restricted access Chapter One: The Feudal Model in Social Analysis: From Medieval Europe to Contemporary America
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The concept of feudalism has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years but remains largely undeveloped and undertheorized. For us, the terms feudal, feudalism, and the feudal model refer to an ideal type of social organization—that is, a theoretical construct that generally corresponds to the essential features of concrete reality but never replicates them precisely. Such a model, as Weber (1949, 93) wrote, is a “limiting concept with which the real situation or action is compared and surveyed for the explication of certain of its significant components.” Following Weber, we suggest that feudalism can be found in a range of societies across different time periods. Medieval France serves as the empirical basis of the feudal model, but even this society merely approximates the ideal-typical feudalism. The model suggests that the feudal state manages to persist over long periods of time, in spite of the problems associated with political fragmentation, instability, and the state’s dependence on other social actors and organizations .In this way,ideal feudalism is neither“ideal”in the conventional sense nor a metaphor for social chaos and disorder. It is a dialectical construct, at the center of which lies a suboptimal yet sustainable brand of central authority. In order to develop the feudal model as a tool of analysis, we begin by reviewing how it has been used by other investigators, past and present, and then synthesize some of these treatments in a cohesive conceptual framework. This treatment of feudalism builds on several of our previous works (Shlapentokh with Woods 2007; Shlapentokh 1996a, 1996b, 1997a, 1997b, 2003, 2004; Shlapentokh, Levita, and Loiberg 1997; Woods and Shlapentokh 2009). 1 The Feudal Model in Social Analysis: From Medieval Europe to Contemporary America 01 Chapter 1_Shlapentokh 12/7/2010 9:11 AM Page 1 “Feudalism” in Contemporary Social Analysis The term feudalism is used in the discourse on contemporary society in a number of different ways. The “feudal perspective” cuts across a great deal of academic terrain,bridging the work of journalists,sociologists,political scientists, international relations experts, and historians. One group of authors includes journalists and pundits who, overlooking the scholarly research on feudalism, apply the term loosely to a range of corrupt, unsavory, or backward aspects of society. Judging from an electronic search of major world newspapers, these authors are more likely to associate feudalism with developing nations than with Western ones (Glionna 2008; Matthews and Nemsova 2006). A second group offers a more cohesive conceptual framework and applies it to illustrate the problems of Western democracy and capitalism. A typical representative of this group is Farmer (2006), who paints a dark portrait of Walmart, the leading baron of big-box grocery stores. The founder of Walmart, Sam Walton, emerges as a“neo-feudal knight”who disregards social and legal standards and perpetuates a business climate“characterized by economic warfare , gold, and certainly significant autonomy” (Farmer 2006, 157). The third group, composed mostly of American exceptionalists, is interested in how a society’s feudal heritage, or lack thereof, influences its development and contemporary circumstances. Schlesinger (1999, 152), for instance, suggested thatAmerica was“uncontaminated by feudal reminiscences,”while Hartz (1955, 99) wrote that the country “was unfamiliar with the heritage of feudalism ” and that this circumstance defined “the American liberal experience.”1 The final group draws on feudalism to describe the processes in both postcommunist societies and other non-Western countries that have recently undergone major political or economic transformations. By the late 1990s, the feudal perspective became quite fashionable in the analysis of so-called transition societies, postcommunist Russia in particular. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian state and several other former communist regimes were unable to regulate the new and very powerful social actors and organizations that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new business 2 feudal america 1. For similar arguments, see Weinberg and Shabat 1965; Kelly 2001; Rabkin 1999. Some members of this group did not completely deny the impact of feudalism on America, but associated it only with earlier periods of American history, such as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when immigrants poured into the country, bringing with them a set of life experiences that were colored by the feudal past. One author, for instance, suggested that certain aspects of the Middle Ages influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution (Bailyn 1967, 282). 01 Chapter 1_Shlapentokh 12/7/2010 9:11 AM Page 2 moguls, regional...


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