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The end of religious feudalism

Roughly 5000 years ago, the dawn of the Agricultural Age revolutionized human relationships. What were once simple societies of clans and tribes with little hierarchy became a series of warring oligopolies dominated by the landed aristocracy.

The core issue of agriculture is possession of land. The more land you control, the richer you become, particularly if you can get other people to farm it for you, and the more land you want. Land is worth fighting over. The result is feudalism: rank and hierarchy; dominance and obedience; and the insane notion that some humans are wiser, more powerful, more heroic, and more godlike than others. This arrangement persists today, prominently in third-world countries in Latin America and Africa. It is inherent in agricultural societies.

Feudalism transformed our ideas of the nature of humanity. For the past five millennia, the means of production have been more valuable than human beings. Poverty and human wretchedness came to be seen as acceptable and inevitable. Some humans simply aren't worthwhile.

Few of us are aware of the extent to which these notions continue to dominate our perceptions and beliefs.

The Industrial Revolution replaced ownership of land with a new form of wealth: ownership of factories, railroads, and other means of production. It's the same idea as the landed aristocracy with different owners and bosses.

But surely feudalism died with the advent of modern democracies! I would argue it merely arose in new guises.

The most chilling example is Nazi Germany. How could such a modern dictatorship be considered feudal? Simple -- enlarge the concept a little. Absolute power derived from domination and demonization of others is the purpose of totalitarianism. The "master race" theory provided Hitler with the excuse to take whatever he wanted from others and then kill them.

Communism was founded upon a passionate revolt against the whole structure of feudalism, which it mislabeled capitalism. Marxist rhetoric says "workers" (i.e., peasants and serfs) should take over and run farms and factories. Indeed, the Revolution succeeded only in poor countries with oppressive landed aristocracies. In the end, it promulgated the previous system in a new guise.

Marxist/Leninist rhetoric promoted a particularly vicious form of victim consciousness. The past seventy years have proved that self-righteously championing the suffering of the downtrodden merely guarantees that the system of one group oppressing another will persist with a new crowd on top, as has occurred in every Communist government to date. As is always the case, today's Hero (and heroine) becomes tomorrow's Tyrant.

The most important vestige of the feudal impulse in the United States is racism. Slavery was the game of serfs and nobles in another guise, hiding behind the notion that so long as someone looks identifiably different from you, it's okay to demonize and dominate them. The history of Nineteenth Century America is filled with countless other examples: brutality towards Chinese immigrants who were imported to build the railroads and treated little better than slaves; the genocide of two-thirds of the Native American nation; the Spanish-American War.

The racism that persists in American culture today has at last come under effective attack. Finally we have realistic laws against discrimination. We see countless examples of peoples of all races performing at world-class levels of competence. But these are halfway measures.

One can show scientifically that race doesn't exist and never did. There is no such thing as race. Humans cannot be distinguished genetically by race; Blacks, Whites, and Orientals are more similar to everyone else than to each other. (More accurately, within-group genetic diversity dwarfs differences between population groups. Sure, there are important ethnic genetic differences, but these correlate poorly with appearance.) Race is a purely cosmetic perception that doesn't tell you who someone is. In the same way, blondes aren't inherently stupid, nor redheads hot-tempered. People look different, that's all.

For the last five millennia, our species has lived in a nightmare -- the illusion of race -- which is nearly over.

How Feudalism Will Die

Is the culture of dominance and control impervious to change? Isn't the quest for power an immutable aspect of human makeup? I think not.

The Industrial Revolution and the democratic transformations of the past two hundred years softened the domination of feudalism. There is good evidence that this grip is finally relaxing as first one group and then the other confronts the dogma of inequality, and as the coming Age of Information and Communication renders inconceivable the whole idea that it is entirely appropriate for some humans to dominate others.

More pointedly, the new economics have turned the tables. For the first time in recorded history, knowledge, information, and creativity are more valuable than farms or factories. The means of production has become what we hold in our heads, each of us. It can no longer be owned by another, even if they try. Indeed, it is clear that the greater the diversity of one's employees, the more creative and productive your firm will be. We need everyone who is willing to learn and apply themselves.

What about outsourcing to third-world countries? This proves the point: what matters is what you can do. National origin and country of residence are almost irrelevant.

The Chicago Bulls basketball team never owned its star, Michael Jordan. If team management tried to dictate unacceptable terms to Jordan, he would simply have left. If anything, the players hold more power than the team owner.

All but a few of the richest men in America today earned their money in high technology companies, whose value lies largely in the knowledge and skills of its employees.

If you fired all the workers at a steel mill and then sold it, it would still be worth nearly the same as if you put it on the market it fully staffed. But without its employees, Microsoft's 40-billion-dollar stock market valuation would almost completely disappear. Most of its staff could land a job tomorrow. No one owns them; Bill Gates enjoys their productive efforts only because he's fun to work for and makes his bright employees rich. Microsoft's executives may be control freaks, but the day they become dictatorial aristocrats marks the end of the company. Feudalism is simply not possible. A similar process is occurring in firms throughout the industrialized world. (Yes, I know the Dilbert Syndrome is alive and well. Demeaning, incompetent management relies on employees' passivity, which is at times awe-inspiring.)

As our economy progresses in the next few decades, value will shift from the employer to the individual. We will swear allegiance to no one who has not earned it. Economic feudalism will finally have died.

The most prominent bit of remaining feudalism in America is the notion that the country is dividing into two groups of people: haves and have-nots. The former group is well educated, and the latter are too dumb and uneducated for anything but "McJobs." Much of the division between the two groups is racial. I suspect this dichotomy persists only because despite their protests, both groups believe it. The down-and-outs haven't realized how easy it is to get an education if you believe in yourself and are truly determined and unwilling to take no for an answer, like the illiterate immigrants to the US from Eastern Europe a century ago, or the Asian immigrants of today. (I acknowledge that severe social and nutritional deprivation can cause permanent disability due to cognitive impairment, but hopefully that represents a minority of the dispossessed.)

But the methods of the past won't get us to this point. New laws, new rules, and more politics will simply imbed our cultural dichotomy further in concrete, much as the American welfare system of the 1960's perpetuated what it was designed to combat.

Those who work with gang members in the Los Angeles ghettos will tell you that the majority are not evil people. They are terrified and angry and, more than anything, convinced that failure is the only possibility. All the prisons in the world cannot contain their despair.

The end of feudal spirituality

Few physicians realize the extent to which modern medicine arose as a reaction against the organized clergy, i.e., religious feudalism. Decartes' "I think, therefore I am" arose from his rejection of every belief not founded in empiricism. By limiting his claim to rational empirical science, he was able to avoid an inquisition from those who controlled religious dogma. The two have been separate ever since -- not because they are inherently disparate fields, but because science had to protect itself from domination by the religious establishment.

Feudalism has reshaped our religions as much as any aspect of our culture. Authoritarian regimes have always mandated that religion support the governing structure. Kings became gods; gods became kings.

The popular representation of God is King, a big white dude sitting on a throne wearing a crown. To see the problem with this image, picture the Twentieth Century equivalent: God standing on a balcony wearing a military uniform or Mao suit, waving at an adoring crowd. This is an abomination.

(Note that I am not attacking the important and necessary personal choice to obey the divine, but rather dressing up images of God in symbols of secular power, thereby promoting the church's assumption of secular control.)

It wasn't always this way. Few records exist of pre-agricultural age Europeans or Asians, but ample descriptions of Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and other "primitive" peoples clarify the difference the Agricultural Revolution made in how we think, act, and view each other.

Perhaps the clearest contrast is revealed in the taking of the North American continent from its original inhabitants by European settlers. More than anything, this was a contest between cultures. There could have been only one victor.

"Primitive" peoples live in societies that are partly villages, partly extended families. Labor is divided by age, gender, and ability, but there is little hierarchy. The thorough penetration of every aspect of life by the spiritual is obvious to all. Spiritual reality is at once separate (e.g., the "Dreamworld" of the aborigines) and yet omnipresent throughout physical existence. Much of one's role in life is to understand one's place and purpose in the spiritual realm and then to live daily life in accordance with this insight. Shamans are inspired to specialize in spiritual matters and may help interpret them for others in their villages, but every individual maintains an independent relationship with the divine as he/she understands it. Deities are both distant and present in each moment. The struggle is to understand. There is no institutionalized manipulation, shame, blame, or guilt, because no one benefits from them.

Neither institutionalized racism nor the cult of the victim would be possible in "primitive" society.

In contrast, our fascination with domination and conquest persist in sublimated form. The warrior has become a Chief Executive Officer. Manipulation and betrayal are the essence of our advertising industry, accepted so long as they stay within bounds. A little corruption is okay so long as it keeps the city running smoothly.

I do not mean to demonize our civilization or glorify "primitive man". Certainly each form of society demonstrated ample bigotry, cruelty and savagery. But there are distinct differences. War is a universal human phenomenon; conquest and political domination are only possible if the territory you are capturing holds intrinsic value.

It may border on blasphemy to expose the feudal roots of our religious traditions -- themselves born during full-blown feudalism.

The most painful aspect of feudalism in religion is the notion of God as Caesar in Heaven. If we puny and disgusting humans do not follow God's orders, the consequences are dire. In many traditions failing to acquiesce to God's total dominance -- as interpreted solely by local clergy -- is blasphemy. Religious prisoners are labelled infidels or heretics, who should be tortured and killed in God's name.

Many believe that God takes sides in human disputes. The winning side is obviously favored and intrinsically better. Losers should anticipate God's wrath.

Atheists are commonly reviled by true believers. But the deeply religious miss the joke: atheism isn't about God, it's about rebellion. "Nobody is going to dictate to me what to believe or how to act!" Atheism defines itself by what it is not, by defying conventional beliefs. Though sterile, it is the natural enemy of religious feudalism.

The more savage forms of religious repression take place in countries with the most dictatorial governments and the least developed traditions of human rights. Conversely, it is clear that one of the forebears of the Enlightenment and the birth of modern democracies in the eighteenth century was Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation two centuries before: the right of everyone, clergy or not, to read the Bible and to form his or her own opinion of its contents.

The culture of dominance, obedience, intrinsic superiority, and hierarchy on the one hand and shame, victimhood and righteous suffering on the other has no place in the spiritual life of my personal experience. I explore the many differences elsewhere on this site. I obey the still voice of love and understanding within because it speaks of my heart's desire, my greatest longing.

If I reject the influence of dominance and victimhood in my own life, does this act open me to the sadists and control freaks of the world? Just the opposite -- I grasp my own authority without reference to others. Rather than enslaved, I become freer and more effective.

The miracle of recovery from chemical dependency is the transformation of a person from human trash to a fully functional member of society. Recovery is only possible when the addict/alcoholic resolves his or her shame and shatters the illusion of being a worthless victim. The high level of addiction in poor communities is no accident. Our species is still trapped in the nightmarish myth of intrinsic superiority and inferiority.

Last updated Sun, Nov 1, 2009

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©2011, James Gagné, MD