For Halloween, I was given the gift of an overnight stay in an authentic, medieval, European castle! The small town of Olite is home to one of the top 10 castle-turned-hotels in all of Europe. It would have only been better if it were haunted. However, being in an honest to goodness feudal town got me thinking about what life must have been life over 1,000 years ago, and how it compares to life now.
The Middle Ages were, for a long time, also known as the Dark Ages. Primarily because the years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance were void of social, scientific, economic, and cultural advances (and a lack of written records during this period). The Catholic Church controlled much of the known world at the time, and kingdoms fought bloody wars that ravaged the countryside and the people who lived there.
The predominant type of government during this period was known as Feudalism, which was a way of structuring ownership of property (including land, goods, livestock, and servants) based upon the relationship between the owner and the user. Typically, a lord or a king would grand a temporary lease on his land or property, known as a fief, to a vassal. In return, the vassal would swear fealty or allegiance to the lord and pledge himself and his followers to join any fighting force if a war broke out.
One of the major aspects of Feudalism that allowed the practice to thrive between the 6th and 14th centuries was the serf. Serfdom was the condition of bondage or servitude that many peasants held while living on the fief lands leased to a vassal but ultimately controlled by the lord. Each serf or family of serfs occupied a plot of land and were required to work for the vassal who became the “lord of the manor“. They were granted protection and the ability to engage in subsistence farming for themselves. This manor formed the basic unit of feudal society, and serfs were the lowest of the lowly classes.
According to Wikipedia, “the serf ‘worked for all’ while the knight ‘fought for all’ and a churchman ‘prayed for all’.” And while serfs couldn’t be bought and sold they way slaves were prior to the U.S. Civil War, the land they lived and worked on could. So if a new lord came to own the land, that serf had no choice but to remain on said land, continuing to work for his new “master”.
The disparity of wealth between lords and serfs during this period was unconscionable. But relearning about the Middle Ages (I had done a lot of it in primary school) really got me comparing what the serfs went through to what the vast majority of people in the 21st century are going through. For all intents and purposes, the serfs were the medieval 99% (Occupy Europe?).
Through massive policy shifts that began in the 1970s under the Nixon Administration, including global privatization, multinational corporations, and free trade agreements, a new theory suggests humanity has entered into a modern era of feudalism. Neofeudalism is the belief that those who control the top 1% of wealth have positioned themselves as the new lords of the manors. They likewise, lease certain aspects of their holdings to vassals (CEOs, politicians, and bankers to name a few), who are then able to control the rest of us… aka serfs.
Essentially economic and commercial, Neofeudalism has been fueled by private interest groups, lobbying the governments of the world on all levels to scale back their involvement (and regulatory bodies) in a variety of industries. This widens the wealth gap and creates a larger population of poor and/or marginalized people, excluded from receiving basic needs as promised by their governments such as: healthcare, infrastructure, education, and civil services.
The 21st century is an age of Corporate Feudalism. The system of government and the ways in which these corporations evade regulations has prevented the 99% from fighting back in any way. Modern day serfs working three part time jobs, making barely enough money to live on, have no means to standing up to the corporate CEOs who control everything.
The people cannot risk losing what little they have already. And what do they truly want? Most ask for nothing more than the means to provide for their families – food, clothing, and shelter – yet aren’t even given a way to accomplish the simplest of these very easily. Look at escalating inflation for groceries and rent while the minimum wage has remained basically the same over the past 20 years!
Corporations are hardly new ideas. The original concept stemmed from the medieval guilds that attempted to restrain knowledge, power, and wealth to members only (remember those corny jackets in the 80s that tried to make a fashion comeback a few years ago?). The main guild goal was to maintain the interests of the existing power structure.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s exactly what corporations have been doing for decades when they throw money and influence at political campaigns, backing candidates who will vote with the corporations’ best interests (profit) in mind, and little care for anything else, specifically the modern day serfs.
In the United States, the words “federalism” and “feudalism” can be almost interchangeable when you look at the way our own Constitution was arranged. Most aspects of the employer-employee relationship was regulated by a common law that enforced principles of hierarchy derived from the feudal society of the late Middle Ages. The system of workplace regulation, the law of master and servant, permitted an employer to beat his worker until the courts ruled it unconstitutional in 1843!
Thus, corporations themselves were created to protect the employer interests during decades of cheap labor and plentiful fossil fuels. Our founding fathers probably hoped the vestiges of the feudal system would wither away with their shunning of corporations, however, their 20th century replacements – from Nixon onward – have undone a lot of the work that was done to make our nation a land of the free.
The development of our contemporary capitalistic Neofeudal system also makes one consider the implications of the “fight” against communism during the Cold War. And as my father used to say: every war that has ever been fought has been fought about money. Economics rules. If you have it, you win. And if you don’t you lose. That’s what the serfs had to deal with in the Dark Ages, and that’s what the 99% have to deal with today. Maybe that castle did have a few scary ghosts.
Hasta la Proxima…