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Feudalism is Alive and Well

By Jane Gilgun

Feudalism is a state of affairs where groups of persons have power over other groups of persons, such as aristocrats
who have power over peasants. This article shows how wide-spread feudalistic systems are and suggests strategies
for resistance. Variations on feudalistic systems are everywhere, whenever one group has power over another and
exploits that power for their own gain. Feudal systems include aristocracy and peasants, landlords and tenet
farmers, masters and slaves, and bankers and shareholders.

About the Author

Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota,
Twin Cities, USA. See Professor Gilgun’s other articles, books, and children’s stories on Amazon
Kindle,, and
Feudalism is Alive and Well
Feudalism is a state of affairs where groups of persons have power over other
groups of persons, such as aristocrats who have power over peasants. This article shows how
wide-spread feudalistic systems are and suggests strategies for resistance. Variations on feudalistic
systems are everywhere, whenever one group has power over another and exploits that power for
their own gain. Feudal systems include aristocracy and peasants, landlords and tenet farmers,
masters and slaves, and bankers and shareholders.


The central issues in fedual systems is equity or fairness. Those in power typically believe
they have a right to have power over others. Some go so far as to tell themselves and others that
they have a divine right to rule others. In some cases, those in power practice paternalism when it
suits them while also degrading those over whom they have power. In paternalism,
aristocrats take care of those over whom they have power. They claim that the peasants are not
able to take care of themselves. Peasants require the benevolence of the aristocrats for their very

Peasants who accommodate to paternalism get their rewards in that the aristocrats do not
harass them and may provide them with material goods, although there are no guarantees.

On the other hand, aristocrats degrade peasants in order to maintain their own
supremacy, to continue to enrich themselves, and in so doing to keep the peasants in their
places. The degradation can take many forms such as threats to cut off all means of support if
peasants rebel, of paying peasants so little or forcing peasants to pay such a large part of their
own produce so that peasants feel dependent, and of actually calling peasants names such as
"dirty," "stupid," "lazy," "nigger," "spic," "Chink," "wop," "boy," and "aunty."

Typically in feudal systems, those who are peasants feel as if there is something wrong
with them, that they are somehow defective and unworthy. Resistance to these systems of power
can result in death, prison, destitution, and any number of other punishments.

Slavery as Extreme Feudalism

Slavery is the extreme end of a feudal system. Slave masters create and enforce laws that
say they own other people. Through the power of these laws, masters have the power to exact
free labor, to buy and sell the slaves and the slaves’ children, while at the same time enriching
themselves and basking in the glory that comes with being wealthy. Slave masters cannot enforce
these laws without confederates. Confederates have a lower station in life than the masters, but
the masters give some of their own bounty to confederates in order to maintain their own power.
Some confederates who enforce unjust laws and practices are members of the very class of
persons they help to oppress.

The Peasant-Aristocrat Form of Feudalism

The aristocrat-peasant form of the feudal system is less extreme. Aristocrats do not pass
laws that declare themselves the owners of other people, but they own everything else, including
the land on which peasants live. They have the right by laws they passed to require that peasants
to pay rent and/or to give a portion of the produce of the land to the aristocrats. Often, the
aristocrats have taken the land from the peasants by force, such as how the English took control
of Irish land and people.

The English kings sent in armies to an unarmed Irish people, terrorized them through
mass murder and destruction of their property, and then rewarded the soldiers and officers by
grants of land in the countries they invaded. The Irish people then became tenants and had to
pay rent for their own land.

This kind of colonialization took place over most of the world. Those who were willing to
use force and extreme violence and even genocide got the land and the wealth the land
produced. The former owners and caretakers of this land became a peasant class, dependent
upon the colonialists for their very existence.

Feudalism sometimes included the right by law for the master to have sex with the bride-
to-be of a peasant man under his control. This is the droit de seigneur. Mozart’s opera The
Marriage of Figaro is based on this droit. The Count had passed a law that took away that right,
but when he had eyes for Susanna, the intended bride of the Count’s valet Figaro, he reinstated
the law. Figaro, with the help of Susanna and Marcelina, who is the Count’s wife, made a fool
out of the Count who changed his mind about exercising his “right.” The resistance of Figaro
and Susanna, with Marcelina’s help, is symbolic of many kinds of resistance to illegitimate
power. In this case, the resistance had the intended outcome.

Sexual Abuse of Children as a Form of Feudalism

The sexual abuse of children is another form of the peasant-aristocrat system. In child
sexual abuse, adults take advantage of their power over children in order to experience sexual
and emotional gratification. The adults may say that the sexual abuse is a mutual love affair, that
the children enjoy it, and that they are teaching children what love and sex are. This is a form of

Perpetrators are punitive and manipulative, just as masters are over slaves and aristocrats
over peasants. They may threaten the children with dire punishment if they tell, such as the
children will be sent away. They may manipulate children into silence by saying if they tell, they
will break up the family or they will be responsible if the perpetrators go to jail. In many
instances, other people blame the children, too. Children typically believe sexual abuse is their
fault and they are damaged goods. They take on the shame that belongs to those who abuse
them and those who protect abusers. Children require the help of other people to escape the
sexual abuse.

Summary of What a Feudal System is

In each of these examples, one group of person has power over others and the groups
with power are willing to use any means to ensure their own gain. They enforce their power in
harsh ways. They also propagate a form of paternalism that states that those at the bottom of the
hierarchy benefit from unequal power relations. In some cases, the disempowered accommodate
and show gratitude. Some accommodators become enforcers; that is, they enforce the rules that
the aristocrats have set up, while not acknowledging that they too serve at the whim of their

The World Economic System

The economic system in the United States and perhaps world-wide is another variation
on the peasant-aristocrat system. The aristocrats are bankers, financiers, and politicians who
created the system and benefited from it. To maintain the system, the aristocrats co-opted those
who were supposed to be supervising them and enforcing the laws. They also co-opted millions
and perhaps billions of people who thought they were benefiting from the systems, such as
persons who saw the value of their stocks rising, home owners who saw the values of their houses
increasing, and individuals who bought homes for little or no money down and who did not have
the income to pay the mortgages.

Even the financial bailout in the United States is another variation on the peasant-
aristocrat system, because the aristocrats in government gave billions of the peasants’ tax money
to other aristocrats who are the bankers and financiers. The peasants who are losing their jobs,
homes, and retirement savings are not benefiting in any way close to how the aristocrats are.

Unions represent resistance to the power of the owners of industries and other
organizations. I believe that owners pay the least amount possible to workers in order to keep the
fruits of workers’ labor for themselves. Democracy is a resistance to the feudalistic abuse of
power that the founders of the United States had experienced in Europe.


The disempowered resist. The citizens of the United States elected Barack Obama, a
representative of the peasant class. He followed George W. Bush, a representative of the
aristocrats. U.S. citizens had had enough of the elitist policies of the Bush years. They had the
help of a constitutional system that worked in their favor, at least in terms of the 2008 election.

Successful resisters have the help of others, often others from the powerful class. The civil
rights movement in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, led by Martin
Luther King and others, represented a collective resistance that had the help of powerful people
such as Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who passed and enforced laws
that eroded the power of other aristocrats.

Barack Obama would not have been elected president of the United States in the first
decade of the twentieth-first century without the organized resistance of African-Americans and
the aid of powerful people who were members of the power elite. President Obama also has
some badges of the powerful elite himself, with his Ivy League education, editorship of the
Harvard Law Review, and his graceful eloquence. In many ways, President Obama is a hybrid,
not just in terms of his biological heritage, but socially, with links to the aristocracy and to the
peasant class.

Other examples of the help that successful resistors have are multiple. Marcelina, an
aristocrat, helped Susanna and Figaro, who were peasants. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln
freed the slaves. The American colonists had the aid of the French in the American Revolution.
The Irish may not have been able to resist the rule of the English without the aid of Irish people
living the United States and elsewhere.

The Peasant-Aristocrat Dynamic is Everywhere

Today and historically, the slave-master or peasant-aristocrat drama plays itself out. The
colonization of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, India, Australia, and Africa are examples among
many. Again and again, the issue is the abuse of power, sometimes in subtle and paternalistic
ways and sometimes brutally. Brutality and even genocide are the core issues of the illegitimate
power of the power elite. The rhetoric of paternalism, denigration, and blame are at the core of
the defense of the power elite.

In universities, market value is the rationale for why university presidents may make ten
times more money than the faculty. Even with faculty ranks, members of some disciplines earn
more money than others for the same work. Even within disciplines, men typically make more
money than women for the same work, again based upon the rationale of market value.

What to Do? Resist

Successful resistance requires understanding the issue and the help of others who are
members of the class of people who abuse their power.

The first step is identifying the issue. The next is to mobilize enough people to create an
organized resistance. This involves recruiting members of the power elite who want to
undermine inequitable systems.

Although many resistors advocate violence, we have many examples of non-violent resistance
that is successful. Gandhi’s leadership in India and Martin Luther King’s in the United States is
another. The feudal system is on-going and world-wide. Resistance is paramount. The key
strategies of resistance are

• amass the evidence of an inequitable system;

• understand the system;

• publicize the inequities of these systems;

• organize resistance;

• enlist the aid of powerful elite;

• ·propose solutions

• enact solutions.