Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Socio-Economic Class in Human Society II

In the last post we discussed the first stage in the development of human society, where men distinguished themselves through physical strength or ability in war to become leaders. Heredity provided a leader’s family with some prestige security, but it was not until the elite began to accumulate wealth through ownership of land that they were able to separate themselves permanently from the lower class.

So, what remained, then, was for the non-wealthy class to differentiate itself. This process eventually produced a class of nobility and a middle class which was able to separate itself from the poor. In many societies slaves were added along the way to form a permanent underclass, sitting beneath the lowest class of freemen. In the end, a fully differentiated socio-economic model resulted, which was the parent of the human society we have today.

There were two main drivers for the differentiation of the lower classes: demand for goods and services by the wealthy and demand for community-wide specialized skills resulting from growth of the population. The wealthy were interested in the goods required to support the prestige of their position – fancy clothing, exotic foods, jewelry, perfume, transportation, and tutors for their children. They also had idle time which needed to be filled by social events, travel, or sport.

The lower class become differentiated above the level of the common laborer when its most able members realized that they could use their unique skills to earn money. Those who were good with their hands could become carpenters, while those with a good ear could become musicians. Analytical types might become accountants or money lenders. All of this was possible because a densely packed population could feed itself from the output of the local farmer. Man now had the time develop his skills, because he didn’t have to look for food.

As crafts developed, some were more prized than others, so the individuals with those skills could expect to earn more money. Some crafts, by their nature, were looked down upon. For example, undertakers and butchers were considered inferior, while those engaged in intellectual pursuits were admired. To the wealthy, all skills not engaged in by them were seen as lowly, especially those where a man had to get his hands dirty.

The Nobility was a sub-class consisting of those individuals who were able to climb above the rest of the middle class. One might call this group “new money” describing a recent status change as opposed to the “old money” of the permanently wealthy. The nobility included those who were either intelligent or resourceful enough to rise to a position of authority or wealth. During the period of the Roman Republic, the Knights (Equites) were the nobility class. Originally cavalry men who were wealthy enough to buy horses and equipment, the knights later took the role of businessmen, working at professions deemed inferior by the patricians, but necessary to them. Cicero was a classic example. Raised as a pleb, he so impressed the elites by his legal skill and oratory, he was elevated to the nobility.

Lastly, we have the development of a slave class, always the lowest class in any society. Slavery can have several definitions, but we will use Aristotle’s as a typical example.

“A slave is a living possession, who is by nature not his own but another’s and yet a man”

Slavery was a bi-product of the maturing human society and did not exist before man developed agriculture. The reason is a practical one in that nomadic tribes had no way to manage slaves while they were on the move. Without close management, slaves would attempt to escape whenever the opportunity arose.

In the history of human society slavery has two types - intra-tribal and extra-tribal. Intra-tribal slavery occurs when members of a community lose their status and fall into a subservient position. An example would be someone who cannot repay his debts or commits a serious crime. Extra-tribal slavery occurs when one group is defeated in war by another and is absorbed into the victor’s population.

Often, the existence of a slave class has an adverse effect on the society. As unpaid laborers, the slaves contribute to high productivity, but they also displace the lower classes from the job market. During the Roman Republic, the accumulation of wealth among a few patricians and their use of slave labor to work their estates led to the death of the small farm and the unemployment of the small farmer. Eventually, there was an exodus of displaced persons to Rome where they became restless urban poor.

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