Centralized Feudalism

2006-07-06

In a talk entitled Some Reflections on the Origins of Industrial Capitalism in a Comparative Perspective, historian Alan Macfarlane makes the following observations:

Western Europe and Japan are the only two major agrarian societies which are known to have passed through a stage of authentic 'feudalism'. But even more significant was the similarity between England and Japan, which each had a peculiar form of feudalism - what one might call 'centralized feudalism'. Its major feature is that it provides order, without choking society by developing into 'absolutism'.

The essence of this political balance is outlined by Tocqueville in his Reflections on English History. "There are two great drawbacks to avoid in organizing a country. Either the whole strength of social organization is centred on one point, or it is spread over the country. Either alternative has its advantages and its drawbacks. If all is tied into one bundle, and the bundle gets undone, everything falls apart and there is no nation left. Where power is dispersed, action is clearly hindered, but there is strength everywhere." De Tocqueville thought that only one country had found the balance and, with occasional wobbles towards absolutism, maintained it. "I don't know if a mean between these extremes can be found, but it would seem that William did find it."

This balance, encapsulated in the contradictory words 'centralized feudalism' is what was also maintained in Japan. Through its curious system of division between ritual ruler (Emperor) and military ruler (Shogun), through its almost identical form of feudal tenures, it maintained orderliness without absolutism, severe centralization with strong local power. It did not veer towards the 'dissolution of the state' feudalism of anarchy, or the absolutist state which Perry Anderson believed lay inevitably in the path to modernity. Only in the early twentieth century was the balance temporarily lost, with the abolition of the Shogun and the placing of the Emperor above the law.

While I tend toward radical decentralism (at least a much more decentralized political structure than we know today), I see the wisdom in Tocqueville's observations. And one could draw productive analogies between this political balance and the organization of things other than countries -- corporations and open-source projects come immediately to mind...


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