, once you start 'admiring' ancient societies and taking sides in ancient debates, - passing judgement on good / bad individuals, cultures and practices is not far off.