These days, we hear the term ‘Feudalism’ thrown around a lot. We are told that the rise of the ‘One Percent’ and corporate interests will lead to a modern feudal system, or that current workplace conditions are downright feudal. The term evokes images of wealthy robber barons enforcing unjust rule over burlap-clad peasants with an iron fist. The feudal system, the narrative goes, is the primitive, oppressive system that we left behind us for more modern, enlightened forms of governance.
Often when I hear people using the term these days, I’m inclined to invoke Montoya’s Observation: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’
I’ve touched upon Feudalism in the past, making the proposal that, like all forms of government, it can work if it is conducted as intended. The trouble comes, again as with all forms of government, when it is not. Our current state of growing control by wealthy elites differs from Feudalism in one crucial area: reciprocity and mutual responsibility for welfare.
A vassal pledged loyalty and service to a lord. The vassal’s obligation could take many forms: domestic or military service, a share of one’s crops, or an agreed upon quantity of your product if you were an artisan. In exchange, the lord gave you security and maintenance; you were fed, accommodated, protected from harm, and granted any other rights or benefits that were agreed upon. Pay is not a substitute for these things. In the Middle Ages, wage labour was considered the lowest form of living, looked down upon even by the peasantry.
It’s the other side of the coin, the lord’s obligation, that is missing nowadays from what people are calling ‘feudal’ conditions. The lord was responsible for the general welfare of the vassal, not just for paying them. If a vassal was in a bad way, it reflected poorly on the lord. It was the sign of a poor leader and governor that those under their care were suffering. Today, a company gives you a paycheque and, frequently, could otherwise care less about the state of your life. This is why, for example, full-time workers in the US can be on food stamps.
In short, the ‘Feudalism’ is not an accurate description of either the current state of affairs, or of any potential futures being glimpsed over the horizon. What we are in danger of is worse than Feudalism: it is a Feudal-ish arrangement with the mutual obligation, the core which made the system function, totally absent. When I look around and hear people call the present or the potential future ‘feudal’, my response is that, in the current state of things, we should be so lucky to have a society modeled on feudal principles.