Agricultural society: a relatively closed and unbalanced power structure

The establishment of the agricultural social institution was based on the centralization of power and monopoly of land-based property rights. Historically, the power performance of different agricultural societies was very different. In China, the emperor was the supreme ruler, and all land belonged to the emperor. The emperor owned everything, while peasants depended strongly on the land owner. The behavior of peasants was the most basic economic relation. Agricultural tax constituted the core of a nation’s wealth, but business and trade were underdeveloped and suppressed. In the agricultural societies of Europe, state power was mastered by the aristocracy, constantly changing, and its basic unit of economy was the manor. Agricultural society is often referred to as feudal society. The concept of the feudal system has two implications from the perspective of economics: it is the natural form of a small-scale peasant economy based on self-sufficiency and is the basis of a vassal system.

From the perspective of power, agricultural society includes two levels of power relationships. One is the power relationship between the monarch and the vassal, and the other is the power relationship between the vassal and the peasants. Monarchs enabled vassals to be the owners of land and peasants by granting them an official rank or authorization. The vassals paid a certain percentage of tax to the royal family. The monarch’s power was supreme, but the vast territory meant that the monarch needed a group of officials to share political power. The distribution of political power between the members of this group was uneven. The vassals only exercised the power delegated to them by the monarch while the monarch supervised the performance of subordinates endowed with the power and could reclaim the power at any time. There were no strict legal procedures for power reclamation.

Due to the constraints of geography and the household registration system, peasants had economic relations only with their vassals. Peasants cultivated land and had partial operating rights, but ownership belonged to the landowners. The main way for vassals and landowners to obtain interest was to grant the land directly to peasants while the peasants had the obligation and responsibility to pay for the land rents with materials or currency. The relationship between monarch and ministers, and the relationship between landlords and peasants, in many cases, were clarified by a series of contracts. These contracts benefited the dominant party, the monarch and landlords. Because the monarch and the landlords had the power to change the contract, particularly in harvest years, and changes in market demand raised grain prices, landowners would add new lease rents to the contracts. In the natural economy, peasants would make full use of the land to increase production efficiency. Compared with slave society, the institution in agricultural society provided technological incentives, and the advancement of productive forces was beneficial for both landlords and peasants. However, the rate of technological change was slow, and peasants were bounded in their production units; that is, fixed and closed land. Nevertheless, as long as population migration occurred, the efficiency of societal labor improved.

In the pre-industrial era, peasants and slaves had no private property rights with independent economic attributes. The possession of production materials (mainly the land) of each private owner must be realized with the help of ultra-economic political or social power (such as the power of church in medieval Europe). Property rights were connected with theocracy and sovereignty, and there were varying degrees of personal dependence relations. This ultra-economic nature of the power structure originated from the institutional arrangement whereby political power is over ownership and the widespread impact of such an arrangement on ideology. This unbalanced power structure was not conducive to the development of productive forces and market transactions. The market-centered power structure and the capital system established by this structure promoted the formation of modern industrial civilization.

 
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