Any discussion of classes in society tends to be couched in the values of the speaker’s society. Recently, media have given much attention to the 1% that was the object of protests by the #occupy movement. The protesters sought to reduce the esteem that our society lends to the highest earners, since we generally equate success with accumulation of wealth. With Mitt Romney seeking the US presidency, the conflicting values of the Americans with regards to wealth (Romney is successful, evidenced by his wealth, but he also seems to be slightly ashamed of his disproportionate financial resources). We can also see the tensions created by people trying to move from the capitalist class to the political class.

How have different societies around the world and through time valued the merchant class in relation to other classes? I’m particularly interested in which activities were valued by different societies.

English society, like much of Europe, maintained a rigid class structure. At the bottom were labourers who worked strictly for wages. Above them were farmers or artisans who paid rent and farmers who owned some land. Merchants came above farmers, but below the gentry and nobility. Merchants facilitated trade by buying goods and reselling them for a profit, often travelling between markets. Above merchants were gentry who owned enough land to live off the rents and thus could afford to become well educated. Knights were usually landowners who provided military leadership or judicial authority. The nobility were large landowners who lived off their assets and held a position in government or a royal post. The clergy generally was populated by members of the upper classes.

In Ancient Rome, class was multi-faced, but generally had politicians at the top, followed by knights, citizens, non-citizens and slaves. Commerce was not practiced by the senatorial (political) class. Some of the equestrian class (knights) engaged in commerce, as well as free citizens. Some merchants accumulated wealth rivalling the nobles, but were regarded as nouveaux riches, still part of the lower class.

Aztec society was made up of a hierarchy from nobility to peasants and slaves. Merchants presumably fell between the nobility and the peasants, still working for their income, but able to travel and serving as spies.

Ancient Chinese class structure, which informs many Eastern cultures, ranked classes based on their perceived usefulness. Except the emperor, nobles were minimized under Confucian philosophy. Scholars were ranked highest because of their ability to create ideas that would lead to wise laws. Farmers, who produced food, and artisans, who created useful objects, were next in esteem. Merchants ranked last, even when they accumulated a large fortune, because they didn’t actually produce anything of value.

By contrast, North American society affords little esteem based on a class structure. At the time of the revolution, Americans rejected the idea of class, and Canada has gone so far as to outlaw the granting and accepting of titles. (Conrad Black is a recent example of the application of this law.) By default, then, people seem to gain esteem in relation to their accumulated wealth. This is ironic not only because it places undue emphasis on material gain, but also because North Americans are generally private with money-related information. Even though people judge my personal worth based on my net worth, they can only guess at my net worth based on my clothing, my car, my house and my habits.

In my experience, I like the traditional Chinese mentality that esteems people in relation to the value of their ideas or their production. I find that my life feels meaningful when I am productive, either creating ideas or teaching and volunteering in schools. The time I spend trading stocks is financially rewarding, but I don’t feel like it makes our society a better place.

The Merchant Class

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