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Fighting With Pinpricks: Tough times for feudalism

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: Opinions

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for feudalism. Despite the recent hegemony of capitalism, this plucky medieval economic and political system has continually found a way to survive. In the past two weeks, however—from the English Channel to the Himalayas—feudalism suffered a number of setbacks which might well lead us to ask: Does feudalism have a future?

Take the Channel Island of Sark, population 600. The Seigneur of Sark—a vassal of the English crown—has controlled the tiny isle since 1565. The Seigneur possesses the power to grant the island’s 40 fiefdoms to tenants in exchange for customary labor. The Seigneur also enjoys a number of lucrative monopolies. Only the Seigneur, for example, can keep pigeons on the island; indeed, only the Seigneur can have an unspayed female dog. Sark’s legal system is also pleasantly antiquated. To initiate a civil action, a subject of Sark needs only to recite the Lord’s Prayer in French and cry “Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!”

Sadly, all this came to an end on April 9th when Sark became the last place in Europe to abolish feudalism. From now on, everyone (and not just the 40 tenants) will have the right to vote. Before you know it, two or three people will be breeding pigeons and the dog population will swell to unsustainable levels.

A more serious challenge to feudalism emerged on the following day when the Kingdom of Nepal held its first elections in nearly ten years. The election comes two years after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN (M)] ended its decade long guerilla war and agreed to participate in elections for a constituent assembly which will rewrite Nepal’s constitution. In the words of the CPN (M)’s Charismatic leader Prachanda, the Maoists are “trying to crush a feudal aristocracy.”

Whereas feudalism in Sark is fairly hilarious, feudalism in Nepal is anything but. Nepal is the third poorest country on earth, and a rigid caste system dominates its society. Its government is nominally a constitutional monarchy; however, historically the corrupt political elites rarely challenged the King. Moreover, on the few occasions when they did, the King simply reinstated absolute rule. The patriarchal aristocracy long barred women from serious participation in public life, and ethnic minorities saw their rights constantly trampled upon by the government. When the Maoist’s People’s War broke in 1996, out the security services resorted to disturbing tactics such as disappearing dissenters and torturing anyone thought to sympathize with the CPN (M).

Originally, the CPN (M)’s strategy was taken straight from Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare. The CPN (M) mobilized the countryside and encircled the cities; by 2006 they controlled most of the country. At this point, Prachanda dramatically changed direction. Instead of taking the cities by force—which the Maoists had the strength to do—Prachanda decided to win the country through democratic politics instead of crippling warfare which would have left thousands dead and provoked devastating military responses from Nepal’s neighbors.

In the run up to last week’s election, Western media outlets like the New York Times and the BBC were full of scare articles about the Maoists. Analysts believed that the CPN (M) would (1) use violence to suppress voter turnout and (2) come in third place behind the moderate and traditionally dominant parties, i.e. the Nepali Congress and the Communist Part of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [UML]. The Western pundits dramatically warned that when they lost the elections, the CPM (M) would return to war.

A funny thing happened on the way to that blood bath: (1) the election was the most peaceful in Nepal’s history and (2) the Maoists won. Elections officials are still counting the votes, and full results will take weeks to tabulate; however, the Maoists have clearly won in a landslide. Of the 210 seats decided before my deadline on Tuesday, the Maoists have taken 114. Their closest competitors, the Nepali Congress, have only 32; the UML are not far behind with 30.

This is bad news for feudalism indeed. While the Nepali Congress and the UML have already accepted the Maoists’ demand to abolish the monarchy, neither party expressed a desire to totally revolutionize Nepalese society. The Maoists, on the other hand, want to eliminate the caste system, empower women, and raise wages for poor Nepalese workers.

In fact, in the areas the Maoists already control, these changes have been underway for a long time. Maoist-aligned unions have already forced employers to double wages in some areas, and the Maoists ran more women candidates than any party in Nepalese history. Indeed, by the time the full results come in, there will almost certainly be more women in the Nepali Assembly than in the United States Congress. Additionally, the CPN (M) has already undertaken enormous infrastructure improvements in western Nepal. Their election means that these beneficent changes will take place across the entire country.

In the streets of Kathmandu, Nepalese people are already celebrating. Within weeks the King will be a commoner. After that, the arduous process of writing a new constitution and governing the country will begin. The Maoist’s commitment to democracy, while surprising in light of their ideology, is not in doubt. Thus far they have gone out of their way to take control of the country democratically in a political culture where violent power plays have long been the norm. To any feudalists reading this article I’d simply say: watch out, feudalism’s days are numbered. Prachanda is fond of pointing out that the world always looks to Nepal for new ideas, and this new idea of abolishing feudalism is only going to become more popular as time goes on.