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Feudalism - Myth or Reality?

Byline: Hammad Raza

Big landholding is still a symbol of power in Pakistan. The Army's keen interest in the real estate business is creating a new feudal class in urban areas.

The democratic system in Pakistan is constrained by a multitude of forces. Many analysts opine that feudalism is the major cause which undermines democracy and hinders social equality. Their view is generally shaped by the issue of land reforms in Pakistan. They tend to ignore the fact that feudalism as an economic force has fizzled out.

It has now assumed value of power in our society. It is mainly the culture it bred over centuries which persists now. Feudalism is often employed as an umbrella term to describe power structure within a rural society. It also describes the pattern of authority in rural set-up - the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. In urban centers its use is confined to merely a metaphor for lack of convenient term to the consumerist, power-hungry and elitist mindset.

Feudal values are often confused with elitist values. The former rely on the physical use of force and the latter rely on the structural inequalities of the neo-liberal economic system.

The feudal class is adept in the use of violence to maintain its mastery over the tenant class. The classical form of feudalism is not present anywhere in Pakistan. In the classical form it was a medieval contractual relationship among the upper classes by which a lord granted land to his men in return for military service.

Feudalism was further characterized by the localization of political and economic power in the hands of lords and their vassals and by the exercise of that power from the base of castles. Each dominated the district in which it was situated.

This formed a pyramidal form of hierarchy. The term feudalism thus involves a division of governmental power spreading over various castle-dominated districts downward through lesser nobles.

Feudalism does not infer social and economic relationships between the peasants and their lords in classical theorizing. It was mainly a power relationship.

Lord and vassal were interlocked in a web of mutual rights and obligations, to the advantage of both. The lord owed his vassal protection, whereas the vassal owed his lord a specified number of days annually in offensive military service and in garrisoning his castle. The lord was expected to provide a court for his vassals, who were to provide the lord with counsel before he undertook any initiative of importance to the feudal community as a whole -for example, arranging his own or his children's marriages or planning a crusade.

The analysis of feudalism and its existence in Pakistan can also be analyzed through Marxist and neo-Marxist approaches. Marx conceptualized it mainly in economic terms and as a step towards capitalism and then a classless society which most people are not willing to re-conceptualize.. Later / Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony gives us a better understanding of the feudalistic mindset prevalent in Pakistan.

According to the Marxian definition, the three elements which characterize feudalism are: lords, vassals and fiefs. Marx defined the concept thus: "The power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom."

Marx's definition of the feudal mode of production rests largely on the concept of feudal rent. It characterizes both relations of production and ways to extract surplus from the direct producers. Feudal rent requires the existence of large agricultural productive units (manors) owned by a landlord who, through coercive means, is able to force peasants to pay a rent in the form of labor, produce or monetary tribute. In exchange, peasants living in villages are allowed to possess small individual landholdings and to access forests and pastures as common land. Surplus extracted as feudal rent reveals a relation of personal subordination between the peasant and the landlord which is confirmed by the fact that the land-lord is the supreme political authority over the geographical unit (the fief) that contains the peasants' plots and common land.

At the same time, the landlord is also a vassal, a personal subordinate of a higher-level noble or of the sovereign, who recognizes the landlord's feudal authority in exchange for military service. Traditional customs, a theme touched on in Engels's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1892), play a decisive role in sustaining these webs of hierarchies, obligations and subjection, which appear natural and immutable. Finally, for Marx and Engels, the feudal mode of production reflects a radical opposition between the countryside and the city, which remains economically marginal and undeveloped. This contrast is still vivid in Pakistan.

Later, Marxist historians and scholars took into account the cultural aspect of domination instead of using economic determinism as a sole factor in the relationship of social forces. It shows how the feudal culture in politics has dominated Pakistan completely. The relationship between the government and the opposition is also reminiscent of the feudal struggle for power. It does not entail civil and democratic institutions to bring civility in the nature of their relationships. Thus the hegemony of culture bred by feudalism persists even after the hegemon is gone.

Some writers like Haider Nizami and S. Akbar Zaidi maintain that there is no feudalism in Pakistan. Zaidi's main assertion revolves around the shrinking of lands in Pakistan. Being an economist, he has taken into account economic parameters to analyse the presence of feudalism. Nizami has taken work of Harbans Mukhia as a frame of reference to state that there is no feudalism in Pakistan. The commodification of agricultural products and diversification of division of labor in rural societies made him think about the absence of feudalism.

These changes have taken place with the mechanization of agricultural production enabling the landlords to intrude into the political and urban culture without changing the status quo.

Big landholding is still a symbol of power in Pakistan. The Army's keen interest in the real estate business is making a new feudal class in urban areas.

One would like to term this as militarized feudalism. The security state structure and dual economic system are the political and economic markers of this class.

The farm house culture in urban centers is reminiscent of the British era, when the feudal elite used to uphold the socioeconomic structure imposed by the British Raj.

Even now, in rural areas of Pakistan, feudalistic social relations glaringly stand out. Landlords are seen as ruling the roost. Their ties with the echelons of power further make them repressive towards tenants and local populations.

The repressive state apparatus in the form of the police is always at their beck and call. It acts as an agent of status quo in feudal relationship. Thus feudalism operates within a dual economic society with the help of state -sponsored institutions. Every act of opposition to the dominant system is labeled as a police problem. As such, the resultant crimes are handled with iron hand.

The majority of inhabitants in rural areas are still aspirants to freedom and liberty. Urbanities are duty-bound to change this pattern of relations between the forces in rural areas. It will not only pave the way for democracy but also increase agricultural productivity.

The writer is an independent political analyst and is currently working on a book on the history of revolutions. He holds a Musters Degree in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabud.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Apr 30, 2011
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