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How climate change spurred the end of feudalism

Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel:

"Civilizations don’t collapse because humans reproduce too fast and starve, as Robert Malthus warned in his Essay on the Principles of Population. Since 1970, the number of malnourished people has remained above 800 million, yet few talk of the end of civilization. Instead, great historical transitions occur because “business as usual” no longer works. The powerful have a way of sticking to time-honored strategies even when the reality is radically changing. So it was with feudal Europe. The Black Death was not simply a demographic catastrophe. It also tilted the balance of forces in European society.

Feudalism depended on a growing population, not only to produce food but also to reproduce lordly power. The aristocracy wanted a relatively high peasant population, to maintain its bargaining position: many peasants competing for land was better than many lords competing for peasants. But feudalism was a system born of an earlier climate. Historians call this the Medieval Warm Period — it was so balmy that vineyards reached Norway. That changed at the dawn of the fourteenth century. Climate may not be destiny, but if there is a historical lesson from climate history, it’s that ruling classes don’t survive climate transitions. Feudalism’s class-enforced monocultures crumbled in the face of the Little Ice Age: famine and disease quickly followed.

As a result, with the onset of the Black Death, webs of commerce and exchange didn’t just transmit disease — they became vectors of mass insurrection. Almost overnight, peasant revolts ceased being local affairs and became large-scale threats to the feudal order. After 1347 these uprisings were synchronized — they were system-wide responses to an epochal crisis, a fundamental breakdown in feudalism’s logic of power, production and nature.

The Black Death precipitated an unbearable strain on a system already stretched to the breaking point. Europe after the plague was a place of unrelenting class war, from the Baltics to Iberia, London to Florence. Peasant demands for tax relief and the restoration of customary rights were calls that feudalism’s rulers could not tolerate. If Europe’s crowns, banks and aristocracies could not suffer such demands, neither could they restore the status quo ante, despite their best efforts. Repressive legislation to keep labor cheap, through wage controls or outright re-enserfment, came in reaction to the Black Death. Among the earliest was England’s Ordinance and Statute of Labourers, enacted in the teeth of the plague’s first onslaught (1349–51). The equivalent today would be to respond to an Ebola epidemic by making unionization harder.

The labor effects of climate change were abundantly clear to Europe’s aristocrats, who exhausted themselves trying to keep business very much as usual. They failed almost entirely. Nowhere in western or central Europe was serfdom reestablished. Wages and living standards for peasants and urban workers improved substantially, enough to compensate for a decline in the overall size of the economy. Although this was a boon for most people, Europe’s 1 percent found their share of the economic surplus contracting. The old order was broken and could not be fixed.

Capitalism emerged from this broken state of affairs. Ruling classes tried not just to restore the surplus but to expand it. That was easier said than done, however. East Asia was wealthier, so although its rulers also experienced socio-ecological tribulations, they found ways to accommodate upheaval, deforestation and resource shortages in their own tributary terms. One solution that reinvented humans’ relation to the web of life was stumbled upon by the Iberian aristocracy — in Portugal and Castile above all. By the end of the fifteenth century, these kingdoms and their societies had made war through the Reconquista, the centuries-long conflict with Muslim powers on the peninsula, and were so deeply dependent on Italian financiers to fund their military campaigns that Portugal and Castile had in turn been remade by war and debt.

The mix of war debt and the promise of wealth through conquest spurred the earliest invasions of the Atlantic. The solution to war debt was more war, with the payoff being colonial profit on new, great frontiers. The modern world emerged from systematic attempts to fix crises at this frontier. What followed was an epochal transition: one that reinvented the surplus around a cocktail of banking, slaving, and killing." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/moore-patel-seven-cheap-things-capitalocene/)