The following is from a larger piece I am writing on class consciousness that I have decided to omit but post here for your enjoyment.
History and Class
The fact that human societies are hierarchically organized into groups based upon their relative power, wealth, and prestige has been an aspect of political and social thought since the rise of stratified societies. In The Republic, Plato speaks about the ideal organization of society based upon the existence of three social groups, philosopher elites, warriors, and servant workers (often slaves) each playing a role in the proper functioning of society. Tacitus, in his Annals of Imperial Rome, describes the debauchery and decadence of the emperors and the ruling elite at the beginning of the Roman Empire. In feudal Europe, a small dominant group of titled property and shop owners lived by exploiting the labor of other people (Bloch, Feudal Society 1961: 288). In the modern age of manufacture, legal and hereditary bonds have given way to the free labor contract, private property, and the settling of society's needs through the market relation. In other words, industrial society “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment' (Marx and Engels, Manifesto... 1978 : 478) .” To these various relations people have given the name class or social class. To be clear, I do not here mean to say that stratification and the division of society into classes is natural or even inevitable but rather that “...the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production… (Marx to Weydemyer 1978 : 220).”
The recognition and understanding of a persons place within society's hierarchical arrangement has been quite a different matter. In ancient civilizations the master and slave relationship was based upon the conquest and subjugation of one people by another in warfare. Slavery in these systems was justified on the basis of the power and the purported superiority of the dominant civilizations. Slaves were conscious of systems and lives other than slavery and this can be seen during times of revolt, where in the famous example of Spartacus, a key demand of his slave army was to have ships with which they could return home. Feudal relations between lord and serf were justified on complex religious grounds and doctrines linking the actual property owners to religious institutions which were the representatives of the divine on earth. Thus, superiority over the serfs was naturalized and salvation was promised to the poor in the afterlife which served to moderate the misery of labor. In addition, a complex network of social distinctions, ranks, titles and duties served to mystify and blur the material distinctions between the rulers and the ruled. Under modern industrial capitalism the market relation of the wage laborer and the capitalist is underpinned by the theory and practice of liberalism. Thus, a representative bourgeois democracy, erected by and for the ruling class, claims to represent the “will of the people” and in civil society a cult of the rational individual is constructed. These institutions serve in this period to undermine class solidarity and the individual's recognition of their objective position within the class structure.