Sunday, 17 July 2016

Is Serfdom a Social Norm?

We are reading Bailie's (1995) book in which he argues from an anthropological perspective that sacrificial violence was a norm in controlling violence and possibly initiating societal transform. Sacrificial violence relies on the argument that it is better for one to die for all that for all to suffer. As we read this morning, I wondered whether serfdom is also a social norm and if we were to look at economics from an anthropological perspective that we would see that despite attempts to abandon serfdom and slavery, society continues to revert to such practices although in a revised form.

Serfdom is defined as “the state of being under the control of another person” (Free Dictionary). A serf defined as “a person in a condition of servitude, required to render services to a lord, commonly attached to the lord's land and transferred with it from one owner to another” (

This is not the result of an anthropological study but rather a personal reflection and observation based on forty years of work experience and strongly reinforced by my current employment. To some extent, it is the last few years of working in the UK that has made me a lot more conscious of the serfdom assumptions of capitalist economics.

What I observe is that there is an increased emphasis on certification of workers and if you are not certified then you don't receive the rewards even if you are already doing the job. However, that doesn't necessarily lead to serfdom. What I see as leading to serfdom is when the certification process is in the control of the management of the worker's organisation have control and are making the decisions in the certification process. In this situation, the management can refuse to certify a worker and then demand more work in order to become certified and gain promotion and the rewards for the work done.

In the definition of serfdom, there is the attachment “to the lord's land” and being “transferred with” with the land in a sale. I would contend that this is the case with employees in any company. The workers are attached to the company or organisation of their employers and if the company or organisation is sold then the employees are transferred with the sale.

If these are the conditions for serfdom then our modern economic environment seems to have the characteristics of a serfdom. The question is whether the transforms that occur in society see society repeatedly return to the key characteristics of serfdom? To be able to argue that this is so it is necessary to review the transforms that have occurred and in society and see whether the characteristics of serfdom have constantly been reestablished. Serfdom is most often linked with the period of feudalism but I believe that there are obvious cases where we could argue that it has been reestablished such as the period where slavery dominated. However, serfdom doesn't require slavery in the sense of unpaid slaves. It simply needs the workers to feel that they are locked in to the organisation and that they have few choices. As I talk to many of the lower paid colleagues in my current organisation, I sense that these conditions are in place. They have no confidence in the promotion process and feel obliged to do all that is asked of them. Occasionally there is resistance but this resistance doesn't cause cultural change within the organisation.

I would contend that serfdom has been reestablished whether governments recognise it or not.


Bailie, G. (1995). Violence unveiled: Humanity at the crossroads. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company.

Free Dictionary at

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