Feudalism was the social and economical system that dominated the sedentary societies of Europe and Asia throughout the Medieval period. It was a highly rigid system which allowed very little social mobility, members from the distinct social classes were more or less destined to die in the same class they were born into. In Europe, Feudalism started to be eroded after the Black Death decimated the population of the continent in the middle of the 14th century. It took well over 400 years, the Black Death, the Enlightenment, the widespread revival of commerce between the late 14th and early 19th centuries and finally the Industrial Revolution to melt the rigid social structures of feudalism, but in the end it happened.
As a result of all the social and economical changes the previously dominant aristocrats became more and more sidelined. The reason of the change was simple, first commerce and later the booming industries allowed merchants and later more importantly capitalists to erode the economical power of the aristocrats. The industrialists were able to earn money that no aristocrat could hoped to squeeze out of their lands. Society changed beyond any recognition after the 19th centuries as the Great Absolute Monarchies of Europe swiftly fell to be replaced by democracies.
Nonetheless, the developments of the last decades made some people question whether we are going to enter into a modern era of Feudalism.
What was Feudalism?
To make my point clear I will explain the makeup of a feudal society in short. A feudal society was highly stratified, the first two classes/estates in most European countries were the nobles, the clergy, the third estate was made up of the rest of the population( citizens of independent urban cities/towns, free peasants and serfs(unfree peasants)).
As the biggest asset of the age was land it was no surprise that the class that owned the most land, aristocrats and church, were the dominant classes, and it is not a surprise either that this status quo ended when the economical reality changed also. The third estate made up the majority of the population, however, with the exception of the people who lived in the towns, they had no influence and power at all.
Feudalism was a social structure that benefited the few to the detriment of the many. Social mobility was very hard during the period, the best career paths were always occupied by the nobles( army, court and later as the state was building state administrative positions), younger sons of the nobles more or less monopolized the higher echelons of the church positions also. Though it was not completely impossible, but most probably a person who was born as a peasant died as a peasant.
If the lack of social mobility was not enough of a problem, the richer upper classes also had certain priviledges. Such priviledges were tax exemption, the right to set up private courts and prisons throughout most of the medieval period and if the relations with the court were good enough, nobles were allowed to monopolise the trade of certain goods also. These priviledges died away very slowly, in France the 1789 Revolution was the executioner of the feudal remnants, however, in Eastern Europe it was not until the end of WWI that the feudal remnants were abolished de jure.
As Feudal Europe was finally executed, the modern Europe was born. Democracies took the place of absolute monarchies, legal equality the place of feudal priviledges. I think it’s pretty much an accepted fact that European societes are more egalitanarian than the society of the US is for example. It is not an accident, the catastrophic events that lead to the outbreak of WWII „forced” European politicians to build up a welfare state that hopefully would prevent the occuring of economical situations that allowed dictators like Hitler or Mussolini to rise.
Nonetheless, welfare state or otherwise, it is also an accepted reality of our world that inequality has been growing in the last decades, America was worse hit than Western Europe, but Western Europe was not unsquathed either. It is this growing inequality that made some thinkers to see the rise of a new feudal order a very distinct possibility.
The Upper Class
Probably many are were wondering what this new feudal order could mean. In today’s society we have don’t have groups with extra rights over the rest, we don’t have a class of people who are legally bound to a pot of land either, as the serfs were in many places. We don’t have private courts or prisons, as throughout most of the Western world the state runs these institutions. Yet just like in Feudal Europe we see an increasing drop in social mobility, we see a democracy, which in theory should be the rule of the people, that is beneffiting the few, at the cost of the many.
A new class of aristocrats is growing. These people, just like in Feudal Europe are a tiny percentage of the population, yet they own most of the assets, they make their money work to become even richer, and although they are not exempt from taxation, many consider that the rich are under taxed. In my country the income tax is the same for all citizens, irrespective of their wealth, but there are contrary examples, like the Scandinavian countries which use progressive taxation. The very low level of corporate taxation is another hotly disputed debate in politics, as depending on the economic theory one favours, you can be either pro or counter to higher corporate taxes.
As these people have the most money at hand, they are able to educate their children at best schools, and are mostly able to recreate themselves with each passing generation.
Entry into this social category is not impossible, but not very likely either.
The Middle Class
The second class of this new feudal era would be the middle class. I would classify here professionals who are relatively well off, but their chances of passing into the upper category are pretty slim. They are able to sustain themselves and not worry about the immediate future, but are not immune to the negative consequences of an economic crises or long term loss of employment.
A somewhat dwindled mass of people compared to its former self, but still numerous. However, their number is constantly chipped away, and seemingly, just like in Feudal Europe this class seemingly does not show much solidarity to the one below them, the poor. The intelligentsia is seemingly way more interested about theories, than realities, and is way more prone to namecall whoever disagrees with them, than actually try to understand the reason of the disagreement.
Thanks to their relative welfare and the heavily polarised political atmosphere this class is way too divided to really challenge the new aristocracy, and often times members of these class are seemingly happy with the status quo. The example of self-made millionaires looms large for many members of this class, the hope of one day joining the elite group, because after all we can achieve anything if we want it bad enough, is far stronger than any solidarity with those below them.
And finally we arrived to our modern peasants, the poor. This class has been growing in the last decades, and thanks to the pandemic, the economic consequences lockdowns and partial lockdowns and whatnot had over the last two years it does not look like the trend will change anytime soon.
These people, if they have employment often live from one salary to another, have a struggle with assuring their kids an education, especially higher education. Thanks to their meager resources these people often struggle to receive basic medical services, such as a dental implant to give one example. Life expectancy is probably a decade or so lower than among the elite, the chances of these people becoming obese and suffer all the negative consequences coming with it are relatively high. These people very often live in the worst districts of the huge megalopolicies, in an overcrowded, violent atmosphere.
Just like the middle class, these people are also very divided. The highly polarised society we are living in succeeded in turning even the poor against the poor based on criterias such as race, gender etc. Consequently despite numbers and dire situations, just like the medieval peasants they pose litte threat to the established elites.
These lot are the most likely to enroll in the following of opportunistic demagouges, who are trying to use their resentment to gain political capital for themselves. This is just my opinion, but if the current economic trends continue, there is a high chance that climbing on the back of this mass a wannabe dictator might overthrew the democratic government of a country/countries.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler