“Capitalism is Feudalism with extra steps”

I browse reddit every now and again and I’ve seen the people that post that “Capitalism is slavery with extra steps”. Now this never made sense to me but I suppose it might make sense to someone that has seen or read “The Great Money Trick“. I’m not here to discuss “The Great Money Trick” and quite frankly, it’s old. I’m sure that there are many criticisms and critiques of the essay elsewhere.

As far as I know, the quote is a reference to a Rick and Morty episode regarding alien beings producing a great deal of energy for Rick for free. When Rick and Morty visit the aliens, Morty says “That’s just slavery with extra steps” as a criticism of Rick’s attitude regarding the tiny alien race. I don’t watch Rick and Morty though, so don’t sass me bro.

For the purposes of this post, we will assert that the world is more capitalist and less feudal today than it was in the past. 

In order to compare capitalism and feudalism, we must first understand what capitalism and feudalism are.

Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets.

In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investment are determined by every owner of wealth, property or production ability in financial and capital markets, whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets. – Wikipedia

This definition is a little lengthy but it is adequate for our purposes. I’ve bolded some of the more important phrases in the definition. The important bits are:

  1. You own private property
  2. All exchanges are voluntary
  3. Markets are competitive

The other bits are either unimportant or unnecessary. For example, you do not need wage labor to have a capitalist economic system. Suppose I own some land and I grow an apple tree. You own some land and grow an orange tree. You and I decide to trade an apple for an orange. No wage labor needed.

Now let’s take a look at feudalism:

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Wikipedia

This definition is pretty loose. The page mentions that the definition is still debated by scholars. Now we do see why Feudalism can’t be Capitalism with extra steps: Feudalism is a combination of legal and military customs. Capitalism is an economic system. Ne’er the two shall meet.

But we know what you meant, so I’ll do this a bit more honestly. Let’s say we are going to try to compare the economic consequences of Feudalism to Capitalism and see if we can reach Capitalism.

One thing most people do recognize is the concept of serfdom, a system in which individuals called ‘serfs’ are attached to the land. While we do recognize it in medieval Europe, we see it elsewhere such as in Japan after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s “Hito barai rei” in 1591 {1}. The serfs are, like land, property. Similar to slaves but with the caveat that they had some more rights. Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because if we consider serfs to be part of the land, we can now consider the whole property of an actor in Feudalism.

When these individuals are making a comparison to Feudalism, we need to figure out where everyone lines up:

So I think that the fairest way to view the working poor is peasants. There are no slaves in our capitalist system because we’re going to adhere to that rule before where you own your private property and you are your own private property. There are no serfs, because employees are always welcome to quit and move to another company if they so desire.

The lord of the manor is likely the business owner. They own the land and they have the responsibilities that come with owning the land. But that guy is just a vassal to a king. So from whom do the business owners receive their lands? Well, they buy it. From someone else, another vassal. Hold on, we’re running into a problem here. See, there is no ‘monarch’ analogue in capitalism. Quite frankly, there is no peasant analogue either. Everyone is a vassal with their own plot of land and the rights over what may be done with it. But since we don’t have a monarch, everyone mas as well be their own monarch. The system breaks down. Saying capitalism is like feudalism with extra steps is like saying that Feudalism consists of potentially infinite monarchs when in real feudalism there is only one.

Now, the anti-capitalists are going to maintain that the working poor are still slaves, serfs, or peasants. That’s what those ‘extra steps’ are for. So now we have to try to figure out what extra steps make you one of these individuals.

We can completely disregard slavery. Again, slavery is against the principles of capitalism because we maintain that the individual owns themselves. Serfs, huh. Well, you might have a little bit of a case. If a company is sold to another individual, the employees of that company may remain as companies for the company under the new management. That could be considered a ‘transfer of a serf’ as part of a land purchase. However, there’s nothing systemically preventing the ‘serf’ from quitting their job and seeking gainful employment elsewhere. So again, we arrive at the only possibility being peasants. Now is there a way for peasants to climb the social hierarchy? Yes. There were a few. They could become a knight, clergy, or trade. Peasants were unlikely to have the skills necessary to do so, but as Toyotomi Hideyoshi could do, so too could peasants.

However, I think the important question would be to ask – is it easier to move up in Capitalism or Feudalism? And possibly more important – is it easier to move down? I would argue that it’s easier to move up in Capitalism, as evidenced by the great reduction of the lower classes since the 1800’s in the West. Worldwide poverty has greatly decreased no matter what people may think. The point of this post is not to argue whether or not capitalism is the thing that caused this reduction in poverty. We are only concerned with whether or not capitalism is feudalism with extra steps.

If we accept that Feudalism is what kept these people poor, and that Capitalism is Feudalism with extra steps, then we need to wonder… at what point does Capitalism make these people poor again? We’ve only seen that with the changes towards Capitalism reduce poverty. That’s the trend. At what point will the trend reverse? And if it’s taking so long to reverse, at what point can we just say, “Alright, maybe it won’t reverse”?

I would also argue that it’s harder to move down save by one’s own fault. In Feudalism, all that is required is some link in the chain of command above you strip you of your lands. In Capitalism, you have to piss away your capital and at the end you still retain the most important capital of all: your mind and body. If you fall in status due to your own decisions, I don’t find it fair to blame Capitalism for your fall in status.

Recap

Recall our three rules for Capitalism

  1. You own private property
  2. All exchanges are voluntary
  3. Markets are competitive

Let’s ask ourselves if any of these apply to Feudalism

  1. It is possible for you to have no rights regarding private property
  2. It is possible for exchanges to be involuntary
  3. Markets may or may not be competitive, we did not examine Feudal markets

So no. I don’t buy that Capitalism is Feudalism with extra steps. Of course, you are more than welcome to try to convince me otherwise. Please list the necessary steps in the comments or something and I will be more than happy to reconsider. That said, that’ll be it from me for now. I thank you for reading.

Artemis Hunt

Offline sources:

  1. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan; Chaplin, Danny (Kindle Edition)

 

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“Capitalism is Feudalism with extra steps”

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