Social Strata in the Modern World: are they its Past or Future?
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Social Strata in the Modern World: are they its Past or Future?

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Nowadays neo-feudalism is increasingly being referred to as our common future – the system of government in the style of Game of Thrones, with all the necessary technological innovations. In fact, this means the restoration of the caste society, doesn’t it? If this is so, then what is it? What are the perspectives and possible scenarios? Is this process a step backward or moving forward, after all? We are going to figure this out together.  

Meaning of “the social class”

The essence of a social class consists in the ability of society to impose certain duties onto a certain group of people. Such groups, in fact, create an environment conducive to fulfilment of these duties, and bequeath their experience through inheritance. In older times knowledge was passed from a father to a son. Mortality rate was high, and sometimes it happened that an heir could suddenly die and a replacement had to be found. It was typical to look for an inheritor in the family – a younger sibling, for instance, or some other relative. It was not as it is now when a young man can continue studying till he is 30 years old. In medieval times a 30-year-old man was considered to be aged, as the average life expectancy was around 40. Naturally, under such conditions, castes, classes and other social groups were bound to be created. 


Plato outlined three classes according to their duties. Without going into detail, these were rulers-philosophers, soldiers-warriors and demiurgos (creators). According to him, a citizen could either produce something, guard something or rule something. Everything was crystal clear. To be honest, it reminds of a Soviet system: there was a party and a leader, valiant KGB men, and working class with a wide range of produced objects – from night-vases to spaceships. The problem lies in the fact that the tasks any society faces usually are very complicated and a single class cannot solely cope with them. Society was based on these customs and traditions. In so doing, the firmer the traditions of any social class were, the stronger was the society in general.   

Social stratification

Social stratification took shape already in ancient societies. Primitive tribes had a leader, shamans, warriors, and hunters (or farmers). In Ancient Egypt there were pharaohs, priests, soldiers, scribes, slaves and farmers. These were specific social communities, each having its behavior regulations which had to be followed.  

Fresco from Pompeii
Fresco from Pompeii

But at the end of the day, neither regulations, nor internal culture determined social strata. They were mainly defined by the relations with the state, the level of complicity in the involvement in taking powerful decisions. In Ancient Rome there were not only upper-class patricians and senators, but also other noble citizens – rich people enjoying a certain level of power in a country, enabling them to influence the process of decision making. It reminds of a social process associated with the emergence of modern oligarchs (by the way, this is a term borrowed from the Antique history). Oligarch seems to have no rights in government (he is neither a senator, nor a patrician, or if you put differently, neither a politician nor a ruler), but he can make decisions no worse than those in power can. State decisions in such cases are financed privately, taking into consideration oligarch’s individual interests, and such a situation is not easy to fight with.

At the same time social classes cannot exist without a certain class solidarity, supporting the same class members to maintain the actual order of things.  This was particularly visible during medieval times. There were not so many classes then. The first social stratum was represented by the clergymen, the second – by the aristocrats, and the third one – by the commoners, workers.  The first and the second strata were exempted from taxes and state duties, trying by all means to keep their privileged position. Rights, liberties and rules were clearly regulated. A knight had to fight at wars, while a farmer could refuse from the military obligations. The landlords had to provide for their farmers in case they got sick or old. Otherwise they paid for their allowance in the monasteries. Catholic church, replenished by the nobles’ younger sons, prescribed the vows of celibacy and practically ruled social life of the medieval society.    

Trade, war and estates

As we can see, the traders hardly fitted in the medieval system of social stratification. Though the titles could certainly be bought, it was not desirable, as this automatically subjected the traders to military service. By the way, these were wars that initiated the changes in social stratification. As far back as in Ancient Rome there were equites. They were patricians fighting on horsebacks, who later became aristocrats of the highest rank. Though this “golden youth” were of not much use to the Roman Empire. In the Cannes Battle the equites let the enemies round up the troops and as a result destroy the numerous and upscale Roman infantry.

Apparently, it was then when the class resentment of simple legionnaires to the equites was born. And their feeling endured till the end of the Roman history. Nobody relied on Roman cavalry, hiring Germans or French instead, if it was necessary. All these details are mentioned here not for the sake of eloquence, but to show that fairly often a social class did not cope with its duties.

100літня війнаLet’s take another example. During the Hundred Year War French knights lost to English archers. Simply put, the rabble. According to all the rules of social stratification, elegant French soldiers, wearing corselets and cuirasses had to smash the English, which were less numerous, and armored much worse. But it wasn’t meant to happen. When falling off the horse, the French knight wasn’t going to get up and fight further. He preferred to surrender to the English plebeians, knowing that his estate will free him out from the capture. At least, while imprisoned he would definitely stay alive. 

Estate evolution and revolution

Thus, clear theoretical division of the world to classes has always faced an ever-changing reality. Nevertheless, in the history of every country certain stages of estate formation and transformation are distinguishable.

At a certain moment Europe, generally speaking, stopped paying too much attention to social classes. They were not cancelled completely, but made less significant. A problem of state principles, self-government and societal development became more important than estate regulations. Without abolishing social classes many nations engaged in elaboration of their constitutions and improvement of their legal systems. Society became more flexible, it began living not only having respect for customs and traditions, but taking into consideration legal norms and societal ideas. These processes motivated further social and historical development of the nations.

Storming of the Bastille
Storming of the Bastille

So, the French Revolution, for instance, did not bar the castes, but created a new common parliament instead of a stratified multilevel older one. In France the estates were abolished much later. While in Britain they exist up till now. And nothing bad is happening, people have good lives. Because of their history there were never any social classes in the USA, though they do have rich families and political clans.  

Can American society be considered stratified against this background? Can Indian society be taken to be stratified if it is regarded as a republic and de jure does not have any castes? And, finally, can societies in Japan and South Korea be treated as divided into social classes, if all the citizens of these countries without exception work until death, and their masters should be both sages and patriarchs? These are rhetorical questions, but they definitely challenge one’s mind.

Grimaces of the national history

Peter I
Peter I

Popular legends on the Varangians’ mission to run the Kievan Rus are interesting because once they pledged the pattern of all further historical events. First of all, it concerns the search for decision-makers abroad. Starting from appearance of the first foreign experts at the Moscow court during the rule of Alexei Tishajshy (Alexey Mihajlovich Tishajshy, 1629 – 1676, is the second Russian tsar from Romanov dynasty) and Peter the First’s reforms, up to the invitation of “new Varangians” after the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv (2014). (We would hate to think that the reason for that is “go-happy-lucky attitude” as our national trait. Although, it is no secret that in Russia as well as in Ukraine everyone in power is willing to get rich, but few are ready to assume responsibility for the results).

A blind wish to borrow somebody’s ideas is seen as the second reason. Following the reformers’ intentions, in post-Peter times a nobleman had to bring lights of the Western civilization to a backward Russian society. However, an incredible slavery, full of poverty and humiliation was established instead. A landlord usually spent all of his life abroad, in the West, while the farmers paid for his luxurious life by their hard work. (By the way, does not such a model of social relation remind you of anything?)

The second pattern consists in everlasting waiting of ordinary people for a nobleman who would come and make a decision. During a long history of Ukraine as a part of Russian Empire an ominous vision of its place in a stratified system was formed. French, English or Germans have no clear boundaries between classes. If a man calls himself a gentleman, everyone believes him as long as he is not cheating. As soon as a man is caught lying he is banished from society. The Russian estate system was one of the most complicated in the world. Say, were Cossacks farmers or soldiers? They worked the land, but didn’t pay taxes. At the same time, they were subjected to a peculiar military service. No European would be able to grasp their social position. Otherwise, let’s take merchants as an example.  One could become a merchant in the First or Second Guild …. Only after having paid a subscription. And that person didn’t necessarily have to be trader! There were also some distinguished citizens, liberated from paying taxes and commoners, bound to pay them. Russian Empire constantly rewrote their orders of ranks, multiplying new and new castes and prescribing norms of their behavior. This, actually, brought us to a sad, but typical finale.      

October Revolution subjugating the class system

An intricate social system played a cruel joke with Russia. Noblemen quite unwillingly accepted strangers to their rows. As a result a “semi-caste” category appeared – raznochintsy  (raznochinetsa 19th century Russian intellectual not belonging to the gentry who were well-educated and well-mannered non-noblemen, or better to say “under-noblemen”. Classical gentry was not very useful for the then Russian society. Instead of motivating progress they hampered it. And then it all began. One bloody revolution replaced another, having finished with abolishing social classes in 1917. Such an abolishment was promised during February revolution, and realized during the October one.   

One would think it all was finished! Not anywhere near. The scheme became dramatically simplified. In the Soviet society new “noblemen” appeared – Communist party members, especially its chiefs of all levels, the so-called “nomenklatura”. There was a class of workers, a class of peasants and an interlayer between them and neo-gentry – intelligentsia (usually non-members of the party) and white-collars. Consequently, again raznochintsy, or “under-noblemen”. Many workers and peasants strived to get into this interlayer not to work intellectually, but in order to receive a privilege to stop working with hands. Moreover, as people of the “right” origin (anti-noble, work and peasant origin) they could get to the top of the social ladder much easier, than the “rotten” intelligentsia. To put it in a nutshell, social class belonging continued to play an important role in the lives of many people.  

As a result, nomenclature clans were formed – Dnipropetrovsk, Moscow, Leningrad. It was not a new worldview of the Soviet person that actually worked but the patriarchic traditions of the same village community. One clan was fighting against another. Exactly as a thousand years ago one congregation struggled with others. People from the countryside are best-prepared for such things because they know the rules of clan society’s life and live according to them. Representatives of the country’s outskirts – Central Asia and Transcaucasia – took a special place in the social hierarchy of the Soviet Union. Tribal laws meant even more there than in small descent-based communities, which made them better suited for the struggle for power under the condition of newly appeared unstable hierarchy.  

Perestroika and nomenclature

Why were the clear lines between social strata blurred in the West? Because of democracy principles, political opinions, liberal ideas, constitutional processes, globalization and technological innovations. At the same time, communist ideas in the USSR functioned more as a religion than as a political trend. Correspondingly, the party ideologists could be seen as priests rather than scientists. In fact, there was no political life at all. A common citizen had to do what he or she was told to, and to know what he or she was allowed to. Under such circumstances the existing social classes were doomed to be substituted by others.    

The same behavior patterns (“inviting Varangians” and “nobleman will decide”) became timely again. After the collapse of the Soviet Union local elites began inter-clan war, trying to find some support in the countries of developed democracy. It was important, though, to be aware that the members of the communist party nomenclature were not going to build a new democratic society. What they had was their unanimous wish to convert their political and career assets into financial ones. That is, no classical politics or principles, no real constitutional processes or new social contract interested them. If you look closely, you will notice that serfdom standards rule in contemporary Ukraine: a certain group of people brings new hardships to the whole country, exclusively using its resources instead of caring about its development, education and culture.    

Obvious is the attempt to form pseudo-democratic nomenclature as a new social class. In the last 25 years the inheritance trends became discernible: tangible assets, connections and positions are passed down in families. Even present-day ultra-democratic and patriotic rhetoric doesn’t prevent nepotism. Will a new social strata hierarchy be developed locally or will we get a global superstructure, consisting of hyper-nomads, settle population and infra-nomads predicted by Attali?

The frustrating part is that at these neo-feudal times “neo-noblemen” have big problems with the code of honor and sense of duty. They never defend interests of the lower social classes. They don’t care about them. We should take note of this.