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Feudalism

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

In a debate article in the Dawn of April 30, 2008, Haider Nizamani seeks to dispel the widely held view that feudalism exists in Pakistan. He asserts that feudalism never existed in South Asia. To consider honour killings and exploitation of peasants by mighty landlords as indicative of feudalism he finds untenable because according to him, by 1999, 88 percent of cultivated land in Pakistan was in farm sizes below 12.5 acres. Just over half the total farms were less than five acres in size. “This would hardly be the hallmark of a feudal society,” he asserts.

This economistic argument is a legitimate one, but too narrow, mechanical and formalistic, because it presupposes that if the economic base changes cultural and ideological changes follow suit. In reality there is never a perfect fit between a mode of production and cultural and ideological forms, otherwise the thoroughly capitalised economies of the Middle East would have no place for tribal norms and behaviour patterns. Marx was acutely aware of the far more complex relationship between the economic base and the superstructure. He famously observed that Christian theology remained the reigning ideology much after classical feudalism had disintegrated and dissolved.

Classical feudalism emerged in Western Europe when the old city-based high cultures of the Greeks and the Romans disintegrated and the locus of social activity moved into local units headed by tiered nobility, which controlled their serfs through a range of economic and extra-economic coercions. The feudal vassals, in turn, rendered services to the superior lords, and that chain of services finally connected to the king, who was named as the “first among the lords.” He claimed a tribute or levy from the lesser nobles, who also provided him with soldiers.

The above description is, of course, an ideal one in the tradition of Max Weber. In reality no two feudalisms anywhere in Europe were the same, except in the essential sense of an agrarian economy providing much of the surplus, as well as the soldiers upon which the ruling classes built their leisured lifestyle.

Christian theology justified social hierarchy, and people knew their place in society – the rule was that the superiors were chosen by God and obeying them was a duty and obligation. Continue reading

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