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Assuming a sci-fi setting, tech level capable of interplanetary travel, but incapable of interstellar travel (no FTL).

Would it be possible for a sufficiently powerful (politically and technologically) 'elite' class to oppress the masses and re-enforce a feudal style society, placing themselves as King/Queens, Counts/Countesses etc?

Edit: After reading @Vincent's (thanks, btw) answer, I felt I need to clarify that I really did mean a honest to god feudal system. The rich actually want to 'play' war, and duke it out as rival Kings and Queens and lords of houses because it seems 'Romantic'. Yes, they are eff-ed in the head.

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    $\begingroup$ As always I'll throw Frank Herberts Dune in the ring. High tech civ (some self imposed restrictions apply) with even FTL interstellar travel transforms into a feudal system. God Emperor of Dune takes the idea of "medieval stasis" even further. $\endgroup$ – Ghanima Feb 15 '15 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ Ludwig II of Bavaria with lasers $\endgroup$ – Vincent Feb 16 '15 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ Niven, Pournelle, and Anderson (among others) explored feudalism (or something analogous) as a credible, even desirable, future society in a number of works. I'm thinking of Oath of Fealty in particular (though that's about a sub-society rather than society as a whole) but there are others. Anderson's Polesotechnic League might be the best example. The premise is usually that corporations eventually become more powerful than governments, making the latter obsolete to a greater or lesser degree. $\endgroup$ – Harry Johnston Feb 16 '15 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ Am I right in thinking that the dune power structure revolved around: Family atomics and shields? $\endgroup$ – Sobrique Feb 16 '15 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ Red Rising and Golden Son are the first two books of a trilogy that has mostly this as the background government. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 16 '15 at 13:59
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The nature of feudalism

Feudalism is probably best described as fractally distributed authoritarianism. It means that political power is (theoretically) organized as a tree structure, with obligations of fealty that go up the tree (and sometimes down; European feudalism had formal recognition of bidirectional obligations, while the samurai of medieval Japan conceptualized their loyalty to their lord as one-way and absolute.)

This means that any subset of the political structure is potentially autonomous. Let's say, and why not, that you are a medieval European Baron, and you owe feudal duty to a King. What happens when the King dies without an heir? Well, you pretty much keep going: running your barony, intriguing against your neighbors, keeping the Vikings or whomever at bay as best you can. At some point, you will be offered opportunities to swear fealty to some kind of suzerain; you may even take part in the intrigues attendant on creating a successor's claim to the throne...

The point, of course, is that the death or loss of legitimacy on the part of a leader does not cause as much widespread ruin. The system reconfigures itself, more or less naturally. This creates a very stable political situation. Probably the most stable that could be contrived, given the tumultuous nature of medieval times.

That resilience is the core benefit of feudalism.

Where it comes apart, historically, is when a society starts generating enough economic surplus, or encounters sufficiently uncharted circumstances, that feudal suppression of the peasant base becomes insufficient as a political model. I've recently heard Democracy described as "the crowdsourcing of political decisionmaking", and I don't think that's entirely wrong.

A secondary downfall of the feudal model would be when economic and technological factors make it impossible for the nobility to sustain its position. This is often characterized in historical recapitulation as "when central governments got cannon and could reduce castles at will". That, however, is an historical artifact of European history. Your question isn't about that.

Would it be possible for a sufficiently powerful (politically and technologically) 'elite' class to oppress the masses and re-enforce a feudal style society?

The best answer I can give you is another question:

Can your envisioned high-tech society provide a set of circumstances in which:

  • extending power to the common people is not necessary, and
  • the independence of a "nobility" can be expected?

If you can answer "yes" to that question, then you have a plausible scenario for the existence of a feudal political system. For this, you will need to tweak your technology, and probably your planetology, to make that happen.

To go beyond "a plausible scenario", however, you need to find a situation in which the nested resilience characteristic of feudalism is not merely conceivable, but confers a strong advantage.

Some factors that could work toward this include:

  • Geographical boundaries that are not easy or cheap, even with your postulated high tech, to traverse with military force.

  • Interruptions to long-range communications (perhaps due to peculiar characteristics of the sun's radiation, for example?)

  • Cohabitation on the planet with formidable and unpredictable competitors.

  • Intense bombardment by meteors at difficult-to-predict intervals.

  • The existence of destabilizingly strong and destructive Wild Talents (psionic, or even more radical) amongst the population, including the "common folk".

  • The existence of high-tech power generation systems that have a strong tendency to become unstable if you build them too large. Sort of the equivalent of a nuclear explosion, sometimes... This would cause an enforced decentralization of energy resources. Decentralized power is much the same thing as decentralized productive agricultural land in medieval feudalism...

These are only a few ideas that would tend to make feudalism a better choice than large-scale authoritarianism.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for The Nature of Feudalism. Very nice explanation and more or less what I was looking for! Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Feaurie Vladskovitz Feb 16 '15 at 1:04
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I doubt it could happen because I think there is a flaw in your idea. You want a concentration of power and a feudal system. Feudal systems are usually decentralized. Having some people at the top and a parasitic aristocracy with no real power doesn't make it a feudal system.

In short, in the feudal system, the suzerain will have vassals. Each lord has responsibilities due to their overlord and the suzerain also has responsibilities toward his vassals. Although, the king is a the top, he is usually pretty weak and depend on the support of his vassals. This vassal-suzerain relationship is what defines the feudal system. It is incompatible with the concentration of wealth because each lord only control a small part of the kingdom. Although the aristocracy has a lot of power, it is very spread out.

Plutocracy is probably what you are looking for. Rich would rule without needing the support of lesser lords and would be free to oppress the population. People are not defined by their relation with others or their bloodline but just with their wealth. Saudi Arabia would be a ''good'' model. The royal family take almost all the powers. It is possibler to extend the political powers to the friends, relatives and cousins (the larger family). This can also be called nepotism.

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  • $\begingroup$ I understand your idea, but I was actually thinking about an 'actual' feudal system, where rival kingdoms wage war for land and everything. Or am I being a bit naive about this? Thanks for the answer regardless! $\endgroup$ – Feaurie Vladskovitz Feb 16 '15 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @FeaurieVladskovitz that is possible, a dictator could take the title of King if he wanted to. Some countries in central Asia have presidential dictatorship. They used to be very democratic for the first 3-4 years and then the president gradually took more and more power. We are waiting for them to die to confirm whether or not they have become monarchy. Form that point of view, North Korea is kinda ruled like an absolutism monarchy. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Feb 16 '15 at 1:40
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The hard question is: how did it come to this?

I would expect that, once it holds global power, such a system might survive for years or decades, under ruthless persecution of its opponents. History has shown that people can be brainwashed into believing in the most ludicrous things. But that doesn't mean that they get anywhere with it.

Say, a nation starts drifting toward medieval control structures and beliefs. If it isn't a global player, the outcome will remind of Venezuela's recent endeavors: the nation is weakened and becomes less relevant. Thus, the nation starting this has to be a large player, so that it can oppress its surroundings before succumbing to its own inefficiency. By large, I mean huge, seeing that even the USSR didn't make it. And, while the communist block was bad, feudalism could easily turn out worse.

Feudalism isn't a well-defined term, but the governments it describes were horribly inefficient, even when compared with typical communist countries or dictatorships today. And unless some other event changes the world first, they'll be up against capitalism, which tends to mop the floor with everything else, even when poorly implemented.

Capitalism is built on variety, honoring promises, and, most importantly, freedom. The feudalistic government is incompatible with variety and freedom, so it will probably lose the associated efficiency. In addition, to keep its supporters in line, the system has to prioritize brainwashing to rationality. In practice, this means:

  • Scientific stagnation, or even degression

  • Peoples' ability to learn and reason is impeded

  • Highly inflexible organization that will respond badly to new situations

  • Continuous, violent attacks on any forms of free thought

In other words, welcome to North Korea. This works, but it comes at a very high price – possibly too high to compete with other nations.

Thus, it comes down to first removing the competition, for example by making the world more unified and less capitalistic. Given populist politics and human short-sightedness, this is imaginable. Afterwards, an outright huge government might be able to conquer all opponents before the difference in efficiency becomes a problem.

This doesn't answer how the feudalistic system would restrict variety between the lords, which would destabilize it. Probably, some sort of king or emperor would do the job, removing lords who step out of line, similar to medieval times.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 YES! I was going to answer, but this covered everything. Great answer! $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Feb 15 '15 at 22:31
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I think that could happen.

The first step would be an extreme concentration of wealth and power to a relatively small elite (forget the 1%, make that 1 ppm). Basically, all companies would be big, and the power structure would make it absolutely impossible to found new companies which could give the big companies competition. That is, you've got a small, rich elite, and an economy consisting of a few big companies which control the market. Assume further that the market has been sorted out in a way that the companies all have monopolies in their respective field, and the system has stabilized through agreements and/or power structures so that the companies don't ever enter into the territory of the other companies. Assume further that the elite has also secured political power (directly or indirectly; remember, money is power), so there's no chance that this situation will be corrected, except possibly by a revolution; however such a revolution is unlikely because the elite has all the powerful weapons, and makes sure that the ordinary people cannot get them (also, maybe add ubiquitous surveillance).

A monopoly is not interested in innovation. Innovation only means that something could eat into their profits. Therefore the companies will make sure that no innovation will occur. The first way to do so is to make sure nobody has too much education; since there's no competition and no new development, the only education which is needed is the one required to keep the system running. People need to understand how to do certain work, but they don't need to understand why to do it that way. Advanced knowledge is reserved to the elite, who are through this way also the saviours if something goes wrong in a larger way, which further cements their leading position. Note that by controlling both politics and the market, they can make reasonably sure that people don't have access to advanced education.

Since the wealthy elite has the de-facto power and is the gatekeeper of knowledge, it can gradually remove any remaining democratic structures and turn themselves into power positions. Probably they'd also make sure the religious leaders are on their side (there's nothing money can't buy!), completing the feudal system.

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I'll start by suggesting - how about a world where feudalism never stopped?

Most of the world passed through feudalism to get to where we are now. I'd offer that one of the biggest catalysts in the transition was the black death. A sudden drop in 'working class' individuals, meant their market value increased - to the point where they were no longer in a 'poverty trap'.

But you've also the evolution of weaponry as an element to consider - feudalism only really works for as long as the 'ruling caste' have the power amplification effect of armoured and skilled warriors (knights). The cost disparity of a well equipped knight was such that a 'peasant' had no hope of resisting.

Gunpowder really was the great leveller in that regard - a well trained knight was still 'better' on the battlefield, but a peasant with a musket could get lucky (where the same peasant with a scythe had no chance).

So in order to make your feudal-future, I'd suggest you need some kind of power imbalance, such that the ruling classes can maintain control. Some sort of power armour, shielding, etc.

Maybe - given a space faring society - there's new materials out there that enable this to occur. Unobtainum armour, or shield generators. Maybe biomods. Something that means your 'rulers' cannot be removed from power by a single peasant with a grudge.

It needs to:

  • Have an high barrier to entry, such that the 'peasants' cannot acquire it for themselves.
  • Require a lead time to use, such that there is no 'revolt and seize the unobtainium' type power struggle.

A variety of options might fit the bill, but would depend upon your universe. Shields, super armour, psychic enhancers, regenerative biology, etc.

To reinforce, you'd need a limit to education, such that your 'normal' citizens don't even know they can challenge the system.

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Feudalism will not work because it has lower productivity per capita than plutocracy: capitalism with oligarchs. Oligarch make huge monopolistic profits, and use them to buy politicians so they can keep pretense of democracy without really bothering to listen to voters. And oligarch would not submit to random kings and dukes. Look at history, kings could not afford to finance the wars by taxes, and needed to borrow money from bankers.

Thin about Gilded Age in USA, or USA after Citizens united when money are considered a form of speech, and democracy means "every dollar should be equally represented). It is not as bad yet, but requirement of democracy is informed electorate. If electorate can be fooled to vote against their own economical interest, after few rounds situation could stabilize on the side of the more money.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why does productivity come into it? You don't need vast productivity, provided you've got enough living as subsistence level generating wealth/quality of life for the feudal lords. $\endgroup$ – Sobrique Feb 16 '15 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Productivity come in when oligarchs want more resources to themselves than feudal lords want to provide to them. And unless you have huge disaster completely disrupting civilization, ("working") people would want as much resources as they had "before", and feudal lords would need massive enforcement to put all population into the submission. Remember that feudalism was improvement over previous situation (slavery), and people believed it was right - and did not know any better. Only a huge disaster would make feudalism to be improvement. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Feb 16 '15 at 20:05

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