The medieval period was imperfect, but there’s a lot we can learn from it for today.
This is part two of a six part series on economics and Catholic social teaching. (Part 1)
If we visualize the sociopolitical framework of the Middle Ages, we see that it resembled a giant centrifuge: property, which is to say economic power, as well as political authority, was widely dispersed throughout Christendom. This meant that localities usually operated with a surprising degree of autonomy. The Capetian Kings, for example, who ruled France from 987 to 1328, could not impose direct taxation; the Bourbons, who came later, could not conscript soldiers. Both of these exactions, which we now take for granted as facts of our political order, are known to have caused revolts in the past.
However, at the end of the medieval period the centrifuge began to collapse. The forces of dispersion gradually dissolved, creating a sociopolitical vacuum, and centralization naturally ensued. While the causes of this “reversal of polarity” are no doubt multifaceted, the predominant revolution of the era, at least for the common man, was economic: it was the birth of that ideology which we now call “capitalism.”
Capitalism has always and everywhere acted as a centripetal force on those societies in which its principles are allowed to operate, drawing ownership inward toward a tightly-packed center. This “center of ownership” may take the form of a few wealthy individuals, but it may also take the form of the State itself. Socialism, after all, is nothing more than “State capitalism.” (Centesimus Annus, 35)
It may help here to cite a few statistics, not to prove our case—because statistics never prove anything—but rather in order to emphasize the degree of centralization that occurs under a capitalist regime:
In 2010, 80% of the American population combined to hold a minuscule 5% of the total financial wealth. This meant that 95% of our nation’s wealth was owned by a small minority. Within that minority, the wealthiest 5% held a whopping 72% of the nation’s total financial wealth (this also explains why the rich pay most of our taxes: if the top 5% has 72% of the total financial wealth, then it only makes sense that they would pay at least 72% of the taxes).
This is, of course, only in regard to the United States. The disproportion becomes even more astounding if we view things through to lens of globalism. As Pope Francis said in his recent exhortation, the result of has been an “economy of exclusion” which reinforces envy, strife, and sooner or later must end in hostilities which not even war could ever hope to solve. (Evangelii Gaudium, 59-60)
Returning to our historical point of view, we can see that this tendency toward extreme disproportion has been present from capitalism’s birth.
The Middle Ages, with its feudal structure and its guild system, had erected a vast economic “web.” This web was formed by a thousand concentric circles of semi-independent groups, connected through functional relationships, aimed at—even if never fully achieving—harmonious cooperation. This is diametrically opposite to the logic of capitalism, which homogenizes the entire structure, sets all particles in opposition to one another, and feeds on the heat of the resulting antagonism. One teaches man to seek his bread through stability and concord; the other through competition and chaos.
Considering these ideals, it is not difficult to see why the Middle Ages has been called the “Golden Age of the Worker.” If a man was a farmer, he worked on a share of land on his lord’s estate. His existence was not characterized by tyranny, but defined by duty and reciprocity. It is difficult for the modern egalitarian mind to imagine any hierarchical relationship which does not automatically imply injustice or oppression; nonetheless, both peasant and lord served one another in a well-defined and stable context of mutual responsibility, arranged according to their respective social functions. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the relationship was complementary and even symbiotic.