Ciboski: On Comparative Systems

Oct 16, 2019

Huge numbers of Americans think the United States is the greatest country in the world, or even that it is the best that has ever existed. That may or may not be the case, but we ought to ask: in comparison to what?

It is important for us to look at political and economic systems outside of our own. If we become too parochial, we tend to engage in ethnocentrism, the attitude that one’s own group, nation, or culture is superior to all others. At that point, there really is no need to consider any other system.

Compare our own way of life to the feudal system. Feudalism concerned social relations between lords and subordinate landholders called vassals. Much of what we see in European cities today developed in the Middle Ages and the feudal era. Lords protected their subjects from neighboring attacks. In return, vassals gave up part of the fruits of their labor. This led to a rigid class system that continued through the Industrial Revolution. Peasants became industrial workers and the nobility became industrialists and part of the landed aristocracy.

By contrast, America never experienced feudalism. When immigrants came here, there was not the hierarchy that permeated European society. As sociologist Barrington Moore says, America was born modern and was bourgeois from the beginning. Class consciousness did not develop here the way it did in Europe.

Some scholars argue countries that never experienced feudalism have also never seen socialism, which may contribute to the negative views many Americans have toward even the word “socialism,” let alone any socialist government policies. This often prevents us from really examining the successes or failures of countries that have engaged in such policies.

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