Wednesday 5 November 2014

I am a serf, like a medieval peasant

In medieval times, the Norman Lord was entitled to a percentage of the Saxon serf's labour - the serf was compelled to work on the Lord's domain for - say - half his time. And he could not leave the Lord's domain without permission.

Same now, my Lord - the government - coercively takes about half my labour, by coercively extracting half my income in taxes. And I cannot leave my Lord's domain without a passport, which he can give me or not or withdraw at his will.

The point of this analysis is the cunning of modern serfdom. Coerced labour has been - mostly - eliminated; but coerced extraction of the product of labour continues - but in the abstracted realm of money.

The system is maintained by the Lord using the wealth he extracts to build a castle to protect himself, a retinue to look after himself, and an army who keep me down and keep me at work.

Nowadays, the Lord finds it expedient to include in his retinue a truly a vast gang of sturdy beggars, drifters and brawlers, idlers and drunkards, travellers and squatters and assorted other dependants - to whom the Lord has given  a 'right' to the product of my labour.

So, I am grossly outnumbered and out-weaponed, and the church (i.e. the mass media) is solidly against me - and - in short - I am in the usual situation of a serf; of holding-up society and being despised for it by the Lord who coerces me by his self-appointed right, and by the church who sustains the Lord, and by a vast and always-growing retinue whom I am obliged to feed, clothe, shelter and entertain.

And, realistically, there is nothing much I can do about it - because the system benefits the majority, including almost everybody who has power and influence.

I am, indeed, in the situation of Piers Plowman - but in a society far more corrupt and with far less sanction than was his; and my recourse is to his consolations, and my authority is his authority - or none at all.


The text of Piers Plowman, by William Langland


A correspondent points-out that that I have one option that P. Ploughman didn't have - viz to become one of the beggars, drifters, idlers, drunkards, etc.

This is correct, people like me could, perhaps, do what many friends and colleagues have done and retire early and live opulently for another thirty years without working. This explains why the Middle Ages was sustainable over many generations, and why modernity is not.

Furthermore, I am a vastly better-fed, warmer, more comfortable and idler serf than Piers.

However, serfdom (or slavery) does not as a matter of fact imply greater poverty than 'freedom' (that is a modernist myth, which goes with the suggestion that modern people are not serfs, not really, not in any way that actually matters. But many times and places, slavery or serfdom means security; and freedom means starvation.

My point is not to say that freedom is better than serfdom; but to point out that I am a serf; a serf is what I am - and a serf to a corrupt, dishonest Lord with an inverted moral system.   



Anonymous said...

Oh - excellent piece - thank you. My blog today is strangely similar - not as well crafted. Mine came from reading a CH Lewis quote....and lead to the thinking about the cause of how deformed democracy is. In the UK, we have a tyranny of “good”. Our government is not a democracy, but a lobbyocracy. The reason why laws get passed in parliament, is not that the people want them, but because fronts/charities/entities/ lobby groups intent to change society “for its own good” make it happen. That is why, when you live in the UK, the laws seem so discordant with what most ordinary people think.

Back to the plowman - I do not know him as I am not intricately educated. But I know poor people are capable of deep happiness without wealth or education.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tlf - Thanks

For more on Piers P -

I like your blog:

I shall keep an eye on it.

Leo said...

@Last Furlong

To the extent that the GOP represents the robber barons, the US Congressional elections have granted your wish. The Senate will now act as a check on the President. All this is imprecise and messy, but one can hope for some modest improvements in government.

A key to the media coverage of US elections: A win by the Democrats is covered as a mandate for change and the product of permanent and inevitable demographic factors. A win by the Republicans is treated as a temporary outlier that can be ignored and ascribed to the power of corporate money in politics.

I noticed you grew up without TV. We limited TV for my children, perhaps not enough. Some of my grandchildren are growing up largely without broadcast or cable TV. I do not current have it in my home. My son without TV has a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. I haven't read it, but I get the idea.

Leo said...


I shall have to ponder this. At least, like the Prisoner of Chillon at the end of the poem, we now have a much larger and more comfortable prison and more freedom, if we can grasp it.

Speaking of endings of poems, we could view our situation more optimistically, even if the optimism is colored with melancholy:

"The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN took their solitarie way."

One final poetic thought. Invictus was a poem written by a Victorian Englishman beloved of American capitalists. It is hard to imagine a 20th Century Romanian writing it after surveying his country's history.

Leo said...

As for contemporary literature, your post reminded me of something I read once about the hugely popular Hunger Games series. The elites in that dystopian world lead morally bankrupt lives. The serfs in the districts lead lives of poverty, but love and nobly sacrifice for their friends and family.

Bruce Charlton said...

There is a marvelous Russian Orthodox classic called The way of a Pilgrim apparently written by a serf who gets injured and cannot work, then his wife dies - so he is granted a Passport to leave his Lord's service and domain and wander around Russia begging and living a life of Holy poverty (if he loses the passport, he is liable to jail). He discovers the Philokalia and the Jesus Prayer, and has all sorts of trials and tribulations and triumphs - just throwing himself on the mercy of the world. But at that time and place, in Holy Russia, people such as the Pilgrim had a place in the scheme of things; and many felt obliged to help with food and shelter.

ElectricAngel said...

The major difference between serfdom and now is that The Lord recognized an obligation downward for receiving his obligations upward. No such decency attaches to our elite: they want you to OBEY, but they refuse to recognize any requirement for them to do so. Feudalism would be an improvement.