Elements of Medieval Feudalism within the American Political Economy
Feudalism, a system prevalent between the 9th and 15th centuries in the continent of Europe, bears many similarities to the current economic model of the United States, as well as that of many other world nations, in regards to land ownership, relations of capital production, the imposition of taxation, and in socially-celebrated policies of militarism.
What is Feudalism?
In this article, Feudalism is defined as the socio-economic structure which organized the medieval society of the Middle Ages. Feudalism was a hierarchical social system which was based around the central concept of manorialism, which, in basic, is the idea that a class of nobles called barons were to hold local monopolies over large portions of land which were apportioned to them by kings, giving them the ability to exploit the labor of tenants who were forced by adverse economic circumstances to rent their land. Barons were tenants-in-chief to their kings, who effectively held dominion over all property within their kingdom, though much of it was granted to barons and their subjects in exchange for the fulfillment of fees and services. The unit of land which the baron managed under the feudal system, including the parts of which he leased to lower classmen, was called a manor, and served as a unified estate which was largely self-sufficient and agrarian-based in regards to the production and consumption of goods.
The primary productive stratum under such a class-dominant system, consisted of the peasantry, members of which were called serfs in feudal terminology. These serfs paid periodical dues to the baron in trade for the land upon which they were to be permitted to work, nearly all of such work having consisted of the toiling in fields for the cultivation of crops, as well as other forms of labor within different agricultural trades. A second and more socially lofty class of citizens, called vassals, paid homage to the barons (who were technically also part of the vassal class as well, though they are often abstracted from the others within the class in order to provide a better understanding of feudal class relations) who, in return, granted them land, upon which it was agreed that the class of vassals would raise a military force of soldiers to fight against external aggressors in defense of the manor and of the broader kingdom. The semi-autonomous feudal manors were originally established in order for members of the high nobility to preserve their vast proprietorship during the Middle Ages (a time period notorious for its numerous conquests) by stratifying society into an organized system of classes, which has become known as Feudalism.
The Acquisition of Land
Under the feudal system, the king entrusted plots of his land to loyalty-pledging barons, who used such property to raise manors, and provided the king with currency, goods, and martial security, as was agreed upon. Barons leased their land to vassals and serfs, the latter of which was especially burdened by such fees, having to perform much labor-intensive work in order to satisfy the costs of residency which were charged by the baron (goods which were provided in an excess quantity than that demanded by the baron for rent were permitted to be kept by their producers).
The king, being the ultimate possessor of all land in his country (who did not owe rent to any higher authority), was only able to have such an expanse of property due to the perception that he bore an appreciable and divinely-apportioned right to rule his subjects, and thus by extension, to hold them in propertarian leasehold as well. The territory over which he was to hold his authoritative command was acquired through conquest, the coercive usurpation of foreign jurisdictions from their respective owners. It was upon these principles that the chief political leader within Feudalism acquired his land, which he held total dominion over.
The modern procurement process of real estate is, in this respect, generally dissimilar. Though governments do still modernly obtain control over geographical regions through the subjugation of foreign peoples as a typical standard, individual proprietors in the current American system do have the ability to become freeholders of their plots of land. At least originally, people were to gain real property by way of the process of homesteading, the laboring upon a section of land in order to establish a sufficient place of residence, which is the generally-accepted normative principle upon which the acquisition of land is made legitimate.
Homesteading, though, is effectively a primitive stage of the political economy by which individuals annexed realty, for under the present conditions which the political economy faces, most habitable land has been claimed, either by private persons, corporate entities, or government seizure, causing the ownership of property to come only by purchasing it from a seller, by occupying thoroughly abandoned property (“abandoned” as being defined legislatively), or by owning land in temporary by renting it as a tenant. This process of appropriation has led to the upward spiraling of real estate costs (which will continue to rise unto the maximum price that the market is able to bear) and a semi-oligopolization of the land market, the current state of affairs in America being that 5% of all landowners hold ownership over 75% of all land (though this specific figure excludes federal land).
Another predictable outcome of this long-term concentration of land is that many individuals have chosen to enter in contractual agreements whereby they rent land from a landlord, making intervaled payments to the property’s owner for their tenure. Such scenarios in which tenant-landlord relations have come to exist are at an increasing rate, as will they be up until the materialization of the event horizon of the real estate market’s absolute monopolization, a prospect which, for now, is not within the near future. At present, the degree of restrictiveness of holding property in tenancy is little near that of the feudal serfdom, for the renter isn’t held in total servitude in regards to labor as was the serf, though rapidly rising rents within the United States are a notable economic burden upon the low and middle classes, a fact which is not to be understated justifiably.
The Extraction of Surplus Value
Despite the substantial quantity of people that occupy their mode of housing by renting, the freeholding of land is also a plentifully-enjoyed means of inhabiting property. This fact, though, seems not to apply in circumstances of employment. Statistical data appears to show – though these numbers are not easily calculable – that roughly 10% of employed individuals are the actual owners of businesses, the majority of which are minute startups, the operations of which are conducted within the business-owners’ own houses. Deductively then, it can be understood that most workers are employed by some sort of large business, which presumably allots wages according to the hourly amount of labor carried out (wage labor is common within the spheres of small businesses as well, but is deserving of less emphasis than are corporations, because so-called small-businesses are often times mere situations of self-employment).
Workers could be said to sell their labor power to bosses through wage labor, but more accurately it could be stated that employees rent the occupancy of their workplace via wages. Though a boss may even be physically at a given place of work (as was the baron present at the feudal manor amongst the serfs), the primary productive components of a company are almost completely invariably of the vast amount of hired laborers, who are forced to sacrifice some of the fruits of their labor in order to have access to the means of production owned by the head of the company.
It is imperative that it be properly stated that the natural wage of labor in an economy devoid of market distortions and economic privileges is the product of the worker’s expended labor itself (as is stated by an important economic theory, the Labor Theory of Value). Despite the products of labor being subject to the forces of supply and demand, they ultimately revolve around a central point, a natural price, the exchange value of a given commodity at the equilibrium of supply and demand. This indicates that there is an intrinsic value to all elastically suppliable products which are in demand, a value which is structured in the quantity of labor involved in an commodity’s production, regardless of the casual fluctuations in exchange value that said commodity may endure.
One with an appreciable realization of this fundamental theory who thoroughly understands that the economic conditions whereby an individual may serve as an absentee landlord (both in terms of real estate and of business relations) are the effective prerequisite for the fostering of employer-employee relations, may also easily comprehend the notion that such relations spawn exploitative – even predatory – relationships between a worker and his boss. Should labor be naturally deserving of being compensated by its exact product, as I had previously supposed, any coercively extracted surplus value from that labor is an unjust expropriation, capitalistically-apportioned wages thus being ill-fit to remunerate labor.
The serf-baron relationship inherent to Feudalism is not only a relationship of landlord and tenant (as was described in the previous section), but is also one of employer and worker, in which the broad majority of the value created by the serf is appropriated by the baron. To perceive workers as renting their workplaces (though only because they have to, due to existing socio-economic conditions) from their employers is an important way to understand worker conditions and their connections to the feudal system, because of the aforementioned fact that serfs rented sections of the feudal manor in which to labor and live. Where wages differentiate in principle from feudal rent, though, is embodied in the truth that wages are a fixed sum of money apportioned to the laborer (where extra value was confiscated by the company’s boss), whereas rent is a fixed sum of money which had to be paid to the feudal lords by serfs (where the products of extra labor was to be kept by the serf in order to promote his livelihood).
Including these facts, it is obvious that in many modern scenarios, employees seem to be entirely content with their wages (for nearly all scenarios of present-day wage labor are not as oppressive as were those experienced by the feudal serfs), provided that they have been employed in a well-paying occupation, though many low-class workers toiling at low-paying jobs (which are often times at the minimum wage) face an unfortunate circumstance of poverty (a situation which, at a mass scale, many have associated, and accurately so, with Britain during the Victorian Era), despite their creation of much value with their labor. As a result, despite the aggregate rising of wages, such remunerations have become stagnant concerning their correlations to the rising worker productivity in America.
Kingly Rent and Taxation
Under Feudalism, some of the commodities and services produced by the serfs and vassals which were expropriated by the barons also flowed to the king as the baron’s payment of land rent and the fulfillment of his allegiance to his leader. The work of the serfs yielded numerous types of products, most of which were based in the practice of agriculture, as opposed to the vassals, who provided an army of soldiers to protect not only the baron’s manor, but also the kingdom as a whole, their respective form of rent payment.
Within the existence of the modern political economy, it appears, at first glance, that we pay no such rent to our president (who we can posit as the nearest equivalent to the feudal king with the present-day United States, due to both having served as their nations’ heads of state). Contrary to this though, taxes could unambiguously be described as a set of fees which are demanded of citizens of the United States (as well as of every other currently recognized world nation) to be paid to the government (at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels, though they are commonly not construed as a rent in the precise sense of the word.
Taxes are levied under the ostensible impression that they are a necessary revenue to the functioning of the state, as is also one of the purposes behind the rent of the feudal king, as well as also for the purpose of engrossing himself personally in rent-funded lavishness. While the imposition of the property tax can obviously be considered synonymous to rent, it also an important fact to realize that most other forms of taxation are imposed upon those who are citizens who take residence within the borders of the United States.
Thus, to be stated with clarity, the majority of taxes are reserved for those who live on American land, connoting that there is a link (perhaps only slightly, maybe a bit more so) between kingly feudal rent and taxation levied by the United States’ government, that even the freeholding ownership of property may not be true ownership, but that all land is at the government’s disposal and that they rent it to their citizens provided that they pay applicable taxes (or else they will be ‘evicted’ from their land by such government officials, or landlords, and sent to prison, should they evade such taxation).
The Present-Day Vassalage
Within every government there is a necessity for some sort of common defense, in order for such a nation to survive against the threats of external invasion. Under the feudal system of governance, an entire class of vassals provided such services of military protection (though not all vassals were soldiers themselves, the primary function of the task was to produce soldiers, which included the creation of their weaponry and other equipment for warring and training), whereas under the current system of the American military, it is not a class which fulfills such duties, but rather the coalescence of numerous occupations within many governmental departments.
Vassals under medieval Feudalism were rewarded for their military service with the granting of greater plots of land than the serfs had received, called fiefs, though some were permitted to live within the baron’s castle upon the manor, serving as the guards of the fortress’ interior (though they did not receive a fief as a result). Vassals were even of the ability to eventually, in theory, grant fiefs to others within the boundaries of their own fiefs, thus becoming barons in and of themselves, an ability to climb the social ladder in certain aspects, though vassals were always required to swear loyalty to their overlords (whether that be directly to a baron or to the king himself).
Quintessentially, protection services, especially those provided by loyal vassals, being indispensable to the preservation of a sovereign state’s continuance, were (and, to some degree, still are) subject to great perquisites, despite such conditions having changed over the centuries. Modernly, servicepeople within the United States of America are eligible for certain benefits, which are controlled by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Veterans may qualify for education and job training programs, aspects of life which they may have missed while serving in the military. As well as this, many veterans are entitled for free or reduced-price healthcare, despite the system being infamous for its long waiting times and its mistreatment of its veteran patients. Despite these facts though, it is obvious that American veterans do receive certain privileges as well for their work in the military.
As well as this, both systems, feudal and American, feature jingoistic foreign policies which delve into the aggressive conquests of foreign lands, for various purposes. Within Feudalism the purpose was generally to expand territories and subjugate new peoples, whereas in the American system the intent is often to thwart unpopular foreign leaders in order to propagate American values and to promote sales within the military-industrial complex, though such American purposes are often times operated in a much more covert manner.
Despite many such examples of martial hawkishness manifesting itself as a predatory foreign policy, both historically and in the modern world, because both vassals under the feudal system and servicepeople in modern-day America worked for their government’s protection, they received special benefits as a result. Not only this, but under both systems, soldiers also had to pay respect to that government in vows of loyalty (for vassals this was the Oath of Fealty and for American military members this is the Pledge of Allegiance), unequivocally symbolizing a particular bond of nationalistic altruism that one should be willing to die in the name of his country, regardless of the material boons which one may receive for the willingness to do so.
Despite many contradistinctions which are able to be made between the feudal system and the present-day American system (which is riddled throughout with economic Capitalist-Keynesianism and unashamed social Patriotism), the two are remarkably similar in the various aforesaid ways, which are arguably more negative than positive. Many of these unfortunate similarities have always seemed to be the conditions of society, which are, in appearance, unescapable, though I personally would defend the proposition that they are not.
Exploitation and aggressive outward behavior is strewn throughout the historical and present-day socio-political systems, not because they are necessary facts of life, but because they have been the expectable results of countless disastrous measures imposed by policymakers. Despite the utility that Feudalism may have played in certain regards within the Middle Ages and the meagerly positive implications that may come from aspects of certain American-style approaches, it is, to state the obvious, without doubt that these systems are heavily flawed. It for sure mustn’t be forgotten that with good decisions those based unadulterated freedom, we may dream of a truly better society that works for us all.
History, Economics, and Political Theory