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New Worlds: The Social Pecking Order

Having spent last week talking about the specific differentiations between class, status, and caste, I’m going to attempt to avoid all those terms this week and just speak of “rank.” Because although we commonly talk about certain groups as classes, I want to be clear that the distinctions between them may be economic or legal, inherited or acquired, mutable or fixed, and which word best applies might depend on the place and time. So: let’s just call it rank.

Who’s on top? And who’s on the bottom?

The answer to this is surprisingly variable. You can say generically that “the aristocracy” is often on top, but that doesn’t really answer anything, because it doesn’t tell you who the aristocracy are. In Europe, it tended to be the warriors — cf. Barrington Moore’s line I quoted in Year Six about feudalism being “gangsterism that had […] acquired respectability through the notion of chivalry” — and it’s easy for many westerners to fall into assuming that’s a universal characteristic, “might makes right” and all that.

If you look around the world, though, you’ll find different setups. Under the Hindu varna system I mentioned last week, the kshatriyas or warriors are the second rank. Above them come the brahmins, the priestly group. The actual reality on the ground might be a good deal messier, with kshatriyas in control of a great many things, but on an ideological level, they aren’t the “best” — the literal root of “aristocracy.” And warriors don’t even enter into the Chinese system of Four Occupations, which influenced other parts of the East Asian sphere. Under this classification, the top rank belongs to the scholar-officials, that learned body of men who studied for the imperial examinations in order to obtain positions in the bureaucracy. For all China’s significant military strength, battlefield prowess was often not valorized or given much shrift at all in the traditional social hierarchy.

We moderns also tend to assume that peasant farmers must have been at the bottom of the heap, but this is far from true. In fact, farmers officially form the second rank of the Four Occupations, and the third rank of the four varnas. Even in Europe, a decent amount of respect was given to those who farmed their own land (though less to those who labored in someone else’s fields). After all, without farmers, you basically don’t have a society. They are the great productive stratum, bringing forth the crops and animal products upon which everyone else depends, both those above and those below. And remember, this kind of ranking isn’t necessarily about wealth: a brahmin ascetic living wild in the forest stands high above a prosperous farmer, while even a poor farmer barely scratching a living from the soil is better than the people below him.

So who’s below?

Artisans and craftspeople often come next after farmers, because while they still produce things, their products are less immediately crucial than food. And then at the very bottom of the ranking — very much in defiance of modern capitalist thinking — you’ll often find the merchants.

Why are merchants so despised? In both Europe and East Asia, it’s because they were seen fundamentally as leeches, feeding off other people’s labor. They produce nothing; they make their money simply by moving goods from one place to another, profit by exploiting everyone else’s needs to line their own pockets. An economist can give you chapter and verse on why this is in fact a vital service, but it’s not one that used to be valued — at least, not everywhere. And where it is not valued, you’ll often see “middleman minorities” operating in this role: groups that already occupy something of an outsider position, as with Jews in much of European history, taking on a job that mainstream members of the community sneer at. (This is especially true of moneylending, which merchants are well-equipped to do and almost universally despised for.)

There are exceptions. Merchants occupied a high position in pre-colonial Aztec society, with the right to judge crimes within their own ranks, send their children to the monastic schools of the elite, and wear restricted ornaments on particular holidays — though it’s interesting to note that there was an ideological fiction that equated them with warriors, on the grounds that they sometimes had to defend themselves during their travels. (A trader who died on such a journey went to the same heaven as a warrior.) In the maritime trading republics I mentioned before, such as Venice, the stigma associated with mercantile activity was naturally less. But in many places, this aspect of economic class and the social hierarchy ran very much at cross purposes to one another, with no amount of wealth being sufficient to purchase respectability.

The above categories aren’t the whole story, of course. Anywhere you see a ranking of the different social categories in a culture, there tends to be an explicit or implicit addendum of “and then the slaves/untouchables/infames/etc.” These groups absolutely tend to be defined by legal status, not just custom or economic class. Slaves can be manumitted, as discussed last year, but doing so requires a formal change in their status. Untouchables often lack that option; they’re generally defined by ritual impurity, because their occupation brings them into regular contact with polluting influences like blood, death, human waste, and so forth. And the thing about ritual impurity is that it can be inherited: you may not engage in such work, but if your ancestors did, then you are likewise tainted. This is part of why discrimination against such groups continues today in places where the official legal status of untouchability has been abolished.

There are other ways to wind up underneath the social ladder, though. In Japan, hinin or non-people included not just the ritually polluted eta but beggars, criminals, and street performers. That status could still be hereditary, but sometimes there were ways for your descendants to re-enter normal society. In a xenophobic society, being a foreigner or a member of some outside religion might put you below even the lowest rank of the mainstream population — because again, remember, this is about who is seen as ideologically better than or worse than, not necessarily a measure of wealth, freedom, or political influence.

And then there are the people who simply don’t fit anywhere at all. I already mentioned the lack of placement for the military among the Chinese Four Occupations; the same goes for entertainers and even religious professionals. They weren’t a priori worse than everybody else (though entertainers tended to be scorned); they just . . . didn’t have a place in the system. And what about paid servants? How do they relate to any of the hierarchies described above? Who’s in a liminal position, left out of the system entirely — and what benefits and hazards accompany that liminality?

These may not be questions we think about very often in our normal lives, because — especially here in the U.S. — we are supposed to live in a society where wealth and influence may vary, but everyone is fundamentally equal. The next time you hear someone singing the praises of teachers while failing to pay them more than a pittance, though, or forgiving the sins of a celebrity for no better reason than their fame, you might stop to wonder just how gone this idea really is.

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5 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Social Pecking Order”

  1. That wise, final paragraph is the USA Today Yay! in a nutshell, almost, isn’t it? Latter events in particular, coupled with historical knowledge, have some of us pondering this every day.

  2. Jennifer Stevenson

    I’ve been reading an immense amount about this, and caste and economics and suchlike, while researching a new series. A book that sheds considerable light on the ranks described above, and the place of slaves in them, is DEBT: The First 5000 Years by David Graebar. Slavery has been, historically, a very common place for almost anybody to find themselves if they get into debt. Many societies have made it possible for someone to owe so much money that they have to sell themselves to the guy who holds their IOUs (or, for choice, sell their own slaves, their children, and their wives first, before selling themselves). This accounts for large numbers of very highly skilled and educated slaves working in all kinds of situations, such as in the households of royalty.

    Most of those societies that have permitted debt slavery, however, declared regular “debt holidays” at points when the economy got so messed up that a large chunk of society was either in debt slavery or threatened with it, when people were born into debt slavery because their parents couldn’t work off their debt, when the burden between Have and Have Not was just too lopsided. Kings (and their counterparts in rank) knew when it was time, and some declared debt holiday regularly.

    Upon declaration of debt holiday, all private debts were immediately and permanently canceled. Significantly, commercial debt could not be canceled. (This is contrary to current rules, where a corporation can declare bankruptcy and literally get out of jail free.) Debt holidays could come as frequently as every seven years.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Fred Clark at the blog Slacktivist has been arguing for a Jubilee year for ages now — in the old, scriptural sense of the word, where every seven years debts would be forgiven and slaves would be freed.

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