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I do not agree on what the shift from slavery to feudalism meant in the west roman parts of Europe (in the east roman the roman empire lived on much longer, but "fall of rome" is usually a referal to the fall of the western realm). The feudal system was not more efficient in terms of food production and food security. From 200 AD to 600 AD the (non-USSR) Europe suffered a population decline from 44 millions to 22 (according to Livi-Bacci - A concise history of world population).

I think the description of slavery economics misses some points. This is how I see it. As the Roman empire expanded there was a conflict of ownership of the newly aquired productive resources (land and the slaves to use it) between the really wealthy families - lets call them the senatorial class - and the free (but not wealthy) common person. The legioners of rome were commoners.

As long as the empire expanded both the rich and the commoners could get a part of the new resources. The wealthy got richer and the legioners got land as pensions. Eventually the Roman Empire reached its natural limits, Sahara in the south, low productive forests and marches in the north, the Atlantic in the East and was limited by a to strong opponent - the Parthian empire - in the east.

Without means to expand the wealthy started to expand their power - most notably their landholdings - at the expense of the commoners. As the senatorial class was not taxed this was an uneven fight that became more uneven over time. As more land became pert of the senatorial class latifundias, fewer free peasants remained to be taxed, and thus had to be taxed harder. To prevent peasants from fleeing their land, they were bound to it. Thus serfdom was introduced. As central power weakened, the empire lost cohesion. The germanic tribes took over what was already a system gone feudal. And slaves were still around.

If the system was doomed to collapse or not is a question of perspective. On one hand it is quite obvious what needed to be done, taxing the senatorial class, breaking up too large latifundias and so on. On the other the emperors came out of the senatorial class and had little reason to do so. The risk with opposing the senatorial class was obvious - beware the ides of march!

Today we have a similar problem as we are passing the peak in global resource extraktion. The über-wealthy and their immortal multinationals avoids taxes and attempts to break up monopolies (Microsoft is the prime example, but there has been others). That this weakens the governments and will worsen the decline for the great unwashed masses seems to be of little concern.

P2P is the most hopeful factor in getting a softer landing. The shift is however fought tooths and nails by the present structures. The p2p culture production is already often illegal, even if non-commercial. And it is growing, in one of the early drafts IPRED 2 included making patent violations a crime punishable by jailtime. Microsoft claims that Linux violates at least 200 of their patents. Since you can patent almost anything these days (especially in the US), they are probably right.

Guess what I am saying is that p2p society can come, would be good, but is not given. And the other scenario is the neo-feudalism. Multinationals keep on growning, states keep loosing power. Independent use of means of production - even your own ideas - is outlawed and policed by the multis. Social protection, even physical protection becomes the domain of multis. Gradually the systems break down as the multis can no longer leach on the states but becomes the states - highly feudal ones.

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by A swedish kind of death on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 05:30:57 PM EST
Note, however, that the collapse in population was by no means uniform ... the Mediterranean urban centers that depended on Egyptian and North African wheat for their subsistence were absolutely hammered when the Bubonic plague reached Alexandria from the headwaters of the Nile ... and while wine and olive oil may be able to command quite a bit of bread in trade, its a bit hard to live off wine and olive oil alone.

By contrast, with the development of the heavy wheeled mouldboard plough, populations in northern Europe expanded substantially in the second half of the first millenium.

(And, of course, if you are engage in commercial slave plantation agriculture when the Mediterranean food distribution system is being hammered by repeated outbreaks of plague, enough basic staple foods to keep your slaves alive and working is a rapidly rising cost of business ... while if you rely on a local monopoly of force to extract a rent in kind from a peasant farmer, you can get in the business of having staple food to live off of and a surplus to sell.)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 06:11:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All true.

600 was chosen deliberately as it is after the collapse of western Rome and before the heavy plough had started to work its miracle. (Also, Livi-Bacci has 600 in a handy table.)

Plough - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Despite a number of innovations, the Romans never achieved the heavy wheeled mouldboard plough. The first indisputable appearance after the Roman period is from 643, in a northern Italian document[2].

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by A swedish kind of death on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 06:25:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
However, if it were not for the Bubonic plague, 600 would not have been "after the collapse of the Western Empire", as Justinian had reconquered North Africa and Italy, and it is not implausible that if those conquests had been consolidated that Iberia would have been added as well ... only leaving Julius Ceasar's pointless conquests of Transalpine Gaul and Britannia out of a revived Roman Empire.

Its the flea ... the flea I tell ya. There's your transition from late antiquity to the early medieval period.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:06:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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