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Serfdom, Slavery, and the Caste System

December 10, 2010

In my history class, we recently mentioned the differences between serfdom and slavery. Serfdom is defined as “the socio-economic status of unfree peasants under feudalism, and specifically relates to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe. Serfdom was the enforced labor of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.” An interesting point is made here; serfs were given the right to work [on their leased fields]. Basically, serfs “owned” the land that they worked on; African slaves could not own property, in fact, they were considered property. Serfdom is distinguished from slavery mainly by the rights held by serfs, which were recognized by the upper-classmen. Serfs could usually pass the right to work their land on to a son. Slaves, on the other hand, essentially had no rights at all. In American colonies race and religion played an important role in the creation of slavery.

Many other important components additionally contributed to the evolvement of forced labor. What was the same in both forms of enforced labor, however, was the fact the both were hereditary; you were born into slavery or serfdom. While these methods of labor no longer exist today (or at least in developed nations), similar social systems exist. In India, for example, there are social classes called “castes.” Just as in slavery and serfdom, people are born into castes. Outcasts, or untouchables, are members of Hindu society thought to have been removed from the Caste System, with no hope of returning to it, due to their misdeeds in previous lives. Work that is deemed unclean for all other Hindus is reserved for these Outcasts. Once you are born into a certain caste, social mobility becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. This just goes to show that social discrimination (probably not the best word to use here) will always exist. From a philosophical standpoint, would you agree that “social discrimination” will always exist? What do you think the philosophers we talked about this semester would believe? What about the idea of people being considered property?

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2 Comments
  1. December 10, 2010 10:30 PM

    In regards to the questions toward the end of your post I believe one can come to some fairly quick conclusions. Hobbes and Locke were both pretty clear in their statements that every individual had the right to their own body and to protect themselves from doing anything detrimental to the self or as Locke puts it in his “Second Treatise of Civil Government,” one is “bound to preserve himself.” Hobbes, in “Leviathan,” goes so far as to say one is allowed to return to the state of nature in order to defend oneself from any possible unjust subjugation or punishment.

    Certainly I would see one being treated and labeled as property to be in violation of these two philosophers’ beliefs toward self-preservation and rights to self-defense. Being owned as property would put one without the ability to claim the right to protect themselves as all such decisions would be under the digression of the individual’s “owner” or “master.” Without being able to make these claims to life then slavery and/or serfdom is obviously in conflict with Hobbes and Locke.

    Glancing through the other philosophers we have covered, one that may have supported slavery would have been Machiavelli. I believe this simply for the fact that Machiavelli believed that the individual’s interests and rights were inconsequential in the run of things because all that mattered was whether or not the ruler, or “Prince,” maintained his firm grip on his domain and subjects. To Machiavelli this meant that the ruler in question was justified in maintaining the institutions of slavery and any caste system he wanted in the interest of a stable and controllable kingdom. This even leads one to wonder if a Machiavelli inspired Lincoln would have abandoned the move for emancipation of slaves in the south in the interest of maintaining the Union. (Not that that was the only or even leading issue that threatened to split the U.S.)

    One philosopher whose opinion I am not really clear I would be able to clarify (on the issue of slavery or a caste system) is that of Socrates. With his theory of Tacit Consent, Socrates believed if you lived in a society then you did so knowing the standards and rules of said society. In choosing to live there, one obtained the benefits of the area but at the cost of accepting any other detriments or regulations that existed. I would be curious as to how Socrates felt this extended to slavery. Slaves for the most part were either born into, or forced into a society where said institution was legal and accepted. They were not living there because they were conscious and accepting of the societal norms, and in this case that slavery is/was a norm. In Socrates mind is this enough to clear them from Tacit Consent and thus condone slavery? I believe so, but one can make the argument that said slaves would have to make an attempt to escape said society in order to make the claim that slaves or serfs, or “Untouchables,” rejected the society and chose to live in a place where individual’s rights were more homogeneous.

    There are of course plenty of ways you could pull out ideas from various political theorists but here I am just sharing interpretations I felt are educational and/or interesting.

  2. ann900 permalink
    December 10, 2010 11:14 PM

    Social discrimination will exist as long as we have the economic system that we have today. People are always going to make more then others, making them their “boss”. And so long as the economic system stays the way it is people are always going to be born into classes. Although it is more then possible to break out from your “class” it is easier to just stick with what you know. People of the lower class don’t always have the money or resources to get the opportunity to be a part of the upper class. And that is not discriminating, just stating basic facts. On the contrary people in the upper class have tasted what that lifestyle is like and will usually do anything to maintain it. So although it would be a great thing to get rid of social discrimination, i’m just not sure it will ever happen.

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