Tag Archives: feudalism

Gods, feudalism and power over

It isn’t an accident that so much traditional spiritual language has a feudal tone to it. Lord and Lady are terms of nobility. Christianity is full of the language of kings, sovereignty and power over. Pagans use ‘Queen’ as a term for Goddess. For a good chunk of European history those who had taken power and wealth by force of arms were keen to create the impression of divine sanction for it. The King in his castle, sucking up the bounty, is God’s representative on Earth. God the Uber-King looks down on all from Heaven – a very literal expression of being over the top of the rest of us.

The stories modern Pagans turn to were recorded, for the greater part, by people who were part of that power-over arrangement. God the Uber-King in league with the physical monarch bestowed a lot of power on the church, giving the church every reason to support the logic of the system. Plus, in a less cynical way, we tend to make sense of things through the filters of our own experience. There are reasons to think that some mythology may have grown out of the deeds of actual people, actual Kings, Queens and rulers. It may be that much of Paganism itself is rooted in monarchic cultures.

The language of democracy doesn’t really work for religion. Any notion of elected to power seems a bit odd when talking about beings who have more power than us. Chairman of the Gods is funny, but lacks a certain swing. Perhaps this is in part because one of the key things we want from Gods, is that they be bigger and more powerful than us and therefore able to protect us from terrible things. Powerful enough to protect you from other things – ie other Kings, has always been part of the marketing for feudalism.

There are other languages out there although I can’t claim deep familiarity with them. From what I’ve read, a lot of indigenous people use the language of family to talk about the spirit powers they encounter. Grandfathers and grandmothers. Brothers and sisters. If you aren’t operating in a patriarchal/feudal structure to begin with, God the father has a very different feel to it.

The language of monarchy and feudalism tends to give humans a sense of power over the non-human world, which is doing us and the world no good at all. Perhaps it is time to start questioning our word choices and habits of thinking. I don’t have any suggestions for word replacements at the moment, except to acknowledge that I find the language of monarchy and feudalism really uncomfortable and I wish we didn’t use it.

Old words for old problems

I have problems with the term ‘patriarchy’ because it’s part of a dialogue that pits men against women. It’s very difficult to talk usefully about feminism, when feminism has been structured by some people as an assault on men. Yes, there’s a whole issue here around privilege, and the need to recognise that not having all the advantages any more is about fairness, not attack, but it’s hard work making that argument in face of constant hostility, and the hostile people are the ones who most need to hear something different. I’ve seen too much on social media of a certain flavour of male entitlement, and the resentment of women asking for an equal space in society, and I think we may be trying to have the wrong conversation here.

While historically women have, overall, been more vulnerable to the problems in our culture than men, most men don’t really benefit from it, and some women do – it’s never been a simple gender divide, an us versus them. The sense of being more important than the women in their lives may serve to help keep a certain kind of guy comfortable with his position in the status quo. Sure, he’s kicked from above, but he feels he’s better than someone – his wife, his mother, his daughter, and traditionally this makes his position more tolerable. That’s hideous, when you stop to think about it. A sense of privilege seems to depend on having someone to look down on, and that in turn helps us not to mind being looked down upon by others. Women do this too, and slut shaming is part of it. So much for dignity and self esteem.

The mistreatment of women is underpinned by a number of really nasty ideas. There’s hierarchy – that some people are worth more than others. The people at the top matter, the people at the bottom do not. Men matter more than women. There’s ownership issues – the idea that people can be property, in slavery, in serfdom, in poverty so abject that they must do your bidding. In obedient marriage. The idea that using people to achieve your goals is fine. This is the same system that for hundreds of years has cheerfully sent men to die for the sake of a land grab, a bigger title for the man in charge, and for the man who would be king.

It’s a system that cheerfully kills men in dangerous industries. Mining, fishing. The death and maiming rates of the industrial revolution were huge, and the canals cost about a life per yard, on average, I have been told. And when they have no use for you, they’ll leave you and your children to die by starvation.

I’ve long felt that if we want to tackle the huge international issue of the mistreatment of women, we have to tackle the culture that holds it together. Many of us officially no longer live in feudal monarchy systems, but the same logic applies. The same sense of worth attached to the few, and the disposable quality of the many. We don’t see life as equal. The life of a wealthy ‘important’ person is not considered in the same way as the life of a refugee, a sweat shop labourer, a subsistence farmer. Anyone whose position depends on looking down, must bow their head to someone else, until we get to the top of the feudal pyramid, and the few who bow to no one. The lure of moving up the food chain keeps us in the system. The feeling of being better than someone else helps us tolerate where we are. It’s a way of being in the world that turns us into users, standing on other people to get an advantage, pushing them down that we might stay above them. Anyone, regardless of gender, who engages in this does so at a cost to their humanity.

You can have gender equality and still have feudalism, you just need to find a different reason to pick on people, one that isn’t about what’s in your pants (say, money). But you have a much harder time of it maintaining sexism, or for that matter racism or any other us and them based prejudice, if you don’t have a feudalistic mindset.

Cultural power games

It can be tempting to think of patriarchy as a system that benefits all men at the expense of all women. This itself is a line of thought that benefits patriarchy, because the more you entrench ideas of gender division, the easier it is for the patriarchy to stay in place. Most men do not benefit from this system, but by creating the illusion that they could be winners, they are encouraged to play along, and have been for hundreds of years. There are also women who play along, who seek ease through complicity, seek to win on the terms patriarchy lays out, and who are happy to denigrate other women to make a position for themselves.

Patriarchy can be really shitty to many of its male participants. In unbalancing gender relationships, it undermines what relationships you can have. Just as there are limits on what you can do as a nice slave owner, there are limits on what you can do as a nice guy in a heavily patriarchal culture. If you do not match how the culture defines masculinity – maybe you are gay, non-violent, not ambitious, not hungry for power over others – then you will be labelled as feminine and the culture will denigrate you that same way it does its women. If women are cast as inferior, then a woman being better than you at something is really threatening. Patriarchal cultures put most men in positions where they do not get to feel superior, but are forever watching their backs, and are as limited in their identity options as their womenfolk are. Culture is people, so this only works because the majority are willing to participate or do not notice what they are upholding. (Consider ‘throws like a girl’.)

The important question to ask, is who wins this game? Who benefits?

Patriarchy is a system of power-over. It gives men power over women, but it also gives men power over each other. Physical power, financial power, ownership of resources, and that more ephemeral notion of ‘authority’. It is a system that encourages all participants to let the people (mostly men) and institutions (mostly run by men) that are in charge, to stay in charge, because they have authority and authority should be respected. If that upsets you, then in a patriarchal culture, the answer isn’t to challenge those above you, but to kick an inferior so as to achieve catharsis (UKIP in a nutshell, most forms of fascism in fact). Inferiority is constructed along lines of gender, race, poverty and lack of power. Only a handful of people really benefit in a system of this shape, and they get to sit at the top of the heap, wielding authority because that’s what they’ve always done, because they have more money and habits of power than anyone else.

If you like having power over people and you want the freedom to use other people as objects, then patriarchy is a system that will suit you well. If, regardless of gender, you don’t enjoy using or being used, this is not a system you are ever going to be happy in. What enables it to survive is that patriarchy does not present itself as a system, it has always offered itself as an unassailable reality. Of course it’s just natural that these are the people who end up in power making all the decisions. And now, cleverly, they have us largely convinced that we pick them by voting, and not looking hard enough at how many of them went through the same elite educational institutions.

Gender conflict is a symptom, not an underlying cause. It is a consequence of a system that fundamentally believes in power-over and the use of resources, where other people’s lives, bodies, minds, health and existence most certainly do count as a resource to be used. My feeling is that we are only going to sort out issues of gender politics when enough of us stop being enthusiastic players of the power-over game which has been set up explicitly such that none of us can win it. This is basically feudalism with a new hat, and we have been persuaded to do it to ourselves.

A Druid economy

Of course these days as a Druid you do not get to talk sense to those in charge in any kind of structured way, so I’m just going to vent theories on the blog.

Austerity. It doesn’t work. The UK is still borrowing a lot of money and not paying off its debts, and at the same time the poorest are suffering. Apparently millionaires are poised to get tax breaks, because we all know how much those folks are hurting… (gah). Now, the poorest people in the UK are not just unemployed or too ill to work, but also include a lot of people in part time and low paid employment. Rising rents and council tax, rising fuel costs and amenities (while companies make profits) put the squeeze on incomes that are not rising. People pay for the essentials, and they buy cheap because they have to, in order to survive. The more pressure you put on the poorest in society, the less economically active they become. Oddly enough, high streets are increasingly dominated by pound stores and charity shops, while big chains close an average of 20 stores a day across the country. Every store closed represents more job losses, more people needing a hand, and having less money. And so the squeeze extends.

The way things are set up, economies depend on movement of money. GDP is simply a measure of movement. The faster the money moves the more everybody appears to have. It’s a funny old world. However, reduce the incomes of the poorest, and they stop buying those luxuries like books and music. They stop going down the pub, for a night out. When enough people stop doing that, pubs close, and ooh look, HMV has just folded. (Music, for anyone unfamiliar with them.) In this climate, only bargain basement stores selling dodgy horse burgers are going to thrive.

There’s no political will to cap rents. We hear a lot about how people on benefits are scrounging off the state, and nothing at all about how much public money ultimately finds its way into the pockets of private landlords. So run that past me again about who is scrounging here? People in work get tax benefits because in the current climate, the minimum wage is not enough to live on. We’re not talking heady luxuries, we’re talking bare essentials. No one is talking about how private employers ought to be paying workers a living wage rather than the state picking up the tab. Remind me about who the scroungers are, please. In the last decade or so the private sector has not invested in growth or jobs. It’s just paid fat dividends to shareholders and ever more obscene bonuses to management while the people who do the work struggle on a not-living wage. Then, thanks to that lack of investment, business in the UK does not thrive, jobs move overseas, businesses fail to pay their fair share of taxes. The rich underpay the poor, decline to pay their own taxes, pay themselves huge bonuses… Meanwhile those with no hope, no prospects, no opportunities and no money sink into despair, and when the government notices the total apathy out there, they ascribe it not to depression or futility but to laziness.

If we had a level playing field and all you needed to do was work hard and you’d succeed, then berating the poor for not making an effort would be fair enough. That’s not the score. But it’s not at all clever, because the more money you take out of the pockets of the poor, the less money you have moving around. Those people sat on huge wads of cash are not spending it to drive the economy. Squeezing the poor does not make for a healthy economy. How about paying a living wage, providing work opportunities, having business invest in business rather than creaming off the profits all the time… we could have something that works passably well.

Perhaps David Cameron wants to bring back feudalism, picturing himself as mighty ruler of Great Britain. The trouble is Mr Cameron, go on this way and you will have total power over all your serfs, but all you’ll get is to be King of a pile of dirt, dressed in a ragged and filthy robe of state, with a crown made out of rusty spoons. We got rid of feudalism for a reason – we were tired of the Dark Ages. Go back there if you want to, get into re-enactment or something, but for pity’s sake, stop trying to take the rest of us with you.