Feudalism: a myth or mother of all ills?

It should be commonly understood that feudalism as a mode of production does not exist. However, it is the feudal ways and norms that remain the bane of underdeveloped societies. Consequently, the term "feudalism" is used to describe pejoratively "anything reactionary, old-fashioned, or resonant of aristocratic values" (Oxford Dictionary).

Under the original feudal system, a vassal or a feudal tenant would hold land and would in return perform military duties for an overlord. The overlord would, in turn, provide protection and land tenure to the tenant. The overlord would pledge allegiance to a king. Land tenures of the lesser lords were thus guaranteed. The communities remained subservient to the vassals and the overlords. If some communities still have no better option other than servile existence under big landlords, it can be safely concluded that the world has yet to get rid of "feudalism" or feudal ways and practices. Surely, in Pakistan, it remains a daunting challenge.

Feudal system existed in Europe as much as it did in Japan. In England, it met with stiff resistance from its institutions as they developed. Industry rose on the ashes of feudalism. France is known for entrenched feudalism until their revolution. Modernization in France could not be conceived to coexist with feudalism. The French Revolution commenced by putting an end to feudalism by decree. It changed the structure of the society so as to make it growth- and development-oriented.
As the Philadelphia Convention met to draw up the American Constitution in 1787, France was ripe for a revolution. King Louis XVI of France had financed the American War of Independence against the British. France almost reached the verge of bankruptcy as, "those with the capacity to pay taxes failed to bear their share of the burden." The French King summoned the Assembly of Notables (aristocrats) requesting them to abandon some of their fiscal privileges. The Notables resisted and called for summoning of the Estates General (assembly) to deal with the fiscal crisis. The Estates General comprised three estates, namely, the clergy, the aristocracy, and the rest. When the Estates General met, the Third Estate, comprising the rest, withdrew and declared itself the National Assembly competent to give a new constitution to France. The fiscal crisis was thus viewed against the larger backdrop of the structure of the French society wherein the privileged few enjoyed tax privileges as the country was driven to bankruptcy. The fiscal crisis could not be addressed in 18th century France unless the structure of the society was changed. For, if the privileged were not willing to part with their privileges, then the privileged had to go. So it was ruled in 18th century France.

In 21st century Pakistan, the privileged argue that there privileges and the socio-economic hardships of the underprivileged are both a myth. The people of this country are neither dense nor dumb. Many similarities emerge as we look back at the economic development path of the developed West. All those aware of Pakistan's fiscal crisis and its distorted structures of politico-economic power would further know where the similarities end. The similarity ends when we display a lack of courage and will-power to effect change for the better.

Bastille was demolished on July 14, 1789 and feudalism was abolished on August 4, 1789 through a series of "Decrees Abolishing the Feudal System." The opening words were, "The National Assembly abolishes the feudal regime entirely ....." The decrees did away with many kinds of manorial obligations to begin with. The decrees also abolished special tax privileges and opened all offices to all citizens "without distinction of birth." Cornerstone to build a modern France had been laid.
The second important decree was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen passed late August 1789. The second decree came on the heels of the first decree about abolishing feudalism and privileges. The decrees were thus logically sequenced. Without the first one, the second would have been meaningless.

The French Revolution did not end in the year it started. Rather, the Revolution kept consolidating itself even in the 19th century until the Napoleonic era. Even though Napoleon turned despotic, the ideals of the Revolution were pushed forward forcefully on nearly every front in his era. These ideas were also exported to Italy, Spain, and Prussia. Germany would then provide further intellectual thrust to the ideals of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, these ideas have yet to be assimilated and internalized by us.
We remain backward as we try to build a modern society on the traditional repugnant value system most prevalent in the countryside from where it also gets exported to the urban so-called modern sector. Thanks to this age of rapid and effective communication, one is saved the agony of personally witnessing the oppression in the villages. There is enough evidence available about life in rural areas on the basis of which serious students of economics can draw the sad conclusions from which the big farm lords wish to look the other way. It is true that behaviour and attitudes in other sectors of the economy are also repugnant in many ways. However, one needs to determine not just the "sources" of ills in the society but rather the "causes" of them. If a cause-effect tree is constructed, it will converge to the major problem identified way back in 1789 by none other than the French which is "feudalism." Later in the 20th century, it was identified by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Taiwanese, and the Chinese as soon as they embarked on development and modernization. However, China is ignored by many in this country due to its totalitarian political disposition. We may then travel Westward and find a case in point in the liberated France which exported the idea to other parts of Europe.

Until such time that the root cause is addressed in Pakistan, it would be very difficult to reform the rest of the society. Rather, it is impossible to reform if the major sector of agriculture or big agriculturists continue to occupy the privileged status that they do. They continue to wield the same amount of power as they did when their sector contributed over 40 per cent to the GDP in the 1950s and the 1960s. They might well know that their sector's contribution to the GDP stands declined to about 25 per cent in the decade of the 1990s. It is, therefore, not a "predominant factor" as still imagined by some of them. They should not, therefore, be allowed to continue to dominate the value system which some of them think is their birth right by virtue of the sector's significance in the economy.

Nonetheless, the rural economy remains significant as it is still home to 67 per cent of the country's population. With a declining GDP share, the misery of the multitude can only be expected to increase unless drastic land and agrarian reforms are undertaken. It is common knowledge that even though "begaar" is abolished, the tiller barely subsists. The condition of socio- economic or human rights remains pathetic on which enough data have been collected by many development centres at least one of which works under the auspices of the UN. There is enough empirical evidence already in support of the fact that the number of displaced and landless peasants is rising. This is creating pressure on urban areas due to influx of rural migrants. To argue the above facts, data, and actual trends is to be unreasonable and irrational.

The matter, however, needs to be addressed whenever status quo is supported. Otherwise, it would only reinforce the already existing barriers to reform. As soon as the sentiment for meaningful land reforms caught on in the country recently, big landlords tried to project "feudalism" as a myth. It would be a fantasy to assume that the country is not plagued with a feudal mindset. Some of the ills found in other sectors of the economy are actually a manifestation of this same mindset exported from the countryside to the rest of the economy. Absentee landlords, living off the wealth generated on the soil tilled by subsisting tenants, served as "role models." The societal goals got transformed to maximizing personal material gain and personal power only. These goals were sought increasingly in other sectors, be it industry or bureaucracy. The undesirable norms and attitudes caught on. These trends are now being used to justify oppression in that same agricultural sector from which they were exported in the first place. The vicious circle ought to be broken rather than justified. The importance of parallel attempts notwithstanding, first attempts should then be made in the sector from which these anti-developmental attitudes originated.

These attitudes have also been the biggest roadblock to the development of institutions in the country. As this sector remains virtually exempt from fiscal and other socio-economic obligations, other sectors find their legal fiscal and administrative requirements discriminating. Consequently, they are fulfilled only partially, if at all. Profitability in agricultural sector remains a question mark as the sector has made itself impervious. The luxurious lifestyles of big agriculturists belie their claims about economic hardships. Other sectors then consider it not-so-illegitimate to underreport incomes. The taxation structure remains horizontally iniquitous. Agriculturists complain of multiplicity of taxes and try to remain exempt from income taxation. Other sectors and salaried individuals too have to pay a number of taxes but their incomes remain heavily taxed. Despite heavy taxation, fiscal and economic problems have compounded because, inter alia, the economic managers can no longer justify the privileged status of agriculture. It is now even allowed market prices for output. The issue of implicit taxation exists no longer. But the privileges do!

Can a modern economy be constructed with attitudes and norms that discourage enterprise, seek rents rather than healthy normal profits, and which encourage distribution in favour of a few powerful rather than all the input providers? Economic history answers in the negative!

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