Understanding the Basics of Class Systems

All nations have some sort of class system or class structure, generally based on wealth, birth, or status. We explain modern and historic social class systems and the general logic behind them to see to what extent they are natural and what extent they are convention.[1]

The Terminology of Estates as Social Classes

Before getting into the historic class systems, lets take a quick look a the the often citied French Estates of the Realm, as this will work as a good analogy for the other class systems.

The Three Estates of the Realm; Using the French Estates of the Realm as an Example

The Class System in France before the Revolution was known as “the Estates of the Realm”, the first estate was the Church, the Second the Aristocracy (the nobility and royalty), the Third the producer classes (the capitalists, workers, and peasants).

Those are the general estates we see throughout the class systems of different nations throughout the ages, so it helps to get the terminology.

Next, we move into some more metaphorical concepts with the other estates. Let’s touch on that briefly before returning to the class systems.

Media and the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Estates

When people say “Fourth Estate” (a term coined by Edmund Burke in 1787) they mean “the Media” (the ones who influence the other estates). This term has been used since Burke’s time and is pretty well accepted.[2]

Meanwhile, the “Fifth Estate” is a newer term that describes yet another force that influences the estates (generally describing “alternative media” and citizen driven media). From there we can theorize that the Sixth Estate could be the people themselves as the comment on social media. See an essay on the Fifth and Sixth estate in the digital era.[3]

So then, the First estate is the highest (generally moral) authority, the second is the ruling class (“the nobility”), the third is the citizens (and is itself subdivided into three classes capitalists, workers, and peasants), the New York Times is of the “Fourth Estate”, Wikileaks is of the “Fifth Estate”, and we can theorize that a commenter on the comment section of a blog is of the “Sixth Estate” (although again, the fourth, fifth, and sixth estates aren’t really classes and only the terms fourth and fifth estate are generally accepted; sixth estate is a theory of ours).

One could keep going with this as a metaphor, but fourths, fifths, and sixths aside, below we are discussing the main three estates of the traditional class system and their subdivisions, not just in France, but in most historic nations of any type socialist or capitalist, despotic or free.

Ye Old Division of Labor and Resources

Early class systems looked like that of Athens, or Sparta, or the Indian Vedic ones, or the Roman one (click those links to learn more).

Sometimes class was divided by birth, sometimes by wealth, sometimes by other factors like merit (but generally by birth, only in a few instances by wealth, and rarely merit alone; although Rome had an notably fluid class system in their Republican days).

In other words, although each class system in history tended to be slightly different, they all share a number of common features we can equate to those three estates of the realm.

TIP: India’s caste system is a class system based on birth. These classes, or “Varnas,” are Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (ruling and military), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers), Shudras (peasants), Dalits (untouchables)… which is almost exactly like Plato’s class system in his Republic. (even down to the noble lie). Real Athens and many early states had a slave class, sometimes that class was “untouchable”, sometimes it was just “less-than” like Athens or early America. Today we don’t have a slave class, where the classical liberals cut the first and second estate down to size, the social liberals like Lincoln and FDR fought for the lowest estate (thereby making the peasant the equal of the “untouchable” in theory, although 100 years of segragation and the current thing about “illegals” complicates this; this class struggle of the lowest classes has an ongoing effect on rural politics in America and other nations).

TIP: So the idea doesn’t get lost in a sea of words. Plato’s class system is a metaphor for a sort of class-based check and balance system. The idea is that just like you wouldn’t let your animal nature rule you, and instead you employ ethics, morals, and reason to restrain your base desires, the ideal city-state wouldn’t be ruled by its animal nature. So, even though democracy (rule by liberty and equality) and oligarchy (rule by wealth) are fine sub-systems, we wouldn’t want an oligarch or anarchist king (we want a philosopher king). In words, we’d want our wisest and most ethical and honorable ruling, and then we’d want those bound by law, honor, and duty below that. We don’t want our richest or most charming ruling, we want our most qualified.

One might tell a noble lie, that some where born untouchable. But true liberals scoff at such nonsense (just as the scoff at the first estate or the divine right of the first or second)…. and socialists and fascists scoff at liberals. Life is complex.

The ideal state from Plato’s Republic using 8-bit. For educational purposes only.

NOTE: In modern terms we can understand the class system as an evolution of the “estates” (like the French Estates of the Realm), but the concept is perhaps best understood by looking at the old class system from Plato’s Republic and the Vedic Caste system (or other theoretical or real class systems of old like the Egyptian one). They are all really similar, not because “men love that poor, nasty, and brutish domination” (not just that), but because of the reality of dividing labor and resources.

TIP: Plato and the Indians put the military class in the high middle, in America I would say our executive and military span all the classes. With that in mind, they truly are a thing of the second estate. They are not citizens, so although many are of the lowest estate in class, they are by their merit as a whole of a higher class. With that in mind, I would consider military, ranks, and classism on its own. The same is generally true for the business class and the political class. In America we have a mixed system, so things get complex. I could add pages of detail to any one topic presented here. Feel free to comment below.

Medieval Life: Estates of the Realm. One simple way to look at the class system, especially useful as it pertains to our own selfish interests as modern westerners.

UTOPIAN IDEALS: So by now you are probably a little upset to realize that the slave/peasant class is a longstanding feature of just about every society in history. So it is only natural to ask, “what is the best idea for fixing the ills of the class system?” In my opinion, it is not egalitarianism, not Marxism, and not even Moore’s Utopia. No, not at all. It is in fact an idea Oscar Wilde had. That is replacing the slave/peasant class (the producer class who does “necessary” jobs) with automation (robots and machines) and voluntary association (voluntary action for the benefit of the people). If the bottom class is really necessary (if it is naturally occurring an unavoidable), lifting it up neoliberal style is one way to do it, but replacing it with socialist robots is a whole other level of creative. Especially, it is creative for a theory from the 1890’s (I’m not claiming it to be a perfect solution, more just sharing it before moving on). See: Understanding Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and the Capitalist Mode of Production

Then, in the late 1600’s – 1700’s, as a result of the enlightened liberal revolutions of the west, this all changed.

Liberal democracy was introduced, mercantilism was evolved into a version of free-trade, the moral church state was abandoned, the King’s power was diminished, and class mobility increased.


However, this new cycle didn’t abolish the potentially naturally occurring social class system, it only changed its form to a more enlightened one that reflected the Rights and Liberties of the common and upper-class Man, Woman, and Citizen.

The class system (in each of what Marx calls “historic cycles based on the mode of production“) used to look like it did in the following images where we see class systems such as the Feudal one (which Marx describes as a system comprised of “feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs”).

The new class system (which Marx would call the class system of the Capitalist mode of production) changes this slightly, but we can see clearly that the Marxian ideal of abolishing the class system was never realized in our post-liberal revolutions era.

In simple terms, the liberals successfully equalized the class system to some degree, moving from hereditary monarchies with a strict class systems to capitalist liberal democracies, but despite Marxian attempts over the 19th, 20th, and 21st century, the general class system remains (perhaps because it is somewhat naturally occurring, as we theorized above).

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” – The Communist Manifesto, to understand the historic class systems it to understand the theory of Karl Marx (for better or for worse). Learn more about Marxian class theory.

What is the Difference Between Feudalism, Early capitalism, Late Capitalism, and “Social Capitalism”? They all Look Like Pyramids to Me?

But what is that you say? You say that you can’t tell the difference between the Vedic system, a Feudal system, the French Estates (with their separation of powers and checks and balances), early capitalist society, and the modern system of late-form shareholder capitalism in the Republic?

Hey, are you implying that the modern capitalist mode of production is still rather feudal and creates the sort of social, political, and economic inequality that gives birth to extremists like Marx and Mussolini?! The nerve. 😀

All joking aside, each mode of production is actually substantially different. (with each era offering perks the last era did not).

For one, our modern form of capitalism (our socially-minded state capitalism / corporate shareholder capitalism, AKA our “late capitalism” in its modern social form) is itself different from the early capitalism in its 1800’s form or even early forms of “late capitalism”).

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats, and Grows the Wealth Gap, Thus What Happens in this Era Affects the Next One

Today we enjoy a level of class mobility not seen in past eras, and the lowest class has been lifting up (in the way “a rising tide lifts all boats”).

Today there is there is no forced slavery, just a little wage slavery. There is no church telling everyone what faith to be. There is no absolute king with divine right. There is liberal freedom of speech. There is voting (direct voting even on some things, advisory on others).

As noted, people are still born into a class, but there is class mobility (a poor Carnegie immigrant can become a Baron, and a Peanut farmer can become a President). All the while the bottom tier has been lifted up with the tide (a tide that is also growing the wealth gap, but still…).

There is still inequality and are is still other problems, but today many think themselves middle-class and tweet their opinions on it freely. That is pretty, pretty, pretty good, all things considered. Of course, the ramifications of this system will, just as naturally as a class system occurs in every era, likely result in a new system at some point.

For our conversation, this means the next era will likely see a slightly different version of the class system.

MORE NOTES: We don’t have an untouchable class or slaves and the importance of this can’t be understated. Yet, there are streets in DC you can’t walk down and there are classes of people who almost seem trapped in poverty at the whim of the state. It used to be the tax collector would show up every once in-a-while and otherwise you just grew your peasant crops. Today it is very hard for the lowest class to live off the grid, but on the plus side they get poor-law like subsidies. We don’t have absolute monarchs or Clergymen who can take our wives and send us to our deaths, but don’t go trying to have a moral parade down K street or publish dirt on a high-ranking politician. There are some streets in DC the common folk can’t walk down, there are some streets in DC that the upper-class can’t walk down… although, just like it has always been, if you have the right last name, you can walk down any street you want.

PROBLEMS: The main problem with the current mode of production is that everything is based on wealth. Virtues, according to Plato and any other thinker worth their salt, are generally defined as being balanced and moderate things. Extremes of wealth, liberty, and equality are all toxic to stable societies, restraints of law, justice, honor, and duty need to temper them. The problem with corporatocracy in an otherwise well ordered Republic, if it is not retrained and if it instead begins to rule the Republic, is that it is wealth based. Sure, it is democratic (it is liberal and equal), but it is still wealth-based, it isn’t honor-based, duty-based, or based on moral first principles of justice. You can see how that sort of democracy can be corrupting. If one were to say America is a Democratically Minded Republic purposefully built to be excellent, but in-action has a notable oligarchical and corporatocratic element, we could see how this is both 1. very good and democratic by so many vital measures, yet 2. is also a slippery slope toward another class revolution (like a modern version of what we saw in WWII and can currently see in the rise of right-wing national populism).

The Class System is Naturally Occurring, Not Pure Convention

Those points aside, there is another reason why the class system looks like a social liberal’s nightmare of inequality in every historic cycle.

That is because, just like a fruit tree always grows a fruit, a political body always has to delegate power and share resources.

Marx wasn’t just being a cranky pants with his theory of “historic materialism“, he was pointing out that governmental cycles are based on economics, and specifically the class struggle is based on who controls the factors of production. In other words, Marx looked at the old systems and history and said, “wow, I think this is naturally occurring“.

The factors of production and need to delegate power and trade resources, these natural things themselves and their related social dynamics, create an unavoidably pyramid-like scheme.

With that in mind, liberalism is all about maximizing liberty and equality in the pyramid using the powers of Republicanism. Below is a discussion of the image featured in the heading.

TIP: See near the bottom of the pyramid (in literally every system), see that upper-class who owns the means of production and rises to power through wealth. That is the oligarchs. In history Churches, Kings, Barons (Oligarchs), and Citizens have ruled nations. Guess who typically gets shafted, that is right, Citizens (the Plebs). Guess who allied with the citizens in the liberal revolutions? Well, it wasn’t the Churches and Oligarchs, right? So be extra wary when the Oligarchs start trying to sell you their extremes of liberty and inequality (each class looks out for its own, and the bottom 80% would do well to step back from divisive social issues and remember that). We should remember the Barons’ wars and the Magna Carta that did little for the workers or peasants (a Barons’ war is different than a Peasants’ War, is different from a Workers’ revolution, so to speak; this is true even though they all tend to rebel against the first two estates speaking in terms of the French Revolution). Learn more about Plato’s Republic and his class system, or keep reading to see an explanation of the modern American class system (as it compares to the Estates of the Realm). First the images below will help you to see visuals of this in terms of the French and Athenians.

NOTE: The king was considered part of no estate in France, in the West we can consider Monarchs, Presidents, Prime Ministers as being executive heads of all, but ruling from the Second Estate. Why don’t we consider them outside the classes? Because no citizen is outside the social contract. Why don’t we consider them at the crown of the first estate? Because, we don’t do absolutist Kings or Churches, that is what the revolution was about. The rulers are lifted up by elections or otherwise appointed by those elected or themselves appointed by the elected. Learn more about the social contract.

An image which illustrates where the terms left and right come from.

For educational purposes only, an illustration of Plato’s five regimes. Illustrating how Democracy becomes tyranny.

The General Class System (a General Amalgam Based on the Greek Class System of Sparta and Athens, the Vedic Class System, the Roman Class System, the French Estates, and the Modern American Class Systems)

First Estate: The Moral Authority. The Church, the Supreme Court, the Deep State, and otherwise highest positions. The Moral and Ethical. Plato’s Philosopher Kings (ideally). The highest aristocracy. Divided into upper and lower tier. ~0.33% TIP: Don’t misunderstand this as a church state, that is like confusing moral first principles with civil laws.

Second Estate: The Nobility and Royalty. Elected, hereditary, and wealth-based aristocracy. This includes the higher rungs of ruling class (like Senators), the highest ranks of the military and state, and the highest rungs of capitalists, aristocrats, and politicians. Those who deal with the physical and logical (not the moral and ethical; see the Spheres of Human Understanding). Plato’s auxiliaries and otherwise the Guardian Class (ideally). The aristocracy, timocracy, and upper-oligarchy. ~0.66% including the part of the ~0.01% who has risen to this position.

Third Estate: The people, urban and rural, workers, employers, investors, and peasants. This also includes local government and lower level state positions. The democracy and economy.

  1. The upper-class “bourgeoisie” capitalists, oligarchs, aristocrats, and politicians. The owners of the means of production and investor class. The middle-oligarchy. ~15% and most of the ~.01%. (the tax paying upper-class).
  2. The middle-class and consumer class, [mostly] urban “proletariat” workers who sell their labor. The lower oligarchy and higher democracy. ~20% (the income tax paying middle class).
  3. The lower-class and consumer class, [mostly] rural proletariat workers who sell their labor and urban and rural peasants. The democracy. ~60% (i.e. those who pay little or no income tax).

Visualizing an Idealized Version of the Modern Estates (Social Classes) and the related “Class Struggle” and “Class Mobility” in terms of Left-Right Politics.

Other organs and estates: The head of the body politic (sits outside the class system), a tripartite government or otherwise multipart government AKA the limbs of the body politic (part of all the estates), the press (including citizen-based media, social media in modern times, is part of the third estate), the consumer class (of the third estate).

The basic forms of government

An illustration of the basic forms of government. Hobbes’ imagery re-worked to show the forms, the body politic, the head(s) of state, and the arm of the executive and legislative.

Left-right Classism and politics: Consider, each class of each estate has their own politics. What though happens when the second estate uses the fourth estate to divide the third estate by divisive social issues? Nothing good, but we have seen it in action. What we haven’t seen yet is how the third estate uses social media (which we can call the lower-fourth estate) to influence all. Now that is going to be interesting?

Mobility: In modern times we can say, ideally at least, mobility is gained through wealth, status, merit, and/or election and not through birth, except in cases where birth relates to one of the aforementioned. Only merit should decide the highest tier, and only election should decide the highest tier of the Second Estate.

The liberal nation and the first estate: The concept of the First estate as a religious body was eliminated in the liberal revolutions, it was replaced with (in many respects) an elected and appointed Second Estate. Since the estates are models, not literal tangible things, we can say that we simply replaced a religious body politic with a non-religious one. “The Deep State” and Supreme Court are good examples of the new modern first estate. Or at least the ideal one. We can see how this could get strange if any of the Plato’s imperfect states (democracy, oligarchy, or timocracy) decide to crown themselves philosopher kings. That sounds like anarchy and a slippery slope to tyranny.

Have men forgotten God? Notice how the first estate used to be the Church and now it is a different type of moral authority (one we don’t name, but we can see as the “Deep State“, again like the Supreme Court or smartest highest ranking member of the CIA who has been there 30 years or whatever). Problem is, those positions all call for practical morals and practical ethics, religious freedom in the state is vital, but it is a little odd to cut the moral head off a body politic and not address the complex and inevitable consequences. We all want to eat our cake, but Keynes tells us the carrot on the stick isn’t meant to be eaten.

The Semantics of the Third Estate: Rousseau suggested calling the Third Estate “the First Estate”. Here in 2017 this is really just a model, so why not? The people are the foundation of a body politic, it is absurd to consider them less important than the higher classes since every citizen is equally sovereign. Still, chain of command is important, power is always delegated in governance (even in a pure democracy; consider an egalitarian company for example), as that is what is in-line with the common good (the general will).

The Semantics of the Fourth Estate: The fourth estate is more like a shared entity of the other estates which helps to transfer information between the estates than its own estate. Everyone wants to call influential entities estates, but it is more metaphor than anything.

Wealth is corrupting: Plato warns us of liberty and equality in excess, so he warns us of democracy. Why though? The answer is he warns us because he feared the uprising of a tyrant oligarch (or at least used this as a metaphor for the soul). The people should not be able to lift up an oligarch in a just state without restraints in place, as we don’t want an oligarchy in a free trading Republic. Of course oligarchs want to be philosopher kings, just as a peasant wants to be an oligarch. However, class mobility is a thing for the bottom two estates, not the top one. One of the main points of philosophy is avoiding extremes at the top of the pyramid. We don’t want tyrannical princes or Kings, we are Republicans and Democrats. A corporatocracy is a very liberal and democratic oligarchical system (with its shareholders and boardrooms), and it really isn’t a bad system, but it should be a subsystem. When the oligarchs make money a religion, or the aristocrats do (we call them crony capitalists in this case, a quasi-aristocrat-oligarch mix), we see Mussolini and Marx arise to meet that extreme with another one (they lead the Plebs to battle against the corrupted upper-class). Feudalism was not a good system then, and it will not be a good system in the future. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it to, that is why restraints are important, they help sustain the cake. A savage despot cuts the fruit from its root when they get hungry, an enlightened farmer takes what they need and uses the seeds to plant more. We don’t want to be despots (as despotism isn’t sustainable, equal, liberal, or prosperous).

Social Capitalism: The idea of social capitalism is that it is a moral form of capitalism that avoids the need for revolution by mixing up social democracy and free-market capitalism. It is a complex marriage, but it is also not a populist uprising. So I mean, pros and cons. It is a longterm goal, not short sighted greed.

NOTES: In Sparta full-blooded Spartans did’t use money and instead used what we can call a Communist system. For Plato, the timocracy (based on Sparta) was Communist. In Athens the lower classes did much of the trading. Why? Well, one would hardly put the oligarchy in charge of the first estate, right? Well, with that in mind, the problem with the liberal revolutions lifting up the third estate is that they didn’t just lift up the plebeian lower class, or the working class, they lifted up the bourgeoisie oligarchy… why any state would lift an oligarch up to the position of Philosopher King is beyond me, the whole point of Plato’s Republic is not doing this. The idea of the class system, from a natural position and not a position of convention, is that we want to maximize the ability of each class to move upwards (we want to make the lowest class a thing of dignity and give it “class mobility”). We want this up until the point that the Third Estate would start to use the higher estates for their own gain. Checks and balances are supposed to provide a buffer, as is an electoral system, but to prevent the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of wealth-based interests or otherwise special interests the original American constitution had the Second Estate pick the President (just like they appoint the Supreme Court and then confirm via their own election). The idea here is to maximize the virtues of each estate.

NOTES: How does one consent to a class system? Through voting. When we vote we confirm our commitment to the social contract and current system of government we live under. All things exist in balance, and there is a balance in voting too. An advisory vote is a good vote because the people get to express an opinion that isn’t specifically binding. If everyone could be free from influence, then democracy would always work, however people are not free from the influence of special interest and thus democracy does not always work.


  1. the Estates of the Realm
  2. Fourth Estate
  3. Fifth Estate

"Modern, Historic, and General Social Class Systems" is tagged with: American Politics, Left–right Politics, Liberalism, Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature, Socialism, Types of Governments

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