A New Look at the Three Estates Model

In the Middle Ages, a Three Estates model arose as a general description of how society was structured throughout Europe and much of the world. In this model, the First Estate was defined as the clergy, the Second Estate was defined as the nobility, and the Third Estate was everyone else:

three estates

Throughout much of history, even though these three estates remained separate, more often than not, the interests of the nobility and the clergy were very closely related, resulting in the First and Second Estates working together to oppress and take advantage of the Third Estate.

In modern times, as society started to become more complex, some social philosophers began to feel that a Fourth Estate was needed for a more complete explanation of society. This Fourth Estate has been described in various ways, including lawyers, scholars, wealthy merchants, and even pirates and brigands. However, especially in the 1800’s, it became most commonly associated with the press.

As society has continued to evolve, though, and as the press has become increasingly institutionalized and commercialized, some have come to feel that a Fifth Estate is now necessary. This Fifth Estate would be comprised of independent journalists who do not answer to a corporate structure that is in bed with the other Estates, as well as various activists, revolutionaries, so on and so forth. (With its name, the 2013 film The Fifth Estate implies that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is part of the Fifth Estate.)

Therefore, we now supposedly have a society structured like this:

five estates


I think this model has a number of problems, however. Consider the following:

  • Clergy no longer have such a favored or influential role in society. Churches have no institutionalized power in the governance of modern republics. Any influence they have is also commanded by other types of parties such as corporations, celebrities, etc.
  • There are no longer such strictly enforced barriers keeping people within their respective sectors of society. Common people can become politicians, clergy, journalists, activists, etc. This freedom and mobility removes much of the meaning behind the demarcations that are made.
  • This model fails to account for non-human initiators of action. Due to their increased scope and breadth, multiplied by the power of technology, organizations and constructs throughout society have taken on a life of their own. Some would even say that algorithms have become an identifiable social sector.
  • Even as society continues to develop, its natural state seems to be one in which there are three main sectors. Instead of adding new ones, we can get a more accurate model by redefining the three estates.

Therefore, I propose a new model:


This model is composed of three Constructs and two Registers.

The Three Constructs:

  • None of these constructs are defined as individuals. While they include and influence individuals, each has a life of its own. Taifa, hali, and shirika can all be composed of multiple entities within a society, but those entities are not individuals. Like a school of fish swimming in unison, taifa has an energy and an intelligence all its own, separate from that of its members. Hali and shirika have clearly defined leaders, but these leaders are also answerable to the people whom they lead, as well as to the other two Constructs. One does not say, “Oh, I am a taifa!” Rather, one is part of taifa and is influenced by it.
  • The lines can be blurred. For instance, privately owned enterprises are shirika rather than hali even if they are owned by public officials and are therefore given preferred treatment in government contracts.
  • There is no prescribed good guy or bad guy. The instinct of some may be to immediately identify taifa as the “good guy” and hali and shirika as the “bad guys”, but this is not the case. It is true that a society with an overpowered hali will be totalitarian and that a society with an overpowered shirika will be a kleptocracy. However, a society with an overpowered taifa will be anarchy and mob rule.
  • Lack of organization is characteristic of taifa. A particular movement may claim to have populist principles, but as soon as it begins to develop an authority structure, and as soon as it focuses on specific concerns at the expense of other concerns, it moves into the realm of either hali or shirika.

The Two Registers:

  • While people in general should strive to be raia rather than kundi, again, members of both Registers can be good or bad and can influence society in either good or bad ways.
  • While an individual’s alignment with a particular Construct is a matter of circumstances to some extent, one’s Register is largely a state of mind. One does not need to hold a position to be a raia: one just needs to understand what is going on and have a willingness to become a proactive force in some way.
  • A raia can be a driving social force in society from within any of the three Constructs. An example of a raia driving change from within taifa would be a popular blogger calling for political change. A powerful politician would be a raia influencing hali, while a corporate executive or entrepreneur would be a raia influencing shirika.
  • People can be deceived. Sometimes, we may think we are raia when we are actually kundi being driven by a raia.

I think this will end up proving to be a useful and solid model. I intend to write on it more in the future.


Swahili Glossary:

taifa = nation
hali = state
shirika = commerce
raia = citizen
kundi = flock (of sheep)