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feudalism

Understandably, these days there is a great deal of political analysis swirling around. This morning, I read Pat Buchanan’s article, “Obama’s America – And Ours.” I was struck by this statement:

From Jamestown in 1607 to Yorktown in 1781, there was no federal government. There was no United States. Yet generations of colonists had built forts, cleared lands, created farms, established workshops. Americans fed, clothed and housed themselves, creating one of the highest standards of living on earth for 3 million people.

How could the U.S. government have built the roads and bridges if the U.S. government did not exist before 1789?

Pondering this gave me what I think is a slightly different insight with regard to our current political landscape.

I will just come out and say it: I agree with many who say that our current president has an un-American perspective. But I say, even further, that his perspective is, in fact, quintessentially ‘old world.’  This is ironic for someone who, in so many political speeches and in his criticisms of his opponents, rejects anything that smacks of being ‘old century.’ Truth be told, President Obama rejects anything ‘old’ period…something which should give any sensible person pause, not to mention the fact that most of his political views belie the claim he makes. I suspect Mr. Obama himself does not even realize how true it is that he actually does not embrace the ‘new’ but re-articulates the ‘old, because I do give him the benefit of the doubt: I grant that he believes he not only grasps more fully but ushers in the ‘new.’ My point here will be that his ‘new’ is in fact quite ‘old.’

Our president’s understanding of ‘statehood’ is, in fact, not just ‘old century,’ it is older than that: it is ‘old world.’ That is, it is positively feudal. Mr. Obama’s understanding has been grown, nurtured, and fed on what developed into a sort of ‘a priori’ experience (using the term loosely, here, but that is basically what, over time, it comes to be: A mind set about government which eventually universally accepts government as the precedent principle rather than the consequent entity). This is not the idea of government as envisioned by the American founders, but is the notion of government as it has been manifested, over and over again, in the ‘old world’; that is, in a feudalistic structure, headed at the top of the hierarchy by an absolute governing authority.

President Obama has often been accused of behaving like a monarch, but I think it goes deeper than that: He is actually a feudalist. There is socialism thrown into the mix, as well (actually, one can argue that socialism is nothing but a misguided reiteration of feudalism, but that would be content for another commentary). But again, so ironically, our president is basically feudal in terms of his political leanings. I cannot help but point out that feudalism is not just an ‘old’ form of governance, it is positively ancient — and for someone who rejects the ‘old’ and embraces the ‘new,’ we see the height of cognitive dissonance revealed blatantly here in our president.

Mr. Obama believes the ‘knights’–the ‘government’ a.k.a. the ‘aristocracy’–reap from the labors of the people, then dole out housing, healthcare, education, protection….even food…and govern the ‘peasants,’ a.k.a. the American people, from their fortified keeps. In our case, the latter happen to be the bastions of established government all over this nation, but in particular, Washington DC.

I get it. Actually, I think I understand Mr. Obama a little bit. I grew up in some ways just as he did: overseas, strangely rootless, with not just a dual, but a diluted, national identity, studying in international schools, anti-American sentiment filtering through every class lesson…I know what his schools were like, I know who his teachers were, I intimately understand the peer environment in which he grew up. But just because I get it does not mean I do not see through it. And, the trouble with Americans today is that our nation has now been a ‘state’ long enough that we as a people are also coming to embrace (and it does not hurt that socialism has permeated every aspect of our education system for several decades), in a sense ‘a priori,’ the precedent principle of government as that entity which houses us, feeds us, clothes us, educates us, and heals us. Of course, what we do not see clearly is that this ultimately bleeds us dry. This is unmistakably an old world, feudalistic, view of government. It held sway in the old world, and brought the old world to its very knees.

Just as Huxley’s Brave New World has turned out to be more chillingly prescient than Orwell’s 1984, it is perhaps not Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘tyranny of the majority’ of which we should be wary. Perhaps as a prophet de Tocqueville fell short in this respect. It seems to me quite likely that it will not be the tyranny of the majority, but the complacent falling into old world, feudalistic, habits that poses the greatest threat to our nation.

It was not always that way. Government BY the people used to be what Americans truly believed in and embraced. It was not mere ‘political speak.’ It translated into real action that, frankly, rocked the known world at the time. Americans not only rejected the feudal political scenario, we kicked it, whole cloth, off of our soil and left it to the ‘old world’ to wallow in. This was because the founding Americans understood, in no uncertain terms, that no matter how benevolent such a government thinks it is one fundamental truth is evident: feudalism stinks.

That is precisely why the peasants all across Europe hailed Napoleon as a hero: he effectually abolished feudalism in its established, outward manifestation. The peasants had despised feudalism and they loved Napoleon for annihilating its last visible vestiges. As an aside note, it is important to point out that in theory, feudalism still permeated everything philosophically. Engels and Marx picked it up with gusto, simply re-framing it to seem more palatable to the people who could not extricate themselves from the peasant mind set in which they had labored for centuries. This is actually yet another irony: the Marxist communism that embraces dialectical evolution of society, dreaming of an ultimate culmination in a kind of utopian political and economic structure, is really nothing more than feudalism wearing a new suit. This is precisely why as an ideology it has taken much longer to take root in American than it did in the old world; for a significant period of time Americans identified it for what it was and rightly rejected it. We would do well, today, to heed their wisdom.

As the peasants of the old world did, we Americans will assuredly come to hate this feudalism that has now broken out in the new world, and is threatening to spread to every corner of our nation and stain every aspect of our political thought and practice. No, it is not feudalism on the small medieval scale: It has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, a Leviathan. And so, I ask: Do we want to come to a place where we yearn for a Napoleon? Crying out for a ‘savior,’ when we finally realize how much we despise the yoke of feudalism? A ‘savior’ who will then crown himself emperor over all? I suggest we think deeply about that, because that is very likely what we will get, and in the end, it will not be freedom from feudalism that we will experience, but rather a choke-hold of absolute tyranny.

What we then should do, right now, is take our nationhood back: study, understand, and re-embrace, precisely what was meant and what can continue to be meant by the phrase ‘government BY the people.’ Our government was never modeled upon nor intended to follow the path of feudalism. The Americans who broke away from the old world and its feudalistic concepts never embraced an identity as peasants. Nor should we. Ever.

No matter how much I can relate to President Obama’s perspective, I can nevertheless see that it is destructive. Feudalism is the antithesis of freedom, and the American dream is built on real freedom, not the mere illusion of it: This ‘new’ feudalism is nothing more than bondage, through the bribery of the promise of safety, a full stomach, and a life seemingly (but not really) free of worries; it strips a people of not only their liberty, but their integrity, and it will cripple the nation just as it bled the old world dry.

For my children and grandchildren, like generations of Americans before me, I dream of freedom, of equality, of the continued right to own property (not live at the behest of some benevolent lord), fight their own fights (not live under the protection of a powerful liege), live out their lives unshackled by the seemingly golden handcuffs that glitter but keep us in bondage to those who would fashion themselves our masters, our ‘knights in shining armor.’

Can Americans not plow our own fields? Can Americans not build our own homes? Can Americans not create and manage our own businesses? Can Americans not put on our own armor? Can Americans not be masters of ourselves, rejecting the ideology that would cast us as perpetually child-like, peasants living at the beck and call of their liege lords?

The answer is: Yes we can.

It is high time to stand up: We must identify our current government ideologies for the feudalism they embody, and reject feudalism in all its forms (including its re-articulation in the form of socialism). It is high time to ward off the coming of any new Napoleon; though he may appear a savior; such a one will ultimately simply crown himself high king over us all. It is high time to return to the vision of government BY the people, and that means we will not suffer ourselves to be ruled by a king.

Let us never forget the example set by one of our greatest American heroes, George Washington, who turned down the kingship of our infant nation. Remember this story, told of King George III: The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

May all Americans reject being cast as peasantry. May all Americans be able to say that they can be included amongst the greatest men in the world. May we all be Washingtons who rule over our own lives well, and by extension, in this great republic of ours, rule our nation.

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Published: Sep 4, 2012
Author
Kate Deddens
Kate Deddens graduated from the Great Books Program at St. John’s College and went on to receive an MA in Mental Health Counseling from Western Kentucky University. Kate and her husband are committed to classical, Christian education and to homeschooling from birth through high school. She has been involved with Classical Conversations since 2008.
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13 replies to this post
  1. Oh dear. I live in ancient feudal or semi-feudal societies, which are based on hereditary and fully reciprocal responsibilities. They have lasted long and may survive modern systems.

    The author says that feudalism "stinks" (her word) but compared to what? Compared to utopian dreams apparently; compared to ideologies of Napoleonism and its cousins, which are various cocktails of nationalism and defecated reason that provide rather unpleasant headaches on the morning after.

    I submit that what America has is not feudalism because I see little of the top-down respect, or noblesse oblige, which I witness today in feudal societies. What you have is a tyranny to which none of my feudal friends would submit.

  2. Personally, I'm still struggling to understand how some conservative Americans appeal to the 17th/18th century in search of solutions for modern problems. What Obama said about government as a "given", that is, a juridical and institutional framework by which a community organizes itself, is just common sense. To say that the founders did not have a federal government — when they were less than 2 million in very small towns and rural villages — is not a response to Obama, it's just an unrelated matter. It may appear attractive because of the individualist imaginary, but it does not help in the current debate. It does not take a socialist to see that.

  3. Interesting take on Mr. Obama by Ms. Deddens. The same feudalism, feudalism as defined by Adam Smith I presume, that Mr. Obama subconsciously embraces is also embraced, perhaps also subconsciously, by many Americans who look to the MNC to "take care of them". Have Americans on the whole lapsed over the years into a sense of feudalistic dependency on both government and business? Mr. Obama and his narrow minded ideological rhetoric are capitalizing on that premise. The question compels me to read once more Belloc’s “The Servile State” to see the outcome of all of this.

  4. Hold on here. There is apparently a fundamental misunderstanding about feudalism. We are not falling into feudalism. First of all, feudalism is a highly decentralized system, with many checks on centralized power. Under feudalism the king had much less power, regulatory and war-making, than POTUS currently has. Moreover, it was not secularized. There is too much to go into here. For those interested I suggest reading Betrand De Jouvenal's book ON POWER: THE NATURAL HISTORY OF ITS GROWTH. It is readily available from Liberty Fund Press. Suffice it to say, feudalism is in many ways preferable to the trajectory of American political developments.

  5. I do appreciate the point that Ms. Deddens is trying to make, but Masty and DeRosa above get at the heart of how unfortunately she tries to make it. A colleague of mine, a brilliant medievalist, fought for years in our department meetings to get us to stop using the f-word "feudalism." She insists (and I agree) that there was never any such thing until 14th-15th century intellectuals, most of them anti-Christian, tried to impose it on the past. She likes another f-word, "fidelity," which better explains the complex set of very decentralized relationships that characterized the real era of Christendom. The tyranny that Ms. Deddens describes is not possible without a centralized nation-state, and is most efficient in an ideological age, which began with the so-called Enlightenment.

  6. Feudalism was a system of mutual rights and obligations, with the one related to the other. I cannot understand why a "conservative" publication would attack it, and why they would attribute such a thing to an abstract statist like Obama.

  7. I endorse Willson’s opinion. What she describes as “feudalism” is actually the modern absolutist monarchy of the 17th and 18th century. The conception of Government she despises is close to Louis XIV’s, not to Louis IX’s. Such “feudalism” has nothing to do with the organic monarchy of the Middle Ages, where local communities enjoyed great autonomy, and were guided by local and native lords, and not by an urban and distant court (the equivalent of our modern bureaucracy).

  8. I agree with those who have said the author of this piece greatly misunderstands feudalism. Two of the pillars of the Feudal system were:

    1) Respect for the family as the fundamental unit of society
    2) A shared social Catholic faith.

    Neither of those elements are present in Mr. Obama's political philosophy. On the contray, the President's outlook is simply the natural growth of the "new" philosophy which has sprung forth from the Protestant Revolt and continued to decay through the enlightenment, American and French revolutions, Marxism and modernism.

    To equate feudalism with the servile state….Hilaire Belloc would roll in his grave.

    Pax Christi

  9. Andrew, and not just within Christianity. Feudalism exists under other faiths as well, although Christianity strengthened in in Europe.

  10. This is a deeply historically maladroit piece, as other commenters have noticed. Would-be conservatives need to discard worship of the founders stripped of any appreciation for the civilizational context that provided the antecedents for our system of ordered liberty.

  11. Murray Rothbard’s magisterial Conceived in Liberty, his history of America before the Constitution of 1787, makes a similar point: many of the institutions of our polities (such as Sheriffs, Assemblies, Municipalities, etc) were well established early on. His book details the struggle, from the first landings to 1787, to promote and preserve liberty. There are many lessons we can learn from our colonial forebears.

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