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Western Europe is More Egalitarian and the People there are Happier. WHY?
Phase I:  The Evolution from Feudalism & Serfdom to Liberal Constitutionalism (5th - 19th Century)

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9 April 2019

Of the top ten happiest countries among 156 surveyed in a 2019 global ranking of happiness levels, Europe accounts for seven. It is no coincidence that these countries namely Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden are also among the world’s most egalitarian countries based on the value of Gini coefficient.

To be sure, Europe was not always so socially inclusive and blissful. In fact, it has been said that “the political history of Europe is inevitably the history of privileged minorities.” How then did Europe evolve from an exclusive land for the destined privileged to an inclusive society of the common masses?


To understand, we need to look at the evolution of the European history from the start of Middle Ages into three broad phases:

  • Phase I – The Evolution from Feudalism and Serfdom to Liberal Constitutionalism (5th Century – 1918): Phase I outlines the age of exploitation under feudalism/serfdom and the subsequent intellectual movements which inspired the revolutions that led to the formation of nation states run by democratically-elected governments whose duties and limits are delineated in a constitution. Economically, this period also marked the advent of Industrial Revolution which resulted in the emergence of the working class and their struggle, inspired by orthodox Marxism, against the exploitation of the capitalists.

  • Phase II - The Rise of Social Democracy (1918 – 1970s): Phase II tracks how social democracy as we know it today evolved from orthodox Marxism and went on to help Western Europe not only recover economically from the extensive destructions afflicted by the two world wars but also transform into a welfare state within which the government served as the guardian of the society and protector of the citizenry while still embracing capitalism.

  • Phase III - The Tussles between Social Democracy and Neoliberalism (1970s - Present): This phase outlines how and why social democracy survived the onslaught of neoliberalism and globalization to make western European societies, particularly those in the Nordic region, generally more egalitarian and blissful today.

In this Phase I, we start by looking at the evolution of Europe from the age of exploitation under medieval feudalism and serfdom to the emergence of modern nation states inspired by liberal constitutionalism.


The Age of Exploitation under Feudalism & Serfdom (5th – 14th Century)


Feudalism was the political system that began at the start of Middle Age in the 5th century when the Roman Empire was breaking up and Western Europe was constantly invaded by outsiders. Some of these invaders established themselves as kings and awarded land grants or "fiefs" to his warriors in return for their military contributions. In time, this political system of feudalism led to the emergence of a socioeconomic system of serfdom when the warriors, now as land-owning feudal lords, leased their land to peasants based on tenancy.


Serfdom was basically an extension of an older system of manorialism which involved peasants living in a manor, comprising a village and the land surrounding it, and subordinating themselves to the landowners for protection. Each fief owned by a feudal lord might include one or many manors. Great lords might have hundreds of manors under their direct control.


Technically, tenants leasing the land from the feudal lord could remain as free peasants. In reality, however, most cases of tenancy involved a descent into serfdom. As serfs, the peasants and their children were bounded to their tenement for life, losing all political rights as well as freedom in virtually all aspects of their life. 


Serfdom was therefore a grossly unjust relationship of bondage that coerced an otherwise largely free peasantry into virtual slavery.  Life was excruciating hard for the serfs who had to give away as much as 75% of their produce to the feudal lords, church and government as rent, tithe, and taxes. The age of feudalism and serfdom was therefore also a time period of extreme exploitation for the common Europeans. By the beginning of the 9th century, 60% of the population in western Europe had been reduced to serfdom.


The system of serfdom remained highly resistant to change until the late 12th century when the advent of Commercial Revolution gave rise to a money economy thus making free, rent-paying peasants more economically attractive than bound serfs to the lords. By the 14th century, the system of feudalism also began to decline when advances in infantry tactics and weapon technology brought about by a Military Revolution effectively rendered charging knights mounted on horses obsolete. The kings were no longer dependent on the knights (feudal lords) for protection. Instead, a new kind of states, headed by a monarchy, administered by salaried bureaucrats, defended by professional armies, and financed by an expanded tax collection system, began to emerge.

Age of Intellectual Awakening (14th – 18th Century)


By the late Middle Ages, the decline of feudalism-serfdom heralded a new age of intellectual awakening during which Europe was engulfed by a series of movements including the Renaissance in the 14th century, the Religious Reformation and Scientific Revolution in the 16th century and the Enlightenment in the 18th century.


Renaissance’s focus on humanism (i.e. the study of social relationships of human beings) and not the divine, nudged Western society toward secularism which in turn led to the Religious Reformation movement during which both the laity (i.e. the ordinary or lay people) and clergy questioned the role of the Catholic Church which was seen as more interested in amassing wealth than doing God’s works. As radical groups known collectively as Protestants broke away, the standing of the Catholic Church was greatly diminished.


Around the same time, intellectuals also embarked on a Scientific Revolution to challenge everything humans thought they knew about the world and universe around them. Their greatest breakthrough was when the Church-sanctioned geocentric view of the universe was refuted by Nicholas Copernicusheliocentric conception of the sun, not the earth, as being the centre of the universe and other heavenly bodies orbited it. Similar breakthroughs were also made in physical and medical sciences. Collectively, they explained the working of sciences based on natural laws that could be proven, not by dogmatic and mystical reasoning of organized religions.


By the 18th century, using the same scientific approach, the intellectuals (aka philosophes) embarked on the Enlightenment Movement. Instead of seeking natural laws of sciences about the physical world, the philosophes now sought to produce a better society by finding the natural laws governing the social worlds through the application of philosophic skepticism (i.e. the attitude of doubting everything until it can be proven) and scientific rationalism (i.e. the rigorous application of scientific reasoning to find the truth).


In religion, for example, the enlightened philosophes espoused the concept of deism which posited that God was rational and could be understood through reason without the need for the superstitious teachings or the rituals and mysticism that accompanied organized religion. In politics, the works of Baron Montesquieu led to what would become the foundation of modern politics: the theories of separation of powers and of checks and balances. Another influential political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, building on the works of earlier intellects, asserted that man would be best served by entering into a social contract with the state. However, he also believed that “no man has a natural authority over his fellow men” and that “people have the right to use force to resist forced obedience to authority”. Despite a ban by the government, this concept of popular sovereignty gained popularity and later became the rallying cry during the French Revolution.


Hence, by the 18th century, the intellectual awakening liberated the mind and soul of the common people from the superstition and mysticism of organized religion and the blind obedience to traditional tyrannical authority. Europe was ripe for revolutions.



Age of Revolutions (18th – 19th Century)


The French Revolution beginning in 1789 was triggered by King Louis XVI’s attempt to make already heavily taxed common people pay even more taxes. By 1791, after adopting a constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man which among other things promised freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, the revolutionaries declared France a republic (First Republic 1792 - 1804) within which all Frenchmen were citizens.

For the first time, French learned that the government could be “for the people” and that citizens could wield power on their government. These revolutionary ideas were then spread by Napoleon when he implemented legal system that institutionalized the liberal ideas of equality in territories he conquered until he was defeated for good at Waterloo in 1815.

Meanwhile, scientific innovations since the 16th century also led to the onset of Industrial Revolution around 1760. As more began working in urban factories, new issues relating to exploitation of workers emerge. Mounting dissents over low wages and poor living and working conditions soon led to class struggles between the bourgeoisies (i.e. the capitalist class) and the proletariats (i.e. the working class). To strengthen their struggle, workers formed unions or turned to the government for intervention. Liberal intellectual’s dreams of a more equitable political system, on the other hand, led to the birth of socialism and one of its variants Marxism.


Both the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution were thus major turning points in the European’s history with the former sowing the seed of democracy and the latter leading to the birth of industrial capitalism and socialism.


Until about 1815, economic and political revolutions were separate. After peace returned in 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon, economic and political changes tended to fuse and reinforce each other. For instance, the growth of the industrial middle class encouraged the drive for representative government.


Amid all the social, economic and political changes, ideas fermenting since the 14th century began to crystallize into political doctrines. Three of the most important were liberalism, nationalism and socialism.


First rose to prominence during the Enlightenment, classical liberalism advocated the right to vote, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and universal justice within the legal system. By 1760s, in response to the exploitative mercantilism, liberal economists like Adam Smith also began to espouse the ideas of economic liberalism which not only helped trigger the onset of Industrial Revolution but also led to the proliferation of free-market capitalism and free trade replacing the mercantilist and static autarkic economic models. Nationalism, on the other hand, was based on the concept of a cultural unity among people who shared a common language, history, and territory. Nationalists often tried to turn this perceived cultural unity into a political reality. As for socialism, it began in France as a backlash against the rise of modern industrial society. French socialist thinkers saw an urgent need for a reorganization of society to establish cooperation and a new sense of community. Its key ideas were economic planning, greater economic equality, and state regulation of property.


Even though democracy failed to take root as a result of the French Revolution, the liberal revolutionary flames were revived by the mid-19th century culminating in the Revolutions of 1848 which spread across more than 50 countries. The revolutions were accompanied by an awakening of nationalism with the Hungarian, the German and the Italian nationalists all clamouring for independence from the Austrian Habsburg Empire and the Prussian Empire. When the revolutions collapsed in 1849, the liberalists won some more civil rights but the nationalists’ quests for independent nation states failed. Undeterred, their persistence eventually resulted in the birth of Italy in 1860 and Germany (the Second Reich) in 1871. A system of independent nation-states began to take shape.


Meanwhile, the many liberalism-inspired movements set the stage for rapid political evolution instead of bloody revolutions which were by then associated more with the anarchists. By 1860s, liberalism was increasingly aligned with a democratic or republican government backed by a constitution outlining the duties and limits of governance. This combination of democracy and justice created a new coherent political order known as liberal constitutionalism as oppose to the system of arbitrary rule by a dictator or an authoritarian government.

The Emergence of Social Democracy Guided by Orthodox Marxism


With the spread of liberal constitutionalism, political parties emerged across Europe between 1870s and 1890s. Governments also passed laws to alleviate general problems, thereby acquiring greater legitimacy. Domestic politics became increasingly characterized by mobilization of the masses.


By now, the definition of democracy had been broadened to encompass liberation from not only political but also socioeconomic oppression. This new variant that combined both liberalist and socialist ideals in economic, social and political spheres came to be known as social democracy. Social democratic parties focused primarily on winning electoral support soon began to proliferate. This new model of socialist parliamentarianism, which dominated labour movements and trade unionism, made social democratic parties the Left’s main force in most of Europe by the end of 19th century.

[About Parliamentarianism] The history of parliamentarianism can be traced back to AD 930 when the Vikings convened the first parliament in Iceland. The modern concept of parliamentary government, though, emerged later in the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707 and 1800 and in Sweden between 1721 and 1772.]


Notably, social democrats at this point still embraced orthodox Marxism. However, it was becoming clear that Marx’s prediction of ever-widening polarization between rich and poor was being proven wrong by rising wages and improving standards of living. The various European states, under the conservative leadership, also began to improve social welfare. Instead of societal meltdown came increasing inclusion. Marx’s vision of capitalism being replaced by socialism thus appeared unlikely to happen. In short, orthodox Marxism was becoming irrelevant as a guiding beacon for the social democrats.


Two distinct strands of revisionist thinking soon emerged. The first was a disruptive model of “revolutionary socialism” advocating active pursuit of capitalism’s demise, resorting to violence if necessary. Against this was another collaborative model of “evolutionary socialism” which saw socialism as a larger coalition to win reforms under capitalism and gradually transforming the state toward democracy and socioeconomic justice.


In other words, evolutionary socialists sought to work within capitalism, rather than to replace it, to help raise living standards of workers. This collaborative revisionist approach, epitomized by the work of reformist Eduard Bernstein, laid the groundwork for the emergence of modern social democracy as we know it today.


As it turned out, it would take another twenty years for Bernstein’s conception of evolutionary socialism to supplant orthodox Marxism and became the mainstream ideology of social democracy after the WWI (1914 – 1918). On the eve of the Great War, the picture for the European Left as a whole thus remained still a very much split one.

NEXT: 02 Phase II:  The Rise of Social Democracy (1918 - 1970s)


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