(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
Imagine a small nomadic band of hunter-gatherers, living a carefree existence in the wild hill country—let’s call them the Pandu. They own little property aside from the weapons and tools they carry and the clothing they wear. Let’s even suppose that they practice free love, and that children are raised communally. Finally, imagine that everyone performs the same jobs: hunting, foraging, making clothing and tools, raising children, and making decorative jewelry that looks pretty (we can call these “prestige goods”).
One might think that the Pandu ought to be the perfect egalitarian society, without conflict over possessions or political power. And actual foraging societies do tend to be nearly egalitarian (for reasons discussed in Michael Taylor’s Community, Anarchy, Liberty, among other authors). Still, they are not perfectly egalitarian, even if there are no hard class divisions. Let’s see why.
Let’s say that some Pandu are somewhat better at hunting or foraging than others. Such “Good Hunters” manage to gather enough food in a shorter time, so they can spend more time creating prestige goods—or else they can gather extra food and trade it with others for their prestige goods. Over time, they will have more jewelry than less skilled hunters. At this point, jewelry starts to be not just pretty shiny things, but a sign of hunting skill.
Good Hunters will start to attract more intimate partners because of their greater prestige, or simply with gifts of food or jewelry; lesser hunters will lose out, in relative terms. If the story ends here, we would have a single-class society shot through with simmering tensions and periodic fits of jealousy-driven violence.
Now imagine that successful hunters had the right to eat their prey’s hearts, which grant magical powers and even greater hunting skill. Suddenly, we have a “rich-get-richer” scenario: Good Hunters would soon outstrip their less-skilled rivals, becoming a class in themselves that eventually possesses far more food, prestige, and social attractiveness than the “lower” class. The lower class could still feed itself, but would lack prestige and social standing, and likely intimate partners as a result—and would have no way to catch up, at least not through hunting skill.
Still, both of these classes would have broadly similar interests: they hunt the same game, gather the same foods, value the same goods. So long as interclass jealousy is kept under control, perhaps by social rituals that periodically erase class distinctions, the Pandu band will remain unified.
But suppose that the less successful hunters, recognizing that they cannot compete at hunting, decide to begin farming instead so that they can win prestige and intimate partners of their own. Suppose they are successful, and produce as much food on average as the Hunters do, achieving a broadly comparable social status. How does this change the picture?
For one thing, while the Hunters would continue their nomadic lifestyle, following the game as the seasons shift, Farmers suddenly are tied to a fixed plot of land. Even if they can travel during fallow seasons or even between the planting and harvest time, they would have to return to their plots of land to harvest their crop. Even if they plant multiple crops in multiple locations and circulate between them, they are now less mobile than before.
What’s more, Farmers have to feed themselves somehow while their crop is growing. They might borrow food from fellow Pandu, promising to repay them at the harvest. Likely, they would borrow from the Hunters. But perhaps the Hunters would take advantage of the new situation to demand back more food than they lent.
Suddenly, Hunters and Farmers have opposing interests. Hunters want to be mobile; Farmers less so. Hunters want their rights as lenders upheld, and perhaps to gain additional privileges in the process; Farmers would want to defend themselves against such privileges, or even to deprive Hunters of their repayment.
So what policy will the Pandu band follow? It will depend on the relative strength of each class, the ideological beliefs of the Pandu, and the skill of the band’s mediators or leaders. At all times, clashing interests will pull the band in different directions, and perhaps pull it apart entirely.
Class can go beyond simplistic notions of upper, middle, lower—it can also be derived from different and conflicting interests. And conflict, needless to say, is at the heart of good stories. You can generate powerful conflicts by depicting societies with opposing class interests, and those conflicts will be all the more compelling if your social classes are more than caricatures.